It’s fitting that Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’” cracks open Ash Vs. Evil Dead. The seventh and final anthem on the English outfit’s landmark 1972 LP, Machine Head, is a misanthropic sci-fi adventure that came at a time when rock ’n’ roll was all about misanthropic sci-fi adventures (see: David Bowie, Pink Floyd). Singer Ian Gillan brags about “[having] a lot of luck on Venus” and “[dancing] around with Borealice,” later cheering how “pony trekker led the way” toward a “canaveral moon stop” where “every naut would dance and sway.” Blame it on Gillan’s jovial conviction or Ian Paice’s breathless percussion, but the song remains a dumb and addicting thrill ride decades later. The same could be said of Sam Raimi’s cult horror franchise and Bruce Campbell’s blue collar anti-hero, Ashley “Ash” Williams.
After years of rumored followups and spells of endless merchandise, ranging from talking figurines to survival horror games to multiple crossover comics, the chainsaw-wielding, boomstick-booming, one-handed Michigan troublemaker has finally returned to be hailed and given some sugar. Only now he’s even rougher around the edges, having to wear a makeshift corset and some shiny dentures. This is Ash Williams, the veteran, and in this new series for Starz, Raimi is making sure Ash is just as impatient and witty and reckless as he ought to be. It’s an assured and respectful return for the character, who started out as the silent do-gooder in 1981’s The Evil Dead and quickly devolved into the unstoppable, blood-hungry sexist that reigns supreme over 1987’s Evil Dead II and 1992’s Army Of Darkness.
Thirty years later, Ash is slumming it up in a grungy trailer park, where his silver bullet mobile home rests comfortably amid some colorful characters—like an old lady who’s much too eager to be doing his icky chores without a little somethin’ somethin’ in exchange (which is crudely implied). It’s not without reason; after all, the guy’s “ceremonious return” finds him alone at home rocking out to Deep Purple and drinking a Hi-C juice box mere minutes before he’s engaging in rough bathroom sex with a townie at a local bar. Such depravity was on full display when we last saw him raising hell in medieval times, but he’s truly embraced the dirty throes of his cursed lifestyle. Which may explain why he’s still kicking around another lousy stockboy job at another boring superstore. As he once proudly declared, “In my own way, I am king.”
These days, his devoted and faithful includes a pair of co-workers who can actually go toe to toe with our foul-mouthed lead. There’s his friendly clean-up boy Pablo Simon Bolivar (Ray Santiago), a 20-something Honduran-by-way-of-New-Jersey transplant who serves as Ash’s own Mickey Goldmill, championing his quest and urging him to finish what he started. His uncle was a shaman, a Brujo, who warned him of such evils and to look out for a leader, an El Jefe, who he naturally believes is Ash. He’s also in love with his new co-worker, Kelly Maxwell (Dana DeLorenzo), another 20-something, but far more cynical and hardened by the recent loss of her mother. Her acid tongue nearly supersedes Ash’s and their witty back and forths should offer plenty of laughs in forthcoming episodes. Needless to say, the gang clicks.
So, why’s this all happening again? Well, Ash got stoned and tried to impress a girl he took home by reading the Necronomicon Ex Mortis. Yes, it’s as easy and shameful as that, but totally in line with the spirit of his charming idiocy. The difference here is that there are greater, far-reaching consequences to his stupidity; he’s no longer shacked up in a remote cabin or off in some distant time period. There’s a whole town in trouble, which not only provides perfect fodder for The Force and all of the Kandarian demons that follow, but raises the stakes considerably. Even better, this move allows for a select handful of fresh believers and warriors. One brave soul is Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), a haunted Michigan State Police officer who loses her partner to said darkness following a creepy house call involving a Deadite.
“El Jefe” does a lot of world building within its manic 40 minutes. Yet Raimi, his older brother Ivan, and veteran TV scribe Tom Spezialy make every second count with a resourceful script that dutifully checks off its laundry list of dire needs, specifically: 1) reuniting a legion of fans with an iconic character, 2) properly introducing tolerable new characters, 3) finding that testy mix of horror, suspense, and comedy, and 4) creating a desire for more. Behind the camera, Raimi enlivens the proceedings with his trademark wizardry, flooding each scene with curious angles, whiplash cutting, and all the POV shots that made the unseen Force absolutely terrifying in the original films. In one particular sequence, Fisher drops a flashlight while fending off a Deadite and the way Raimi lets the light circle around and around strangles with stylish tension.
But let’s be real, the series’ MVP is and always has been Campbell. At the twilight age of 57, the remarkably brazen actor can still deliver an onerous physical performance that could make the boldest stunt coordinators wince in pain. We’re only a single episode in and Raimi already has his longtime friend and star smashing flower pots over his head and flinging himself into panes of glass, which should bode well for future exploits. Slapstick aside, however, Campbell slides right into his most celebrated role with ease, turning boisterous lines into future scripture for diehard fans while also adding subtle nuances to his character. His gestures, reactions, and delivery are all flavored in a way that feels far more lived-in that anything we’ve seen previously. That’s going to be key if this series wants to outlast its simple, titular premise of Ash versus the Evil Dead.
Remember, we’re going to be seeing this stubborn son of a bitch for nine more episodes at 30 minutes a pop, which will collectively amount to roughly 310 minutes when all is said and done—mind you, we’re only talking about the first season. (Starz has already committed to seconds.) Still, that’s an overwhelming amount of time at hand, especially when you consider that the original trilogy clocks in at a paltry 257 minutes by comparison. To their credit, Raimi and company have been smart enough to tailor the preceding mythology with fresh new threads that try to abstain from looking too far back into the past. But that’s the thing: Part of why this show will initially prove successful is from the dusty nostalgia that’s bound to every fan’s inherent desire to see a fourth Evil Dead film.
Television can’t be seen like a traditional film, though, which is why nostalgia is often a dangerous fuel to run on for these follow-up series. So far, Ash Vs. Evil Dead has only sparingly tapped that resource, opting instead to work within a much larger sandbox than what we’ve ever seen before from the franchise. It’s a roaring start to what could be a loud and thunderous adventure, and the pilot episode’s promising chemistry and adrenalized humor hints at deeper and exciting things to come. Admittedly, there are a few questions to consider, for example: Will this work if Raimi isn’t directing each week? Can showrunner Craig DiGregorio and his team of writers match Campbell’s signature beats? Are we comfortable with the 30-minute runtime or will it become suffocating? We’ll know soon enough.
For now, man, this show can really swing.
- They say nothing tastes better than a home-cooked meal, and that’s certainly the case here. Not only do we get two Raimis and one Campbell, but this series also brings back Renaissance Pictures co-founder/producer Robert Tapert and original composer Joseph LoDuca. Groovy, indeed.
- Let the record show that Ash’s new hand is “rosewood” and that his drink of choice is currently a Moscow Mule.
- Is that really the same old 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88? Or does Raimi just keep buying new ones for each film? What’s the deal?
- Write this down: “Lionel Hawkins—Books From Beyond”
- Damien Garvey plays a good scumbag as Ash’s store manager, Mr. Roper, who delivers the episode’s strangest line: “I can say retard because my gardener is a huge one.” Hmm.
- Pablo, turkey burgers and Monday Night Raw is always on.
- Hey, it’s Xena the Warrior Princess! Lucy Lawless appears for a short gasp to deliver the following to Fisher: “Nothing is wrong with your eyes. Sometimes what you think you saw was exactly what you saw.” Mark her down as important. Obviously.
- Not gonna lie: Those digital effects are godawful. Then again, we’re talking about a series in which expired foods were once used for melting body parts. Still, they would do best to keep things practical.
- Finally, the series can properly acknowledge the 1981 original! Scotty (Richard DeManincor), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), and Shelly (Theresa Tilly) are all included in Ash’s quick recap to Pablo, which should be a relief to fans. One of the weakest parts of the 1987 sequel was how Raimi couldn’t use the footage from the original and had to slim down that film’s recap to just Ash and Linda. Here they even went out of their way to include both Lindas: Betsy Baker and Denise Bixler. #dedication
- Unfortunately, Raimi doesn’t have the rights to use Army Of Darkness for this new series which explains why S-Mart has been changed to Value Stop. Or why Ash’s steel glove is missing. Or why Pablo didn’t hear about that time his co-worker fought against his evil doppelgänger alongside Lord Arthur. This doesn’t appear to be a problem whatsoever.
- Shout out to Sian Davis, whose sharp nails and unruly acrobatics as Ash’s possessed neighbor Vivian Johnson make for this episode’s Top Deadite:
- The way Ash simply floats toward the chainsaw… ’nuff said.
- Here’s hoping Ash’s rad bearded dragon Eli didn’t get injured in that attack on the homestead. That would be a bummer.
- Well, that was a little long, right? Sorry about that. Given the amount of time everyone’s been waiting for more Evil Dead, the depth felt warranted. Rest assured, future write-ups won’t be as exhaustive. See you next week!