I’m not a big fan of horror films. I like to think I have a nice and varied taste in movies, spanning across all genres, but horror is the one that, until recently, I’ve stayed away from. Growing up I was always very squeamish when it came to blood, gore, and anything scary, really, but in the last few months I’ve been making an effort to get past that and check out as many well-received horror movies as I can. However, before all that, there was one horror franchise I watched and connected with very strongly: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series.
After discovering Evil Dead 2 a few years ago, due to it being recommended so highly by numerous people, I soon caught up with the rest of the series, and after numerous repeat-viewings of all three movies, it has become one of my favorite trilogies of all time. It may not tell a great big sweeping story, or have deep, complex themes, but based on pure entertainment value alone, the Evil Dead trilogy is truly something special.
It starts, of course, with the first film, The Evil Dead. The movie itself has its ups and downs (it has some very slow sections, and a certain scene involving a tree is just plain unpleasant), but what makes it so interesting to me is the production. Sam Raimi, who would go on to become a very well-known director in Hollywood, raised the funds for this movie with his friends back in the late seventies, filled with determination to make movies of any kind. They didn’t have a specific interest in horror, but settled on making something in that genre because horror films were generally cheap to make, but easy to sell to an audience. Once they had the money, they hired the actors and crew, bought the equipment they needed, and headed into the woods for several weeks of grueling filmmaking. All this when most of them were in their early twenties.
This film marked the start of Sam Raimi’s reputation as a very intense director, who would put his actors through hell in order to get the most out of their performances. He allegedly liked to especially torture his lead actor, Bruce Campbell, who he had been friends with since childhood. Campbell and Raimi continue to collaborate to this day (including on the following Evil Dead movies), so at least there were no hard feelings.
To compensate for his lack of in-depth knowledge of horror tropes and techniques, Raimi filled the first Evil Dead movie with tons of insanely over-the-top gore effects. The film just goes nuts with what happens to the characters, and it’s fun to watch just on a technical level. Even though it’s easy to see all the seams and make-up and whatnot, it’s great seeing all the practical effects and stunts on display. The result of this crazy, almost improvised filmmaking was a cult film that went on to be insanely popular worldwide.
The story itself couldn’t be simpler; five friends (including the main character, Ash, played by Campbell) go on a weekend getaway to a cabin in the woods, only to find the Book of the Dead in the basement which, when read, releases some sort of evil that possesses each of the friends one by one, turning them into “Deadites” that need to be dismembered to be subdued. As I said before, the entertainment comes from the gore effects, as well as from the overt cheesiness of the whole thing. It has some effectively scary moments, but for the most part, it’s just a charming movie to watch knowing all the behind-the-scenes information.
Several years after the success of the first movie, the same crew returned to make the sequel, Evil Dead 2. Now with a couple, more professional, movies under their belt, they had the technical know-how to make something even crazier than the first movie. While it’s debatable whether the humorous content in The Evil Dead was intentional or just the result of it being made by first time filmmakers, Evil Dead 2 is without a doubt intentionally funny. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a single list of the best horror/comedy films of all time that didn’t include this movie, and most lists would probably have it at number one. Evil Dead 2 takes the zaniness and gore of the first movie and cranks it up to eleven, practically reaching Looney Tune levels of lunacy.
After a brief recap/retelling of the events of the first movie (though this time with just Ash and his girlfriend rather than a whole group of friends), Evil Dead 2 moves on to the second night of terror for Ash. Another group of unsuspecting rubes travels to the cabin, while Ash is driven to near insanity within, at one point even sawing his own hand off after it gets possessed. It’s an absolute blast of a movie, almost never slowing down, and continually introducing some new, wacky element to keep things fresh. I’m not a big fan of the redneck characters, but I think that was the point, and makes what happens to them all the more enjoyable.
From a technical standpoint, it’s clear that everyone had a blast making this movie. The gore and creature effects are all incredibly unique and creative, and the camerawork and editing are filled with so much energy you can tell Raimi was completely unfiltered on this project. The first film may have been entertaining mainly on a technical level, but its sequel fires on all cylinders in every respect and is what first made me realize this series was for me.
In a lot of ways Evil Dead 2 is like a comedic remake of the first film, once again following Ash and a group of people stuck in the cabin in the woods as the Book of the Dead possesses them one by one, leading to each of their grizzly demises. Once again, Ash is the only survivor, but this time he’s not left alone in the woods. In keeping with movie’s ramping up of the insanity, Evil Dead 2 ends with Ash being sucked back in time to 1300 AD, medieval times. It’s a crazy ending that perfectly caps off such a wild movie.
While the ending of Evil Dead 2 may seem like a random non sequitur (though there is some brief foreshadowing for it earlier in the film), a few years after the release Raimi and company would once again return to the world of Evil Dead to create a third film. Originally intended to be titled “Evil Dead 3” or “Medieval Dead”, this trilogy caper was instead titled “Army of Darkness”. This was a result of the movie being funded and released by a major studio, rather than being independent like the first two films. Universal Pictures, the studio behind the movie, wanted it to stand on its own, and therefore gave it a title that would not cause people to think it was a sequel. I personally quite like the title Army of Darkness, and the standalone nature of it resulted in the movie taking on a life of its own. I’ve heard from plenty of Evil Dead fans that they watched Army of Darkness first before discovering the previous films, having no idea it was a sequel when they first watched it.
As for the movie itself, what makes Army of Darkness so great is that it understands that it’s basically a cinematic punchline. Evil Dead 2 essentially ends with the question “Wouldn’t it be crazy if Ash went back in time and had a medieval adventure?” and Army of Darkness answers “Yeah, here’s that adventure.” Where the first film was straight up horror, and the second movie was a perfect blending of horror and comedy, Army of Darkness dives completely into the realm of comedy. It’s about as wacky as movie comes, and the steady progression of the series from horror to comedy is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Evil Dead.
Admittedly, Army of Darkness is a bit of a mess. There are numerous cuts of the movie, but none of them are quite perfect. The main two to choose between are the theatrical cut and the director’s cut. The director’s cut throws in just about everything shot for the movie, and as a result runs a bit too long, especially during the climax. The theatrical cut removes some great moments, and some of the pacing is too quick for my taste. In addition, both cuts feature vastly different endings (more on that later).
I used to prefer the extended cut, what with it including several great moments the theatrical cut is missing, but nowadays I would choose to watch the theatrical cut instead. Running at a very brisk eighty minutes, the theatrical cut better supports my philosophy that Army of Darkness is a cinematic punchline; it’s simply funny that the movie exists at all, so there’s no need for the movie to drag itself out and last longer than it needs to. It’s also consistent with the runtimes of the previous two movies.
Regarding the story of Army of Darkness, it’s about as simple as the previous two movies, though very different structurally: after landing in 1300 AD England, Ash is captured by Lord Arthur and brought to a castle to be executed. Once there, he proves to the people that he is from the future and is looking for a way back to the present. He finds that the only way to do so is to reclaim the Book of the Dead from a graveyard off in the wilderness. He goes on a quest to retrieve it, and after making a boneheaded mistake when he finally finds it, an army of the dead awakens to take it back. He returns to the castle and decides to train the men there to defend the book. A massive battle between the armies of the living and the dead takes place, the living eventually victorious.
Now is where the two alternate endings come into play. In the theatrical cut, Ash successfully makes it back to the present, although due to another boneheaded move on his part, a Deadite attacks him at the supermarket he works at. After a brief battle with the Deadite, Ash is victorious and the movie ends. It’s a charming little ending that paints Ash as a hero, which is somewhat out of character for him. The director’s cut ending, which both Raimi and Campbell prefer, also involves Ash making a boneheaded mistake when attempting to return to the present, but in this cut, his mistake results in him traveling much further into the future. He wakes up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the movie ends with him weeping over having slept too long. It’s a very dour ending, but it stay perfectly in line with the other endings of the series: Ash getting screwed over in the end.
There’s some mild debate over which ending is better, though most people seem to prefer the theatrical cut’s. I think both have their advantage: the supermarket ending is more fun and satisfying, but the apocalyptic ending is more thematically appropriate for the series. What I’ll typically do is watch the theatrical cut, and then afterwards go over to the alternate ending special feature on the Blu-Ray so I can just watch both.
When we look at the trilogy as a whole, it’s basically just an insane few days in the life of Ash Williams, first a night where his friends and girlfriend get possessed and killed, then another night where a different group comes by the cabin and meets the same fate, followed by a few days spent in medieval times trying to get back to the present. As far as Ash’s character, he doesn’t go through much of an arc in any of the movies. What is more noteworthy is how much his portrayal changes throughout the trilogy. In The Evil Dead, he’s just kind of a simpering dude who eventually goes a little crazy because of what is going on around him. In Evil Dead 2 he has progressed to being a macho idiot, with flashes of being a badass. By Army of Darkness he becomes a complete buffoon, someone who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Three Stooges sketch. Honestly, it’s this inconsistency that has made him such a beloved character.
Really, though, the Evil Dead trilogy is not about story or characters. It’s about Sam Raimi letting loose as a filmmaker with plenty of blood, gore, insanity, great practical effects, and whatever else he can throw at the screen to be as entertaining as possible. I’ve rewatched these movies numerous times and I feel like I’ll never grow tired of them. For a complete experience I’d recommend watching all three, sticking with the Army of Darkness theatrical cut. If you’re squeamish like I used to be, you’d probably be okay skipping the first movie, but I feel like watching it provides necessary context and makes its sequels feel even more special.
In addition to the trilogy, we now have the fantastic Ash VS Evil Dead TV series, which picks up thirty years later and follows a much older Ash. The show adds lots of continuity and lore to a series that previously didn’t really have any, and also features plenty of over-the-top gore and humor, resulting in a follow-up that feels right at home with the original movies. It’s been really fantastic so far (outside of the disappointing season two finale) so anyone familiar with the movies who is craving more Evil Dead should absolutely check it out.