First things first, primitive screwheads: Ash vs. Evil Dead is a spectacular show. I’m tempted to say it’s a perfect pilot, as well as a perfect continuation of the Evil Dead series, while also being some of the best TV horror I’ve seen.
The Evil Dead series is one of the most influential in modern horror. Sam Raimi’s 1981 original took the festival of clichés that is “Teens Go To Haunted Cabin” and turned it into gory, startling, emotionally engaging horror. The two sequels capitalized on Bruce Campbell’s slapstick talents and smarm, first in a seminal horror-comedy direction with Evil Dead II, and then in a weird Ray Harryhausen tribute in Army of Darkness. Fede Alvarez’ 2013 remake updated the story to make it closer to the bloodthirsty modern horror of Eli Roth.
Somehow, the pilot for Ash vs. Evil Dead combines all of this in one 40 minute extravaganza. But it also does something new for The Evil Dead series, which frankly surprised me: they found a way to make it genuinely scary. And probably because this will be an ongoing, ten episode series, they’ll have the room to develop characters for you to invest in.
We open on Ash getting ready for a night on the town (the “town” being a shitty bar called The Woodsman) and we get a snapshot of his life. He lives in a trailer – an Airstream-style single room trailer, not a trailer home – and lives alone save for his pet bearded dragon Eli. He has a sizable library of porn. As we learn more about his life, we see that he works in a knock-off Home Depot, he still drives the same classic Oldsmobile that’s co-starred in all of the ED films, and he uses his lizard as an excuse to get out of work early.
That’s one thread. The other thread focuses on Amanda Fisher, the young police officer who goes into a house on what she thinks is a domestic abuse call, and discovers that she’s walked into a horror movie. There is nothing funny about her introduction. She and her partner are terrified, shocked, and in terrible pain. As we see later on in the episode, this experience has real-life ramifications for her life and career. This is extraordinary for this horror universe. It’s almost like Raimi wanted to lull us into a false sense of security, giving us the ridiculous Ash we know and love, and then pulls the rug out from under us by forcing us to be afraid for a real, three-dimensional human. Evil Dead has never really given its fans people to identify with in this way.
The earlier trilogy was a celebration of gore and Three Stooges-style physical comedy, where you don’t really care about any of the characters. They’re either cardboard cutouts or stereotypes. Ash is compelling because of the mighty Bruce Campbell. The remake was a two-hour-long final girl scenario, where Ash and Cheryl are sort of combined into the character of Mia, who has to try to battle the Deadites while simultaneously detoxing from heroin (that is a terrible weekend…) so you care about her in that sort of visceral is-she-going-to-survive way, but not really as a human. But the show provides us with one real human stand-in to invest in, and it gives the universe an undertone of real despair that was missing in the earlier outings.
The other interesting evolution is in the type of horror it uses in this first hour. We get classic Deadite faces, splashing blood, flying heads, and a few impalings. The usual. But the show takes the time to add more atmospheric horror, to build an ominous mood, and best of all, it borrows from Japanese horror in scenes where people who have encountered the Deadites now see them everywhere. The horror creeps into their every day lives, no matter how much they think they escaped.
Now, if I’m making this sound bleak, let me hasten to assure you that any show with such a generous helping of Bruce Campbell is going to be fun, and Ash vs. Evil Dead is hugely fun. Ash is the ultimate reluctant hero, and watching him repeatedly refuse his call to adventure is hilarious. He’s not the ripped Ash of Army of Darkness anymore — he’s holding himself together with trusses, dentures, and genuine Italian rosewood prosthetics, and Campbell plays all of his sleazy attributes perfectly. But could it be that he’s using them to mask the heart of a hero? Well… spoiler alert, but no. His heroic nature is under there, kind of, but the smarm is as much a part of the Real Ash as his iconic chainsaw. Luckily, the show balances this with two new supporting characters, Pablo Bolivar and Kelly Maxwell, who try to encourage Ash to stand and face the Evil rather than running away. Ray Santiago is especially funny as Pablo, who tells stories of his Honduran shaman grandfather, and Dana DeLorenzo is fun as the girl Ash first thinks is simply eye candy, but who quickly proves to be adept at fighting demonic elderly women. Lucy Lawless shows up for a brief moment as a character who seemingly has tangled with the Evil Dead before, and, as I mentioned, Jill Marie Jones is already the heart of the show as Amanda.
I am so excited for this iteration of the universe, and I can’t wait to watch Ash’s adventure unfold over the next ten weeks. If the rest of the series holds true to the pilots balance of humor, gore, and heartfelt terror, it will be a wonderful expansion on the Evil Dead universe.