Evil Dead 2: Reinvigorating the Genre with a Crazy-Mad Variation
Movie / Fast Zombies / Essential
Evil Dead 2 can be found on almost any list of the Top Ten Zombie Movies of All Time. And though a case can be made that Evil Dead and its sequels and spin-offs aren’t really, technically, “zombie movies” at all, one thing is certain: the entire franchise is a major milestone in the genre, a rare instance where the sequel is actually stronger than the original film, and where we can find the premiere of one of horror’s most memorable characters and most durable actors, the launching of a director who’s still making movie history forty years later, and the source of horror’s most powerful and classic tropes. Not bad for one crappy little horror flick.
Let’s start, logically enough, at the beginning: Evil Dead. Conceived and filmed in the late 1970’s and released in 1981, Evil Dead came from modest – very modest – beginnings, but displayed all the building blocks of greatness from Act 1, Scene 1. Director Sam Raimi, along with aspiring actor Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert, came up with the idea of a bunch of hapless college-age kids going to a run-down cabin in the woods for a fun-filled weekend, only to discover an unholy book – the legendary Necronomicon. They’re dumb enough (of course) to read from it, and resurrect (or create) zombies, ot at least zombie-like, creatures they come to call “deadites” — reanimated dead folk with violently evil new personae that take endless pleasure in tormenting, torturing, and ultimately killing any human in sight. They’re not straight-up Romero zombies, no,; they speak (or spit-speak), move fast, and think way too clearly about all the wrong things… but they’re not exactly demons from hell or simply living people who’ve become possessed, either. They’re deadites, damn it, unexplained and perhaps inexplicable hybrids that make perfect sense by making no sense at all from the very beginning.
Evil Dead cost something around $375,000 to make and returned a handsome 500% profit to its original investors. But things really took off, cine-cult-wise, with Evil Dead 2, released in 1983. 2 started in the same place, with more ‘cabin in the woods’ nonsense, but now Campbell’s increasingly deranged character Ash Williams would take center stage, and many of the artifacts that are best loved and remembered about the franchise come from this second movie in the series, including Ash’s hand becoming possessed and then detached, only to be replaced by a chain saw. And face it: any movie that shows your deceased girlfriend dancing naked in the moonlight until her head falls off, or a whole race of crazed warriors tearing the cabin to splinters all around you – well, that’s pretty much your basic “horror classic” right there.
(It’s worth noting here that Evil Dead basically invented the “cabin in the woods” trope. It’s hard to find anything before that first film that begins with the basic premise of ‘kids go to a cabin and get killed a lot;” it’s equally difficult to get an accurate count of just how many horror movies using this same premise came after Evil Dead, though it’s rarely credited as the First and Best.)
Evil Dead 2 became the real classic, and holds up remarkably well today. And even that was only the beginning. Army of Darkness (1993), a dizzying tour de force of action, horror, violence, and funny jokes took Ash and his boom stick to an absurd version of the Middle Ages to fight yet another invasion of deadites, only to return him rather unceremoniously to his job as a middle manager at S-Mart (“Be Smart! Shop S-Mart!” in the final reel. And though the franchise took a long pause at that point, the real damage to American pop culture was still to come.
Fully thirty years after the first films premiered, an entirely new version of Evil Dead (2013) appeared, a remake (of sorts), produced by Raimi and Campbell and Tapert (among others) but co-written and directed by relative newcomer Fede Alvarez, recruited from his native Uruguay after his pretty remarkable short on Giant Robots destroying Montevideo (you can see it on YouTube here. )This version featured Mia, a whole new central character with problems of her own, played powerfully by Jane Levy. It did well, as it deserved to, but people missed the madness and humor of Ash and his version of the deadites. And that led, not long after, to three seasons of Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015-1018). Original appearing on Starz, the series starred a happily aging Campbell as a not-so-happily-aging Ash and a wild crew of friends and enemies, including the impossibly still alive Lee Majors, now in his 80s, as his father, an early appearance of Samara Weaving as a recurring character in Season One, and the legendary Lucy Lawless, Xena Warrior Princess herself, as a formidable frenemy (and also, not so coincidenally, the wife of long-time producer Robert Tapert.)
And still Evil Dead will not die. In 2023, a new film, more of a deadite spin-off than a sequel, has arrived: Evil Dead Rise, which introduces a new set of characters in a brand-new urban setting. Raimi didn’t direct and Campbell didn’t appear, but both were highly involved and served as producers, and Rise has done so well that there’s already talk of a sequel in the near future.
And even more: Campbell made an announcement as Rise was rising that he was getting a little too old and tired to continue playing Ash, but (maybe because of the success of the new film) he’s recently re-opened the door to Ash-centric sequels. There is also talk of possible sequel to the 1983 version centering on the Mia character, as well as more films following characters and storylines from Rise. At last report, the Raimi/Campbell/Tapert team say they are thinking of a new Evil Dead movie from one or more of the storylines every two or three years rather than every two or three decades.
And as if that wasn’t enough… there’s the multimedia. Army of Darkness generated a wild-ass monthly comic for a while, both adaptations and new stories, written by none other than Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. They’re all still widely available in comics shops, bookstores, and online. And the truly legendary artist John Bolton and comics veteran Mark Verheiden crafted an extraordinarily beautiful and disturbing graphic novel of Evil Dead 2, available in a 40th Anniversary Edition both digitally and in a fancy-pants hardcover edition.
And Good God, the merch. T-shirts, posters, action figures, throw pillows, blankets – the list is long and growing daily, like the deadite horde itself. Some of the coolest can be found at The Creepy Company, but an even wider array is only one or two Google clicks away.
When people think of Evil Dead, they often think more about the sequel, or the original movie, or maybe Army of Darkness, than they think about the rather massive franchise it’s generated for almost fifty years – fifty years. With so much good Dead stuff already available, and so much more to come, the weird and wild work of Raimi, Campbell and Co. deserve to stand right up there with the equally influential work of Danny Boyle, Robert Kirkman, and even Romero himself. And still, still, it rises …