Sam Raimi returns with a censor-friendly splatterfest of ludicrously manic proportions
1981’s punk DIY horror debut The Evil Dead was a ferocious sensory assault that made a virtue of budgetary limitations and experimental camera trickery. The film would announce the arrival of maverick filmmaker and visual stylist Sam Raimi, just 20 when he made the film, and his lifelong buddy Bruce Campbell, whose portrayal of Ash Williams would become the stuff of horror comedy legend. Raimi would follow the success of The Evil Dead with 1985’s underappreciated noir infused genre oddity Crimewave, co-scripted by Joel and Ethan Coen. However, production of the film was hobbled by executive overinvolvement. Raimi would clash with studio execs regarding budgeting (the film went over) and casting (Bruce Campbell wasn’t considered A List enough for the lead). This animosity would continue through to post-production during which editorial and scoring duties were dictated by the studio and Raimi was sidelined and the film taken away from him. Inevitably, the film flopped on release. Raimi claimed the experience ‘was really wrong. It was such a horrible, horrible, horrible, depressing scene’. Campbell, meanwhile, would also comment negatively, declaiming the producer’s approach as ‘soulless.’
In the wake of Crimewave, with his career in the balance, Raimi would return to the formula that announced his arrival. This was a move born of desperation. Initially dismissive about a sequel following advances from Irvin Shapiro after the release of the original, Raimi was suddenly in a hurry to get it greenlit. He set about securing funding for the sequel, which had already been scripted during the filming of Crimewave. Still, despite the original’s success, Raimi experienced difficulty securing finance. He touted the sequel to a number of studios, including Dino De Laurentis at DEG. However, De Laurentis was more interested in getting Raimi to direct an adaptation of Stephen King’s Thinner than he was in bankrolling a grungy indie horror involving grotesque demons and arboreal deviancy.
Ironically, it would take an intervention from Stephen King, working for De Laurentis on the coke-fuelled cataclysm Maximum Overdrive, to get the ball rolling. King, an outspoken advocate for The Evil Dead, which he’d described as being ‘the most ferociously original horror film of 1982’, approached De Laurentis to incite investment. De Laurentis, impressed by the Italian grosses of the original and swayed in no small part by the horror maestro’s enthusiasm, agreed. The budget was set at $3,600,000. This was less than Raimi had anticipated and would have a direct impact on the sort of movie Evil Dead 2 turned out to be. The original idea for a sequel to the ultimate in gruelling terror had been to shoot Ash through a portal and have him rock up in the middle ages, a scenario that would come in handy for the third instalment, Army of Darkness. However, budgetary restrictions meant a return to the woods, or in this case, a school gymnasium in North Carolina, which was where the cabin in the woods was staged.
Ash: There’s something out there. That… that witch in the cellar is only part of it. It lives… out in those woods, in the dark… something… something that’s come back from the dead.
Co-scriptwriters Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel had decided to push the movie in the direction of comedy. Both were fans of slapstick, in particular that of the Three Stooges. Slapstick (or splatstick as the blend of comedy and gory horror would come to be known) proved a key feature in Evil Dead 2’s triumph. It permeates the movie, which is stuffed to bursting with sight gags, one-man clown workouts, and pitch-black comedy of the queasiest variety. The film commences with a continuity shunning recap of the events from the original. The filmmakers didn’t own the rights to The Evil Dead, which meant bringing the audience up to speed via an edited highlights reel was out of the question. They staged a remix instead. This led to confusion for viewers, who were unsure whether Ash was returning to the cabin or attending for the first time. It didn’t help that original cast members were culled. In the original there were 5 youths holidaying in the cabin. In Evil Dead 2 only Ash and Linda are in attendance, with Linda played in this instance by Denise Bixler rather than Betsy Baker, which no doubt added to the confusion when the film was released.
What starts out as a tranquil romantic break for two rapidly transforms into a hellish hallucination of murder and craziness. Ash encounters a tape machine in the cabin, switches it on (well you would, wouldn’t you!) and accidentally unleashes a demonic spirit which proceeds to possess Linda, who subsequently attacks Ash after turning into an unsettlingly smiley, white-eyed deadite. Ash engages in hilariously absurdist combat with his Deadite girlfriend, who returns from the grave after Ash has decapitated her with a spade, looking like a Ray Harryhausen creation gone feral. Headless Linda attacks Ash. Ash clamps her severed head in a vice in the woodshed so he can chainsaw it out of existence. Ash is attacked by Linda’s headless corpse. Cue more squirty blood and further frenzied chainsaw action.
From hereon in the lunacy escalates. Via a series of amusingly mounted set-pieces that see Ash assaulted by his own hand and engaging in a wildly conceived series of hallucinations involving doppelganger reflections and laughing home décor products, Ash is driven to the brink of insanity. He hacks his own hand off to stop it trying to murder him. He shoots up the cabin interior and gets hosed with gallons of blood for his troubles. At some point in amongst the madness, a further gang of mismatched support players enter the fray, Annie Knowby, played by Sarah Berry, the daughter of the cabin’s owner who made the tape recording that let the demon loose when Ash played it; her boyfriend, Ed played by Richard Domeier. There’s also a dungaree wearing redneck named Jake, played by Dan Hicks and his girlfriend, Bobbie Joe played by Kassie Wesley. On arriving at the cabin, they manage to subdue an embattled Ash and toss him into the cellar. There’s a short reprieve from the mayhem. However, the film barely has time to draw a breath before the thing buried in the cellar (Henrietta), makes its presence known.
Evil Dead 2 simmers in its own creative juices. There are times in the movie when it feels as if it exists purely as a means of testing out new trick shots and outlandish Dutch camera angles. Narrative takes a backseat. However, what the film lacks in terms of a coherent plot, it more than makes up for in viscera strewn psychosis. What little character development there is is seemingly reserved for Ash. Ash’s increasing resemblance to a comic book hero becomes more and more obvious the longer the film goes on. Campbell’s performance is almost entirely physical. It is made up of a series of slapstick set-pieces in which he is subjected to a panoply of physical abuses and pratfalls punctuated by the occasional legendary one liner such as ‘Who’s laughing now?’ and ‘Groovy’. It’s hard to pick a standout moment in the movie. Laughing moose heads and angle poise lamps as a hysterical Ash veers dangerously close to a psychotic meltdown come close. The sequence involving Ash’s possessed hand, based on Scott Spiegel’s short film, Attack of The Helping Hand, is also a contender. Then there’s Sweet Henrietta, the film’s hideous cellar dweller. The scene in which her eye pops out, flies across the room and lands in Bobby Joe’s gaping mouth, is revolting comedy gold. Ted Raimi as Henrietta in a latex body suit reputedly sweated entire rivers for his art. The end product (thankfully for Ted) is a grotesquely rendered camp horror treat.
Other standout moments include Ash being pursued around the cabin by the unseen evil from the forest, Ash being sucker-punched into the air and spun around and around before thudding against a tree and landing face-first in a massive puddle. Ash getting pulled feet first under the stairs by sneaky Henrietta and an impressively edited Ash montage in which the budding hero gears up for battle by fixing a chainsaw to his arm and strapping a shotgun to his back. There’s also a notable call-back to the original when Bobby Joe is attacked by evil trees and dragged shrieking through the woods to her ultimate doom.
Technically, Evil Dead 2 is a step up from the original. It may not be as grimy or horrifying but it is certainly better dressed and competently executed. Evil Dead 2’s increased budget would allow for smoother 35mm variations on the shaky cam handheld antics of the original, allowing for a more dynamic and stylistic viewing experience that would elaborate on the raw material generated by its predecessor. Up and coming cinematographer Peter Deming joined the film two weeks into shooting. Deming, who would go on to work with David Lynch on Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, as well as further Raimi outings Drag Me To Hell and Oz The Great and Powerful, might easily have provided the film with a corporate sheen. However, Deming would maintain the anarchic, whacked-out look of the original and elaborate on it aesthetically to exuberant effect.
Henrietta: I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul!
Ash: [aims shotgun at Henrietta’s face] Swallow this.
An increase in budget also meant Evil Dead 2 could up the splatter, makeup and special effects quota of the original by literally flinging as much (multi-coloured) blood and gore at cast members as was possible. Mark Shostrom assumed makeup duties, alongside KNB alumni Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman. Tom Sullivan, meanwhile, was responsible for animating the book of the dead during the film’s opening credits along with the flying deadite as the film nears its conclusion. Verne Hyde, on technical effects duties, would fashion a series of camera effects to achieve the dazzling array of shots Raimi required for the movie, including Ash being flown through the woods and the shot of the camera spiralling up into the trees following Ash’s landing. He would also assume responsibility for hosing Ash in blood and modifying Ash’s chainsaw so that it didn’t injure him during key action sequences.
Joseph LoDuca would compose the score, which proved an exceptionally restrained addition to proceedings. However, it’s the film’s sound design which proved most impressive. Drawing on the Tobe Hooper school of Texas Chainsaw Massacre aural mayhem, as well as the original Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2’s audio assault is as much a character as any of the cast members. Utterly unremitting from start to finish, from the howling evil in the woods to the synchronised cacophony of the laughing moose scene in which Ash looks certain to completely lose the plot, the film’s nerve shredding soundtrack is its scariest asset.
Evil Dead 2 would secure a modest return at the box office of £5,900,000. Critical consensus was split on the film, although Roger Ebert, often cited as being avowedly anti-horror due to his stance on derivative slashers spawned in the wake of Halloween, enjoyed it. “If you know it’s all special effects, and if you’ve seen a lot of other movies and have a sense of humour, you might have a great time at Evil Dead 2.” It’s safe to say that the legacy of Evil Dead 2 is a strong one. Its influence can be seen in the careers of Edgar Wright, Peter Jackson and Drew Goddard, as well as any number of modern horror comedies and exploitation flicks, such as Slither, Cabin Fever and the Dead Snow movies. Meanwhile, Ash and the world of The Evil Dead has endured in its own right. A further, funnier sequel was released in 1992, Army of Darkness, that would ditch the horror template of the original and relocate the action to some point in the dark ages. Since then Fede Alverez has rebooted the series with Evil Dead in 2013. This was followed by a three-season run of Starz TV series Ash vs Evil Dead from 2015. A further movie has since been mooted. In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, Sam Raimi elaborated on a number of possibilities for a sequel, despite the fact Bruce Campbell claims to have officially retired from the roll.