You can forgive me for not having high expectations for Ash vs. Evil Dead. It’s not as though long-delayed sequels to projects with cult fan bases have a great track record – they have a tendency to turn into nothing but callbacks, or end up feeling like a pale retread of what made the originals so great. And when that original is the Evil Dead, the issues only grow. Which tone are you going with? The low-budget horror of the original? The splattery blend of horror, comedy, and gore of the second? Or the campy Harryhausen vibe of Army of Darkness? Then there’s the question of directorial style – can anyone bring Sam Raimi’s manic horror style to life like he can, especially since he would be doing the pilot but no other episodes? And most of all, sure, it’s great that you have Bruce Campbell back, but would this turn out to be just running Ash into the ground?
So, sure, I was wary. And maybe it’s because of those low expectations, or maybe it’s just that it really was that good…but man, did I ever love this show.
First of all, there’s the choice of the show to most closely mimic Evil Dead 2, rather than the original or Army of Darkness. That makes for a tough balancing act, one where the show has to commit to not only comedy, but also genuine horror, and find the delicate balance between the two. And yet, the series does it so well that it looks effortless. I laughed a lot at this show – not just at Campbell, but at some fantastic staging, at some inspired silliness, at the absurd gore and splatter, at physical gags and verbal jokes and a manic willingness to go for broke. In other words, it’s the exact tone and spirit that makes Evil Dead 2 such a joy, and it’s to the show’s credit that it nails that idea so well, even without Raimi behind the camera. In fact, there are episodes that nail his style to such a degree that I wondered if he had been brought back for them.And yet, even with all the comedy, it also manages to be a genuine horror show, one that gets genuinely scary and unnerving at times. There’s an episode, late in the season, where the cast makes it to the location of their final stand, and what unfolds manages to be genuinely scary and intense, working in a way that stays true to the spirit of the show while never flinching from delivering genuine horror. That alone would thrill me; that it does it back and forth so much over the season is just icing.
And, of course, there’s Campbell, back in form as Ash Williams. Ash has become a weird icon over the years, evolving from being just the “Final Girl” stand-in during the original film and into a wonderfully odd character, one whose idiocy and guts are inextricable, and the show does him right, allowing him to be both a hero and a selfish idiot, a clueless buffoon and the guy you want to have your back when things go bad. But the show balances out Campbell by giving him a crew to play off: two younger co-workers, played by Ray Santiago and Dana DeLorenzo. It’s a choice that’s a key part of why the show works; without these characters functioning as people, they become bland, forgettable figures standing in the way of more Ash; as it stands, they become a part of the mythology, to where their survival matters every bit as much as Ash. Add to that mix Lucy Lawless as a mysterious figure whose connection to Ash only becomes clear near the end of the season, and you end up with a cast that helps Campbell share the load, as well as keeping everything from just being pure fan service.
And finally, the show’s other wise choice is to find its own story to tell, drawing on the mythology of the series and pushing it in a way that never just feels like a rehash of the films. Yes, once again, someone has read from the Book of the Dead, and the Deadites are unleashed, but there’s something bigger going on here – something that ties into Ash’s link with the book, as well as the origins of the book itself. And by going deeper with the story, the series finds all kinds of new places to go, from nightmarish demons to acid trips to a visit with a shaman, which keeps things feeling fresh. All of it builds to an absolutely perfect ending to the season, one that made me laugh with its unexpectedness and yet completely apropos feeling.
Maybe it’s just that I needed a break from the bleakness and horror of the world lately. Or maybe it’s my love of splatter films, with their gleefully over the top gore and absurd physical comedy. Or maybe it’s just that I was so happy that the series worked. But whatever the reason, Ash vs. Evil Dead is one of the most fun and entertaining series I’ve watched in a long time, and it’s to the series’ credit that it holds its own against the iconic films that inspired it. I can’t wait to see season two; if it’s even half as good as this, I’m going to be a very happy man.