The Bruce is back, baby!
The latest of the Starz network’s hard-R-rated genre series (see also Spartacus and Outlander), Ash vs. Evil Dead stars Bruce Campbell in a reprise of the role that made him a nerd-culture icon: Ash J. Williams, retail employee turned reluctant one-man army against an invasion of evil otherworldly entities known as Deadites. With everything from two bestselling memoirs to an Old Spice ad campaign lampooning the lantern-jawed heroic archetype (even if the iconic chin is a bit beefier than before), there was never any doubt that Campbell would be up to the chainsaw-wielding challenge. The real question is whether the show itself would be worthy of the horror-comedy classics that spawned it.
Over the years, the Evil Dead franchise has taken on a comedic cast in our collective memory — a sort of live-action Looney Tunes starring the Buster Keaton of the Comic-Con set. It’s an image that not even the relatively straightforward original film, or its recent go-for-broke remake, have helped shake. But if you think back to your first late-night viewing of Evil Dead 2, that shit was scary, man! The sudden transformations, the over-the-top gore, the cacophonous cackling and shrieking and banging and screaming and sawing — it’s not gonna haunt your dreams, but it definitely gets you jumping several feet off your sofa.
Thankfully, the pilot episode (“El Jefe”) recaptures that creepy anything-goes vibe by — surprise— getting pretty horrifying. Helmed by original writer-director Sam Raimi, it sets the tone by taking a dramatic left-turn immediately after the bawdy comedy of the opening scenes, which catch us up on Ash’s life as a louche barfly. Suddenly we’re watching a pair of state police, Amanda Fisher and her ill-fated partner Carson, investigate a murder scene in a big empty suburban house. Boom! Dead body. Bang! Hideous Deadite transformation, complete with Exorcist-referencing 180-degree head twist. Blam! Shootings, stabbings, impalement on deer antlers, mutilation with scissors, heads blown apart with shotguns, and Carson transformed into a sadistic ghoul who skitters across the ceiling like a bug. The scene plays like a game of “can you top this?” where the answer is always “you bet your ass.”
With that delirious tone established, it’s easy for the episode to tap back in anytime it feels like it. As silly as it is to watch Ash’s trailer-park neighbor or a little girl in a diner transform back and forth into leering Deadites, those blank eyes and evil smiles are pretty freaky. Ditto the baby doll who assaults Ash in the Value Stop storeroom where he works: Goofy as shit, sure, but also nice and disgusting once our hero’s pal Pablo smashes the demonic toy with a shovel in a splatter of viscera.
And when Ash, Pablo, and their new coworker Kelly make their stand in the veteran demon-slayer’s double-wide, the episode hits its real high point. The sequence combines beloved horror tropes like eye trauma, grasping undead hands punching through shattered glass, and — of course — chainsaws with rock’em-sock’em fight choreography, including a slow-motion leap through the air that has to be seen to be disbelieved. It’s a reinvention of body horror in which the bodies in question belong to pro wrestlers, and it’s an absolute blast. If the series can maintain that mayhem for the duration of its run (at least two seasons, since it was renewed before it even aired), we’re in for a treat.
Hopefully, we’ll see a lot less of giggling, ‘look what we can get away with!” stink surrounding the first few scenes, as Ash picks up a woman in a bar by impressing her with his wooden hand (‘hand-carved by an Italian artisan!”). Why we needed to watch our main man graphically fuck a woman from behind in a restroom while smacking her ass with his prosthetic is unclear. It’s gross, simply put. Granted, it leads to a funny reveal: Ash accidentally unleashed the evil dead by reading from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in order to get laid by sounding like a poetry connoisseur. But it’s sure to leave a rotten taste in the mouths of many viewers, and understandably so. When you’re trying to recapture the lurid appeal of Eighties horror, it’s best to leave the dubious sexual politics where you found them.
But the show’s biggest selling point is neither a dick joke nor a Deadite — it’s the director. As a filmmaker, Sam Raimi brings every weapon in his arsenal to shooting this thing: kinetic but clear action-sequence editing, off-kilter angles, whiplash-inducing camera movements, and that signature evil’s-eye-view high-speed tracking shot. He has one of the few directorial styles that really does merit the ubiquitous comparison to a rollercoaster, although in this case you’ve gotta move down the midway to another attraction: the haunted house ride. The episode lurches and careens, stops short and speeds up, and always seems to have another jump-scare just around the corner. It’s all so gleefully gonzo that you forget this gentleman has helmed some of the biggest mainstream blockbusters of all time. Watching Raimi work his magic on the small screen isn’t just entertaining, it’s inspiring — a sign that TV really can do whatever it wants, and that the only obstacle is that no one bothered to try before.