This week, we saw off our shotguns and dive chainsaw-first into #27.
A blood-soaked horror, a slapstick comedy, a psychological journey into madness.
Which is it? Frankly, it’s all of the above.
It’s Evil. It’s Dead. But most of all, it’s… Groovy.
#27. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) Bruce Campbell, Sara Berry. Directed by Sam Raimi.
I know what you’re thinking;
“Evil Dead II? Surely, you mean Army of Darkness? The third one? With the ‘boomstick’ and the ‘Give me some sugar, baby’ and the ‘Shop smart… shop S-Mart, right?”
For me, Evil Dead II sits in that sweet spot between its predecessor, The Evil Dead, and its follow-up, Army of Darkness. It’s almost the perfect blend of the two films that bookend it in the trilogy.
The Evil Dead is an out-and-out horror film. It’s only its low budget, product-of-the-time, slapped-together nature that makes it appear as though the awkward-comedy is intentional, when really, it’s not. Ask its star, Bruce Campbell. He’s the first to admit any wackiness or perceived humour derived from the original film stems from its lack of ‘professional quality’. And I use that term in quotations because I don’t mean to diminish that first film in any way. It was groundbreaking, and without it, the genre of horror would never have been the same.
In contrast to the original, Army of Darkness is nothing but a balls-out black comedy. Yes, some horror elements remain, but the movie abandons its terrifying roots (no pun intended, tree-fans) in favour of a campy, supernatural adventure tale, with a cocksure braggart at its centre.
To begin, one of the most often-asked questions about this movie, is whether it’s a sequel or a remake. Some argue it’s a straight up sequel, due to the obvious two in the title; however, many others who believe it’s a remake, point to the fact that the series of events that lead into the story have changed from that first film. Instead of five unsuspecting college friends arriving at a secluded cabin in the woods, that narrative has been altered (or retconned) to show only Ash and Linda entering the doomed little abode.
So, which is it? Sequel, or remake?
It’s a sequel, with an admittedly-abridged recap of the events of The Evil Dead (which was only due to a studio rights issue that denied the filmmakers access to the original footage). Even director, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have agreed that the movie is a sequel, citing that while Ash is dumb enough to return to the haunted cabin with another girlfriend (also named Linda), he hasn’t done so on this occasion.
The now-iconic tracking shot of the evil attacking Ash at the end of the first movie has essentially been duplicated and re-shot to act as an edit point between the two films. After the events of The Evil Dead, the sinister force attacks Ash, he screams, the first film ends and the sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, carries on from there.
Firstly, as the story continues, we see Ash lifted and cart-wheeled by the evil force as it pushes him through the woods, in an almost-farcical moment that all but slaps you in the face with the notion, “Oh, they’re playing things for laughs, this time.”
Indeed they are. But not everything about Evil Dead II is a joke.
The back-story given to the Necronomicon, bound in human flesh, inked in blood, and its mysterious disappearance in 1300 A.D., opens the movie with a genuine sense of macabre intrigue. Likewise, the discovery of Professor Knowby’s tape recorder is also presented as an ominous harbinger of doom.
Having Knowby’s pre-recorded voice recite the translated incantations that not only explain the history of the book, but trigger the evil into action, is a clever, two-for-one storyline device from a script much smarter than it is given credit for.
We never see exactly what happened to Knowby or his wife, we only hear his brief recollections and confessions. But in its own way, the stunted and mysterious explanation works to raise the tension early on. We even get a glimpse of dear old Henrietta, knitting in her rocking chair; a nice foreshadowing, considering her involvement later on.
What we do know, is that with the professor and his wife dead, the evil has no one left to harass, and so it lays dormant in the woods.
Enter: Ash J. Williams.
Having Ash be the one to initiate the incantations via the tape recorder and thereby causing his own paranormal dilemma, is perfect for a character who, from the beginning, is woefully unprepared for what he’s about to encounter.
The aforementioned POV shot of the evil tears through the woods and into the cabin, where it finds its first victim, the lovely Linda. The evil being represented by only this tracking camera (and an eerie groan) is merely one of Sam Raimi’s many old-school movie-making tricks employed in this film.
The fact that we never truly see the evil presence, only the reactions of those it hunts, is akin to the shark from Jaws, or the alien from, well… Alien. Less if often more, especially with horror, and Raimi is able to create a unique visual style without the use of today’s CGI.
Many cite his Spider-Man trilogy as the peak of Raimi’s career so far, yet it was these early, low-budget horror films that honed his craft.
Stop-motion animation, miniature models, time delays and speeding up the frames of a shot to imply the mystical, are more of Raimi’s tricks, not to mention his use of the camera in general. I’ve already mentioned the evil POV shot, but the spiralling shot upward as Ash awakens in the woods, the famous Dutch-tilts, and an array of disquieting close-ups, all prove Raimi’s optical prowess.
The audio design of the film is just as impressive as its visuals. Jarring and otherworldly, at times the sound effects seem so harsh, you can’t help but feel as though something from another plane of existence really is trying to force its way into Ash’s reality.
Like his filmmaking style, Raimi’s signature character (played by the enigmatic charisma-engine that is Bruce Campbell) is just as unique. Over the years, Ash has become a cult favourite to millions, and I am indeed one of them. He’s a unique protagonist compared to most others, because he’s quite simply more flawed than most others.
Ash is a coward. He’s arrogant. He’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the workshed, and, rightly or wrongly, he’s quick to act, regardless of the consequences. When confronted, he slices off Linda’s head with a shovel without a second of hesitation or any attempts to reason with his (albeit-Deadite-possessed) lover. Later, he chops down poor Ed with an axe and is the first to realise Henrietta is not as she appears, no matter how sweetly she sings her daughter’s favourite lullaby.
This black-or-white nature is one more reason Ash is so well-loved. Never has the phrase, ‘fight or flight’ been so accurate a descriptor. When Ash encounters a monster, he either kills it or runs. Black or white. There’s no in-between.
While I’ll admit, his character is vastly more entertaining in Army of Darkness, I’m a sucker for origin stories, and this movie really is the tale of how Ash’s most famous persona came to be.
The scenes of him alone in the cabin (a character in its own right), mentally and physically plagued by the evil around him are the most out-and-out creepy parts of the film, while also being some of the funniest. They straddle the line between suspenseful horror and absurd parody; so much so, no one could be blamed for confusing one for the other.
Case in point: Linda’s headless body accidentally ‘killing’ itself with the chainsaw (and Campbell’s reaction) is yet another moment that should put aside any questions as to the darkly-comic intent behind much of the movie, even if the same scene transitions into a gruesome one, as Ash dissects Linda’s ‘undead’ cranium with the chainsaw, a tool forever linked to both Ash and Campbell.
If, as many fans believe, Ash is driven insane by the end of the film, this is clearly what begins his descent into madness. As he admits to his ‘hallucinated’ physical reflection in the mirror… “Fine? We just chopped up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound… fine?”
Another reason I (slightly) prefer Evil Dead II over Army of Darkness is that the progression of Ash’s ordeal actually flows rather organically from minute to minute, as opposed to the collection of set pieces in the third film. For example; Ash plays the recording, waking the evil, which takes Linda. That leads Ash to decapitate her possessed form, yet allows her head to drop down (in one of the film’s genuine jump scares), bite his hand and infect it with malevolence. His hand, in turn, itself becomes possessed, and so begins a whole new layer of anguish for Ash.
The evil hand has become synonymous with the franchise, almost as much as the chainsaw or Ash, himself, and it’s this sequence that introduces even more comedy into the movie. Smashing plates over Ash’s head and flipping him to the ground is reminiscent of The Three Stooges, a comedy act much-loved by both Raimi and Campbell.
But things turn sinister when the hand reaches for a cleaver with murderous intent, only for Ash to impale his misbehaving limb with a butcher’s knife before (in an iconic piece of imagery) cutting off his own hand with the chainsaw.
This is another highlight of the movie, and Ash’s line of “Who’s laughing now?” actually serves multiple masters. It’s one of his first (yet soon to be signature) one-liners, and it instantly flips the mood. Any viewers chuckling to themselves about the silliness of the possessed hand are now presented with an incredibly disturbing scene, which literally asks its audience if they’re still laughing.
On a personal note, I love that the novel Ash uses to weigh down the bucket and trap his sentient demonic appendage is A Farewell to Arms.
If cutting up his girlfriend and slicing off his own hand didn’t tip him over the edge, the following scene where various inanimate objects come to life with a chorus of maniacal laughter surely finishes off whatever was left of Ash’s sanity. Ash even joins his tormentors at one stage with a jolly little jig, but his seconds of levity turn to horror once more as he cries out in anguish.
Yet we laugh. Because it’s funny. Poor Ash.
Eventually though, Ash is joined by more red-shirts, sorry, characters.
Daughter of Professor Knowby, Annie’s introduction sets up that she’s also knowledgeable in the ways of the Necronomicon. But just like her parents, she hasn’t stopped to think whether she should actually be interfering with these ancient texts.
Annie and boyfriend / associate Ed, in their insistence to reach the cabin, enlist the help of stereotypical hillbilly bumpkins, Jake and Bobby-Joe (who seem straight out of Deliverance), ensuring the death toll will certainly rise.
The immediate misunderstanding that Ash must be some kind of axe-murderer, due to all the blood and body parts scattered around the place, is a nice moment of logic in an otherwise mostly-illogical film. But best of all, it gives us the cellar scenes and the return of sweet old Henrietta, now a living corpse, possessed by the Kandarian Demon.
The initial battle with Henrietta is one of the action highlights of the movie. And it’s the catalyst for everything that comes afterwards; Ed’s possession and the demise of both Jake and Bobby-Joe.
Jake’s death is particularly ghastly, but it’s also a comeuppance for his self-serving, duplicitous actions. Bobby-Joe’s incident with the popped eye-ball is a classic gross-out horror-comedy moment, while her death amongst the trees harkens back to what is perhaps still one of the most controversial scenes from The Evil Dead.
While the movie is rather straightforward in its setting, things really ramp up in the third act. Annie and her loose Necronomicon pages subtly set up an interesting grandfather paradox, before Ash makes one final trip to the workshed.
The montage of Ash finally becoming the character we all know and love, strapping the chainsaw to his stump and sawing off the barrels of his shotgun, is all summed up by his now immortal catchphrase…
This is where Ash turns from generic, downtrodden horror-movie-victim, morphing into the all-out Uber-Ash from Army of Darkness. Gone is the weak-willed coward, replaced (through both necessity and perhaps, insanity) by a new kick-ass persona, ready to spew one-liners as quickly as he can disembody his demonic detractors.
Round Two against Henrietta showcases the new Ash perfectly, with some of the funniest lines from all three movies. While the stop-motion animation and puppetry in the scene are admittedly rather poor, Ash’s attitude, charisma and newfound bad-ass-ery more than compensate.
However, in keeping with its vendetta against its hero, this movie finds a way to screw Ash yet again. Annie manages to open a mystical time-portal (you heard me) to banish the evil, but of course, Ash (and his faithful Oldsmobile) are dragged along with it and stranded in medieval England.
He may have avoided one Hell, but unfortunately, realising that he is the prophesised ‘Hero from the Sky’, brings him face-to-face with a second.
All in all, Evil Dead II has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Often written-off as silly and dumb (which, yes, it is), it nevertheless remains an integral part of my movie collection.
A wonderfully-eclectic movie with a beloved cult hero at its core. Odd, sci-fi / time-travel paradoxes, Three Stooges-inspired slapstick, as well as that unsettling sense of dread and lunacy all combine to make this film as enjoyable as it is, and sets it apart from its Evil Dead brothers.
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. Now and forever… if nothing else, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is simply… “Groovy…”
Rating: 4 out of 5 swallowed souls.
Favourite Moment: The workshed ‘groovy’ scene. The real Ash is born.
Honourable Mention: “Who’s laughing now?”
Next week: #26 – “I’m still here, chief…”