Why you should catch up with Ash vs Evil Dead
Ivan Radford | On 02, Oct 2016
“How does it feel to be back?” “Groovy.” Ash vs Evil Dead nails its homecoming in its opening episode – and every episode that follows.
STARZ’s series does feel very much like a homecoming. Small-screen spin-offs from popular movie franchises have become two-a-penny in recent years, but many are made by a different team to their source material. Sam Raimi is involved with this new show from the ground up – and you feel it in every splatter of blood.
The show catches up with Ash 30 years after the events of the first film, which plays out in brief visual recap for newcomers. He’s exactly as you remember him: far from PC, slightly dim, but darn good with a chainsaw. What does the saviour of the world do now? He spends his time getting high in his trailer and working in a hardware store. So far, so Ash. One night, a stoned attempt to impress a girl sees him reaching for the Book of the Dead – “bound in human flesh, written in blood”, he trills off casually – and unleashing the apocalypse. Again.
The ensuing onslaught of Deadites starts slowly, with both Ash and kick-ass cop Amanda (Jill Marie Jones) left to wonder whether they’re imagining things or not, but by heck, it does so in style. Heads turn 360 degrees, scissors impale hands and brains explode all over the wall. There’s a nice mix of CGI and practical make-up, as you’d expect from a Raimi project (he directs the first episode), with any low-budget edges swooped around with a camera that crawls along floors and hurtles through the air with a familiar, groaning whoosh: it’s exactly how you’d imagine an Evil Dead TV show to look and sound.
There’s not much higher praise you can give a spin-off. Sam and his co-creators Ivan Raimi and Tom Spezialy smartly lurch towards the comedy of Evil Dead 2 than the gritty first outing: it’s telling that, unlike AMC’s serious, hour-long Fear the Walking Dead, this spin-off plays as a 30-minute comedy, a format that allows for fast-paced gore and gags without too much thinking time.
That also means it takes a while for the supporting characters to become more than stock types. But the cast and the script are far from brainless in that department. The show lays the ground work early, making sure we spend almost as many minutes with Amanda as Ash over the first 60 minutes, as she faces internal investigation from her department – by the time she catches up with Ash, determined to prove he was responsible for the murder of her partner, we’re as much on her side as his, repeatedly rejecting his relentless romantic advances. They make for a neat double-act, with Marie Jones clearly enjoying the chance to embrace her violent, angry side as much as her wise-cracking, well-intentioned side.
The supporting ensemble are equally good – and deceptively deep. Ray Santiago is endearingly dumb as Ash’s workmate, Pablo, wearing the sidekick schtick well. Dana DeLorenzo, meanwhile, brings sass as his friend, Kelly, whom he not-so-secretly fancies. Over the 10 episodes, that won’t-they-won’t-whey chemistry is explored in surprising ways, as the script is clever enough to use genre cliches to its advantage. Rather than let the spilled guts distract from the emotions, the writers actively turn them into a form of character development; each of our characters get their own opportunity to be possessed in some form, which brings out the more secretive parts of their personalities and also drives other people to react in increasingly honest ways. When a bunch of random strangers turn up in the woods, one wannabe dental hygienist is quick to remember that none of these people are her friends, while Kelly’s best scenes come during a trip to her parents, when Ash takes a chainsaw to every page in the dinner table etiquette book and truths come pouring out – when a demon’s in your face, you can’t help but be honest.
For Ash, of course, honesty is the norm. He has no problem speaking his mind, especially when it comes to women. That faithful treatment of his character is the key to the show’s success: Bruce Campbell is a joy to watch as he swaggers around, deluded, like he hasn’t stopped playing the part for the past three decades. He’s a whale out of water in an ill-fitting corset, his cheesy, movie matinee grin now a pair of false teeth and his way with women mostly relegated to Vivian, the old lady in his trailer park. In the 1980s, he was par for the course. In 2016, he’s a sexist dinosaur, but somehow, he works it. “The only things for certain in life are death, taxes and death. And I don’t pay taxes, so all I know is death,” he declares, with irresistibly over-the-top charisma.
He’s not the nicest guy in the world. He’s not the smartest guy in the world. And he’s certainly not the kind of guy you’d choose to star in a typical, modern show. But there’s an odd note of sympathy to just how wrong for the part he is. A scene-stealing Lucy Lawless, who appears near the end as a brilliantly hammy villain, is quick to lay into him. “Your whole life has been marked by tragedy and woeful desperation,” she mocks. “Yeah, yeah, I get the idea,” sighs Ash – and you realise he knows it.
The result is an unexpectedly sweet, but mostly squishy, affair. And even the squishiness stays varied; the show wheels out a whole parade of icky creatures, making sure the freaky prosthetics never lose their impact. It’s more like a series of mini-sequels than a serial drama: there’s the one with the creepy small child; the one with the brain-bending monster that fries people’s synapses, literally; the one where someone’s face comes off. The show has no end of ideas of how to mutilate and maim people – it more than earns its 18 certificate.
It’s a refreshing treat in the modern era of prestige drama. While Netflix and Amazon are looking at awards, Ash vs Evil Dead is busy burying its head in internal organs. That juxtaposition between the 80s and modern day brings constant guffaws as much as enjoyably old-school effects. Do you need to know the plot to watch the series? Not at all; you could jump into Season 2 knowing that little has changed from Season 1 (although you’d be missing out on a lot of fun). But then, little has changed before Season 1 begins: when the undead crap hits the fan, dammit, Ash is still exactly the guy you want on your screen. How does it feel to have him back? Groovy.
Ash vs Evil Dead: Season 1 to 3 is available to stream on-demand on Virgin Media. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.