By Aleck Bennett
It’s Rock & Roll Monster Bashin’ time, ladies and gents! And if you’ve spent all day celebrating at the Starlight Six Drive-In, there’s no better way to cap off the night than with a double-bill of fright featuring folks messing around with books they ought not be messin’ around with. And they don’t come any better than Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2.
It was 1983 and I had started sailing awkwardly into teenagerhood. FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND was on the verge of closing up shop, and I had been steadily supplementing my reading material with FANGORIA. A video rental store named Video Land had just opened up in town to provide stiff competition to the local movie house (the Royal Rocking Chair Cinema), and my main after-school preoccupation was scouring the shelves of the horror section to rent whatever I hadn’t seen yet. And one day, there it was: the Thorn/EMI plastic clamshell case for THE EVIL DEAD. In the coming years, I must have paid for half of Video Land’s entire inventory just from renting that movie over and over again. It was mindblowing. Just a vicious, nasty, bloody, frightening and smart movie—not just script-wise, but so audacious visually that it was like few things I’d seen to that point.
So when FANGO started reporting that Sam Raimi was teaming back up with Bruce Campbell to make EVIL DEAD 2, I was rabid. And then, the Royal put up the poster for it as a coming attraction. I pestered the hell out of the people running the place about when they were going to get it, and every time, they’d say “soon.” Maybe it would be that they were holding over that week’s show. Or maybe it would be that a big release was coming in the next week that they had to run instead. But every time, something different. And they must have had that poster up for a year. Like they were doing it out of spite, just to taunt me or something.
So, like so many others like me who were living out in the pits of Nowheresvilles all across the country, I had to wait for it to come out on video to see it. And when I finally got my grubby mitts on it…it was a comedy?
Because how can you follow up a movie whose own closing credits describe it as “the ultimate experience in grueling terror?” By piling on the excesses of the first until it becomes so overloaded with the wacky that it collapses in hysterics. (And by describing the result in its closing credits as “the sequel to the ultimate experience in grueling terror.”) Where the first film was visually inventive, this took every lesson learned from that first movie and asked the question, “how can we do this BIGGER?” If THE EVIL DEAD used the whip pan as a stylistic device, let’s do everything in whip pans. Lots of blood all over the place in the first movie? Let’s shoot it out of fire hoses at Bruce Campbell. The first movie has Bruce wielding a chainsaw? Let’s give Bruce a chainsaw for a hand! The first film has violence so over-the-top that it borders on the absurd? Let’s demonstrate that Bruce Campbell is an incredibly agile physical comedian and have him beat the living daylights out of himself with everything but the kitchen sink, like he’s both Moe and Curly trapped inside the same body.
This became my new gospel. I’d sit and pick over the minutiae of this movie like I was in seminary and this was the Codex Sinaiticus. Like I was Wilbur Whateley poring over my John Dee translation of the NECRONOMICON. This was now part of my personal canon, alongside THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE or…well…THE EVIL DEAD.
Capsule recap: Ash Williams and his girlfriend Linda head out to a secluded cabin for a quiet getaway. Ash plays a tape recording found which was made by the professor staying there previously, and which contains translations of the bound-in-flesh NECRONOMICON EX MORTIS (which was also found in the cabin). It summons up evil forces from beyond that possess Linda, Ash, his hand, and soon threaten to possess the people heading to the cabin, mistakenly believing that they’re meeting the now-late professor.
There are few sequels that are better than the first movie. You can probably count them on your fingers. Both hands, if you’re feeling generous. You know it. I know it. More importantly, Sam Raimi knew it. He knew that since the first film was celebrated as a straight-up horror movie, that the second movie could only disappoint in comparison. So he made a different movie. A movie that didn’t even try to do what the first one did so well, but aimed for something he knew he could pull off: the first splatstick comedy. I mean, Sam Raimi had never wanted to be just a horror film director anyway; he just saw horror as an easy way to get his foot in the door. Most of his own short films were comedies, and he had followed up THE EVIL DEAD with an attempt to make a live-action LOONEY TUNES / Tex Avery-styled comedy in collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen, CRIMEWAVE. That it flopped seemed to only strengthen his resolve to take a bigger risk by making EVIL DEAD 2 a comedy.
And it worked. Oh, man, how it worked. It quickly became the MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL for the horror geek scene. Whereas the first film presented Bruce Campbell as Ash, a likeably bland lead, this movie established Bruce Campbell in my mind (and that of anyone else who saw it) as Bruce Campbell, Movie God. This was the movie where he finally came into his own, delivering a tour de force performance that would have killed a lesser man to give. And the guts of Raimi to essentially condense the entire first movie into the first half-hour of the second, retelling it and streamlining it (removing any character other than Ash and his girlfriend Linda). It was like Raimi explicitly saying, “this is not that movie. This is a whole different thing.” The only thing about the movie that suffers is the collective performances of the secondary cast members, which are generally either a little too broad or a little too wooden. But it’s hard to really judge them because they are unfortunately cast alongside the marvel that is BRUCE F’ING CAMPBELL. Olivier might have suffered in comparison. (We’ll never know. He wisely stayed away, and never suffered those slings and arrows, the coward.)
Some movies are fun. Some of those movies are described as “a roller coaster ride.” EVIL DEAD 2 is like Disneyland riding a roller coaster through Knott’s Scary Farm while the Ramones are playing on top of a blood-filled Splash Mountain. Strap in, kids, because it’s gonna get MESSY.
Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.