1981’s The Evil Dead was released to critical praise and a disappointing Box Office. Although it performed better than was expected, it wasn’t the hit Director Sam Raimi and Producer Bruce Campbell (who also stars as the lead character. Ash) had hoped for. Yet, in years to follow, it has achieved cult status and made up for what it lost in profit with renewed cultural relevance.

In fact, The Evil Dead is one in a league of ‘cult’ films that seemed fated to bomb on release only to be resurrected (no pun intended) and loved by fans for years to come — think Labyrinth (1986), Blade Runner (1982) and Clerks (1994). All have become cultural ‘classics’, with the limited merchandise from the original releases coveted and traded for bragging rights. Ironically, the cult success of these films has afforded many of them mainstream popularity and opportunities for revival. And, entry into their fandoms is still weirdly patrolled.

Box Office revenues undoubtedly figure in a films status as ‘cult’, this is largely a symptom of another variable: taste. The notion of bad taste, particularly, is relevant to the cult genre. Just look at John Waters, a man whose transgressive dedication to bad taste has become his trademark and a defining characteristic of the cultist sentiment. Even when bad taste becomes acceptable through evolving social mores, the subversive quality of crass cinema as ‘cult’ allows it to survive beyond the lifespan of the initial release.

The Evil Dead is no exception to the Bad Taste Rule. For the uninitiated, the original of the series follows a group of friends staying at a cabin in the woods, where they unwittingly release a plague of unearthly demons. It’s what’s known as a “video nasty’ – coined in the UK to describe a series of films released on video in the late 70s, many of which were included on the Director of Public Prosecutions list.

No good can come from a cabin in the woods.

Although released in 1981, The Evil Dead is typical of late 1970s horror, reflecting the pessimism and instability that characterised North America at the time. Fans of the film will remember it as gruesome, disturbing, horrific and violent. Some of the more abject scenes, Cheryl raped by demonically possessed trees, for example, are typical of its tone.

Yet, something happened in 1987 that changed the face of The Evil Dead franchise. The sequel, The Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, was considered a comedy-horror. Again, this is typical of the era given the popularity of comedy in the 80s, particularly of the supernatural variety. By 1992, Raimi released the third instalment, Army of Darkness — an outrageously camp rendering of the mythos that even the Monty Python crew would label as, ‘a tad silly’. To say that this was a departure from the tone set in the original is an understatement.

Although classified a comedy-horror, Army of Darkness is about as horrific as a kitten launching itself with might at a steadied camera. The plot (a term used loosely) begins where The Evil Dead 2 left off and finds Ash trapped in the Middle Ages, fending off the same primordial evil as he struggles to return to the present day. Indicative of the film’s tone is a scene that riffs on the The Three Stooges* slap- stick physicality where Ash is mocked by a senes of skeleton arms reaching for him from out of the ground. His efforts to negotiate are rendered useless as multiple arms appear inexplicably from off-screen and slap him around the face. It’s a joy to watch Campbell revel in his new role as hapless warrior. As silly as it is the film is also a legitimate satirisation of the machismo.

We didn’t budget for skin.

For the most part, fans have embraced the tonal discord between the movies, with each attaining cult status. The gradual evolution of the franchise from 70s video nasty to 90s slapstick satire also demonstrates a sophisticated
understanding of pop-cultural trends and cunning marketing.

The most recent iteration of the franchise and by far the most interesting from a creative standpoint is the television series, Ash vs Evil Dead. Helmed by Raimi with Campbell reprising his role as Ash, the series exolores the mishaps of our ageing hero as he finds himself at the centre of yet another Evil Dead spawn, this time joined by a band of unlikely teenage misfits who eagerly help him slay demon ass.

Much like Army of Darkness, the series playfully sends-up masculine tropes, but to a greater and more knowing degree. Where Army of Darkness borrowed from genre conventions to characterise Ash, Ash vs Evil Dead draws from within the franchise mythos, allowing it to target both new and old fans.

What makes Ash vs Evil Dead so compelling is not only the revival of a beloved character for those keeping score, but the way it channels tone from the first and third films. Whilst each of the franchise’s films offers a unique perspective on the story, the television series aggregates the sum of these parts creating an experience that is more context than text. The guise may be new but the series is a fractured amalgamation of what has come before.

Don’t be mistaken for thinking this means it’s shallow – what makes the series so enjoyable is the unexpected nature of it. Not only does the series draw on the tonal qualities of the original texts, it does so while retaining the essence of each. That is, by juxtaposing horror, comedy and satire.

This is particularly evident in the very first episode of the series, El Jefe. During the first 5 minutes, Ash has a fleeting sexual encounter with a stranger in the bathroom of a bar. During intercourse, he slaps the bar girl on the rear with his wooden hand (a reference to The Evil Dead 2, where Ash hacks his hand off when it becomes possessed), shouting, you like that?! You like my wood?!’. Seconds later, he asks his partner if they can stop since he’s getting ‘a little winded’.

This scene is a playful reference to Army of Darkness Ash, who is a caricature of masculinity rendered pitiful in a contemporary context. Ash’s retention of that same machismo, yet his portrayal as ‘out of time’ shows Raimi’s
understanding for context, which is integral to the growth and ongoing appeal of the franchise.

It can be difficult to conceive of Ash vs Evil Dead as anything other than a satirical send-up of the franchise and horror tropes more broadly, however it is surprisingly faithful to the abject tone of the first film. In each episode there is at least one ‘scary scene’ (note, I use quotation marks to draw attention to the fact that the scares are inconsistent with the tongue-in-cheek writing, not to trivialise the horror work). These scenes are truly reminiscent of the first film: grotesque, sadistic and gratuitous.

Based primarily on demonic possession, the horror in Ash vs Evil compels a confrontation with the uncomfortable subject of bodily violation; a commentary innerent in all possessive horror. This is not for the faint hearted. Furthermore, abject horror – blurring the boundary between the self and the intolerable ‘other’ – offers no catharsis. When accompanied by the comedic and satirical tone of the series, and playful references to canon, Ash vs Evil makes for an unexpected, layered and highly contextual post-modern experience.

Ash vs Evil Dead is less a continuation of the franchise and more a commentary on it. Regardless of taste, an audience familiar with the original text should recognise the show for what it is: a love letter to fans. By choosing
television, not only does Raimi capture the Netflix generation (ironically), but he has the space to honour the original text at new lengths. It’s sloppy, offensive and oddly paced while always a heart- warming tribute to a cult franchise delivered in the only way possible in glorious bad taste.

Article originally published for Hopscotch Friday, 2017.

Feature image: courtesy of Netflix