35 years ago, Sam Raimi redefined the zombie movie

Sometimes a good sequel refines rather than reinvents.

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To make a sequel is to fight an uphill battle — an adept movie fan could count on one hand the number of titles that live up to their predecessors. The Godfather Part II. Aliens. Scream 2. Even rarer is a sequel that goes above and beyond, challenging the original for the right to be exemplified in pop culture as the “Best Of” whatever franchise is being discussed. A good sequel is rare; a sequel better than the original is nigh-impossible.

But 35 years ago, Sam Raimi took it upon himself to topple that narrative and reinvigorate the horror genre with a follow-up that shouldn’t have worked to his audacious 1981 directorial debut that shouldn’t have worked either. In 1987, Raimi and company circled back to make the impossible happen one more time, gifting pop culture the enduring legacy of Evil Dead 2, a psychotic, blood-soaked fever dream of a movie that solidified his reputation as a king of genre filmmaking long before he helped usher in Hollywood’s love affair with the superhero.

After the release of The Evil Dead, no one involved could have guessed just how big of a cultural phenomenon the low-budget horror movie would become. However, a screening at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, and a glowing review from Stephen King, transformed Raimi’s garish nightmare into a box office titan, grossing over $20 million worldwide on a meager budget of $375,000. The film’s unique vision was unlike anything offered by the horror genre, and producers were aching for some sort of follow-up, a pressure that Raimi finally succumbed to after the critical and commercial failure of his previous film, Crimewave.

Because Raimi was able to secure a sizeable budget for the sequel, the temptation was to do something much bigger, with higher stakes. In fact, Raimi’s original plan for the sequel was the time-traveling setup that would eventually become Army of Darkness. However, at the behest of industry titan Dino De Laurentiis, and upon critically examining the sudden success of the original, screenwriters Raimi and Scott Spiegel realized that the best way to approach Evil Dead 2 was to channel the same guerilla spirit that defined the original. They doubled the manic intensity but maintained the small-scale nightmare of that decrepit cabin.

That dual-pronged approach allows Evil Dead 2 to expand the tenets of the horror genre, amplifying Ash’s horrifying Deadite ordeal to the point of cartoonish absurdity. The original film struck a line between the comically ridiculous and the terrifying, and in the sequel Raimi takes this even further, using intentionally uncanny makeup as well as incredibly over-the-top set pieces.

Don’t get too attached to the background characters.

Rosebud Releasing Corporation

The result is a movie that belongs next to The Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello as much as it does the works of Wes Craven or David Cronenberg, and the DNA of Evil Dead 2 is integral in unraveling what constitutes a modern horror-comedy. Films like Dead Alive, Zombieland, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, The Cabin in the Woods, and many, many more owe a debt to Sam Raimi.

While the genre-defying blend of comedy and horror inspired many burgeoning filmmakers, so did the movie’s psychotic energy. The unwieldy balance of tones within Evil Dead 2 helps to drive home the central conflict for most of the movie. Although the Deadites are startlingly real, for much of the runtime the real horror is watching Ash Williams lose his mind. From the moment Ash and his girlfriend Linda arrive at the cabin, the Deadites (and Raimi himself) are intent on bending Ash beyond human limits, and every moment drives him further towards the brink of insanity.

Forced to dismember his undead girlfriend, hack off his own hand, and watch a group of strangers get butchered and possessed by the Deadites is a horrifying crucible that we’re given a front row seat to, and it’s all exacerbated by the fact that Ash spends much of the movie isolated and alone. While a demonic invasion brought forth by the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis is a once-in-a-lifetime rarity, the stifling seclusion that helps drive Ash insane is one that we can all relate to, two years into a global health crisis that quarantined each of us in our own personal cabins and forced us to watch as the world at large was thrown into chaos.

Although hopefully you didn’t need a chainsaw arm.

Rosebud Releasing Corporation

Much of Evil Dead 2’s controlled bedlam is handled deftly by Sam Raimi’s filmmaking style, but the root of the audience's enduring attachment to the film lies with Bruce Campbell and the charm he brings to the franchise’s central human ragdoll. If not for Campbell’s aloof and humanistic portrayal of Ash Williams, all the carnage and practical body horror of these films would be wasted, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the second installment.

Unlike the action heroes of the 1980s, trapped like sculpted action figures in packages of rigorous masculinity, Bruce Campbell’s Ash is a self-deprecating everyman with a loveable yet pathetic air. He’s not always calm, he’s rarely rational, and he’s usually in over his head, but by the end of the film Ash is capable and confident enough to seize the narrative and take the fight back to his tormentors, armed with a sturdy chainsaw prosthetic and his eternally reliable boomstick.

Evil Dead 2 might not have the prestige of a Francis Ford Coppola sequel or the big-budget bombast of a James Cameron follow-up, but there’s a reason it’s stayed rooted in pop culture as an unrivaled cult classic. By channeling the most unique elements of the first film and cranking them to 11, Sam Raimi managed to create a sequel that not only exceeds its predecessor while maintaining intimate stakes, but also firmly established the idiosyncratic tone that defined both the franchise and his filmmaking career. It’s unhinged, it’s debauched, and 35 years later it’s still damn groovy.

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