Can a film loom so large that it becomes self-referential, the pop culture equivalent of a snake eating its own tail? It seems so, because when I was trying to describe how Sam Raimi’s 1987 comedy horror masterpiece continues to impact us all, it was the first example of an influential sequel that came to mind. To watch it is to view a course-altering piece of film history.
This movie shouldn’t work. Its 1981 predecessor told the same story, and the sequel cuts many characters while adding new ones, with no explanation provided. But Evil Dead II improves on the source material in a way that only The Empire Strikes Back could match. Empire had two hours to work with, but Evil Dead II clocks in at a shorter runtime than its predecessor by a mere minute, simultaneously stripping the original story down to its essentials and exploding it in less than an hour and a half. In essence, it’s a remake dressed up as a sequel.
Thanks to budgetary concerns and plain common sense, the focus shifts almost entirely to Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams, in what is now an iconic actor-character fusion. The filmmakers knew what the people would want, and the film benefits from taking the obvious route. Raimi’s wickedly dark sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.
Six years after the first instalment, Bruce Campbell is clearly no longer a fresh-faced youth. Evil Dead II doesn’t attempt to pass him off as a college student again, doing away with his friends and having just him and his girlfriend Linda — played by Denise Bixler rather than the original actress Betsy Baker — be the only ones who make the unfortunate choice of heading to a secluded cabin for a romantic getaway.
In the spirit of the movie’s sense of mischievousness, which insists on making the most of its limited resources, Ash and Linda are basically home invaders taking advantage of the cabin’s isolation and its absent owners. But the movie gets down to business before they do, with Ash pressing play on a recording that reads off an evil-unleashing incantation.
Much has been made of the cartoonish, gleefully disgusting chaos that follows, which makes use of dancing corpses, ghostly possessions, maniacal inanimate objects, and Ash’s own severed hand. Less acknowledged is how Sam Raimi uses silence and sheer creativity to great effect along with the chaotic bursts of blood and gore. In Raimi’s gleefully deranged hands, the camera itself becomes the undead force that pursues Campbell throughout the cabin, a thrilling sequence that only the famous chase scene in Point Break comes close to matching in terms of excitement, skill, and suspense.
The movie itself is both a labor of love and an act of desperation, as Sam Raimi’s career was close to becoming as deceased as the Deadites after the critical and commercial failure of his previous film, Crimewave. Raimi was essentially forced to conceive of a new spin on Evil Dead, which owes its existence to favors from both old friends and Hollywood insiders.
What Raimi wrought, a near perfect blend of horror, laughs, and demented slapstick, is something filmmakers still cite as an inspiration. But even with Raimi’s prowess, it’s hard to picture any of the Evil Dead movies succeeding without star Bruce Campbell. He’s both an embodiment of machismo and a parody of it, barely triumphing over his adversaries and just vulnerable enough for audiences to fear for him as he attempts to preserve both life and sanity. Campbell is also a master of physical comedy, able to believably take a beating — sometimes from his own hand — and pull off what became his signature weapon: his chainsaw appendage.
Bruce Campbell has gone on to appear in several continuations of the Evil Dead franchise, including the relatively recent, critically acclaimed series Ash vs. Evil Dead. Although he’s since declared he’s done playing Ash after about thirty years in the role, it seems there are plans for the franchise itself to go on. Groovy baby.
Evil Dead II is streaming now on HBO Max.