Evil Dead II at 35
I’ve always been a fan of the most unlikely subgenre of all, horror comedy. It has been around for a very long time, going back to the era of silence with The cat and the canary and early talkies with James Whale’s twisted genre movies like The dark old house and Bride of Frankenstein. In the late 1940s, the comedy team Abbott and Costello encountered most of the classic monsters before Roger Corman twisted the nose of the subgenre with A bucket of blood and The Little Shop of Horrors in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Classic monsters would get brand new comedic treatments in the 1970s from Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein and in the form of George Hamilton as Dracula in Love at first bite. In the 80s Reanimator, Return of the Living Dead, and Night of the Creeps among other things, all managed to parody horror conventions while delivering legitimate gore and scares.
When I was a child, I practically exhausted our ghost hunters videotape and Gremlins was a regular staple in our household. In getting older, The howling and Friday the 13th Part VI were most often in the rotation. But for me, there was a movie that exemplified the pinnacle of horror-comedy, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. For me, it was like the arrival of the Chosen One, splitting the genre into two distinct eras with one swipe of an arm-mounted chainsaw. Now there is Before Evil Dead 2 and after Evil Dead 2. This is the flashpoint where the conventions of horror-comedy were redefined and crystallized. It’s a crude comparison, yes, but Evil Dead 2 is the Citizen Kane of splatstick. While the Welles classic brought together the techniques of a certain type of cinema in a monumental film, Sam RaimiThe sequel did the same for a different kind of cinema, and comedy-horror has never been the same since.
Whether the movie invented the splatstick is debatable, but it certainly perfected it.
Evil Dead 2 is such a unique and singular vision that, while the style is often imitated, it has never been matched. It’s energetic to the point of being frantic, comedic bordering on farce, bloody bordering on parody, and all the while, genuinely scary to such a degree that at first the audience didn’t know whether to laugh. or shout. This same kind of confusion has met with other classic horror comedies like An American werewolf in London and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The latter film is in many respects the perfect analogue for Evil Dead 2. In both cases, the second part serves as a parody, a partial remake with several memorable scenes and a partial sequel to the original film. In both films, the tone of the second time around is very different from the original while still clearly being the work of the same filmmaker. The originals of both series are handmade guerrilla filmmaking projects by talented amateurs, while the second installments are made with more budget and experience by more battle-weary professional filmmakers.
Despite its reputation, diabolical death isn’t completely humorless, though I’m not sure that’s all intentional, and it’s clearly the work of the same filmmaker from the later film. Evil Dead 2, however, leans into the story’s inherent humor rather than trying to avoid it. Raimi then steps it up by infusing the film with his love for the Three Stooges and looney tunes cartoons and making full use of Bruce Campbell‘s considerable physical acting skills with impeccable comedic chops. The comparisons to the first film also illustrate how razor-sharp the horror and comedy are. Slight adjustments one way or the other make huge differences in tone and mood. A mixture of the two is an even more precarious balance, at the limit of the impossible to achieve. Several serious and deadly scenes from the original are retconned in the second for laughs, and they effectively serve their purpose in both cases. It all comes down to nuances of performance, camera and editing and a slight leaning towards horror or humor.
According to star and producer Bruce Campbell and many others, diabolical death and its follow-up Crime wave were absolutely miserable shoots in which no one really knew what they were doing. They were young and reckless enough not to care too much at the time. It’s something so a miracle that the original evil Dead has no consistency given the conditions and their lack of basic production knowledge. It’s a testament to Sam Raimi as a visionary filmmaker that it works as well as it does.
Conversely, Campbell said for the 25th anniversary documentary about the making of Evil Dead 2 that the film was a relatively pleasant experience. Much of the rest of the cast and crew disagree, especially Sam Raimi’s younger brother. Ted Raimi who sweats a day off from his body while encased in Henrietta’s makeup and undead costume (in a shot that appears in the film, Ted’s sweat can be seen dripping from his ear of Henrietta). Cast Members Sarah Berry (Annie), Dan Hicks (Jake), Kassie DePaiva (Bobby Joe), and Richard Domeier (Ed) all watched the film with humor and fondness, but also seemed happy to watch the experience from a distance. There also seems to be a special bond created between cast and crew that is only formed in the crucible or the heat of battle. Campbell’s sunnier view is largely based on comparisons to the misery of evil Dead shoot and the great challenge ahead with army of darkness. Obviously, very low budget cinema is hardly glamorous and when it comes to a film as ambitious as Evil Dead 2, it is particularly trying for everyone. By all accounts, Sam Raimi is a demanding filmmaker, but one who earns a lot of trust and loyalty from those he works with and whose vision finds its way onto the screen.
A big part of that vision is the extensive visual, stop motion, and makeup effects that give the film much of its manic flavor. The make-up effect alone, created by a small band of madmen led by the big Mark Shostrom, are miracles in themselves. For such a low-budget feature, the film is full of remarkable creations. Evil Ash makeup, Possessed Ed, and the undead Henrietta costumes would be enough to make the film’s makeup effects monumental, but Evil Dead 2 goes way beyond that with dozens more iconic items to point to. Greg Nicotero called the film “the proving ground of KNB”, the now-legendary make-up effects house responsible for some of the greatest effects in modern film history. The stop-motion effects created by Tom Sullivan, Doug Beswickand Rick Catizone and thumbnails of Jim Beloheovek are equally impressive and should not be overlooked. In our current CGI-laden world, effects like these might seem dated, but here they still work beautifully to underline the film’s tone and heightened nightmarish reality.
As great as those effects are, perhaps the film’s greatest special effect is Bruce Campbell as Ash. Somewhere between Schwarzenegger and Shemp, we find Ash Williams. He’s got the dry wit, tough exterior and one-liners of ’80s action greats mixed liberally with the slapstick sensibility of The Three Stooges. The entire film is endlessly engaging, but the most memorable scenes are the “one man show” sequences in which Campbell is essentially alone onscreen. Fighting his decapitated girlfriend wielding a chainsaw, going to war with his own severed hand, laughing maniacally as the cabin comes to life around him while being doused with fire hoses of blood. Perhaps the most inspired of them all and with comedic athleticism reminiscent of Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor, grabbing the back of the head and spinning around after repeatedly hitting themselves on the head with plates.
For all his twisted and over-the-top slapstick, Evil Dead 2 still delivers the goods when it comes to effective scares. There’s real stakes, ratcheting suspense and some of the best jump scares of the 80s. It’s the genius of Sam Raimi, whose vision, as well as screenplay co-written with Scott Spiegel, creates a balancing act so precarious that the slightest miscalibration would completely destroy the effect. Every moment of the film manages to sit on that edge without ever going headlong over the cliff, making it the ultimate example of comedy horror at its finest.
the evil Dead The series is, in terms of quality, one of the most consistent in all of horror. Even rarer, a deal could be made for any entry to be the best in the franchise. To me Evil Dead 2 is that highlight, but I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who prefers the original, army of darkness, or the remake on it. Strong cases can also be made for the Ash vs Evil Dead TV series and even the stage musical version. When it comes to this, Evil Dead 2 is one of the best examples of what creative people can do when given the opportunity to do what they do best. They innovate, solve problems in unique ways, and break all the rules, giving us something we’ve never seen before. Sometimes these films succeed immediately, others are built over time, as was the case with the evil Dead movies. These cult classics endure as so many other films fade.
Evil Dead 2 only grew in esteem to become the crowning glory of inspired madness. After thirty-five years, it remains, in a word, groovy.