In one of the greatest comebacks since L.L. Cool J rapped “Mamma Said Knock You Out” (“Don’t call it a comeback/I been here for years”), Bruce Campbell is back in the role he was born to play.
When the announcement was made that Campbell would return as Ash Williams to battle Deadites and drop wisecracks in the Starz original series “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” horror fans the world over rejoiced. And how could they not? In a world where every casting or production announcement, be it major or minor, spawns countless pages of divisive Internet message board comments (which subsequently always devolve into religious debates and/or ad hominem attacks… don’t ask me why), there are only a handful of opinions both unanimous and non-contentious among the horror community – the first being that remaking The Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage in the lead was a decidedly bad idea. Another one that we do all seem to see eyeball to eyeball on is the greatness, nay godliness, of Bruce Campbell and that Ash Williams is the fucking man!
Because they received fairly wide releases, many discovered Ash through either Evil Dead II or its sequel, Army of Darkness. Incredible films both. Funny, scary, riotously goofy and gory (Evil Dead II at least – Army of Darkness is more dusty than gruesome), the films deftly combined horror and slapstick and solidified the hallmarks of the franchise: the Deadites; the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis; the sawed-off shotgun; and the hero who a) always finds himself in the center of a maelstrom of trouble, b) is equipped with said shotgun in one hand and chainsaw in (on) the other, and c) is a never-ending fountain of quips, witticisms, one-liners, put downs, insults, jests, gibes, and jokes.
And that’s the same Ash, albeit two decades plus older, that we see strutting around sending Deadites back to Hell with extreme prejudice and a well-placed bon mot in “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” It’s a great Ash, a beautiful Ash. He’s still the same cocksure, sardonic, grandstanding rapscallion he’s always been.
Except he hasn’t. Before Ash become horror’s version of John McClane, he was merely Ashley “Ash” Williams in 1981’s The Evil Dead. And Evil Dead the original was a very different beast than its successors. All films in the franchise have a number of commonalities. To start, they were all written and directed by Sam Raimi. Futhermore, they each feature Sam’s brother Ted in some capacity. (If you’re looking for him in the first, he was one of a number of “Fake Shemps.” Google it!) And each fucking rule. But The Evil Dead is tonally a very different film than its sundry sequels and spin-offs, and it presents a strikingly different version of the Boomstick-bearing hero that we’ve all grown to love.
As The Evil Dead begins, Ash doesn’t even look to be our hero at all. That designation seems more suited to his buddy Scott. After all, Scott’s the one we see with a jar of moonshine in his non-driving hand and his girlfriend Shelly in the passenger seat driving the iconic 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 up to the dilapidated cabin in the woods that he rented for the weekend. Ash is relegated to the backseat, conscripted to read the roadmap while crammed next to his girlfriend Linda and sister Cheryl. Scotty is the Alpha male, and skinny little Ash, the one with the reedy voice and sometimes quasi-bowl haircut, at other times news anchorman bouffant, is merely along for the ride.
Scotty is also the one who braves his way down into the cellar to investigate the spooky sounds emanating from below. He’s the one that finds the Naturom Demonto – The Book of the Dead (not called the Necronomicon in this one). Ash only descends reluctantly when Scotty fails to reappear and then is spooked all too easily by his bud surprising him with a very feeble “Boo!”
However, once the Kandarian Demons are summoned (no references to Deadites made just yet) and begin possessing the group starting with Cheryl, it befalls upon Ash to do battle. All the same, as a hero he’s apprehensive, klutzy, and unsure. And there’s nary a “Come get some!” nor “Groovy!” to be heard.
But a funny thing happened between The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. Where the original was pure horror with a touch of humor to punctuate the scary, the second was unbridled slapstick mayhem with horror utilized as an adjunct to the laughs. Erroneously considered by many as a remake, Evil Dead II is indeed a continuation. The first bit is a newly-shot, CliffsNotes version of the first film, as Raimi didn’t have the rights to reuse any actual footage. So in the interest of brevity, Raimi decided to retcon things a bit (actually a lot). Thus, it’s Ash now behind the wheel of the Delta 88, driving Linda, and only Linda, up to the cabin; Scott, Cheryl, and Shelly seemingly sucked into some vortex somewhere where non-recurring characters go to while about the rest of their days. It’s now Ash who finds the tape and the book, and it’s Ash who’s the hero right from the get-go. Despite being a much different film from its progenitor, a lot of Evil Dead II does play like the first film on steroids. And speaking of steroids, take a look at Ash!
Like the guy in those old comic book ads who got sand kicked in his face at the beach, then took a weight-lifting course and returned as a slab of man meat looking for vengeance, the new Ash was lean, mean, ripped, and ready for action. In Campbell’s indispensable autobiography If Chins Could Kill, he writes that “Evil Dead II required my character, Ash, to grow from ‘cowardly wimp’ to ‘leader of men.’ [I had to create] a sturdy physique that would work in harmony with the hero-in-a-torn-shirt concept.”
And maybe that’s why we love Ash so. How many of us, when seeing that ridiculous ad, dreamed of being that same kid who managed to transform himself from skinny runt into formidable hunk? I cetainly did. The “cowardly wimp” of the first film would never have been able to sustain a franchise nor generate the same levels of fandom as Ash Mach 2. And yet, when I examine all three films in the series, it’s the pure horror of the original I like best. Others prefer the second, still others prefer Army, but that’s A-OK because the one thing we all can agree on is that Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams is the fucking man. Groovy!