In honor of Halloween, I wanted to look back at one of my favorite (and most enduring) horror franchises, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead/Army of Darkness and its hero Ash Williams.
In 1981, director/writer Sam Raimi created the film that put him and actor/producer Bruce Campbell on the map with The Evil Dead. Set around the familiar premise of a group of teenagers partying in a remote cabin in the woods, they’re stalked and hunted by a demonic force with the sole survivor one Ashley J. Williams, played by Campbell. Watching his sister, girlfriend, and other friends become possessed and turned into evil Deadites, Ash would cement himself as the unlikely hero of the sprawling epic. Mixing suspense, gore, macabre humor, and deadpan delivery, the series would gain a loyal fan base and early critical acclaim upon its release.
As the story would progress in the sequels, Ash would continue to be tormented by Deadites and the source of their pestilence, the Necronomicon. Costing him his right hand, and his sanity, the Necronomicon would take Ash to the Middle Ages and across the fictional landscape in the comic books, pairing him against Marvel Zombies, Freddy Kruger, Jason Vorhees, and even letting him save President Barack Obama.
Ash Willaims stands as an anomaly in the horror genre, a blue-collar man (when most protagonists in horror are female) lacking in brawn or brains, or even social manners. Ash is something of a cad in stories, and later shown to be alittle racist despite meaning well in his comments. His continued survival can be chalked up to luck, or determination in equal amounts. His only talent seems to be killing Deadites and getting himself into more trouble, thus keeping the saga going for more than three decades.
After The Evil Dead, Raimi would return to create a sequel when his next film (Crimewave) failed to succeed. It proved to save his career, allowing him to gain a studio release in 1990’s Darkman (His first foray into the superhero genre, which would come in handy in 2001 for Spiderman) and funding for a third sequel to Evil Dead, 1992’s Army of Darkness.
Despite following the same continuity and protagonist, the change in titles tends to recur in the comics to indicate the intended tone and what source material is focused on. Evil Dead stories are more horror based, following Ash’s experiences with the remote cabin where he found the Necronomicon. Army of Darkness stories meanwhile, tend to be more fantastical and slapstick in tone. Copyright issues also play into these choices, with Raimi unable to use footage from Evil Dead 1 for the sequel and having to re-film events with new actors as a solution.
In 2013, a remake of Evil Dead was produced by Raimi and Campbell, but directed by Fede Alveraz and written by Rodo Sayagues. It followed the basic premise of the original, but with some modern sensibilities and a female protagonist. As far as remakes go, even by horror standards, it was an entertaining and disturbing take on the material. Modern movie techniques allowed for some intense gory scenes that would otherwise be harder to make look realistic in the 80’s. Despite modest success, a sequel of the remake or a rumored crossover haven’t materialized yet. That doesn’t mean our favorite bumbling hero couldn’t come back for his own adventures.
Ash vs Evil Dead, once again produced by Raimi and Campbell, sees Ash Williams retired from his adventures and trying to live a normal life. Working at the same convenience store as he did at thirty years ago, he meets some new friends in the form of Pablo Bolivar and Kelly Maxwell, who end up assisting Ash when the Deadites return to plague him. The series balances humor and B-movie horror really well, and shows that Ash’s age and experiences haven’t necessarily changed him for the better. His only purpose in life seems to be killing Deadites, and he takes to it with a bemused ambivalence. Having run two seasons, with a third coming next year, it’s everything fans could hope for from the films in a serialized format on cable.
The Evil Dead franchise is still continuing, and unlikely to end anytime soon. It’s surprising because I can think of no other franchise that match fan interest and demand in the horror genre, other than perhaps Ridley Scott’s Alien film and its sequels/prequels. It’s heartening as well, because by and large, the output of material is actually great. Perhaps that’s the actual secret. Regardless, here’s to the series that shows a regular guy can be a smart-mouth, demon-killing badass; even if he barely has a high school degree.