The boomstick is back, and so are legions of hungry demons, in Starz’s Ash Vs. Evil Dead, the long-awaited follow-up to the famous Evil Dead film franchise from its original creators, director Sam Raimi, producer Rob Tapert, and star Bruce Campbell. When the 10-episode TV series was originally announced late last year, die-hard fans found it difficult to contain their enthusiasm (including, in the interest of full disclosure, yours truly), and it’s a joyous relief to find that the results are even better than one might have expected. Fast, furious, and full of its hero’s profanely arrogant one-liners, it’s a fitting continuation of the series that also, on its own, puts the rest of its small-screen horror (and horror-comedy) brethren to shame.
While it’s directly pitched at those who’ve long cherished Evil Dead and its sequels as (cult) classics, Ash Vs. Evil Dead requires no instruction manual—a fact proven by its decision to only ever-so-briefly recap the first two films’ events midway through the first episode, “El Jefe.” That primer is conveyed via old film clips projected onto warehouse boxes, which is one of many nifty directorial touches brought to the series opener by Raimi, who helms the initial action with his trademark brand of whooshing cinematography, cockeyed angles, and equally frantic momentum. His camera racing underneath cars, through windows, and across blacktop parking lots like a rampaging specter, and crashing about with unholy intensity as his characters are assaulted by the forces of the undead, Raimi is back in familiar territory here, although his familiar stylistic tricks have been ramped up to even greater levels of hysteria for this return engagement with his favorite leading man.
That would be the able-chinned king of smirky suaveness, Bruce Campbell, whose Ash Williams is—30 years after his first encounter with the book of the dead (the bound-in-flesh Necronomicon Ex-Mortis)—still a clownish loser wholly (and rightly) convinced of his bedrock awesomeness. Living in a Michigan trailer park and working as a stock boy at second-rate electronics store Value Stop, Ash finds himself back in hellishly hot water when he goes out to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of losing his right hand to possessed monsters and, while screwing a woman in a bar bathroom, finds his one-night-stand’s face mutated into that of a demon. Rattled, he goes to make sure that the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis is still safely locked away in his trailer, only to find a bag of weed tucked inside its pages—a discovery that prompts him to remember a recent evening when he chose to impress a woman by getting stoned and reading passages from the book.
If that’s an asinine catalyst for Ash Vs. Evil Dead, it’s in keeping with the pitch-perfect conception of its protagonist as a man at once strikingly badass and hopelessly buffoonish. After realizing he’s unleashed the forces of the underworld upon his town, Ash sets about trying to put the demon back in the book. That quest is complicated by two new friends who become his unlikely partners in a battle with the undead: co-worker Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana Delorenzo), the latter of whom is the object of both Pablo’s fawning affection and Ash’s blustery come-ons. At least in the first two episodes (which were all that was provided for critics), neither Pablo nor Kelly do much more than function as foils for Campbell’s superheroic braggadocio, as well as silent audience proxies designed to stare in impressed awe as Ash cuts down one shrieking mush-faced adversary after another. But they’re game for being routinely splattered in decapitation-heavy bloodshed, and their wide-eyed shock and awe keeps the focus squarely on the show’s headliner.
Introduced strapping on a leather girdle and sipping from a Hi-C juice box, Campbell’s Ash is still a fool with an uncanny gift for kicking ass, and Ash Vs. Evil Dead makes sure to cast him in an iconic light, never more so than during a slow-motion, mid-air reunion between his hand-stump and his trusty chainsaw. A cartoon who wields both a power tool as an appendage and a shotgun he refers to as his “boomstick,” Ash may be older and more weathered but, for all intents and purposes, he’s no different than he was at the conclusion of Evil Dead II—although the fact that he doesn’t work at S-Mart, and makes no mention of his trip to the 1300s, suggests that Army of Darkness (which itself receives a fantastic new 3-disc Collector’s Edition blu-ray from Shout! Factory on Oct. 27) has been subtly written out of these proceedings because of some sort of rights issue with that 1992 film’s distributor, Universal.
Regardless of any continuity hiccups, however, it’s Army of Darkness’ gonzo vibe that’s most often channeled by Ash Vs. Evil Dead, which barrels forward with little interest in serious character development but considerable concern for drenching its cast in brain fragments. When, in the second episode “Bait,” Ash (misleadingly) claims that he and Pablo are covered in blood because their car hit a deer and he had to cut it up with “my chainsaw…arm,” the show nails an ideal note of nastiness and deadpan absurdity. More heartening still, though Raimi helmed only the maiden episode, “Bait” finds the series losing none of its stylistic verve, as director Michael J. Bassett doesn’t ape Raimi’s signature aesthetics so much as employ light-dark contrasts and gruesome effects—quite a few of them related to a guest-starring Mimi Rogers—to faithfully amusing ends. And with episodes running at only 30 minutes, the show never overstays its welcome, moving at a clip that allows it to be as quick, ferocious and brusque as one of Ash’s many withering insults.
A subplot involving a state trooper (Jill Marie Jones) in trouble for killing her possessed partner, as well as the only-hinted-at participation of Lucy Lawless in a mysterious role, suggest that Ash Vs. Evil Dead will widen its scope as the season progresses. Yet no matter how epic it aims to become, its success will ultimately hinge on the stoutness of its hero’s matinee-idol chin, the dim-bulb humor of his egotistical retorts, and the excitement of his Bugs Bunny-by-way-of-Arnold Schwarzenegger heroic antics. So far, all signs thankfully point to a future that’s nothing short of “groovy.”