When we left Ash Williams at the end of Army of Darkness, he was the epitome of geeky cool, a Clint Eastwood-Bugs Bunny hybrid with a matinee idol-worthy chin and a perpetually raised eyebrow. Grinning at danger and then stumbling, tumbling, and bumbling his way through one gory supernatural situation after another, he married clownish buffoonery and honorable bravery to pitch-perfect effect. He made fighting the undead seem so fun.
Starz announced that next year it will premiere a reboot-cum-continuation of the beloved Evil Dead film franchise in the form of Ash Vs. Evil Dead. The 10-episode series will be helmed by Sam Raimi and will ostensibly follow the further adventures of Bruce Campbell’s demon-slayer against the forces of Hell. It’s news 22 years in the making. Ash remains the template for virtually every genre hero that’s followed. Brash, crass, and overflowing with wiseass attitude, he remains the ultimate postmodern superhero.
Like Raimi’s trilogy itself, however, Ash—a supermarket stock boy with a roguish grin and Elvis-grade swagger—began in a distinctly different place than the one he ended up in. It took eleven years for him to fully blossom into his defining incarnation as a righteously smirky badass who dispatches Satan’s minions with a chainsaw strapped to the stump where his right hand used to sit, a sawed-off shotgun that he twirls desperado-style before holstering, and an endless reservoir of one-liners and pratfalls.
To revisit 1981’s original Evil Dead is to be reminded that Ash was once considerably more mild-mannered; he couldn’t even command center stage until the rest of his friends had proven ill-equipped to take up the heroic mantle. While Sam Raimi’s seminal indie debut begins with a demon-POV shot that immediately establishes his key directorial trademark (and the aesthetics’ wild, inventive spirit), his most famous protagonist takes far longer to develop into his finished form.
The Evil Dead introduces Ash hanging out in the backseat of a car on his way to a remote Tennessee cabin, and for its first two-thirds, it mostly shunts him to the sidelines as his sister, his girlfriend, and then their other friends are possessed by demon souls courtesy of an ancient Sumerian book of the dead called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, and the recitation of its incantations via a recording made by a professor.
Sweetly romantic when he gives his girlfriend a necklace, and intensely freaked out when the unholy shit begins hitting the fan, Ash is initially marked by meekness, anxiety, and a general reluctance to do what’s necessary. With his good looks and milquetoast demeanor, he’s like a ‘50s-era heartthrob who’s been thrust into a Looney Tunes-by-way-of-Herschell Gordon Lewis nightmare of dismemberment, death, and torrents of blood. In wide-eyed close-ups, as well as dual sequences in which he’s thrown into a bookshelf, Campbell embodies Ash with the loose-limbed energy of a manic cartoon. It’s only when push truly comes to shove that he embraces his duty as the story’s hero—and, as Raimi’s use of old-timey music for his end credits underlines, one of a distinctly throwback nature.
If Ash begins his cinematic life as a reluctant old-school everyman, 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn—a bigger-budgeted sequel that also plays like a pseudo-remake of its predecessor—wastes no time reimagining him in more proactive terms. In an intro that quickly summarizes the first film’s action, Ash suggests that he and his girlfriend have some champagne because “after all, I'm a man and you're a woman,” a confident come-on that reveals his newfound manliness.
From there, Ash again finds himself in the same backwoods cabin and pitted against the same forces of darkness, and yet now his comic zaniness is pitched at an even more ludicrous level, and so too is his daring. As he loses control of his hand to a demon, Ash cracks wise at regular intervals (“I'll blow your butts to kingdom come!”), until finally, his eyebrow raises, he amputates his hand and replaces it with a chainsaw, and he twirls his sawed-off shotgun before delivering his signature exclamation: “Groovy.”
Reborn, Ash is sent plummeting through a vortex that takes him to 1300 AD, the setting of 1992’s Army of Darkness and as it turns out, the perfect place for him to wholly embrace his brand of snarky cockiness. In Raimi’s studio-produced genre mash-up, Ash is tasked with helping medieval soldiers fight an onslaught of demons, who—thanks to an Ash screw-up—have risen from their graves and aim to wage war.
The set-up is merely a pretense for all sorts of Ash showboating, from somersaulting through a forest, to sparring with Lilliputian mini-me versions of himself, to wooing a beautiful maiden. He’s now a one-man quip machine, turning lines like “Give me some sugar, baby” and “Good. Bad. I'm the guy with the gun” into classics, all while referring to his shotgun as a “boomstick.” A selfish hunk who has neither time nor patience to deal with the “primitives” of the past, he’s not only the caddish stud of dime-store romance novels, but also a comedic whirling dervish, as well as a modern-day Superman, capable of felling hordes of skeletons by night and then (as seen in flashbacks, and the finale) working at the local S*Mart super-store by day.
By the conclusion of Army of Darkness, Ash has finally come into his own—and yet, at that very moment of self-realization, he disappeared from screens, only to be sporadically glimpsed in videogames and comics, and to be spiritually felt in other Campbell movie performances (most notably, his turn as Elvis in 2002’s great Bubba Ho-Tep).
Yet, Ash’s silly self-awareness, his whip-smart sarcasm, his charming arrogance, and his do-the-right-thing-in-the-end nobility have had a tremendous influence on today’s genre cinema, be it Bruce Willis’s John McClane, Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, or Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man (to name just a few), not to mention on movies themselves, like the Evil Dead-riffing meta-thriller The Cabin in the Woods. Ash’s posture, all wink-wink cynicism and wild-abandon ridiculousness, now typifies large swaths of contemporary pop culture, where everything from gossip sites and movie magazines to TV sitcoms and big-budget comedies all trade in a blend of knowing bluster and cheeky goofiness.
Ash’s path from mild-mannered to ultra-manly mirrors that of horror/fantasy/superhero genre cinema itself, which has over the past three decades transformed from a marginalized corner of the cinematic universe to the dominating force in modern mainstream movies. When Ash makes his 2015 return to the genre landscape in Ash Vs. The Evil Dead, he’ll do so not as an outsider, but as a conquering hero.
All hail the once and future King, baby.