Evil Dead II (1987) Retro Review

(In anticipation of the upcoming remake, I will be reviewing the Evil Dead trilogy in this 3 part series. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 3.)

I walked in on my parents watching Evil Dead II with the same result as if I’d found them in flagrante delicto. It traumatized me. I remember the exact scene that I stumbled upon, when Ed becomes a monster with far too many teeth for his mouth and flies up to the ceiling to moan, “We are the things that were and shall be again.” And then he flies over to a screaming female and eats a chunk of her hair.

The fear was paralyzing. The sounds of the demons, the witch in the basement begging to be let out, the terrifying makeup, it was altogether too much for me, and I was sent out of the room, told that I couldn’t watch the movie.

So naturally I snuck back into the living room.

There were scenes that I missed. Scared of being found, or by the movie itself, I would crawl back down the hall to my room, only to regain my nerve and crawl back behind the couch. It was an ordeal, an act of youthful rebellion and participation with a film that has never been rivaled. So I am biased when I say that the ending of Evil Dead II is one of the best moments in cinema, simultaneously the greatest and most awful surprise.

Evil Dead II; aka Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Evil Dead II is the hinge on which the entire series turns, shedding the trappings of mere horror and churning its predecessor’s acclaim into an opportunity for experimentation. The usual formula for a sequel is to ape the first, and do it bigger and louder. Evil Dead II is as much a remake as it is a sequel, and it follows that formula closely. But having established himself somewhat, having the legacy of The Evil Dead under his belt, and with $3 million more than when he started that picture, Sam Raimi wasn’t aiming for the status quo. As he told Fangoria in 1993, “With the first Evil Dead, I really did try to frighten audiences terribly. With the second, I was more interested in taking them on a visual ride.”

Because there were issues securing the rights to footage from the original, the first 7 minutes of Evil Dead II functions as a retelling of the short, brutal relationship of Ash and Linda (in this film played by Denise Bixler). Fans of the first movie can be understandably confused when this film opens with Ash and his girlfriend driving up to the Knowby cabin. The questions that immediately arise are: What happened to Ash after he was attacked at the end of The Evil Dead? Why in God’s name would he be stupid enough to go back to the cabin? (Though Bruce Campbell states in his commentary that Ash is that stupid.) And why would he give his new girlfriend Linda the same necklace as his old girlfriend Linda?

There are two ways to reconcile this odd chronology if you’re desperate enough to try. And I am. The simplest means of sequencing the Evil Dead trilogy is to chop off the prologue and the epilogue of Evil Dead II. After the evil force crashes through the cabin at the end of The Evil Dead, you can pick up ED2 at the 8 minute mark when the force does the same thing and drives Ash through the forest spinning and screaming. Then, at the end of ED2, after Ash has been sucked through the wormhole, you can begin watching Army of Darkness. For the casual fan, this is all the reconciliation you need. Unfortunately, it leaves out two important factors, one of which is a major plot point.

At the end of The Evil Dead, Ash discovers that the possessed smoke when the Naturon Demonto is exposed to fire. He destroys them by flinging the book into the fireplace (though it does not dispel the evil that comes hunting for him at the end). Not only does the book have a new name in ED2, it is also unscorched. The other factor that is hard to ignore is that Ash in the first film is a very young man, whereas 1987’s Ash is not only older, but almost a completely different character. For these reasons, ED2 and Army of Darkness form a cohesive set, and are really two parts of one big movie. The Evil Dead exists more comfortably in its own continuity, but I grant that is a matter of opinion.

With that bit of structural finagling out of the way, we can focus on what this sequel/remake is. For Bruce Campbell, “Evil Dead II will always have a special place in my heart. It hit a weird connection between horror and comedy as something I refer to as splatstick.”

The film measures up to this assessment perfectly. Evil Dead II is still a gory scarefest, but Sam Raimi’s whimsy is here as flagrant as the buckets of blood that are pumped through the walls. The sequel simplifies the cast, and divides the action into two parts: Ash alone in the cabin and Ash with Professor Knowby’s daughter & co. The best parts of The Evil Dead were the scenes of Ash just trying to survive, and ED2 ratchets up that tension by prolonging Ash’s torment. As in the original, the evil delights in straddling the line between absurdity and terror, but having a single victim to torture means it can take its time. No one sells a scared-crazy face like Bruce Campbell, and he spends much of the movie screaming. The screams range from the horrified to the insane, and, just once, because Raimi wanted variety, Campbell even screams like a little girl (when Henrietta pops out of the cellar floor).

The “visual ride” aspect of the film also applies to the tone, which veers from jump scare frights to outright silliness. But it swings so wildly that the threat is never diminished. On the contrary, the laughter Ash’s torture produces only builds the tension, as the horrors increase with the comedy. The perfect example is the interplay between Ash and Linda. In The Evil Dead, it is established that the possessed can only be dispatched by bodily dismemberment. This left Linda’s final fate unresolved, as Ash decapitated her with a shovel but buried the body. In ED2, we soon learn that this was not enough.

Through the barricaded door of the cabin, Ash watches Linda’s ghoulish resurrection. She emerges from her shallow grave and reattaches her head, and then proceeds to dance for him, her already decomposing and naked body inviting him and tempting him, her head rolling off her shoulders and then watching him stolidly as her body spins in place. It is a haunting moment, reminding Ash of what the evil has taken from him, and what it is only too delighted to mock. When she disappears into the fog to suddenly reappear right in front of him, the shock is well earned. But then she reaches through the boards and slams Ash’s face into the wood, and then she does it again, and again. In a fluid moment, the audience is terrified, laughing, and then terrified again as Linda’s head peels off her body and Ash wakes up in a chair to realize it was all a dream. He screams, can’t scream, calms down, and then Linda’s head falls directly into his lap. The next scene is a madcap fight for survival as Ash must deal with Linda’s sobbing head in the workshed vice and her headless body attacking him with a chainsaw. Ash fumbles to defend himself and barely survives. There is so much blood, and it is so over the top, that it can’t be taken seriously, and yet its strangeness, its black humor, its helter-skelter tone, is relentless. The movie refuses to back down, and every quiet moment of respite hereafter is loaded with suspense for what new horror awaits.

The Tennessee cabin from the original film had been destroyed (or swallowed up by the woods, you decide), so the crew rebuilt the cabin for exteriors and filmed the interiors on a two-level set built inside a nearby highschool gym. This allowed the crew to rig the entire set for effects shots, meaning nothing in the cabin could be trusted. When the script called for the walls to disgorge gallons of blood onto the actor, they built a tilted version of the set and strapped Campbell onto a board to make him look like he was standing up straight. Then they turned the blood on him like a hose. Director Raimi told Campbell that if he started to drown he should wave his arms around and look flustered.

Army of Darkness has more obvious nods to visual effects wiz Ray Harryhausen, but the creatures in ED2 owe a considerable debt to him, most especially the battle scene between a beefed up Ash and the mutated Henrietta. By today’s standards the Dynamation snake head that Ash fights in the movie’s climax is downright primitive, but it hearkens back to The 7 Voyages of Sinbad and the celebrated Jason and the Argonauts, films I grew up with and that Raimi and Campbell were great fans of. While this doesn’t improve the special effect, it does make Evil Dead II a spiritual kin to those monster classics; a splatterpunk cousin, if you will.

Stop-motion tricks and reverse action shots were utilized to make this a more action-packed installment, but there is still a great deal of practical creature work. Ted Raimi, Sam Raimi’s brother, wore a full body costume to play the decomposing Mrs. Knowby. It is a beautifully disgusting prosthetic, and the real life torture the younger Raimi had to endure to wear it is no less disgusting. Between takes he would remove the feet to let the sweat drain, and there is actually a scene in the film (when Henrietta is attacking Annie from the ceiling) when the sweat can be seen pouring out of Henrietta’s ear.

To stand a fighting chance against a more animated evil, Ash the character was given a macho makeover. Over the course of this film and the next, this burlier version of Ashley J. Williams fights a losing battle against madness and common sense, but it is despite, or perhaps because of, these losses that he is transformed into the ultimate opponent to the Evil Dead. Ash’s instincts are to run away whenever possible, but every man has a breaking point, and when his hand becomes possessed (perhaps due to Linda’s bite), he makes a drastic choice that neatly sums up the grotesque appeal of this series. Ash uses a chainsaw to tear off his own hand.

It is a bloody mess, of course, and Ash’s mad jubilation at severing the murderous appendage makes it no less disturbing. If seen through the prism of the first film, wherein Shelly willingly chomps off her hand, it is all part of the demons’ entertainment. If Ash remained trapped in the cabin alone, he might very well have dismembered himself, as a crude poetic retribution by the creatures he has so fortunately dispatched. But after a little duct tape and the laughter of a hideous dead deer (that is no stranger to my nightmares), he is attacked by Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry) and the rest of the cast. From this point the fight against the evil becomes an even more visceral affair. And Ash becomes a hero…of a sort.

Do you hear the music swell? See the white hot sparks fill the frame? The chainsaw gauntlet is the most iconic image of the Evil Dead series. For those who scoff, it’s simply not their cup of tea. The cult that has sprung up around this film is peopled by the sort of moviegoers that think the idea of trading a hand for a chainsaw is pretty cool, plausibility be damned, and it is this concept that rules ED2. The filmmakers knew what they were doing, and with tongue firmly in cheek, the film dances beyond reproach.

You see, in our cynical world, a montage of soldering metal and impromptu leatherwork cannot yield us this mechanical marvel. Too unwieldy, some say. How does he refill his tank in the 13th century? others mock. Well to you, Mr. Raimi offers no fortune cookie answers. Either you think the chainsaw gauntlet is groovy or you go home pragmatic and left handed.

And that is the lesson of Evil Dead II. Though The Evil Dead is a more direct horror movie, Evil Dead II is more fun. Its entertainment is in its surprises, its ridiculousness, its glee to push the envelope at both edges. Film taglines are usually generic “best movie of the year,” “the most romantic love story in a century,” “survival was never an option” fodder. But Evil Dead II has the odd honor of “Kiss your nerves goodbye!” which accompanied the poster of living eyes staring out of a death’s head, and a more fitting combination I cannot imagine.

When I was a child, clandestinely watching from behind the couch, I held my breath as Ash, my hero, was sucked into the same time portal that consumed the evil. As he spun through time, only to land in the bleak middle ages and hear a knight (who looks suspiciously like Sam Raimi) proclaim him the savior from the sky, I couldn’t believe a film could end so bleakly. But Ash’s mournful “No!” as the knights raise their fists into the camera to shout “Hail he!” is an ending that I have enjoyed more and more the farther I grow from my initial viewing.

Most sequels do dish out more of the same, and because film is a business first and an art form second, there is no sin in that. But Evil Dead II, in the act of giving us much of what the original had to offer, twists that offering. The guts are undoubtedly the same, but the tale is retold, with a playful vengeance. What makes the Evil Dead series different from almost every other franchise is its devotion to screwing over its apparent protagonist (how this is carried on into the sequel will be discussed more in depth when I compare the theatrical and director cuts of Army of Darkness).

The first Evil Dead film sought to give its audiences the biggest scare possible, and ended with the questionable end of its main character. Without getting too metatextual, I submit that the series can be viewed as an entertainment the monsters are making for themselves, in that rather than following the hero’s journey of Ash as he combats evil, it is really a Punch & Judy horrorshow for the delight of the Necronomicon. When viewed that way, with Ash not as the hero but the hapless whipping boy, whether demon or moviegoer, whether watching the first film or the last, Evil Dead is a comedy of errors for monsters, with Ash embodying all of humanity’s failings: sentimentality, contempt for the rules, failure to learn from the past, blind terror, the smug satisfaction of a job well done, the pride in thinking a job is ever done, or the job is done with them. Taking in the series from this perspective doesn’t really change anything, but what it reveals is (the monster-in-chief) Raimi’s willingness to take chances with his creation, to push the films into strange places. When there are no boundaries to what can befall your protagonist, there is no boundary to genre. The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness are singular adventures, united by a common sensibility but happy to rearrange the giblets.

Each film has merits of its own, but this film throws everything against the wall. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a child smashing its food together and smearing it on its plate because it likes the colors (though the various colors of blood in ED2 were actually used to get the MPAA to downgrade the film from an X to an R rating). That Evil Dead II can get away with this, and still make a picture that is horrific and comedic, is proof that creativity is alive and well in this business. You know what you want to say to that? Groovy.

You just can’t help yourself, can you?

Evil Dead II (1987)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Renaissance Pictures
84 Minutes

The Evil Dead Reviews:
Part 1 – The Evil Dead (1981)
Part 3 – Army of Darkness (1992)
Part 4 – Evil Dead (2013)

2 Comments on Evil Dead II (1987) Retro Review

  1. I still don’t understand the “Mr. Fantastic” streaks of white though.
    But definitely, as Brandon Magnus would say, “Ash” became a man.
    …That damn mounted deer head…

  2. The streak was caused by seeing the evil in the flesh. During intense trauma, some people’s hair actually goes shock white like that. It’s interesting that you bring it up though, as in the commentary Raimi says that he didn’t think he made that clear enough.

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