I’m not a horror movie aficionado, but I’ve seen quite a few during the two and a half decades that I’ve been alive. In honor of Halloween this week, I thought I’d take a look at the film that is by far my favorite of all time – Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn.
The Evil Dead Series is a horror classic unlike any other. Director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell created three films that are daringly unique, buck the system of Hollywood horror, and set new standards that many films are still trying to copy. Before we get to the best one, let’s take a quick look at the other two in the series.
The Evil Dead is a low-budget 1981 horror film about a group of teenage friends who decide to party for the weekend at an old abandoned cabin. Due to their dumb decisions, they wake an ancient evil force that poses them and turns them into psychotic undead creatures (Deadites) hellbent on killing their friends. It’s gritty, it’s cheap, and it’s brutal. It quickly gained a cult following and the impact of the film is just as legendary as the story of how it was made. A group of friends, including Raimi and Campbell, toughed out a long winter in an old Tennessee cabin to shoot the film for a paltry $90,000. It was worth it, the film was a success that propelled many crewmembers into long careers.
Skipping ahead to the third entry, Army of Darkness is the complete opposite of The Evil Dead. It isn’t a horror film, it’s a spooky medieval action comedy that embraces the cheesiness of the series for laughs and adventure. Our hero, Ash (Campbell), must fight back against an army of the dead after being flung into the time of King Arthur. Gone are the gore, terror, and scares that filled the other two. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s actually really fun. It just isn’t horror.
But Evil Dead II is the perfect blend of horror, comedy, and action. It is the Looney Tunes of horror films. There are many other horror-comedies in existence (Shaun of the Dead is a close second) but Evil Dead II is unlike any other.
A Horror Film Unlike Any Other
Let’s take a quick look at the plot. The first 10 minutes are a quick redo of The Evil Dead, detailing our hero Ash Williams’ struggle to survive against the evil forces brought by the Necronomicon (with a few tweaks). Now he’s alone in a haunted cabin with a demonic force eager to take hold of his body. And that happens right at the beginning! Ash is grabbed by the force and flung across the forest, slamming through tree branches until he is consumed by the evil. We get a quick look at some fantastic horror makeup courtesy of Greg Nicotero before the evil is forced out of him by the dawning of the sun.
It’s one hell of a way to start off a film that refuses to slow down. From then on, Ash deals with a demonic spirit that is trying to drive him insane. In a scene that is now classic, his hand is possessed and attempts to kill him, forcing him to chop it off via chainsaw and do battle with his detached hand. Eventually, Ash is joined by another group of unlucky travelers who happen upon the cabin, opening up new possibilities for terror and action.
What separates Evil Dead II from the rest of the horror pack are three things: The Hero, The Comedy, and The Style.
Ash Williams is a horror hero unlike any other. He isn’t the dumb, scared teen or the cunning final girl that make up most of these films. He’s brave yet selfish, smart yet ignorant, vehemently boisterous, and would stomp the life out of Freddy, Jason, and any other horror villain in history. As the film progresses, he transitions from being scared half to death to a being lean, mean, one liner-spitting Deadite-killing machine.
And it’s all due to Bruce Campbell’s performance. No matter how over the top or cheesy the story or lines get, he stays fully committed to the role. We’re scared along with him and by the time he takes the fight to the Deadites, we’re cheering him on.
He’s far from invincible, too. He gets the hell beat out of him from humans and Deadites alike and is possessed not once, but twice! By the end, Ash is covered in cuts and bruises, but he doesn’t give up.
And his look and weapons are iconic. After using a variety of axes and other sharp objects to dispatch his foes, Ash attaches a chainsaw to his stump and arms his remaining hand with a sawn-off shotgun to take on the main villain – Henrietta, an old Deadite woman buried in the fruit cellar. It isn’t on screen for most of the movie, but the chainsaw hand is the classic image of The Evil Dead Series. It’s perfect for taking on an evil that can only be stopped through dismemberment.
Evil Dead II manages to consistently pull off a great balance of horror and slapstick laughs, both in alternating and simultaneous form. Many of the images present throughout the film are meant to both shock the audience and make them laugh at the same time. Ideas like a possessed hand, an evil old flying, transforming woman, and geysers of blood are so over the top that it is obvious Raimi and the rest of the crew are looking to make the audience laugh. It’s also a great tactic for making the jumps bigger. The film is filled with jump scares that are actually evil creatures coming to kill the characters, rather than the typical fake outs that fill most horror movie scares.
Be warned, most of the laughs come from rather dark humor. While the violence and terror on display are really over the top, some may not find it to be their style. It’s cringe-worthy, but if you like it, you’ll laugh while you cringe.
This is the height of Sami Raimi’s technical abilities. Throughout Evil Dead II, Raimi really lets his imagination run wild with concepts, shot designs, and the aesthetics as a whole. Rather than shoot the film in a real cabin, this was filmed in a stage, with the cabin actually completely built in a high school gym. With the higher budget, the filmmakers were able to pursue some greater effects and play around with ideas more than before.
Shots are filled with Dutch angles, strange movements, and great atmospheric touches. When combined, it gives the sense of losing your mind during the scenes of lunacy. By the time the film enters the third act, there is an inescapable sense of dread and danger lurking just outside the cabin. It all adds to the all-encompassing feeling of a story that is consistently on edge and waiting to spiral further down into craziness. It’s a great match for the zany nature of the story and its protagonist.
Special effects like Ash’s first possession, various transformations, blood geysers, and giant demon trees all pop off the screen. Plus, Nicotero’s Deadite makeup is both scary and funny at the same time.
If you’re looking for something to watch on Halloween night, I recommend Evil Dead II above all else. Or if you’re especially daring, watch all three. If you cut them together just right, they create one giant movie!