33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)

AKA Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn “What distinguishes Evil Dead II is that it isn’t a horror film with comic moments or a comedy with frightening moments. It is instead a true horror-comedy that taps into the fact that both comedy and horror rely on weirdness, incongruity, and shock.”–Victoria Large, Brattle Theater Film Notes

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DIRECTED BYSam Raimi

FEATURING: Bruce Campbell

PLOT:  Young Ash takes his girlfriend to a deserted cabin in the woods for a weekend of romance; unfortunately, the hideout was the former abode of a deceased archaeologist who had discovered a “Book of the Dead” the ancients believed could call forth an evil spirit and allow it to possess the bodies of the living and the dead.  Ash plays an old tape by the professor in which he reads the magical words of summoning, and the spirit does indeed come and possess Ash’s girlfriend (whom he is forced to dispatch gruesomely).  That’s only the beginning of Ash’s troubles, however, as, trapped in the cabin, now must fight off a horde of demonic presences, at first all alone and later with the help of the professor’s daughter and her companions.

Still from Evil Dead II (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • Evil Dead II is much more a remake of, rather than a sequel to, Raimi’s low-budget drive-in hit The Evil Dead (1981) (although that point is technically debated among fans). Where The Evil Dead was a straightforward horror movie, Evil Dead II is a comedy in a horror setting.  Actor Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash from the first film; it was this performance that made him into a cult actor.
  • This was Raimi’s third feature film, after The Evil Dead and the weird, Coen brothers scripted comedy Crimewave! (1985).  He would go on to mainstream success when he was tapped to direct the Spider-Man series.
  • Powerful horror novelist Stephen King, a fan of the first Evil Dead, introduced Raimi to Dino de Laurentiis and convinced the producer to fund Evil Dead II after Raimi declined an offer to adapt King’s story Thinner.
  • Followed by a sequel, Army of Darkness (1992).  Rumors of a fourth film in the series have circulated since the mid nineties; currently, an Evil Dead IV is listed as “in development” on the Internet Movie Database, although this is far from an assurance that a fourth film will be made.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Ash fighting his own disembodied hand: a scene that starts out creepy, but becomes a slapstick routine, ending up in a groan-inducing pun.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Oddly, Evil Dead II‘s credentials as a weird film are called into


Original trailer for Evil Dead II

question by its almost unqualified embrace by critics and gorehounds alike: can anything that is so widely beloved, anything that fails to alienate either the high or the lowbrow, really be authentically weird?  In fact, Evil Dead II is only slightly weird, but the events of the cabin feverish middle portion of the film—where the battered Ash seems to be hallucinating the horrific events—are just bizarre enough to make Evil Dead II eligible for inclusion on list of the weirdest films of all time.  Add to those scenes the over-the-top gore, slapstick and constant surprises of the film’s last half, and you get a lovable mish-mash of a movie with a one-of-a-kind comic tone that is too exhilarating to be left off a list of the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS:  The quality and sheer fun of Evil Dead II don’t need a defense.  It’s hard to find a critic who has a bad thing to say about the film.  Humorless horror-hater Gene Siskel gave it a mildly negative review on the basis that the film was funny, but wore out its welcome.  Other than that, the film’s harshest snipes came from a very few fans of the original Evil Dead who were upset that the film focused on comedy rather than horror.  Other than a handful of sad puritans who can’t share the ridiculous yuks when a woman accidentally eats a flying eyeball because her mouth is agape in horror, almost everyone responds to the comic excesses of Evil Dead II positively, and enough people responded to the film’s unhinged craziness with awed reverence to make it number 19 on Entertainment Weekly‘s “Top 50 Cult Films of All Time.”  So, rather than adding my own praise to the stack of reviews lauding Evil Dead II, I’m going to spend my few inches of text describing the scenes that justify classifying Evil Dead II as a weird film.  (For that reason, this comment section may contain more spoilers than usual; anyone who has not yet seen this classic and wants to be totally surprised should continue reading with caution).

One of the odd things about Evil Dead II is that it hangs together despite having so many drastic shifts in tone, veering back and forth between horror and comedy.  The beginning of the film is standard, if exciting, horror fare that gives little hint of the madness to come; in fact, the setup is expertly rushed by director Raimi so that he can immediately establish the milieu and get straight to the mayhem.  By the time that the film starts to get weird around the fifteen minute mark, Ash has already decapitated his girlfriend with a shovel, briefly become a zombie, and been thrown through the windshield of his sedan after losing a high speed chase with an Unseen Presence.  At that point, as we reach the movie’s richly bizarre middle section, Evil Dead II starts throwing us its weird curve balls:

  • Corpses dance in the moonlight: As Ash sits alone in the eerie cabin, with the unseen evil force lurking outside, the piano begins, on its own, to tinkle the love song he had earlier played for Linda.  Nervously, he looks out the window to see a hand rise from the shallow grave he had dug for his ex.  Soon enough, a bony-but-curvy, and very headless, corpse pops up from the ground and begins pirouetting in the moonlight.  With a girlish chuckle, a headless corpse rolls through the clearing and leaps atop the body’s neck.  The macabre dance continues as, rather than merely tipping her hat, the capering cadaver tips her entire head, rolling her cranium gracefully down one arm and reattaching it in one fluid motion.  The dance itself is bizarrely balletic and ghoulish at the same time, and the dreamlike effect is enhanced by that Ray Harryhausen style of stop-motion animation that looks simultaneously ultra-real and disconcertingly artificial.  Ash soon discovers that the entire episode was a nightmare, but one that is far from over as the demented spirit seems intent on driving him insane before killing him.
  • Ash turns his hand against himself:  Emotionally devastated after having chopped off his lover’s head and chainsawed her zombified corpse into tiny pieces, either Ash’s own guilty conscience or the maleficent supernatural force has driven him mad. His own image jumps at him from out of the mirror, but is quickly revealed as a mirage.  But Ash is still divided inside; his hand, possessed by an evil spirit, now claws at his face.  The sequence that follows is the film’s masterpiece, as Campbell demonstrates his gift for physical comedy by smashing plates and bottles over his own head and giving himself stiff uppercuts to the jaw, all while wearing a perpetually goofy look on his distressed face.  Heedless of it lack of vocal chords, the possessed hand squeaks and squeals at him throughout the melee. In the end, Ash is forced to self-amputate, but that hardly solves his problem: the disembodied hand continues to scurry about and bedevil him like Thing from “The Addams Family.”  Thirty minutes in, the movie has completely shifted from horror to the rawest species of comedy, and somehow the audience accepts this radical change without complaint.
  • The stag’s head taunts him:  Now sans hand and doubtlessly giddy from a combination of demonic possession and lack of blood, Ash glances around the deserted cabin and suddenly sees the trophy deer mounted on the wall turn and chortle at him cruelly.  Other inanimate objects in the room soon join in the mockery: a desk lamp that guffaws like Popeye the sailor, and cackling bookshelves and lamps.  Ash himself eventually sees the humor in his absurd situation and joins in the raucous laughter, until he’s awakened from his madness by real-life visitors to the cabin, the foursome that are soon to be zombie chow.

All of the above occurrences are wonderfully weird, focusing on Ash losing his mind trapped alone in the cabin.  I would have been happy to stay locked in that crazy cottage with Ash for the rest of the movie, watching him go not-so-slowly mad.  The arrival of other humans to interact with snaps him out of his delirium, and snaps the movie into zombie-holocaust survival mode.  Ash’s companions now become fodder for demonic possession, and give him the opportunity to fulfill his destiny as a horror movie hero.

Just because the movie’s weirdness starts to wane when Ash is returned to reality (well, a reality in which the woods are infected with demonic entities and the basement houses a zombie, anyway) doesn’t mean that it subsides into a conventional horror snore, though.  Raimi still has oddities at his disposal, and he continues to throw his various inventions at the audience hard, knowing we’re not quite sure when the next pitch is coming or exactly what kind of spin he’ll put on the ball this time.  There’s the flying eyeball scene; more of the crazy, off-kilter experimental camerawork that’s a calling card of the first two films in the series; additional sound effects from the mounted stag’s head (who’s almost a separate character at this point); impossibly obscene geysers of human and zombie blood that come in all the colors of the rainbow, and unexpected apparitions; a sentimental demon with a serpent for a neck stalk; and Ash making the best of a bad situation by strapping on a chainsaw where his disobedient right hand used to be.  And there’s always Campbell’s campy charm to keep us involved.  It’s strange and funny how Ash’s first response to whatever horrors he’s subjected to is always an inappropriate action-movie one-liner (“let’s head down into that cellar and carve ourselves a witch!,” “groovy!,” “swallow this!”).

With it’s relentless energy and willingness to throw the kitchen sink at the viewer, Evil Dead II was destined to be a cult hit.  Due to Raimi’s skill and Campbell’s charisma, it achieved much wider fame and acclaim.  With the recent Drag Me to Hell, Raimi showed that he could deliver largely the same degree of roller coaster thrills in a more conventionally structured tale, without resorting to absurd gore effects or going overly weird.  Evil Dead II can be claimed by fans of horror, gore, comedy and general extremity and outlandsishness; thanks to that maddening middle portion, with Ash stewing in his own mind in the forsaken cabin, we of the weird can stake our own special claim to this classic, as well.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“More an absurdist comedy than a horror film…”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“…a strange, almost hallucinogenic cartoon nightmare of flying eyeballs, bleeding walls, and possessed limbs.”–Matt Ford, BBC (DVD)

“This is literally one of those films that have to be seen to be believed—it’s outrageous, over-the-top, and beyond what you could possibly imagine… The tone is enhanced by the occasionally surreal special effects, including some miniatures and blue screen shots that are transparently obvious. Instead of undermining the film’s effectiveness, they help set it in its own weird little world where all this outrageous stuff seems possible.”–Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique Online (DVD)

IMDB LINKEvil Dead II (1987)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Deadites Online – The Fan’s Official Source for Evil Dead: A fan site for all three films in the Evil Dead trilogy containing updates on what the cast and crew is doing today, an extensive catalog of pop culture references to the movie, exclusive interviews, and a forum.

At the Movies:  Siskel & Ebert’s review from the popular television show.  Verdict: one thumb up, one down.

Shooting Down Pictures: Video Essay for The Evil Dead II: 4 minute video review of Evil Dead II with plentiful clips, notes via subtitles, and a transcript.  Even more highly recommended is the same author’s Evil Dead 2 page that collects quotes and links about the film from all over the web.

Evil Dead the Musical – homepage of the Toronto-based musical theater adaptation of Evil Dead II

DVD INFO:  The Anchor Bay release (buy) contains humorous commentary by director Raimi, star Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel and makeup guy Greg Nicotero; the 30 minute featurette “The Gore the Merrier,” focusing on the film’s special effects; the original trailer; a stills gallery; and bios of Raimi and Campbell.

The Blu-Ray release (buy) retains the same features as the DVD, adding a trivia subtitle track.

A collectible “Book of the Dead Limited Version” of the film, which comes in a groovy box designed to look like the Necronomicon complete with pages of artwork, also features a newer transfer of the film personally approved by Raimi and is still available (buy). Even bigger Raimi fans with lots of disposable income may want to snag the even rarer two-disc The Evil Dead/Evil Dead II “Book of the Dead Collection,” where both movies come in forbidden tome packaging (buy).

Finally, fans who are more interested in starting a basic zombie Blu-ray collection than in the Evil Dead series per se can buy the three movie “Zombie Bundle,” which contains George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead along with Evil Dead II (buy).

3 thoughts on “33. EVIL DEAD II (1987)”

  1. I will always remember this film as the movie that really cemented my love of “bad movies.”

    I originally saw this film during my period of staying up late and hoping the movies on HBO would show bare boobies. (When I was a teenager, free pornography on the internet didn’t exist and was just a beautiful dream.)

    What people overlook is just how Evil Dead II was frenetically filled with ideas. I was amazed when Bruce Campbell’s hand started attacking himself (Campbell is really a superb physical comedian), but how about when Ash replaced his hand with a chainsaw? And how about the fact that a chainsaw handed hero was predicted in the Book of the Dead, and that Ash was drawn back through a time portal/black hole to become that very hero?

    Evil Dead II is far, far better than it has any right to be. The sense of tightly constructed anarchy that Raimi created here is something I will always chase as the hope of every low-budget film.

    Basically, Evil Dead II changed my life.

  2. I’d just like to point out that the famous scene where Ash fights and ultimately amputates his own demonically possessed hand is a direct lift from the curiously neglected 1971 film “Blood On Satan’s Claw”, only with added slapstick comedy and minus the real creepiness of the original. Obviously Sam Raimi meant it more as a homage than a rip-off, but I suspect that the comedy gets so extreme partly because Raimi is deliberately making it as different as he can while still retaining the basic idea.

    Devotees of obscure horror movies might do well to seek out “Blood On Satan’s Claw”, which nowadays is almost unshowable on TV, due to its very controversial theme of the casual cruelty of children’s games being turned into something much worse by Satanic forces, and some genuinely disturbing scenes involving characters who seem to be very young indeed, notably Wendy Padbury, who looks about 14 (though the actress was in fact 24).

    It’s also notable for its interesting concept that a demon can create a physical body by having little bits of itself grow on human hosts, then chopping them off and stitching them all together. I’m surprised this hasn’t been remade yet. Criswell predicts that it will be, in a modern setting, with emo self-mutilating pagan teens hiding a dark secret…

    1. I also agree that ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw,’ is a great flick, but I wonder which scene you are referring to contain a possessed hand. Is it possible that the version I watched did not contain that scene, or was it subtle enough that I may have forgotten and/or missed it?

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