With Halloween fast approaching, this writer wanted to unpack one of his all-time favorite horror movies, Evil Dead II (a.k.a. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn). The first time I beheld the original The Evil Dead (1981), I found myself utterly terrified by the movie’s grisly carnage, completely charmed by its obvious low-fi origins, and wholly bewildered by a sense of humor that can only be described as “Three Stooges-esque.” The fact that it was made by a bunch of college dropouts from the suburbs of Michigan, through money raised largely from suburban dentists and grocers, only made its achievement all the more impressive. The movie’s charmingly crude special effects and daringly acrobatic camerawork only served to enhance its freshness, positioning it as a raw, gritty antidote to that era’s glossier, tamer studio horror fare.
The Evil Dead was merely an appetizer. Its delightfully demented successor is the crown jewel of the Ash Williams cinematic trilogy — though all three franchise entries are terrific. The third movie, the heavily caffeinated Army of Darkness (1992), is teased in EDII‘s time-traveling epilogue.
Bearing witness to Evil Dead II is like being strapped into the world’s greatest roller coaster. You never know whether to laugh or scream, and so you find yourself doing both, basically non-stop, for 84 sweaty minutes of nightmarish fun. Where its predecessor may have been a horror movie with a liberal peppering of humor, Evil Dead II is essentially a pitch-black comedy.
Released on March 13th, 1987, Evil Dead II sort of falls somewhere in-between being a full-fledged sequel to and a slightly higher-budget remake of The Evil Dead. Whereas the original was made over the course of several years via $350,000-$400,000 in piecemeal funding, the follow-up had a comparatively ample $3.6 million budget courtesy of producer Dino De Laurentiis.
The minds behind Evil Dead II (that’d be writer/director Sam Raimi, producer Rob Tapert, and producer/star Bruce Campbell), due to copyright issues, opted to reshoot the events of its predecessor for the movie’s five-minute prologue/recap. But in so doing, they also drastically rewrote it. Instead of covering the tale of five Michigan friends unwittingly summoning demon spirits in a cabin in the woods, Evil Dead II reimagines the cabin’s occupants as being solely Ash Williams (the lone survivor of the first movie, played by Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler stepping in for the original’s Betsy Baker).
Once Linda is possessed by the spirits of Candarian demons, Ash wanders outside, where he is promptly attacked by an unseen force on a fast-moving Steadicam rig. In the original movie, this effect was achieved by just strapping a camera to a 2 x 4 and charging at actors like Usain Bolt after the gun fires. This moment is more or less identical in framing and content to the final shot of the first flick, and I guess could be seen as the exact point where we have moved past the events of the “recap” and onto the main event.
Instead of the original movie’s fairly interchangeable leads (basically just bodies to be mutilated in increasingly grisly ways), EDII treats us to five distinct personalities. Campbell infuses Ash Williams, the saga’s oafish-yet-handy leading man, with a winking campiness mostly absent from his prior incarnation. We saw hints of this Ash before, in the first The Evil Dead, but Campbell wholly leans into his natural hamminess here. The movie’s all the better for it. Sarah Berry (cast, in part, for her great screaming skills) plays Annie Knowby, daughter of the ill-fated Professor Raymond Knowby (John Peakes) and Henrietta Knowby (Lou Hancock). The cabin crew is rounded out by Annie’s boyfriend Ed Getley (Richard Domeier) and trucker couple Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley DePaiva, a staple on various soap operas ever since). And who could forget the heel turn of Sam Raimi’s kid brother Ted as Possessed Henrietta Knowby, a twisted undead hag with an insatiable appetite for fresh human souls?
Even though most of the tale comprises these hapless heroes battling graphic evil, co-writers Raimi and Scott Spiegel establish each character with unique, defining strokes. We care when Ash accidentally shoots Bobby Joe, or when Bobby Joe swallows an eyeball, or when Ed becomes demonically possessed in a memorably sneering character makeup. Of course, Ash battling and eventually sawing off his own hand when it is overtaken by Candarian spirits remains the movie’s signature moment, a masterpiece of performance, practical special effects and camera choreography. It’s the kind of delightfully filmic moment that this writer will fail to properly encapsulate with text. Just go watch Evil Dead II and you’ll see what I mean.
Beyond these unforgettable set pieces and wonderfully goofy characters, Evil Dead II stands as a towering technical achievement. Raimi’s signature visual lunacy is executed to perfection by cinematographer Peter Deming. Makeup maestro Mark Shostrom and his team create a slew of wild and vibrant creature effects that remain consistently in line with the heightened cartoon vibes of Evil Dead II. Joseph Lo Duca’s effectively simple music keeps things classically, ominously orchestral during the height of ’80s synths and excessive reverb.
Evil Dead II has lost none of its luster on Blu-Ray, where it’s available in a variety of special editions. I have the 25th anniversary version, the first incarnation of the home video release to boast a terrific new hour-long documentary, “Swallowed Souls: The Making of Evil Dead II.” The 25th anniversary Blu-Ray and other subsequent additions also include a bevy of other little goodies, among them segments on the movie’s practical effects, the stop-motion animation work, the film’s editing, and of course the cast and crew’s reflections on the camera-shy Sam Raimi himself.
You’ll never see a movie as relentlessly gory, silly and terrifying as Evil Dead II. Three decades years later, it remains a very singular slice of horror movie history.
Reviewed by Alex Kirschenbaum