Evil Dead II (1987) Evil Dead II/Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) *****

     Even having been born in 1974, I’m too young to have seen many of the all-time classic weird movies when they were new, unknown, unheralded— before they could be considered cult films, because their cults hadn’t yet taken shape. I made it harder on myself as a kid, too, by reading everything I could get my hands on about horror and sci-fi cinema, thereby alerting myself to the existence of a few cults just as they were starting to form. I was the first person I knew, though, to see Evil Dead II, at a time when the only thing I knew about it was that the VHS tape had really boss cover art. No on in my circle had seen the original Evil Dead at the time, either, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The following hour and a half forms a memory that I like to pull out and thumb through every so often, as you might well imagine. I won’t say there was nothing like Evil Dead II on the scene in 1987, but there sure wasn’t much, and it had all flown under my radar, anyway. This movie therefore represented a combination of elements that I hadn’t even considered. It’s confrontational, outrageous, and gleefully gross, but it’s also craftily and carefully constructed. It displays both unexpected skill and rare technical creativity in the fields of direction, cinematography, and editing. It’s as funny as it is horrifying, yet isn’t at all what most people thought of at the time as a “horror comedy.” And as if all that weren’t enough, Evil Dead II more or less singlehandedly resurrected “groovy” from its tomb in the Mausoleum of Obsolete Slang. No wonder it made stars of both writer/director Sam Raimi and leading man Bruce Campbell (although Raimi clearly made more out of his subsequent grab at the brass ring than Campbell did).

     Now if you think back to The Evil Dead, you’ll recall that it ends on a note that pretty forcefully defies continuation, at least if one wants to keep Ash (Campbell) around as the protagonist. Even an in media res restart would have been tricky— how the hell do you begin with the battered and bloodied survivor of the previous film being pounced on by an invisible force in the predawn twilight? Nor was a “the story so far” clipreel tenable, because the sequel was being made for a different distributor than the original, and The Evil Dead’s owners evidently decided to be dicks about releasing any footage. Raimi was forced to do the first of many things that I don’t think I’d ever seen before, opening with an all-new abridged version of the first film to bring the audience up to speed. In this drastically streamlined retelling, Ash’s girlfriend, Linda (now played by Denise Bixler), is his sole companion when he drives out to spend the weekend at a remote cabin in the Appalachian woods. Also, Evil Dead II changes the terms of the kids’ visit. Far from renting the place for their getaway, Ash and Linda break into what they incorrectly assume is an abandoned property. Once they’re inside, though, matters proceed more or less as before, with the stipulation that Linda now has to do Cheryl’s job in addition to her own. Ash finds the tape-recorded diaries of Raymond Knowby (John Peakes, of 6 Souls), the archaeologist to whom the cabin belongs, which describe his findings in the ruined Levantine city of Kandar. (Another small but important retcon: Kandar is no longer a Sumerian kingdom, but a 14th-century Crusader state.) The tape further details the contents of the Book of the Dead, an ancient grimoire which purports to invite evil spirits from the Afterworld to invade the domain of the living. And most importantly, it contains Knowby’s recitation of the passage that supposedly issues that invitation, at which point all Hell quite literally breaks loose. Linda is abducted and possessed by one of Knowby’s demons, Ash is forced to kill her over and over again with escalating finality, and just before sunrise, the things unwittingly conjured up by the archaeologist come for Ash directly.

     That’s about where we left off last time. Now, however, we learn that Ash’s possession doesn’t take. The demons have no power during the hours of daylight, so the beleaguered young man gets an unexpected reprieve. Mind you, he’s too wiped out by the night’s exertions to do much beyond passing immediately out and sleeping most of the day away. And even after Ash awakens, he discovers that the bridge is out over the gorge that he and Linda had to cross in order to reach the cabin the day before. So far as Ash can see, there’s nothing else for it now but to retreat back to the relative safety of the cabin, where he can at least put four walls and some boarded-up windows between him and the beings from Beyond that have claimed this stretch of forest as their own.

     The supernatural manifestations are more varied during Ash’s second night of living Hell: nightmares of Linda that turn monstrously real, ghostly presences, housewares that come to life and taunt him, a doppelganger in the mirror, and most horribly of all, the possession of his right hand. The appendage acquires a life and a mind of its own, and sets about beating him to a pulp in what must surely be the most grueling slapstick sequence ever committed to film. Furthermore, it continues to torment its erstwhile owner even after he sheers it off with the chainsaw from the tool shed out back. By the time Ash sees another human face again, his mind is obviously in even worse shape than his much-abused body.

     Yes, that reference to another human face does indeed mean that Ash is about to have mortal company at the cabin. Raymond Knowby was a family man, and his daughter, Annie (C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D.’s Sarah Berry), takes after the old man. She stayed behind in Kandar to continue the dig after Raymond went home to sort through the first round of discoveries, but she’s on her way home now with her boyfriend, Ed (Richard Domeier, from Teen Wolf and The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter). Her labors have been almost as fruitful as her dad’s, too, and she’s bringing with her a quire of pages that came loose from the Book of the Dead at some point during its 3000 year history. Obviously Annie and Ed are going to have trouble reaching the cabin now that the bridge is out, but that’s where Jake (Dan Hicks, of Wishmaster and Intruder) and Bobbie Jo (We Are What We Are’s Kassie Wesley De Paiva) come in. The former is the County Highway Administration driver who was sent to block off the road to the gorge, while the latter is his girlfriend, who apparently had nothing better to do this evening than to ride along with Jake on his mission. The pair think they’re being slick by charging Annie $100 to guide them on an alternate route to the Knowby cabin, but in fact they’re getting themselves, the archaeologist’s daughter, and the sad yuppie schmuck she’s dating embroiled in an adventure that’s almost certain to kill them all.

     The Evil Dead was an extremely impressive film, but also a relatively conventional one in a lot of ways. In 1982, when it was released, zombie movies, possession movies, and Spam-in-a-Cabin movies were all firmly established forms, and even Lovecraftian movies were starting to take root at long last. The Evil Dead’s principal innovation was to be all of those things at once: a Spam-in-a-Cabin flick in which the killers were zombies possessed by a Lovecraftian entity of cosmic evil. It more than earned its cult success, but I can’t say I’m surprised that there was at first no great rush to copy it. Easier and more reliable just to keep copying the individual things that The Evil Dead had copied itself, rather than to gamble on getting the balance exactly right a second time. Evil Dead II, however, did attract legions of copyists. Indeed, its influence transformed the entire horror genre for a decade.

     This time the innovation was tonal. Evil Dead II contains very few jokes as such, but its transgressions, its violence, and its very premise are so overblown that they become queasily funny. The sequel also takes a starkly different approach to blood and gore than had its predecessor— or indeed than had horror movies in general since the advent of the gore film at the turn of the 1960’s. Before Evil Dead II, most movies that traded in explicit bloodshed and dismemberment were shooting for realism of a sort. They wanted the audience to dwell on the tactile, physical horror of their situations, to contemplate with a shudder the terrible fragility of the human body. That’s not quite what’s happening here, though. Ash absorbs a quite literally superhuman amount of punishment over the course of this movie, and although it takes its toll on him in the moment, none of it ever seems to impair his ability to withstand the next beating. In that respect if no other (yet), Ash has come to resemble an action hero or a cartoon character— or alternately, one of the damned souls in Hell. Meanwhile, Sam Raimi’s increasingly stylized and frenetic camerawork borrows conspicuously from the visual grammar of comic books, shifting perspectives to track the energy of a scene rather than the perceptions of any one character or outside observer.

     The easiest place to see how all these elements and qualities come together to make Evil Dead II something weird and revolutionary is the climax to the first attack by the zombified Henrietta Knowby (Raimi’s brother, Ted, in an astonishing combination of fat suit, drag, and monster makeup). Ash and Jake have just about forced the thing that used to be Annie’s mom back into the cellar from which she emerged, but her head is still poking out from under the trapdoor. The men take to jumping up and down on the door, until eventually one of the zombie’s eyeballs is propulsively squished from its socket. The undead eye sails across the room, straight at the shrieking Bobbie Jo— and vanishes with uncanny precision down her dilated throat. During the crucial few seconds while the eye is in flight, the camera follows it first in an “objective” extreme closeup, and then from its own point of view as it closes in with horrid inevitability on the girl’s open mouth. Do you see what I mean? The whole sequence is by turns cartoonish, absurd, and nauseating, in a way that leaves no response available save uneasy laughter.

     Otherwise, the relationship between the sequel and its predecessor is basically that Evil Dead II is like The Evil Dead, but more. It’s faster, louder, grosser, more energetic. It’s more surreally stylized, in terms of both subject matter and technique. It’s also deeper (which is to say that it’s pothole-deep instead of just puddle-deep), more complex, and more confidently fantastical, along with posing a wider variety of threats to its characters’ lives and sanity. Raimi expands upon the original lore in a way that justifies all the potentially annoying retcons, and exploits the opportunities inherent in the premise more fully. Evil Dead II has a more capable cast on the whole, even if I do sorely miss Ellen Sandweiss. Bruce Campbell, for his part, has blossomed into a performer of great charisma and phenomenal physical ability, even if his dialogue delivery could still use a little more work. Also, it’s worth pointing out that this is the closest Ash would ever come within the cinematic Evil Dead series to being a genuine character, as opposed to a moving target or a delivery system for dumb, half-baked catchphrases. Most of all, though, Evil Dead II shows Raimi fulfilling his early promise after the self-indulgent sophomore slump of Crimewave. This was the movie that proved Raimi’s debut was no mere fluke after all, and that he was capable of being disciplined as well as rowdy and provocative. His subsequent efforts to work within the Hollywood mainstream would yield uneven results (as usually happens when the big studios try to assimilate a cult filmmaker), but we’ll talk about that later, in other reviews. What matters for the present is that Evil Dead II was about as pure a triumph as anyone in this stratum of the industry has ever achieved.



Can you believe the B-Masters Cabal turns 20 this year? I sure don't think any of us can! Given the sheer unlikelihood of this event, we've decided to commemorate it with an entire year's worth of review roundtables— four in all. These are going to be a little different from our usual roundtables, however, because the thing we'll be celebrating is us. That is, we'll each be concentrating on the kind of coverage that's kept all of you coming back to our respective sites for all this time— and while we're at it, we'll be making a point of reviewing some films that we each would have thought we'd have gotten to a long time ago, had you asked us when we first started. For this first 20th-anniversary roundtable, we're keeping it simple, reviewing a slate of movies that we feel reflect the core competencies of our respective sites. So from me, you can expect to see something dark and horrid from the 70's, something garish and fun from the 80's, something from the 50's with a rubber-suit monster, and something smutty and European. Click the banner below to peruse the Cabal's combined offerings:




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