“Surrounded by Evil. Low on Gas.” That was the tagline for “Army of Darkness,” which for more than 20 years was the end of the line for the “Evil Dead” series. There were comics and video games and persistent rumors of sequels, but Bruce Campbell’s zombie-fighting idiot, Ash, remained right where creator Sam Raimi had left him: Either working as a stockboy at a chain store called S Mart or trapped in a dystopian future, depending on which cut of “Army” you watched.
But like the series’ Deadites, “Evil Dead” has proved difficult to kill, and it’s returned — as so many long-dormant properties with avid cult followings now do — as a TV series, the first of whose 10 episodes premieres late Friday night (technically early Saturday morning) on Starz. (A second season has just been ordered.) The series has always had a flexible relationship with continuity — “Evil Dead 2” is effectively a remake of the first movie — so it’s no big departure that “Ash vs.” takes place in a world where “Army of Darkness” never happened. Ash is still a stockboy, and still an idiot, played by Campbell with his characteristically winning brand of lunkheaded obliviousness. Despite having saved the world from evil, he lives in a trailer park, fabricating stories about how he lost his hand saving children from a school bus accident, because “I cut it off with a chainsaw because it was possessed by evil” doesn’t tend to get you laid. One night, he’s high enough to read to a poetry-loving ladyfriend from the Necronomicon, the skin-covered Book of the Dead he for some reason still keeps in a trunk, and it unleashes a new plague of undead monsters upon the world. Others might pause to wonder what these strange creatures might be, and thus end up dead, but Ash doesn’t waste time with thought, ever: He’s got his chainsaw and his boomstick, and the blood starts flowing.
“Ash vs. Evil Dead” has other characters, too: Pedro (Ray Santiago), a co-worker young and naive enough to be impressed by Ash’s macho bluster; Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), also young but instantly wise to Ash’s BS; Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), a cop on the trail of some grisly murders whose path has yet to cross Ash’s in the two episodes provided to critics; and Ruby (Lucy Lawless), who shows up too briefly in those episodes to say much of anything about. But this is Campbell’s show, literally and figuratively. And for fans — who, let’s face it, are the only ones likely to be watching when the first episode premieres at the unlikely hour of 12:17 a.m. on the night before Halloween — it’s a treat to see him slip back into the role of horror’s least admirable hero.
Over the course of the three “Evil Dead” movies, Raimi moved from exploitation horror to grossout comedy, and “Ash vs. Evil Dead” continues in that vein. It’s not scary, nor even tries to be: When an elderly neighbor, or a major character’s mother, are turned into murderous hellspawn, the show doesn’t waste a second pining for the death of the people they once were: We’re here to watch blood fly, not ponder our own mortality. (This isn’t “The Walking Dead,” in other words.) But the joke starts to wear thin even after two episodes, and it’s hard to see how the show can sustain it for 10, let alone 20. Raimi hits the right notes in his pilot, but it feels like he’s aping his younger self rather than tapping an old well for inspiration: Fede Alvarez 2013 “Evil Dead” remake wasn’t much of anything, but at least it was trying something new. “Ash vs. Evil Dead” just feels like a retread, and a not particularly enthusiastic one at that. Ash might have been low on gas in “Army of Darkness,” but now it’s the “Evil Dead” franchise that’s sputtering to a halt.
“Ash vs. Evil Dead” premieres at October 31, 12.17 a.m. on Starz. New episodes will air Saturdays at 9 p.m.
Reviews of “Ash vs. Evil Dead”
Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter
The pilot is everything that fans will want in an “Evil Dead” TV show. It’s drenched in spouting, dripping, viscous bodily fluids and loaded with Bruce Campbell attitude. Since Raimi is no stranger to operating within spartan financial limitations, the director’s trademark mix of knowingly primitive and innovative practical effects work is on full display. The one-liners frequently hit and the scenes of heightened carnage also have the cartoonish audacity that keeps you giggling and watching through your fingers at even the most harrowing of moments. In a TV landscape that’s past Peak Zombie, it’s enjoyable to get reaccustomed to Raimi’s ghouls and the rules that do and don’t apply to them. The struggle with “Ash vs Evil Dead” is reconciling the giddy, maniacal pleasure that Raimi brings to the pilot with the by-the-numbers disappointment that the second episode delivers and knowing that that is more likely to be the series going forward. The second episode has properly gross effects and it has Ash making boorish comments and generally not giving a darn, and maybe with readjusted standards that’ll be enough going forward. It’s just less than the pilot promises and less than the “Evil Dead” name perhaps deserves.
Matt Singer, ScreenCrush
However improbably, “Ash vs. Evil Dead” is a true return to form for the venerable horror franchise, one that hews closely to its roots in grindhouse gore and ultra-dark slapstick. And the move from film to television show (this first season runs 10 half-hour episodes) is a fruitful one; the lax content restrictions of premium cable offer the series’ creators absolute freedom to indulge their every blood whim. (There’s enough zombie arterial spray in the opening scene of episode 2 alone to guarantee any commensurate movie an NC-17 rating.) Raimi only co-wrote and directed the Ash vs. Evil Dead pilot; his episode really feels like a modern “Evil Dead” movie, with all the classic prosthetic effects and stylistic tropes (like the “Shakycam” shot that zooms through the woods), plus new visual flourishes (one scene is lit by a spinning flashlight that’s been dropped on the floor). Raimi’s directorial style is so distinctive that it would be a tough act for any filmmaker to follow, but at least in episode 2, Michael J. Bassett (who made 2009’s “Solomon Kane” and also directed installments of “Strike Back” and “The Player”) does a solid job of filling Raimi’s shoes. It’s certainly not as flashy as Raimi’s, but his episode is still plenty lively, and includes series of shots from a camera mounted on Ash’s trusty shotgun).
Brian Lowry, Variety
The simple kick of seeing Bruce Campbell back in zombie-slayer mode, hip-deep in buckets of gore, is tasty enough that the particular merits of this revival are almost beside the point. Granted, there are a lot of guts strewn about in cable these days, but few TV programs dabble in gore quite so gleefully, leaving characters drenched in cartoonish sprays of blood, much of it oozing out of creatures that scale walls like a big spider (something with which Raimi should be especially familiar). Campbell, meanwhile, saunters through it all with his trademark swagger, and when Pablo complains about being soaked in muck, Ash helpfully hands him a small, packaged towelette.
Tirdad Derakhshani, Philadelphia Inquirer
The “Evil Dead” films were made on alarmingly small budgets that forced the filmmakers to be incredibly inventive. The remarkable special effects were all hand-made. Hardcore “Evil Dead” fans may find Starz’s TV series disappointing. The series betrays the film’s DYI legacy by using a great deal of digital animation for the fight scenes and gore. And as the CGI effects aren’t particularly sophisticated, they give the action sequences a cheesy feel. Given the half-hour format, there is little space to develop the secondary characters.
Katie Rife, A.V. Club
Overall, bringing Ash into the modern world is a mixed bag. Seeing the demon cam come out of the woods and into a suburban parking lot is delightful, although you’ll only see it in the first episode. (Raimi only directed the pilot, and the second episode declines to emulate his kinetic camerawork.) But then there are certain modern touches that feel superfluous, like an exposition scene with Kelly’s parents that plays out on an iPhone when split screen would have served it much better. That’s all nitpicking, however, considering that the over-the-top extreme cartoon violence — the raison d’être for anything “Evil Dead” — is glorious and appears mostly practical, spraying and splattering buckets of the red stuff (410 gallons of it, according to press materials) all over the frame and everything in it.