On Tuesday night, a line of voracious horror fans lined up outside the Paley Center in anticipation of a preview screening of the upcoming Starz series “Ash vs Evil Dead.” The series is a continuation of Sam Raimi’s legendary “Evil Dead” franchise, and Raimi directed the first episode and contributed story ideas for the season before passing control to showrunner Craig DiGregorio. “Ash vs Evil Dead” picks up with its protagonist Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) laying low after thirty Deadite-free years. A resurgence of the evil presence that haunted him through the first three films pulls him out of his self-imposed retirement for another round of undead ass-kicking, this time with two newcomer sidekicks (Ray Santiago and Dina DeLorenzo).
The screening was met with laughs, squeals, and thunderous applause from the audience, one of whom came dressed in full Ash cosplay complete with fake blood and a foam chainsaw, as the pilot episode hit all the familiar notes of horror and comedy that have come to define the franchise. Director Sam Raimi packed enough slapstick comedy and spattering Deadite kills into the tight 30 minute episode to set audiences up for what looks to be a manic and fun-filled rollercoaster of a series, offset by the much straighter B story of a detective (Jill Marie Jones) traumatized by her first encounter with the undead.
In attendance for a panel after the screening were cast members Bruce Campbell, Ray Santiago, Jill Marie Jones, Dina DeLorenzo and Lucy Lawless, as well as producers Sam Raimi and Craig DiGregorio. The group met to tell stories from the set and tease details about the upcoming season, and to the delight of fans, Bruce Campbell stole the show with one-liners and playful banter with Sam Raimi. Here are some of the highlights from the panel and the red carpet event.
The more Ash changes, the more he stays the same.
Bruce Campbell has racked up over 100 credits since his very first starring role in the original “Evil Dead,” including a seven-season run as Sam Axe on USA’s “Burn Notice,” but most fans still associate the actor with the character of Ash. Campbell talked about revisiting this character 23 years after his last appearance in “Army of Darkness.”
“He’s probably a little more bitter,” he said about how the character has changed between his time fighting off Deadites and his 25 years off screen. “He’s a vet, he’s got PTSD.” In spirit, though, the character is still the same, maintaining his sarcastic wit and his overblown ego. Campbell talked about finding a bit of himself in that familiar character, and that “when I’m heroic he’s me, and when I’m a loser coward asshole he’s me too.”
Campbell has also grown as an actor over the past thirty years. “He’s a much better actor now,” Raimi noted at one point, drawing laughs from the crowd, but it’s a fact Campbell wouldn’t refute.
For Campbell, revisiting the Ash character is a chance to bring the skills he’s learned throughout his career back to the role that got him started. “I love the fact that I’m best known for the movie where I didn’t know what I was doing,” he observed. “Part of what I want to do here is to go back and fix Ash. If George Lucas can do it, so can I.”
Ash’s New Sidekicks Will Be a Big Part of the Series
Ash is no longer a one-man show in “Ash vs Evil Dead.” Reluctantly joining him in the fight against Deadites are Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) and Pablo (Ray Santiago), two young co-workers at his dead-end stockboy job. Santiago and DeLorenzo spoke about their characters, working with Bruce and joining the legendary “Evil Dead” franchise.
Santiago described his character Pablo as being “the heart of the story and the eyes of the audience,” a character that finds himself pulled into a new and crazy world along with the viewers. According to Santiago, every new addition to the franchise brings something unique to the table, and on a personal level it’s a role that allows him to fulfill his childhood dreams of being an action movie star. “I’m one step closer to being the first Latino superhero,” he said, “I’m just the sidekick now, but who knows what will happen?”
DiLorenzo called the addition of these new characters a “luxury” in building a new chapter to the franchise, calling her and Santiago’s characters “a team around Ash that could also stand on their own, and add something to the plot and to the team.”
Collaboration Was the Key to Success
Jill Marie Jones admired Raimi’s ability to bring the new additions into his universe, and how he gave her the creative freedom to explore and shape her own character. “Sam is amazing because he’s so collaborative, and he makes you feel like you’re part of the process.”
Lucy Lawless, who made only a brief appearance in the pilot but will be a series regular, also held up the brilliance of Evil Dead as a collaborative effort, mixing “the quirk of [Sam Raimi]’s nature, fashioning the brilliance of that guy [Bruce Campbell] and realized by the other guy [DiLorenzo].”
DiLorenzo referred to the people around her on stage as “the dream team,” noting their chemistry and the small size of the cast allowed them to form a tight relationship. Of the creators, she felt she “couldn’t have better generals leading us into battle. These guys were best, and so collaborative, and so passionate.”
Starz was the vehicle that allowed a new installment in the “Evil Dead” franchise to happen.
Fans have been clamoring for more “Evil Dead” since “Army of Darkness” was released almost fifteen years ago, and the premium cable network Starz was the platform that finally made it happen. Despite never intending to make a new film in the series Raimi finally gave in to the pressure from fans and began to plan another feature, but expressed his doubts about his ability to get it made considering that none of the “Evil Dead” films were a commercial success.
Producer Rob Tapert, who was also involved with all three “Evil Dead” films, suggested that the booming premium cable landscape could allow Raimi to get the project made in TV. “I guess their standards have lowered,” Raimi joked. Starz was a platform that gave the creators complete creative control and allowed them to make the wild, unrated version they envisioned. The creators “made a pact to give the fans what they want,” and what the fans wanted was all the B-movie blood and guts they could handle.
Sam and Bruce kept things interesting on set
Bruce Campbell and other cast members shared stories from the set of “Ash vs Evil Dead” and the previous films, many of which involved Sam and Bruce’s playfully abusive relationship. Bruce told a story from the set of “Army of Darkness” where the director waited until his star was lashed to a pole for an effects shot and then snuck up behind him, smacking the defenseless Bruce’s ankles with a piece of 2×4.
However the abuse has calmed over the years, and Bruce joked “we’re both a little older, a little wiser. Sam’s a little slower. It’s not as bad. It’s just mental cruelty now.” The two displayed plenty of that teasing relationship on stage, playfully sniping at each other throughout the panel.
“Ash vs Evil Dead” is a true return to form for the franchise.
“Evil Dead” and its sequels were true pioneers in the horror-comedy genre, and their particular brand of mixing wacky slapstick comedy with B-movie gore is unlike any other. That’s why it was so important for the creators to have complete, uncensored control over the project, and that’s what will set it apart from other horror shows like “American Horror Story” and “The Walking Dead.”
The 2013 remake notwithstanding, this is the first chapter of the “Evil Dead” franchise in the CGI era. However the practical effects and low-budget aesthetic of the earlier installments are part of what made the franchise so iconic, and so Raimi considered CGI something to be used only sparingly. “Practical effects is how ‘The Evil Dead’ has always been done,” he said. “Sometimes we had to resort to a digital effect, but that’s a secondary choice.”
Fans will be happy to hear the director confirm that “primarily we are a practical effects show.” DeLorenzo praised the show for giving the fans what they want without pandering. “What they did brilliantly is walk that thin line of incorporating the nostalgia from the old movies, keeping it that same tone,” she noted, “but also keeping new audiences in mind. No one is ostracized.”
Raimi and Campbell noted that the half hour format is one thing that allows them to keep up the manic, frenetic pace of the films over the course of a full season. “Humor kind of needs to be driven, and if you go an hour long you start to get a little ponderous,” Campbell joked, “and I don’t know if we need to know that much about Ash.”
That chaotic spirit is something showrunner Craig DiGregorio kept in mind. “We want the scary stuff to be scary and the funny stuff to be funny, but at the end of the day we’re just making a fun, crazy show that should never ever let up.”
“Ash vs Evil Dead” premieres October 31 on Starz.