The Starz series Ash vs Evil Dead, which premieres Halloween night, is a project that a lot of Sam Raimi’s fans have been not-too-secretly rooting for him to make. There is absolutely nothing respectable about it. Most of it makes no sense at all, and it barely has a plot. It consists almost entirely of scenes of Raimi’s greatest leading man, Bruce Campbell, reprising his role as Ash from the three Evil Dead movies (Evil Dead, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, Army of Darkness). We see him banging a woman in the ladies’ room of a bar after telling her a sob story about his wooden hand, and making terrible jokes and dropping and breaking things (including a huge box full of lightbulbs), and also doing inexplicably idiotic, cosmos-endangering stuff like reading aloud from the Necronomicon, the ancient tome made of human flesh, skin, and blood, and summoning demons that possess the living and turn them into the Evil Dead, and then bludgeoning and shooting and stabbing the aforementioned ghouls while Raimi’s camera whirls and tilts and dives and zooms and races through the woods.
“Sold!” I can hear a lot of you saying — and hey, go for it.
There is, on the basis of the first two episodes, not enough story here to sustain an ongoing drama, or comedy, or supernatural mystery action series, or whatever this is supposed to be. The pilot, directed and co-written by Raimi, wears its stupidity as proudly as Ash wears his hand-carved wooden hand. Our graying, much thicker hero, who battled the undead in three feature films, even spent some time in the Middle Ages via time-warp and must have acquired little wisdom with age, otherwise why would he read aloud from the Book of the Dead in an attempt to tantalize a young woman who likes poetry? (Not that he was ever the sharpest sacrificial dagger in the drawer.) There are supporting players, including a sheriff’s deputy (Jill Marie Jones) who has a harrowing encounter with ghouls, and a couple of naïve co-workers at the local retail hell where Ash works: Pablo (Ray Santiago), who idolizes our hero, and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), who just lost her mother six month ago (gawsh, wonder if she’ll find her again?), but this is Campbell and Raimi’s show, ultimately, and remains so through the second episode, which is directed by Michael J. Bassett in a style that’s Raimi-esque without being annoyingly slavish.
It’s worth watching the pilot if you’re an admirer of Raimi and Campbell’s gonzo exuberance, which by this point seems unconnected to whatever cultural sources once drove them (George Romero, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, the Three Stooges) and beholden only to their own hive-mind muse and the desire to give their legions of fans the smirking mayhem they crave. On an eye-candy level, the pilot is a must-see for admirers of imaginative horror film direction. There’s a nice long sequence in a dark house that sets a flashlight spinning on the floor quickly, like a strobe, and then very slowly, like the beam issuing from a lighthouse. It’s flat-out brilliant and genuinely creepy. The ultraviolence is jokey and would likely have little weight even if it weren’t so CGI-dependent. In a way, this series doesn’t feel too far removed from what Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are doing in the current season of American Horror Story: creating a weekly sound-and-light show, more a series of borderline stream-of-consciousness set pieces than a coherent narrative. If you know what you’re getting into, it’s ghastly comfort food, reassuring in its way. When Ash’s chain saw fires up and a ghoul comes barreling toward him, leaping off walls parkour-style while ‘70s stoner rock blasts on the soundtrack, it’s pretty groovy.