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Every Evil Dead, Ranked From Least to Most Groovy

Photo-Illustration: Vulture.

A tape recorder speaking out eerie incantations. A book wrapped with barbed wire and bound in human flesh. A lone cabin in the woods hosting a group of unsuspecting college kids. These set the story of The Evil Dead, a film about a cursed ancient book and a grinning unlikely hero. Since its release more than five decades ago, director Sam Raimi’s creation has enjoyed enduring acclaim and a cult following for its blend of gruesome horror, unnerving special effects, and slapstick humor. To quote Ash (Bruce Campbell), it’s “groovy.”

Evil Dead is unlike other franchises because of its commitment to unapologetic carnage (like limitless blood spills) and its turns at reinvention (in which terror is traded for spoof). But at its core, it has always been a wink and a nudge to the audience, largely pushed by our enduring Everyman, Ash. He’s a fearless survivor-cum-savior who cracks bad jokes as often as he saws off ligaments. The Evil Dead has continued to be reimagined by Raimi and others and spawned an even bloodier 1987 sequel, a recent reboot, and a successful TV series (as well as a theatrical production and many comic books). Now, with the release of Evil Dead Rise — another reboot that sees a woman take up the fight against the “evil dead” spirit — Evil Dead is enlivened again. Here, we size up the many screen entries to help you square this recent addition with the storied series. Let’s rev up our chain saws and get to it.

7. Within the Woods (1978)

In 1978, Raimi was a struggling college student with grand ambitions to be a Hollywood filmmaker. He made “practice” movies on a Super 8 camera and charged high-schoolers small change to watch them. The horror genre was a private obsession, one he studied religiously, watching movie after movie to hone his craft. Then came a proposal to make a rough cut “proof of concept” movie to secure funding for a planned horrifying feature-length film (which later became The Evil Dead).

Within the Woods was the result. It follows Bruce (Campbell), who is vacationing with a group of friends at a secluded house when he awakens an evil spirit after desecrating a sacred burial site. Though the short film is grainy and unpolished, it bears early hints of Raimi’s comedic appetite to play inside the horror genre, as when Bruce says, “You’re only cursed if you violate the graves of the dead — we’re eating hot dogs!” Elsewhere, there’s pleasure in seeing Raimi find his footing with his now-famous moviemaking moves, such as the eerie roaming first-person camera view and the iconic shots of a lulling empty porch swing. Ultimately, though, given its grittiness and sparseness, this one is really just for the franchise purists. Raimi would essentially remake Within the Woods twice more over the next decade, getting more funding (and adding more gore and comedy) with each retake. Skip this and start with the real thing.

6. Evil Dead (2013)

The 2013 Evil Dead is both a reboot and a remake that dials up the horror and erases the comedic beats of the 1981 original. It follows a group of college kids headed to a remote cabin to help a friend go cold turkey from a drug addiction. But soon enough, they summon the evils of the Book of the Dead. The results are torture-porn levels of gruesome, as the film unapologetically capitalizes, in spades, on the booming horror tendencies of the time.

Raimi’s wickedly dark humor — which usually serves as a counterbalance for all the horror — has simply been replaced with even more flayings, dismemberments, and other perverse acts. It’s all a paint-by-numbers exercise (like reusing all the trademark wide-angle tracking tricks) that becomes a cheap facsimile, drawing the most scares from grievous bodily harm. Gone is the fun of rooting for anyone to survive — especially our everyday hero vanquishing this terrifying evil. Where comedic relief once offset the bloodshed caused by summoning the spirit, more slaughter and bloodletting flow freely in this remake. In the end, the irony is that, with all its bloodshed, Evil Dead saps all it can from Raimi’s masterpiece and lets itself figuratively bleed out.

5. Army of Darkness (1993)

A sequel to a “requel,” Army of Darkness isn’t another take on the same basic “demons attack teens in a cabin” story as Raimi’s two previous films, The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, are. Instead, it’s a full-throttled fantasy-comedy spin on the “Deadites” (the demonic spirits), with the gauche, unwitting Ash as our funnyman and tour guide.

After the events of Evil Dead II, the cursed book sucks Ash and his chain saw into a time vortex, sending both back to the age of King Arthur. Wielding a double-barred shotgun as his own Excalibur, Ash serves camp (few can forget him calling a witch a “she-bitch”) and cheesiness on his quest to return home. The evil dead spirit is far more mischievous this time, as Army of Darkness trades the comparatively modest bloodletting and beheadings of the first films for even more ridiculous sights like a devilish body double, bumbling skeleton warriors, and naughty books that bite back. It’s clear Raimi enjoyed the excesses of a Hollywood budget here ($11 million compared with about $3.5 million for Evil Dead II), with the medieval battle scenes and special effects delivered in laudable high quality.

It’s all very silly, though, which may or may not be enough for you. Eventually, Army of Darkness becomes less a sequel and more a cheesy spinoff project that sits somewhere between fantasy and spoof. Raimi is partly pulling our leg, indulging in ridiculous combat scenes between skeletons and adding a rigid romance with a young female royal to delight us and celebrate the Evil Dead mythology. Even if it has diminishing returns despite the increased budget and ambition, Army of Darkness is still well worth watching, if only for how it plays with action-hero myth-making, its exploding skeleton sequences, and Campbell’s devilish grin.

4. Evil Dead Rise (2023)

Although the 2013 Evil Dead swapped Campbell for a female protagonist, Rise is the first in the series to actually build an Evil Dead story around women, rather than just slotting one into a familiar narrative. After discovering she’s pregnant, Beth (Lily Sullivan) makes a surprise visit to Los Angeles to see her estranged sister, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), and Ellie’s children. But the unrelenting dark force locked within the Book of the Dead has awakened again. With reverent nods to the original Evil Dead films — including sly practical scares and a re-created “tree rape” scene (shot in an elevator, no less) — this latest addition focuses on motherhood as both a blessing and a curse. The demon ferociously takes hold of Ellie, and Beth is challenged to guard the brood against its unrelenting pull. The spirit soon cracks eggs into a sizzling pan in quick succession, a metaphor for the corrupting hold it has over mother Ellie.

Know that director Lee Cronin wanted to keep the original black humor alive and well here — especially after the unfunny 2013 film. A beheaded doll named “Staph-anie” stuck on a stick becomes a lifesaving scepter, while endless horror-movie references (such as an elevator emptying an Olympic-size swimming pool of blood) cheekily enliven the story’s macabre turns. In the end, Evil Dead Rise shows there’s still vitality to be found in the Book of the Dead’s many skin-bound pages.

3. Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015–2018)

Ash took some well-earned time off after Army of Darkness but picked his boomstick back up in 2015 for the Starz TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead. Campbell’s unending gusto for the role is on full display, but this time, the series remakes him as a middle-aged accidental action star — a beer-guzzling Everyman with a bulging belly and a tendency to crack a dad joke. Set 30 years after the end of Army of Darkness, the show sees Ash back at his low-paid job at a budget superstore, stacking shelves with his one good arm (the chain saw sits at home). The evils of the Book of the Dead just won’t die, however, and soon Ash has to battle Deadites as well as his own inner demons.

Ash vs. Evil Dead grapples with issues like PTSD and survivor’s guilt, all the while feeding our fix for bloodshed and gore, embracing Raimi’s black humor, and serving some well-constructed action sequences. Its self-referential nods are fun and giddy, as when a small doll attacks Ash’s face and a ridiculous twisting shuffle ensues that recalls his own hand fight in Evil Dead II. The series proves to be a fresh and welcome comedic crescendo, embracing screwball, camp, and self-referential humor to reanimate Evil Dead for a new generation.

2. The Evil Dead (1981)

Evil awakens and beckons, “Join us,” as Ash, his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), and their friends enter a lone ramshackle cabin for a vacation. Though The Evil Dead is partly a remake of Raimi’s Within the Woods proof of concept, it’s a true original and works like magic.

As demonic possession soon envelops those in the cabin, an eerie, unrelenting fog descends — bringing with it complete abject bodily decay. Skin hardens and cracks, dark fluid weeps out of sores, eyes turn blazing red, and we can only watch in visceral horror as the demon takes hold. One girl is attacked and raped by wild trees in one of the film’s most infamous scenes, while another is totally engulfed by the nefarious spirit and forced into a grim early burial. The only way to kill this spirit is to dismember the host body. Heads roll in quick succession as endless amounts of blood spray out all over the cabin. The fact that we never see the spirit in bodily form makes it all the more terrifying.

The Evil Dead is Raimi’s rough diamond of gonzo horror that shows his talent to conjure an unrelenting evil unlike anything seen in horror movies before. From the swooping, omnipresent shots pacing to the cabin, to the supernatural force of the haunting light sockets that bleed, the film may be bound together a little less securely than the flesh-encased book, but it shows an imaginative filmmaker determined to terrify us with the unseen — and maybe throw in the odd slapstick joke to break the tension. A thrilling, if sometimes unvarnished, ride.

1. Evil Dead II (1987)

There’s a dispute over whether Evil Dead II is a reboot, a sequel, or a combination of the two — that is, a “requel.” Whatever the ultimate moniker, the second (or third?) Evil Dead is the richest, most stylized version, featuring more blood, gore, and comedic beats. It starts with a five-minute recap of the events of the previous film, in which Ash returns as the lone survivor of a terrorizing evil spirit he unleashed from the Book of the Dead. He once again finds himself holed up in a remote cabin with other clueless guests as the forces return — but he’s not without a sawed-off rifle to assist him.

Evil Dead II dials up the slapstick comedy — such as Ash’s fight against a decapitated head or the way he mocks his own possessed hand as he cuts it off — and the results are outrageously witty and laugh-out-loud funny. But there’s a greater realism and intensity at work here too, as Raimi wants us to squirm just as much as we chuckle. There are nauseating lens tricks alongside chasing camera work, making for an exhilarating ride with just enough gory carnage and corny dialogue (“Swallow this!” Ash screams to a flailing head) to see Raimi’s vision for comedic horror/horrifying comedy be synthesized and served just right. The film even revisits many of the notorious hallmarks of the original — such as the wild “tree rape” scene and the undulating haunted recordings — but with a more polished touch.

Perhaps what best exemplifies the difference between the two movies is how Ash, originally a panicked, doubting survivor, becomes an assured, fearless hero in Evil Dead II. It’s like a quiet metaphor for Raimi’s own journey with Evil Dead, confirming that his vision has finally been realized. This film is a masterstroke.

Every Evil Dead, Ranked From Least to Most Groovy