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Non-Review Review: Evil Dead II – Dead by Dawn

This is a post as part of “Raimi-fest”, the event being organised by the always wonderful Bryce over at Things That Don’t Suck.

I don’t think there’s ever been a movie quite like Evil Dead II. Although you could argue that Raimi’s unique stylings are evident in the original Evil Dead, they don’t really come into their own in quite the same way that they would for the sequel. Although the movie is obviously indebted to any number of sources, the film has a crazy energy all of its own. It rockets along at such speed that the audience is caught a little off guard. It’s refreshing and more than a little zesty, which are certainly among the film’s charms.

Has Ash crossed the wrong monsters?

We open with an introduction to the Necronomicon, the book from the last film which caused so much trouble. Written by “the Dark Ones”, and dating back to a time of forgotten history when the seas ran red with blood. It all seems wonderfully Lovecraftian, helped no end by the setting – a cabin in the dark woods. “We are the things that were and shall be again,” the Deadites chant, like some sort of eternal cosmic horror, something that is too timeless and evil for our mere comprehension. Indeed, the evil seems strange and undefined, capable of manipulating the very environment around Ash and yet somehow capable of being trapped in a cellar.

The movie is somewhat remarkable for being part sequel and part remake. Apparently, Raimi didn’t have the rights to show footage from the original to demonstrate how his cast got to where they are – so, instead, he filmed it all again as a whirlwind introduction. This lends the film an incredibly fast feeling, as the set-up of two young lovers alone in a cabin in the woods and then attacked by evil forces is handled within five minutes. There’s no corny or forced attempt at character development, like in typical horror films. We don’t have to spend twenty minutes with jerks to get to the craziness. The craziness crashes through the window and grabs us within the first five minutes.

He came... He sawed... He conquered...

Along the way, as with the earlier film, Raimi uses horror movie tropes and clichés as something of a visual shorthand. We get that the Deadites have sealed Ash in that little bit of forest, so there’s no need to explain it. We understand that these are teenagers alone in the woods, so something bad is going to happen. When we hear that the former owner of the cabin worked in the “department of ancient history” and brought back some relics with him, we knew there was going to be trouble. These plot points and assumptions flow naturally, so there’s need for Raimi to dwell on them as a director.

Indeed, while the original film was very much a conventional exploitation horror (albeit handled with a lot more skill than one expects), the sequel ventures into full blown surrealism. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the mood change over the course of the second film represents our protagonist finally losing his marbles and embracing the absurdity of the situation – but there’s a definite shift in tone here from the first. While blood is still thrown around like candy, there’s a cheeky attitude underpinning everything.

Ash tough as nails...

And so the movie treats us to such grotesquely disturbing and genuinely strange sights as a literal danse macabre, when Ash’s dead (and beheaded) girlfriend rises from the grave to perform a little number.Ash watches this truly bizarre sight throw the window, completely lost for words. As is most of the audience. These moments, though not exactly shy of blood and guts, play like the weird scribblings from a demented comedian.

We get a routine that looks like it might have been lifted directly from a Looney Tunes short when Ash’s hand is possessed by the evil spirits (complete with comical squeaking noises). Notice, for example, while Ash is not afraid to resort to horrible physical violence against his own hand, the film noticeably tones down the language during that wonder sequence. “You little son of a-!” Ash, remarks, cutting himself off as if he isn’t allowed swear. “Gotcha, didn’t I, you little sucker?” Although we see the blood, is there anything in that sequence which we wouldn’t see (heavily sanitized, of course) in a cartoon? Cartoon animals frequently throw anvils at each other (and I’ve seen more than a few using shotguns), so it’s obvious that Raimi is just trying to convert those old classic cartoons into something resembling live action. And, to be honest, a horror movie is the perfect place to do it – because it’s a very black form of comedy, if you stop to think about it.

Give the man a hand...

Indeed, the comedy is particular obvious this time around. There were certainly hints of it in the earlier film, but here we get some wonderful moments which are just… well, insane. I love the visual pun when Ash traps his severed hand under a bucket weighed down by a copy of A Farewell to Arms. There’s a weird moment where the entire log cabin seems to come to life and is caught inside something like a live action cartoon dance number, which Ash finds himself nodding along to. Moments like this simply wouldn’t make it to film with any other director working on the project, and I’m glad that they do.

Of course, there are still strong elements of horror that wouldn’t fade away until the third film in the series. Perhaps the most horrifying moment comes when the audience realises that Ash himself is no longer fighting the insanity trying to claim him. He’s just given in. As his reflection remarks while he tries to assure himself that he’s fine, “We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound ‘fine’?” There’s a sense that we are watching the lead character lose his mind, live on screen. Campbell has evolved into something of a memetic legend, but he’s a good enough actor to sell the dementia creeping into his mind.

(Incidentally, Raimi would grow very fond of using mirrors in creepy ways. It happens again in the sequel, and mirrors also play a pretty important role in the Spider-Man films as well. It’s a nice little director trademark, and one which works well for him.)

Ash reflects on his situation...

Indeed, it’s a bit of a disappointment when other characters show up at the cabin about halfway through the film. It doesn’t mean that madness stops (if anything, it just gets crazier), but it does mean that the movie is focusing on the world outside our central protagonist again. Indeed, the first half of the movie seems to be a collection of random horrible things which happen to Ash in the woods as the Deadites screw with him, while the second half becomes a much more conventional horror film (complete with a prophecy of a “hero from the sky” setting up the third film in the series.

It isn’t that these moments are necessarily weaker, it’s just that it feels like we’re wandering back into a conventional horror film (as much as one can wander back into a conventional horror film from Ash’s live-action Looney Tunes adventure with his severed hand). Evil must be defeated and vanquished, and there’s a whole new cast of characters to deal with. It’s a shame, because the moments with Ash alone are pretty much unlike anything else I can think of. And, given I’m a nerdy film buff, that’s quite saying something.

A monstrously good time?

Evil Dead II perhaps represents the closest to “pure Raimi” that we are ever likely to see. There’s just a crazy amount of energy captured on film, without a need to worry about plot or structure. The director clearly knows exactly what he wants to do, but there’s enough randomness and energy present to ensure that it never feels safe or predictable. Being honest, I do prefer the plot and structure (and comedy) of the third film, but I think the second film in the series represents a far greater accomplishment. It’s wonderful and terrifying and hilarious and grotesque, sometimes all at once.

One Response

  1. I love the comparison to Looney Tunes cartoons, and how Raimi uses the horror genre to bring these tropes to a live action film. Evil Dead II might be my favourite Raimi film, and this piece does a great job of outlining why.

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