Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.
Evil Dead II for me was always one of those films, like, say Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that was considered a cultural touchstone, if not the precious intellectual property owned by the kind of adolescent males whom insisted on still wearing trench coats to school in the aftermath of Columbine. With that kind of personal connotation attached to the film for me, I figured, “They can have it.”
Indeed, the 1987 film by Sam Raimi is the kind that welcomes and spoils the viewer that gets it and makes absolutely no allowances for anyone else. Evil Dead II, should be considered in many respects Evil Dead 2.0, as Raimi basically retold the same story, albeit with a bigger budget, thanks to mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis whom was talked into taking an interest in the young filmmaker via a conversation with Stephen King.
Ash, played by Raimi’s go-to actor, Bruce Campbell, takes a girlfriend to what he promises is an abandoned cabin for a weekend getaway. Wouldn’t you know it, the cabin was occupied up until recently by a scholar studying the incantation-filled Necronomicon, which Ash discovers after he’s listened to the man’s tape recorder, inadvertently letting loose some of the incantations in the book that summon all manner of evils to the cabin. Ash’s ladyfriend doesn’t last long, and the next thing you know, the first half of Evil Dead II stands as a kind of cinematic interpretation of a commercial haunted house. Among the things the constantly-mugging, frequently one-lining Ash must deal with are: a headless, chainsaw-wielding zombie Muppet of sorts, cabin knickknacks and mounted animal heads mocking him, a malevolent force that pursues him through the forest at breakneck speed and the eventual possession and self-amputation of his own hand, which of course, ends up attacking him.
There isn’t much of a plot to speak of in Evil Dead II beyond this; if you must know, the professor’s daughter and acquaintance show up with the missing, reverse incantation-containing Necronomicon pages, some good-for-nothing hillbillies get involved and a hideous, bloated, zombified, middle-aged woman gives the surviving characters a bunch of hell from her imprisonment in the cabin’s fruit cellar. The incantations get recited – halfway – and Ash is sucked through a portal into the Necronomicon’s authorial period – the Middle Ages – thus setting up the Army of Darkness sequel. But to quibble with lack of plot development is to miss the movie’s point; Raimi would eventually be the man behind 1990’s Darkman, an incredible translation of superhero comics to film storyboarding, and he would also be the director of the successful Spider-Man franchise years after that. Evil Dead II is the blossoming of Raimi’s abilities as a visual storyteller, containing his trademarks – intense close-up images that begin pulling in from far, far away, phantasmagoric montages, actors chewing scenery – that plant the film firmly in the realm of comic book-style fun; no one in their right minds would mistake a cheeseburger like Evil Dead II for caviar.
It’s also here that comedy movies specializing in a witty, knowing appreciation of the horror genre were likely born; films such as Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland might have gotten made were it not for Raimi’s success – cult or otherwise – but it’s unlikely that they would’ve connected so well with an audience eagerly awaiting the films. While I continue to be the kind of miserablist who doesn’t want peanut butter-comedy in my horror movie-chocolate, it’s Raimi’s flair and unique vision as a visual artist that made Evil Dead II a fun Saturday afternoon flick. For me, it’s less a horror movie and more a popcorn movie for those not afraid of a little self-mutilation.