Back in 2013, Fede Alvarez decided to join in the increasingly common practice of rebooting pop culture monoliths with his update on Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. His gory toil produced a movie that didn’t quite work, didn’t quite not work, and which, if nothing else, is at least partially responsible for shepherding Raimi back to the movie franchise he built his name on. Hence Ash vs. Evil Dead, Starz’s latest TV series, which has us tagging along with Bruce Campbell as he does what he does best: fight Deadites.
That’s a scary prospect on paper, and not because Evil Dead is the stuff that huge swaths of modern day horror is made of. Nobody really wants to see filmmakers revisit the canonized material that helped make them who they are today, and nobody wants to see the movies and television shows of yesteryear cannibalized into the movies and television shows of right now. Couple that with the fact that Raimi hasn’t done anything worthwhile since 2009 and you’ve got a surefire recipe for ho-hummery. Right?
Uh-uh. Whatever possessed the horror comedy auteur to go all blockbuster on us with the disastrous Oz the Great and Powerful two years ago has clearly loosed its hold on him, because Ash vs. Evil Dead is prime Raimi. It’s prime Campbell, too, and prime Ray Santiago, Dana Delorenzo, and Jill Marie Jones, which is saying something because they were either pre-mortal or enrolled in fourth grade back when old Brucie made chainsaws into acceptable substitutes for disembodied appendages. This is Campbell as we love him best, and Raimi in full control of his genre powers once again, six years after Drag Me to Hell reminded everybody that he was, and always will be, a master of splattery, spook-a-blast horror.
So what’s the story, thirty plus years after Ashley Williams and his buddies taught audiences a valuable lesson about reading from books bound in human flesh, inked in blood? Life hasn’t been kind to Ash: He’s been on the run since Evil Dead II, and he’s either forgotten about that one time he time-traveled back to the Middle Ages and defended a castle from legions of pissed-off skeletons and zombies, or Raimi has decided that Army of Darkness ain’t canon. Whatever the case, he’s still working a crappy stock boy job (Value Stop, not S-Mart), he lives in a double wide in a Michigan trailer park, and he spends his nights dousing himself in Pinaud Clubman and lying about how, exactly, he lost his hand to score with drunk women at last call in local dive bars.
But then evil rears its ugly head while he’s locked up in a bathroom tryst; turns out that Ash got sloppy one night and tried to impress a date by reading from the Necronomicon, which he keeps in his trailer. Oops. So he has to answer the call to whup Deadite ass again, but he’s not alone in his new quest: He has two sidekicks, Value Stop coworkers Pablo (Santiago) and Kelly (Dilorenzo). The pilot derives its title from the honorific Pablo bestows on Ash, “El Jefe,” a man destined to rise up and fight evil. He’s Ash’s cheerleader. Kelly, on the other hand, is no-nonsense, and thus needs a little more convincing. Running concurrent with their adventure is a thread involving Michigan State Trooper Amanda Fisher (Jones), who survives a nasty Deadite encounter that leaves her partner dead and her colleagues questioning her sanity.
That’s a lot of set-up right there, but the good news is that it all gels. Ash vs. Evil Dead is significantly more awesome than we should reasonably expect from a latter-day Evil Dead joint; “El Jefe” has the range of humor, from goofy to gallows, that’s such an integral part of the series’ identity, whether it’s Ash accidentally spilling a box of light bulbs or dropping a snappy one-liner before blasting a Deadite with his trusty shotgun. It follows, then, that there’s a lot of viscera on display here, some practical, some CGI, all gruesome. Raimi is having the time of his life behind the camera, striking a balance between monster mash fun, and genuine freakiness from one scene to the next. (There’s a scene lit by a spinning flashlight that is downright spine tingling in ways most mainstream horror offerings aren’t.) TV shows where demons get decapitated by tree pruning tools generally can’t be described as “joyful,” and yet there’s a very honest sense of joy to every moment of “El Jefe”’s running time.
Nine times out of ten, reboots, remakes, and revivals of dormant beloved geek properties amount to bupkis: Fant4stic, Robocop, The Pink Panther. Ash vs. Evil Dead is the one time where returning to the well has turned out for the better. “El Jefe” is fantastic television and the kind of well-intentioned, smartly made sequel that seldom (if ever) gets made on big and small screens alike. (It is only by the shrewd judgment of Paste’s editorial staff that this review did not consist solely of the phrase “hell yeah” copied and pasted four hundred times.) Welcome back, Ash.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.