A film as influential to the horror genre as any of the biggies (DRACULA, THE EXORCIST, etc.), Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN, the sequel to his no-budget wonder THE EVIL DEAD, introduced a near-revolutionary mix of slapstick and horror that has spawned an entire subgenre, with subsequent classics like BRAIN DEAD and SHAWN OF THE DEAD following its lead. Of course, the reality is that those films are, frankly, better than this one.
THE EVIL DEAD was the no-budget brainchild of Detroit native Sam Raimi (twenty years prior to his mega-successful SPIDERMAN flicks) and his buddy Bruce Campbell, who played the main role of Ash in the 1982 film. It was a major underground hit, and spawned this bigger and better sequel (actually more of a remake) five years later, again with Bruce Campbell in the lead. Other crewmembers of note included co-writer Scott Spiegel, the future director of INTRUDER and FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2, and make-up effects artists Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, of the KNB FX Group.
The film was successful but not hugely so, due mostly to the inexplicable X rating, for “excessive gore,” slapped on it by the MPAA. That’s despite the fact that Raimi deliberately kept the bloodletting to a minimum. The film’s distributor, DEG Entertainment Group, was forced to create a new company, Rosebud Releasing, to release it, as DEG couldn’t put out an X-rated film.
In any event, EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN, with its unique (for the time) comedy-horror mixture, has been outdone in more recent years by the films of Peter Jackson (BAD TASTE, BRAIN DEAD), Edgar Wright (SHAWN OF THE DEAD), Takashi Miike (ICHI THE KILLER, GOZU) and Raimi himself (who pushed the style and themes of the EVIL DEAD films to even greater lengths in 1992’s ARMY OF DARKNESS). But EVIL DEAD II was there first, and so for that deserves credit.
Ash, a dashing young moron, is vacationing with his girlfriend at a secluded cabin. What he doesn’t know is that an evil force is loose, bequeathed by the cabin’s former occupant, an old man who stupidly intoned spells from the ancient Book of the Dead. For Ash, things get scary very quickly, with his GF getting dragged off by the unseen Evil Dead. Finding himself alone in an increasingly surreal atmosphere, Ash tries to escape but finds the road back to civilization literally ripped up. Being an idiot, he heads back to the cabin, where he’s assailed by all manner of supernatural forces: books and lamps cackle at him, doors open and close on their own and the corpse of his GF gets up and dances. Worst of all, Ash’s hand becomes possessed, forcing him to chop it off; the thing continues to run around on its own, with Ash all-but tearing the cabin apart in his efforts to stop it.
At this point three more people turn up, including the daughter of the geezer who unleashed the Evil Dead. She and her companions mistake Ash for an intruder and lock him in the cellar…where he’s assailed by the reanimated corpse of the old man’s wife. Ash manages to convince his captors that he’s not a psycho before the zombie devours him, and he becomes the group’s de facto leader. He even attaches a chainsaw to his arm where his hand once was, and so is ready to take on the Evil Dead. But after valiantly killing several zombies Ash is sucked into a time warp that deposits him in the Middle Ages, thus setting the stage for an EVIL DEAD 3.
For its first forty or fifty minutes this film is an incredible experience. It’s packed with ingenious horror gags, including Bruce Campbell’s uproarious battle with his own possessed hand and the unforgettable flying eyeball sequence, recreated from a THREE STOOGES bit and carried off stunningly well. Sam Raimi’s camerawork is unfailingly inventive, his angles impeccably chosen, and the low budget special effects uniformly superb. From a visual standpoint the film is a masterpiece of sorts. It’s no surprise its director is now a major Hollywood player and its star Bruce Campbell a legend on the cult circuit—the latter’s intonation of “groovy” as he attaches the chainsaw to his arm stump is famous, and justifiably so.
Again, though, that praise applies only to the first half of EVIL DEAD II. Unfortunately Raimi, talented though he was/is, can’t sustain his brilliant slapstick. The gags grow tiresome after a while since there’s not enough story to back them up, and the overall tone is too unvarying. Nor does the ending, with Campbell stuck in a Medieval landscape, work. Those problems would be remedied in many of the flicks inspired by this one, but EVIL DEAD II still has worth—at least for its first half!
EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN
Rosebud Releasing Corporation
Director: Sam Raimi
Producer: Robert Tapert
Screenplay: Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel
Cinematography: Peter Deming, Eugene Shlugleit
Editing: Kaye Davis
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wasley, Theodore Raimi, Denise Bixler, Richard Domeier, John Peaks, Lou Hancock