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Evil Dead II: A lesson in surviving isolation

Stuck at home alone? Evil Dead II is the movie you need for these strange times.

The various critics and media pundits around the traps have been burning a lot of digital ink recommending viewing options for the quarantine season because, well, there’s not much else for us to do right now. The cinemas are closed, and the streaming release schedule hasn’t quite caught up with the gap in release brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic. While some stuff is getting fast-tracked to VOD and streaming, the big titles are being held back to later in the year, or even early 2021. Whither James Bond? Whither The Fast and the Furious? Effectively in lockdown, just like us.

So we’re all out here trying to get editors to commission retro pieces on thematically apt old movies. “Watch Contagion” we say, “Watch Outbreak and Night of the Living Dead and 12 Monkeys.” To this chorus let us add: right now’s a pretty good time to cue up Sam Raimi’s splatstick masterpiece, Evil Dead II.

At first taste, Evil Dead II doesn’t seem like a good tonal match for these uncertain times. It’s kind of a zombie flick, for sure, but the Candarian Demons and resurrected corpses that idiot hero Ash Williams (the great Bruce Campbell) battles don’t have the pestilential je ne sais quois of Romero’s ghouls and their descendants. But at its heart, the sequel/semi-remake is really about a guy alone in a house he can’t leave, slowly going mental. That’s something a lot of us can relate to, and plugging into it doesn’t require so refined a cinematic palate as, say, Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Director Sam Raimi already had an idea for a sequel to 1981’s Evil Dead: send Ash back in time to the Middle Ages to battle the Deadites there. As history shows that was a pretty good take, but it would have to wait until the second sequel, 1992’s Army of Darkness. When legendary Italian film magnate Dino De Laurentiis ponied up the budget for Evil Dead II, he stipulated that the new film be much like the old one. Raimi and co-screenwriter Robert Tapert took him quite literally up to a point, with the early scenes of Evil Dead II functioning as a quasi-remake of the first film: Ash and his girlfriend, Linda (Denise Bixler) head to a remote cabin in the woods for a romantic getaway (the five friends of the original film are reduced to just two characters for efficiency). There, they inadvertently play an audio recording of a magic spell taken from the “Necronomicon Ex-Mortis” or “Book of the Dead”, unleashing all manner of supernatural horror.

Where things get interesting for our boy Ash is after Linda is possessed by a demon and he is forced to kill and dismember her. Afterwards, he confronts himself in the mirror, muttering that he’s “fine”. Suddenly, his reflection lunges out of the mirror and grasps him by the shoulders. “I don’t think so,” the doppelganger intones. “We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound ‘fine’?”

What follows is an extended sequence of Ash on his lonesome going insane as the cabin comes alive around him. There’s some great practical effects work, such as when the books start dancing on the shelves and the deer head, eyes white and bulging, laughs at him, but what really makes the scene work is Campbell’s fully committed, OTT performance. The old adage goes that acting is, in essence, reacting – you need partners in a scene to bounce off of, and that’s where drama and dialogue draw their energy. Alone in a scene, an actor has to provide all that energy themselves, and by all accounts it is absolutely punishing. Ask an actor; they’ll tell you.

Campbell might be a cult figure, but he’s also a consummate physical comedian and he excels at solo work. There’s so much going on in this sequence that we forget it’s just him there making us believe in the moment that all this weirdness is actually happening – all the cool effects gags in the world wouldn’t help if Campbell wasn’t giving it 110%. Look at how he plays it once his right hand is possessed by a demon and attempts to kill him – yes it’s goofy and gory and played for laughs, but the way Campbell flexes his wrist and stretches his fingers, the way he plays the conflict between the man and the appendage, is extraordinary.

The isolation scene marks the film’s hard turn from straight(ish) horror into more comedic territory, with Campbell delivering a bravura physical performance. Plenty of ink has been spilled over the years regarding the Raimi coterie’s deep love of The Three Stooges, and this scene is ground zero in terms of that love’s manifestation on the screen. Campbell’s Ash is Three Stooges in one battered, bloodied body. Deprived of an external enemy, he turns his comic violence on himself. The scene where Ash’s possessed hand is breaking plates over his head is an all-timer, matched by the aftermath, wherein the evil little mitt drags Ash’s unconscious body towards a chainsaw with malicious intent.

It’s almost a shame that the rest of the cast have to show up and move the narrative into the third act. For sure, the most distinctly iconic moments of the film happen then – what is Evil Dead II without Campbell as Ash strapping his chainsaw to the stump of his wrist, cutting the barrels off his shotgun, and muttering “Groovy!” as the camera smashes into his manic face? – but for sheer mastery of physical comedy and filmmaking brio, that middle stretch of Campbell on his own is *chef’s kiss*.

The point – and there is one, rest assured – is that we, or at least those of us in lockdown – are all Ash now: trapped in our homes, besieged by an invisible enemy, resorting to arcane rituals for protection (Wash your hands! Mask your face! 1.5 metres!) and, yeah, going a little cuckoo under the pressure. But it’s okay to get a little loopy under strange circumstances – we’re all dealing with unfamiliar stresses and pressures, and the effects will make themselves known in unusual ways. Maybe let yourself be weird in These Uncertain Times – it’s what Ash would do.

Still, I’d pull up before chainsawing your right hand off.

Editor’s note: Blunt Magazine does not condone violence of any kind in real life. You are not being attacked by deadites.