Ash vs. Evil Dead review: blunders, bravado, and a whole lot of blood

There’s probably an argument to be made that the new Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead is a sly commentary on TV’s golden age of the tortured male anti-hero. That after more than a decade of Tony Soprano, Gregory House, and Walter White, the medium was ripe for a heroic lead that wasn’t just unlikeable at times, but downright despicable — and dumber than rocks. That by reviving Ash Williams, the chainsaw-wielding buffoon that serves as the hero of the Evil Dead films, actor Bruce Campbell and writer-director Sam Raimi weren’t just using gore and comedy to play with old action movie and horror tropes, but that they were commenting on an entire medium itself.

I highly doubt that was the case. They were clearly too busy having goofy, blood-drenched fun to worry about anything else.

If you’re not familiar with the original Evil Dead trilogy (and if you like either The Exorcist or The Three Stooges, you really should be), the films center around Ash, an egotistical, sexist coward that is forced to face an unspeakable evil when an incantation is read from a book bound in human flesh: the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. Over the course of the films Ash’s friends are killed, he’s forced to chop off his hand — he replaces it with a chainsaw, natch — and in the final movie ends up fighting the demonic Deadites in 1300 AD. But what started as a no-budget horror flick became equal parts comedy over time, with the films increasingly incorporating Raimi’s love for slapstick and pivoting around Ash’s tendency to always do the wrong thing at the wrong time (for all the wrong reasons).

Ash vs. Evil Dead ignores Fede Alvarez’s grisly 2013 reboot and picks right up with the original trilogy’s gonzo mix of horror and comedy. An aging Ash lives alone in a trailer, spending his days working at a big box retailer (sorry, Army of Darkness fans, but it’s not S-Mart) and his nights listening to Deep Purple and trolling bars. But while partying a little too hard one night Ash gets high and decides to impress a woman by passing off a passage from the Necronomicon as poetry, and soon the demonic forces he hasn’t faced in decades are after him again.

Along for the ride are Pablo (Ray Santiago), a naive retail coworker that still sees greatness in Ash, and Dana DeLorenzo as Kelly, a young woman that recognizes him for the failure that he is. Two other storylines are awkwardly threaded through the pilot episode — Jill Marie Jones is a detective investigating murders related to the demonic infestation, and former Xena star Lucy Lawless makes a brief appearance as a mysterious character that Seems To Know Things — but they play as afterthoughts. At least this early in the series, the focus is on resurrecting Ash, and it’s where the bulk of the episode’s fun and running time are spent.

Ash vs. Evil Dead promotional stills (STARZ)

Raimi stepped behind the camera for the debut episode, "El Jefe," and his freewheeling creative sensibilities are unmistakeable. From his trademark dynamic camera to the exuberant use of gore (the filmmaker has said that Starz enforced no creative limitations, and it shows; I can’t think of a single episode of television that has had this much blood in it) Ash vs. Evil Dead feels cut from the exact same cloth as the films. While it doesn’t fit neatly after any single entry from a continuity perspective (never a strong suit of the franchise), it nonetheless plays as a true mini-sequel: gory, fun, absurd, and outright glorious at times.

An absurd and glorious mini-sequel

But that’s both a blessing and a curse. Audiences familiar with the series will run to Ash vs. Evil Dead, but while the films have cult status, none of them were mainstream hits. It’s not entirely clear who the broader audience for the show will be, or if viewers not already steeped in the lore of the Necronomicon will be willing to dive in with these characters at all.

Even those Evil Dead fans may not work out as a long-term audience. Raimi co-wrote and directed the first episode, but he’s not returning for the rest of the season. Instead Craig DiGregorio (Reaper, Chuck) is serving as showrunner, with a traditional writers’ room and rotating roster of directors taking on subsequent episodes. The show will inevitably find its own voice and cadence, but the glee of Raimi’s hyper-adrenalized filmmaking was always the glue that held the disparate parts of Evil Dead together. The films served as a playground for his cinematic id, and when you pull that from the equation it’s not clear if the oddball mix of horror and comedy can stand on its own at all.

Ash vs. Evil Dead promotional stills (STARZ)

And while it’s fantastic to see the character return in any form, I also wonder about the longevity of Ash himself. His arrogance and lack of moral evolution was easy to laugh at when it rolled around every five years or so; in fact, his never-changing nature was the point. Ash is bravado personified, and with his movie star chin and whiter-than-white choppers, Bruce Campbell has always excelled at making him likable even while he simultaneously acts awful in every conceivable fashion. But spending a half-hour with him every week is a different proposition. Everything gets old with repetition, and Ash vs. Evil Dead will almost certainly need to give Ash a character arc throughout the course of the series. Those seeds are already planted in "El Jefe," with Ash struggling with a crisis of confidence beneath his forced bravado. But curing the character of his cluelessness could very well rob him of his appeal.

Not every property, no matter how beloved, is built to be a recurring weekly television show, and Ash vs. Evil Dead is clearly going to be an ongoing experiment; a weekly test to see if the creative team can transform the premise into a true episodic series. But out of the starting gate, the show is delivering everything fans of the franchise have been thirsting for — enough so that Starz has renewed it for a second season before the premiere has even aired.

There’s just one word for that: groovy.

Ash vs. Evil Dead premieres Halloween night on Starz.