What I’d forgotten about Evil Dead 2 is that it’s a remake and sequel to the first film in one package: Bruce Campbell’s Ash doesn’t simply return to the cabin. The opening sequence rushes us through the first film, but this time it’s only Ash and his girlfriend. In a near-montage, they find the professor’s tapes, awaken the evil, and Ash’s girlfriend is possessed. She’s then dispatched quite quickly, so the ensemble of The Evil Dead has shrunk down to The Bruce Campbell Show as he fends off resurrected corpses and his own possessed hand.
The twist on the first film’s format is that this time someone’s trying to reach the cabin. The professor’s daughter has found more pages of the Necronomicon that she needs to show her parents. She reaches the cabin with two locals to discover that her parents are dead and assumes Ash killed them. After dealing with attacks and mindgames all night, Ash gets victimised yet again. It’s in this film that his characterisation as the abused buffoon takes shape.
Despite the tweaks in the format, you get the sense Raimi is trying to redo the first film with a tone and stylistic ambition that sets it further apart from the conventional setup he used in the first film. The DIY appeal of achieving the first film’s gore on a shoestring probably diminished when he received a true feature budget, and its messiness would have distracted from the formal daring he’s more interested in. In 1987 there was much more scope to play with horror conventions than to show violent injuries in even greater detail.
And Raimi doesn’t just enhance the comedy: he creates something else entirely. Evil Dead 2 doesn’t feel like two genres slapped together, but a more organic and considered fusion of tones and tropes. It can’t be categorised – or dismissed – as simply a horror comedy. It’s more like a cinematic carnival ride, where excitement, amusement, revulsion, and awe bleed together.
This is why Evil Dead 2, not the first film, is the nexus of the franchise’s fandom and the true foundation of Sam Raimi’s style and reputation. Several sequences have an irreverence that clearly wouldn’t fit in a straight horror film, but they’re not meant to be particularly amusing either. For instance, when Ash is possessed the makeup and vocal work are predatory and intimidating, yet the camerawork and Campbell’s physicality is arch and heightened as he lunges and writhes with staccato fury. Like the film, possessed Ash occupies an inexplicable but riveting limbo.
Campbell’s frenzied, thoroughly committed performance keeps up with Raimi’s bounding enthusiasm. His cult appeal is easy to understand after watching Evil Dead 2. His constant cackling, hollering, and screaming somehow enhance rather than hinder Ash’s appeal. The camera doesn’t give him any space either, lingering constantly on his expressive face and powerful jaw, usually when Ash is grimacing in wide-eyed fury. Reconfigured slightly, Evil Dead 2 could work as an incredibly vibrant silent film, principally because of Campbell’s ability to tell the story through body language.
The energy he and Raimi bring to Evil Dead 2 makes it hard to believe it dates from 1987, the year of Three Men and a Baby and Wall Street. It has a rigor and blistering pace that many of its contemporaries sorely lack. In comparison – and at risk of generalising awfully – most genre films until Evil Dead 2 were slow burns, including its predecessor. Here Raimi helps usher in our current era of genre film as a sensory rush, a whirlwind of spectacle, and the film itself still holds up today as a blistering entertainment.