Retro Flashback Presents: Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn

Welcome back to Retro Flashback. Today we have a special critique, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2. There are countless sites devoted to the Evil Dead series and rather than rehashing old material, I thought we could try to find ways to view this classic in a new way. We all know Ash to be a hero, but what is he fighting for? Is it possible that he is merely battling for his own sanity? We will also rate Dead By Dawn to see where it falls in your horror education.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” Charles Dickens – David Copperfield 
 "Groovy!” Ashley “Ash” Williams

In the beginning...
Sam Raimi was born in 1959 in Franklin Michigan. He is the second youngest of four children. When he was growing up, he idolized his oldest brother Sander. Sander was an amateur magician and a huge fan of Spider-Man comics. He taught young Sam all about magic and superheroes. When Sam was nine, his brother passed away in a tragic drowning accident. Sam was devastated, but vowed to continue Sander's penchant for thrilling audiences. Sam saved every penny he earned, doing odd jobs around the neighborhood, to purchase his first 8mm camera. He and another neighborhood friend, Bruce Campbell, got together and made innovative short films. After high school, the two friends went off to Michigan State University and they formed a club: Society for Creative Filmmaking. Through this club, Sam met many artists who would go on to help him throughout his career. One of these artists was Rob Tabbert. Sam, Rob, and Bruce found a modicum of success with their short films. Raimi's first film, It's Murder, was made when he was only eighteen years old. The collective – now including Sam's brothers and Scott Spiegel - went on to make a half an hour short called “Within The Woods.” With these short films as his calling cards he was able to raise money for The Evil Dead. So, he decided to drop out of college and become a filmmaker. While working on The Evil Dead, he was able to procure the editing team of Edna Ruth Paul and her assistant Joel Coen. Paul and Coen had worked on Fear No Evil (1981) and later Paul consulted on the editing of the Coen brothers first film Blood Simple (1984). After The Evil Dead, Raimi directed Crimewave which was written by Joel and Ethan. Since then, the collective, has interacted and assisted each other with each film. But we didn't come here for a history lesson, we came for Evil Dead 2.

Without further ado...
What can be said about this classic that hasn't been said before? You know how I said I wasn't going to rehash old material, well, I just have to. Evil Dead 2 was the second remake of Sam Raimi's short film “Within The Woods,” though it was not originally intended to be a remake. Raimi wanted the sequel to pick up where The Evil Dead left off. Due to his inability to secure the rights to footage from his own film, he created a new prologue that circumvented the original. I'm sure there's a fan edit out there that combines all three films. It would begin part 2 with Ashley (Bruce Campbell) being flung against a tree and diving into the mud. As it stands, Dead By Dawn, is a slapstick love letter. If we view the first film as straight horror, the second would be a tribute to The Three Stooges and Looney Toons, and Army Of Darkness would be an homage to Raimi's love of fantasy films. Let's posit a new hypothetical timeline for Ash: what if Dead By Dawn is a fiction created by Ash to deal with the traumatic experiences he suffered in the first film?

We will come back to that. First, let's honor Raimi's masterpiece. Evil Dead 2 is a perfect Horror-Comedy. By providing a copious amount of over-the-top gore we are desensitized to the blood, and instead of feeling nauseous, we are forced to laugh. John Landis may be credited as the first filmmaker to toe the line between fear and humor, but Raimi takes it a step further. An American Werewolf in London is filled with pop-culture references and includes dialogue that is simultaneously self-referential and self-deprecating. Landis created a perfect balance, but did it with a smirk. Raimi's sequel proves you don't need to balance. Instead of equal elements of shocks and gags, he offers an excess of horror. He believed that the humor would come out organically: once the audience adapts to the gallons of rainbow colored fake blood. Peter Jackson would adopt a similar technique in Dead-Alive. The middle section of Evil Dead 2 proves how astonishing Bruce Campbell is as an actor. The excesses that the film is known for, all happen within this section – when Ash is all alone. He carries the film and reacts to the absurdities that befall him. He is all Three Stooges, Wile E. Cayote, and The Marx Brothers slipping on banana peels and having full conversations with himself. He hams it up in a true 50's B-Movie fashion.

Besides Bruce Campbell's impeccable acting abilities, the real star of Evil Dead 2 is the camera. Raimi pushes the kinetic energy of the POV further than what was seen in the first film. To make the camera a forest demon is not only economic, but also terrifying. He is able to glide in and out of small spaces in an almost magical way. The camerawork alone elevates Evil Dead 2 out of the normal confines of a horror film and provides it true artistic merit. Raimi has devoted a good part of his career to giving inanimate objects a point of view. His other trademark, simply dubbed, “The Classic” makes its third appearance in Dead By Dawn. The 1973 faded yellow Oldsmobile Delta 88 continues to make a cameo in all of Raimi's films. The Classic is even in his Sergio Leone inspired The Quick And The Dead – though he will not admit where. Okay enough gushing and rhetoric.

Ash is bats**t crazy...
As viewers, we can see a movie repeatedly and have a different experience each time. Depending on our mindset or the events in our personal lives, each viewing we can perceive something new. When I watch something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles it brings me an inexplicable joy mainly due to nostalgia. When I saw Turtles as a child, it was the action, one-liners, and costumes that thrilled me. Even with all of our experiences with a film, we will never be able to see the film in a similar way to anyone else. This is why I prefer to experiment with my perception when watching something I cherish. Sometimes it is for an academic viewing, for example: Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a Marxist doctrine or Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a battle cry for third-wave feminism. Other times, it is as simple as omitting main plot points to see how it would effect the overall narrative: what if Regan is not possessed by Puzuzu?

The original thought experiment for Evil Dead 2 was to remove the humor. How can you do that? If there are no demons, that would mean that a guy takes his girlfriend to a cabin and murders her. Once she's sufficiently dead, he chops off her head and buries her. The guilt begins to plague him like a scene from Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment. It drives him insane, to the point that he cuts off the hand that killed her. This theory came about in one of my numerous viewings. It really hit me when the daughter and the redneck guides finally showed up – this is exactly what they saw – a crazy man who had just chopped off his hand. The problem with this theory is that when they show up it becomes what, a group hallucination? Or do they exist at all? Maybe there is no Henrietta in the cellar.

This led to a few random scenarios that could tie the sequel to the first film:

  1.  Ash died at the end of The Evil Dead and this is his death dream. In Richard Linkletter's Waking Life he provided volumes on the relativity of dream time. You can have long intricate dreams that seem to last for years, but when you wake up only a few minutes have passed. The brain continues to be active for up to ten minutes when you die, so Evil Dead 2 could be Ash's death dream. He becomes a hero by the end of the film and is sucked into the portal that leads into the afterlife.
  2.  Ash was committed to an asylum after all his friends died. Now he's trapped in his unconscious, building a hero fantasy.  In relation to the first theory, he is again making himself a hero. This time the portal would lead him to the real world. During the height of his insanity, he comments that he must be dreaming and even does fall asleep in the creepy rocking chair.
  3. Ash became possessed at the end and this is his inner struggle with the demon to regain control. Ash becomes possessed a few times within the series. In this theory, Ash is again in an unconscious state, but he is a now a demon. The portal would purge the demon from him. The films deal with time travel and the comics feature alternate dimensions, and since Ash is not impervious to being possessed this may be an ideal theory.
 To say that Ash is crazy is not far-fetched when you watch his solo performance in the cabin. We think we are seeing him taunted by the demons that lurk in the woods, but we are witnessing a total mental breakdown. These thought experiments are part of the beauty of cinema. A film can be anything you want it to be.

How does it rate:
 Evil Dead 2 is essential in your horror education. It ranks as Certified Geek. It would be a True Landmark, but that would be reserved for The Evil Dead. While it wouldn't be outlandish to have a sequel pop up as a True Landmark, it is just unlikely. When people inevitably critique horror-comedies as not real horror films, give them the gift of Evil Dead 2 and watch them eat their words. If they need further proof give them An American Werewolf In London, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, and argue for the comedic elements of Scream. Evil Dead 2 is not only a cult classic, it also stands as a horror film that won over critics and audiences alike. We hope Sam and Bruce will one day get together for Evil Dead IV or Army Of Darkness II, whichever title works for me.
Here's a breakdown of the categories:
True Landmark
Absolutely essential.
Certified Geek
For a more seasoned viewer.
Esoteric Necessity
Difficult to find, but worth the search.
You may begin prescribing horror.
Masters Degree
Cult cinema for higher education.
Bachelor's Degree
Horror snobs begin here.
Associate's Degree
Shot well with a few scares.
Trade School Certificate
One or two learning moments.
Copycat Junk
There's no point.
Scraping The Bottom
When there's nothing else.



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