In the opening moments of Starz's “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” director Sam Raimi presents the kind of rapidly-edited montages that became a signature part of the “Evil Dead” films, as demon-fighting hero Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) straps some kind of complicated device to his body. Is it another chainsaw to fit over the hand he chopped off in 1987's “Evil Dead II”? The mechanical metal hand he had forged in 1993's “Army of Darkness”?
Nope. It's a corset, there to help Ash maintain the illusion that he's still as sleek as he was back in his glory days of battling the Deadites.
It's the kind of self-deprecating joke that's defined Bruce Campbell's career – a career where, even when he's not playing Ash, the audience often winds up filtering the role he's playing through an Ash-colored prism – but also a smart move by the creative team (the first episode was written by Ivan Raimi, Craig DiGregoria, and Tom Spezialy) to acknowledge that time affects all of us, even the grooviest and squarest of jaw. In fact, much of the first “Ash” episode (it debuts Saturday at 9; I've seen the first two installments) is devoted to gags about Ash's age and how the world understandably perceives him as a weird old man.
It's been nearly 35 years since the first film, and over 20 since “Army of Darkness,” so you can't blame the filmmakers and Campbell for being conscious of the passage of time. It's not just that Campbell has gone up a few dress sizes, but that the horror genre – not to mention the once-revolutionary notion of doing a comedy/horror hybrid – has had a few decades to evolve. Even with Campbell, Sam Raimi, executive producer Rob Tapert and a lot of either key folks in place, it was entirely possible that the world had simply passed by Ash and his foes from the Necronomicon. Would the catchphrases, the skittering camera work, and the deliberately primitive special effects still have their enormous charm all these years later, or would watching Ash reach for his boom stick in 2015 feel like Michael Jordan's earthbound comeback in Washington, or (to use something more age-appropriate for Ash) Willie Mays falling down in the Mets' outfield in 1973?
Fortunately, you can say “Hail to the King, baby,” because Ash – and everyone else involved in this continuation of the franchise – has still got it.
The series' low-fi aesthetic would work well in an era, and translates nicely to television. The visuals weren't dazzling in the '80s (even if Raimi's camerawork was more novel at the time), and they're not now, but the images of Deadites crawling up walls or fighting even after their heads have been twisted 180 degrees around remain creepy.
Ash's schtick has aged even better. By “Army of Darkness”(*), Raimi, Campbell, and company had really started pushing the idea that Ash, for all his skill at killing monsters, is still an overconfident schmuck with too high an opinion of himself. Making him a middle-aged guy with a beer gut and a collection of references even more out of date only enhances the joke – and makes the moments where Ash lives up to his macho self-image even more satisfying.
(*) Because a different studio holds the rights to “Army,” the TV show can't make any significant references to it. But mythology and continuity really don't matter very much. “Army” is the only one of the films I've seen in its entirety, and the TV show's plot was still very easy to follow.
Raimi only directed the 45-minute “Ash” premiere (later episodes run closer to a half hour), but based on the second installment, helmed by Michael J. Bassett (“Strike Back,” “Solomon Kane”), it's clear that others can pull off the giddy blend of horror, comedy, and action just fine.
If Campbell just wanted to strap on the old chainsaw and toss off a few cliched boasts – at one point, he tells new sidekick Pablo (Ray Santiago), “This ain't my first rodeo, kid” – with minimal effort elsewhere, I doubt many would have complained. That's how beloved this particular combo of actor and role are among the Comic-Con crowd. But “Ash vs. Evil Dead” is clearly a labor of love for all involved. It moves quickly, has good scares and big laughs, and the moment when Ash shifts from clown to killer is every bit the big hero moment you would want after all this time.
Come get some. For Halloween, “Ash vs. Evil Dead” is one hell of a treat.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org