[This is a review of Ash vs. Evil Dead season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Of all the lunkheaded goofballs ever to bumble his way through a demonic insurrection of apocalyptic proportions, Bruce Campbell's Ashley "Ash" Williams is undoubtedly the grooviest. Returning to the character for the first time in 23 years (outside of a cameo or videogame appearance, anyway), Campbell slips back into his daffy, Deadite-slaying persona with astonishing ease. One minute he's drinking a juice box and psyching himself up for a night on the town, and the next he's delivering a demon back to hell with a mocking one-liner and one-handed boomstick blast.
Whether you're a longtime Evil Dead-head or this is the first you've even heard of the franchise, Ash vs. Evil Dead has something to offer you. After the false start of another movie in the going-on 30-year-old series, Campbell and writer-director and franchise creator Sam Raimi have brought their wonderfully irreverent, hammy, over-the-top style to the small screen. And amazingly, their distinctive aptitude for mixing blood, guts, and belly laughs doesn't just make itself comfortable on your TV; it kicks down the door and claims your living room as its very own.
Fans of the series are right to be skeptical of anything that looks too good to be true – which is actually a warning passed down by Ash to one of his newly minted traveling companions. After all, that's a constant concern within the parameters of the series itself, as the Necronomicon-summoned Deadites are frequently taking on the guise of someone familiar and appealing (if only in a two-Magnum night kind of way), only to make an abrupt and deadly about-face – which usually includes a neck-splitting 180 degree turn of their actual head. Amazingly, despite a deliriously gory third act in the premiere episode, Ash vs. Evil Dead manages to keep its head on straight. In the early goings, the series is sharp and funny. But most of all, it proves itself to be the real deal, the genuine article, the grand poobah of bloody slapstick horror.
The series picks up with Ash living in a trailer, working at some rundown Best Buy knockoff called Value Stop. It's been 30 years since that ill-fated night he spent battling evil in a cabin in the woods, and not much has changed. Ash is older now, but he's definitely not wiser. A low-level stock boy (with considerable seniority, apparently), he is successful only in his inability to achieve any kind of success until a drunken evening spent using the Necromicon as an aphrodisiac with an impressionable young poetry lover brings him a familiar sense of purpose.
The first episode, 'El Jefe,' works to quickly reestablish the Evil Dead universe, while also determining Ash's role within it. He may be the same oblivious, windbag he always was, but this series (and Campbell himself) have repositioned the character by giving him a chance to become a leader to Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), his fellow co-workers. Combined, the two make for an ideal audience proxy: simultaneously elevating Ash to cult status and seeing through his smokescreen of unmerited confidence and outdated machismo with a withering glare (and the occasional grappling hold).
'El Jefe' also introduces a thread featuring Jill Marie Jones as Det. Amanda Fisher, who experiences the effects of the Necronomicon firsthand and winds up on Ash's trail, like a storm chaser tailing a tornado from the path of its destruction. Other than being front and center for a truly stylish showdown with a couple of Deadites, there's not much to Det. Fisher's story, but she does serve as the introductory point for Lucy Lawless' mysterious Ruby, so it stands that Fisher will factor into the plot more substantially soon enough.
The supporting cast is lively and funny, and the detective subplot fits surprisingly well within the episode's structure. Those elements will likely be welcome additions to the show moving forward, but the premiere makes certain to showcase its two stars: Campbell and Raimi. Given that he is also credited as an executive producer, Campbell could have handed the bloodier, more physically demanding stuff off to his co-stars, but instead, the now-57-year-old actor goes after the task of kicking, jumping, and chainsaw-ing with the same level of dedication he does the bits of slapstick comedy. The result is a performance that goes whole hog, no matter if he's brooming broken light bulbs under a shipping pallet or cutting the head off his possessed neighbor as she flies through the air. Ash is a doofus, but he's an entertaining doofus and Campbell knows how and when to play up the elements that make him likeable and have kept this franchise alive for so long.
The same can be said for Raimi, who, in roughly 40 minutes, delivers a visually striking continuation of the Evil Dead series. There's the infamous tracking shot fans would expect, a low camera whizzing through the woods and even a parking lot, to signify the evil presence coming for unsuspecting victims and Value Stop managers alike. But there are also other flourishes that feel distinctly a part of the director's signature style – the impeccably lit double-Deadite attack on Det. Fisher being one, while the clever balancing act that keeps the comedy and the blood flowing is definitely another.
These elements of extreme gore and darkly funny humor might make the show more of a niche product than Starz would like, but The Evil Dead franchise has never really been anything but that. Besides, if the series pleases the hardcore fans (like it seems it will) then it has gone ahead and done the one thing it needed to do.
Ash vs. Evil Dead continues next Saturday with 'Bait' @9pm on Starz.