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Blu-ray Review: Ash vs. Evil Dead: The Complete First Season

THE SEASON  3.5/5

“Just stay behind me and let the boom stick do the talking.”

“Ash vs Evil Dead,” a 10-episode, half-hour series, is the long-awaited follow-up to the classic horror film franchise The Evil Dead. The series follows Ash, the stock boy, aging lothario and chainsaw-handed monster hunter who has spent the last 30 years avoiding responsibility, maturity and the terrors of the Evil Dead. When a Deadite plague threatens to destroy all of mankind, Ash is finally forced to face his demons–personal and literal. Destiny, it turns out, has no plans to release the unlikely hero from its “Evil” grip.

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-4For the longest time, Evil Dead IV seemed to be the most mooted sequel in horror cinema history. Every Evil Dead entry ended with a bang promising there could be more to come, so each open ending led directly into the next installment. Army of Darkness, the last theatrical iteration of Ashley J. Williams’ continued sloppy struggles against the evil forces of the world, ended (kind of, depending on which version you consider cannon) with another twist promising even more to come. But, for a long time, nothing happened. Cut to ten years later: Sam Raimi revisited the horror sub-genre of slime with Drag Me to Hell, the very stupid evil gypsy movie, which horror fans were all too eager to adore, even going as far to say its existence rendered an Evil Dead IV as irrelevant.

What a bunch of primitive screwheads.

This is the thing about the Evil Dead franchise: what it’s come to mean today doesn’t represent its earliest beginnings. Yes, the first Evil Dead, released way back in 1981, is a shoddy film. The acting is poor. The effects, though imaginative, are also poor. But what drove the film and made it so successful was the intent behind it. The Evil Dead was made by a bunch of kids who said, “fuck it, let’s make a movie,” picked up a camera, and did it. And so, yes, the acting and the effects are indicative of inexperienced kids making a film comprised entirely of their passion and dedication to the horror genre and a budget of $50. What was originally meant to be “the ultimate experience in grueling terror” delighted and shocked audiences way back in ’81, but it also kind of amused them. They laughed–in places they shouldn’t have.

And writer/director Sam Raimi, producer/actor Bruce Campbell, and producer Robert Tapert, said, “Uh oh…”

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-2In order of stay ahead of the curve, 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, and 1993’s Army of Darkness dialed down the horror but amped up the comedy, as if to say, “Yep, we were in on the joke the whole time!”

They weren’t. And depending on who you ask, this tonal change in what began with a film about demons possessing people and trees raping girls either ruined the unrelenting, no-holds-barred approach to horror or improved it by making everything “funnier.” The majority of audiences seemed to embrace this new direction, finding delight in Ash becoming somewhat of a dolt. In the first film he was merely some guy–neither an unexplainable evil-killing machine, nor a hapless hero who falls ass-backwards into victory. He was just…some guy…who happened to be caught up in a strange and terrifying situation. But in Evil Dead II, Ash was re-envisioned as that same lovable dolt equally adept at being thrown into bookshelves as he was in massacring the evil. In Army of Darkness, things went one step further by maintaining the doltness, but also making him an insufferable jerk, the decision inspired by the audience’s predilection for liking Ash both as a character and as a hero, therefore making his unruly and slight misogynistic behavior just part of the character’s “charm.”

And here we are: 35 years following the release of The Evil Dead, Ashley J. Williams and his robot hand are battling evil forces once again in Ash vs. Evil Dead, the Evil Dead IV fans have been clamoring for. Was it worth the wait?

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-3It should come as no surprise that the series’ pilot/opener, “El Jefe,” as directed by Evil Dead auteur Sam Raimi, is the most strikingly directed episode of the entire season. Easily jumping back into his Deadite mindset, the quick zooms, the frantic cuts, the tilted camera angles all scream vintage Evil Dead, and it’s often a delight to see him back in the grimy, gory sandbox he created. Following the pilot, directing duties then fall to various directors, one of them Michael J. Bassett, who directed a handful of underrated British horror films, Deathwatch, Wilderness, and Solomon Kane. All of the Season One directors managed to preserve that iconic Evil Dead frenetic design, like an EC Comic book come to screaming life, while injecting their own identities.

And for anyone wondering: the utter seriousness draped across the recent Evil Dead redux, directed by Fede Alvarez, has not rubbed off on the original Evil Dead camp. Ash vs. Evil Dead maintains all the goofy, slapstick humor as presented in Army of Darkness (even though, curiously, AvsED seems to have retconned AOD right out of existence). The make-up effects look at their best and most refined, although the over-reliance on CGI blood and gore threatens to counteract the goodwill that the practical and makeup effects establish.

Seeing Bruce Campbell slip back into the boots of Ashley J. Williams is, to a horror fan, a joy, but to the more discerning horror fan (like me), kind of conflicting. We, the Evil Dead-loving audience, love that Ash is back, and that Bruce is playing him. But the Ash of 2016 is so far removed from the Ash of 1981 that his transformation from a meek, average, every-day guy to a loudmouthed, brash, monster-killing dynamo seems very very odd, especially when taking into consideration that Army of Darkness apparently no longer happened, which was the sequel that introduced the smart-assed version of Ash in the first place. However, and despite being obviously inspired by the franchise birthed all those years ago, there’s a modern edge to AvsED that seems to have been inspired by the never-dead CW series Supernatural–the blinking black-eyed demons, the road trip mentality, the classic rock soundtrack, the Oldsmobile becoming a “character,” and even to the reveal of Lucy Lawless’ character, whose quite pleasing outward appearance masks something very unexpected. There’s a threat that AvsED might be going…gasp…mainstream, which is something that feels very foreign considering up to this point the closest the Evil Dead series ever got to mainstream was five minutes of Bridget Fonda.

Most appreciable about AvsEd is its presentation. This isn’t an X-Files or before-mentioned Supernatural situation where the main conflict exists as a constant backbone, but where our odd-following duos find monsters of the week to hunt. AvsED really is like one elongated Evil Dead IV, with no superfluous moments (except maybe for the survivalists episode).

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-1Parts of AvsED work incredibly well, such as the finale which sees Ash back at the original cabin where all this madness first took place (allowing for Linda # 4, once again played by a different actress, to make an appearance), and where Campbell, the occasional dramatic actor, shows off some nice melancholy when forced to confront his demons both literal and emotional. Promoting the cabin, originally just a setting of the original horror, into a living thing–less a conduit and more a catalyst to the evil–is an intriguing idea. Additionally, the callbacks to the first two films work well to stew those fanboy juices. This is what AvsED needed more of. It feels very familiar at times it also feels very different–it’s two worlds colliding, much like the horror (and some of it is genuinely unnerving) and the comedy colliding, and it never quite gels.

As a horror fan, discerning or not, I’m thrilled that AvsED exists. I’m thrilled that the fans have taken to it with such enthusiasm, and I’m thrilled that it’s been picked up for a second season. It follows in the shoes of successful film-to-series transitions forged by Hannibal and continued by Bates Motel, and can only lay the groundwork for further horror properties’ journey to the small screen. And that’s pretty groovy.

THE PICTURE  4.5/5

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-6Ash vs. Evil Dead is a very flashy, dynamic show. There’s lots going on to fill the frame, be it swirling storm clouds, gushing red blood, or all the heightened colors of a comic book that you’ve come to expect from a Sam Raimi-led series. The video presentation offers a very faithful and attractive image, preserving this eclectic color pallet. Considering the series takes place in drab environments, like trailer interiors and parks, budget retail stores, and abandoned houses, the image is never stagnate. There’s always something of interest going on, either immediately or subtly.

 THE SOUND 4.5/5

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-5As you can imagine, in something like Ash vs. Evil Dead, there’s a lot of screaming. Ghoul screaming. “Burn in hell!” “I’ll kill you!” “I’ll kill you in hell!” These monsters never whisper, and thankfully the audio presentation never stifles their demonic mouth noise. Between the rock ‘n roll soundtrack and the constant Deadite carnage, the 7.1 DTS track will give your home theater system a tremendous workout. Dialogue, cornball as it may be, comes across clean and clear. And props to composer Joseph LoDuca, who has scored every Evil Dead film so far, for his excellent music, which likely ranks in the upper echelons of the series. It sounds pretty wonderful when married to all the splashing blood and smashing bones.

 THE SUPPLEMENTS 4/5

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-7The commentary on the pilot, “El Jefe,” is a glorious reunion, featuring series creator/director Sam Raimi, producers Ivan Raimi and Bob Tapert, and producer/actor Bruce Campbell. This is a lovely track, which sees the Raimi brothers recalling the long road of trying to get an Evil Dead IV made (various ideas are discussed–Ash trying to sell a documentary on what happened to him; the Ash of the present meeting up with the Ash of the future; although the rumored gas station-set plot wasn’t mentioned) and how they eventually decided television was the way to go. There’s a lot of ribbing going on, being that these men have been friends their entire lives, and Raimi amusingly notes that he knew television would be a good way to explore the next chapter of Evil Dead because the audience would only have to endure Bruce Campbell “in small doses.” (Note: commentaries are only accessible when choosing an episode, not via the “play all episodes” option, nor on the audio button via your remote. I guess you could accuse me of being an Ash-sized idiot, but it took me kind of a while to figure that out.)

The remaining featurettes, all told, add up to about twenty minutes of content. It’s amusing to see all those aged Evil Dead faces compared to the fresh-faced versions we have in our minds from the original ’81 film. That such an odd brand has been kept alive for all these years, whether you’re a fan or not, is something worth respecting.

The complete list of special features is as follows:

— Audio Commentaries on All Ten Episodes
— Ash Inside the World
–How to Kill a Deadite
–Best of Ash

TECH SPECS

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-8STUDIO: Starz Originals/Renaissance Films
DISTRIBUTOR: Starz/Anchor Bay Entertainment
GENRE: Horror/Comedy
RATING: TV MA
AIR DATE: October 31, 2015 – January 2, 2016
VIDEO STREET DATE: August 23, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.78:1
AUDIO: English: Dolby TrueHD 7.1; Spanish: Dolby Digital 2.0; French: Dolby Digital 5.1
SUBTITLES: English SDH; Spanish
RUN TIME: 294 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
REGION: A

 OVERALL 4/5

ash-vs-evil-dead-blu-ray-review-covI’m in the minority of people who called it “one and done” following the original Evil Dead, choosing to appreciate its intent for an exclusively horrific experience, even if a flawed one. Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness achieved higher budgets and better distribution, but the tacked-on cartoon humor seemed like a too-dramatic concession made for an audience who wanted to laugh at low-budget filmmaking. Having said that, and being that I recognize I’m fairly alone in that preference, Ash vs. Evil Dead is an easy recommendation for fans of the trilogy who lovingly embraced the Three Stooges-inspired humor that resulted from that 1981 laughter. This series release from Starz offers great PQ and AQ, and I’m impressed that every episode has an audio commentary–a supplement that’s becoming increasingly rare these days. For fans of the series, this is a no-brainer, just like Ash himself.

THE DISTRIBUTOR

Anchor Bay Entertainment is one of the leading distributors of independent feature films and home entertainment product and the home entertainment division of Starz Media, LLC. It includes the Anchor Bay Entertainment, Anchor Bay Films and Manga Entertainment brands. Anchor Bay Entertainment distributes on Blu-ray and DVD formats. It is the exclusive distributor in the U.S. of the theatrical titles from Overture Films.


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J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.

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