EVIL DEAD II (1987): DIRECTOR SAM RAIMI

©2021, by M. Keith Booker

Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) was a genuinely groundbreaking horror film that introduced the world to the unique talents of Bruce Campbell, at the same time mixing motifs from a variety of horror subgenres and adding in a touch of over-the-top visual flare to produce a film that undeniably belonged within the genre of horror but that was also clearly designed more to amuse and entertain than to truly scare or horrify. It’s a low-budget effort that is a bit rough around the edges, but it also represented an important demonstration of the potential of the horror genre to move in directions other than the purely gothic. Raimi and Campbell then returned six years later with Evil Dead II, often described as a sequel, but really more of a remake, with a higher budget and better special effects—and even more emphasis on comedy. It puts even more focus on Campbell (who has evolved significantly as a performer since the first film), and it further extends a gross-out sensibility that produces more groans and guffaws than shrieks of terror. It also features a number of the favorite themes of supernatural horror, but it does so with a wink of acknowledgement that these are simply entertainment devices, not intended to suggest any genuine belief in the supernatural. Finally, it freely borrows from other horror subgenres, indicating a willingness to cross boundaries that is one of many characteristics marking it as a postmodern work.

Evil Dead II begins with a voiceover that introduces us to the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, or The Book of the Dead, which once served, we are told “as a passageway to the evil worlds beyond.” It is also a Book of the Dead that unleashes evil in The Evil Dead, though in the first film it is described as a Sumerian version of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. The book is foregrounded more in the second Evil Dead film in that it is introduced at the beginning rather than in the course of the narrative. In addition, the term Necronomicon is not used in the first film, and its introduction in Evil Dead II clearly serves the purpose of linking the film to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, who featured a Necronomicon in several of his stories, developing an entire mythology around it.Lovecraft, one of the founding figures of American horror writing, was, at the time, beginning to exert a growing influence on American horror film, as in the 1985 film Re-Animator, loosely based on a 1922 novelette by Lovecraft, but actually showing sensibilities that are much closer to those of the Evil Dead films than to those of Lovecraft. This opening homage to Lovecraft, then, serves both to announce that the film will be drawing upon important horror film traditions and to announce that it will not necessarily be treating those traditions reverentially, or even respectfully.

That Evil Dead II will focus more on Campbell’s character, Ash Williams, is indicated immediately after the introduction of the Necronomicon when we see him driving with his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) as they head into the country for what is supposed to be a romantic getaway in a remote cabin. In The Evil Dead, Ash and Linda (there played by Betsy Baker) are joined on the outing by three other young people, including Ash’s sister and another couple, and it is not until the latter part of the film that Ash even emerges as the central character. Having only two young people in the cabin allows Ash to be the center of the film from the very beginning, though additional characters will be introduced later on. Indeed, this film moves much more quickly than the original, largely recapitulating (in modified form) the events of the first film in its first segments, allowing Ash to get involved in battles with demons much more quickly.

Evil Dead II moves quickly through an introduction of the Book of the Dead and its mythology, as explained by the appropriately-named Professor Knowby (John Peaks) on the tape-recorded notes he left on his discovery of the book and subsequent studies of it in this remote cabin. We learn, for example, that the recitation of certain passages of the book can allow an evil demon to possess the living and force them to do its bidding. We also learn, ominously, that the possessed can be defeated only by “bodily dismemberment,” of which we will see several examples in the coming minutes. When Knowby, having announced the dangers associated with reciting the key passages, then immediately starts to recite them, the moment must surely be taken as a parody of all those times in horror movies when characters (intellectuals or not) find themselves compelled to do exactly the wrong thing. So it comes as no surprise when, as Ash (brilliantly) plays the tape of key passages, a point of view shot immediately indicates that something evil is moving rapidly through the woods toward the cabin. Anyone familiar with the first film pretty knows what’s coming in its broad outlines, of course, though many details play out differently this time. Things also move much more rapidly in this second film: in The Evil Dead, it takes roughly 4 ½ minutes for the group even to reach the cabin; in Evil Dead II, the professor is already summoning up demons by about the same point in the film.

The demonic spirit that moves through the woods at this point in Evil Dead II immediately possesses Linda, turning her into a “deadite.”[1] She then viciously attacks Ash, continuing the extremely rapid pace of this film. By the 6 ½-minute mark, meanwhile, Ash has already sliced off Linda’s head with a shovel, then used that same shovel to dig her grave, which he marks with a roughly-constructed wooden cross. Never fear, though, there is still plenty more evil out there, and another demon comes ripping through the cabin and smashes into Ash’s face, essentially replicating the ending of the first Evil Dead film and now sending us into all-new territory from this point forward.

Ash is momentarily possessed by the demon, but (luckily) this demon (like vampires) is apparently allergic to sunlight. So, when the sun comes out at this point, the demon is driven from Ash’s body, giving him a momentary reprieve. Meanwhile, we have been treated to a view of his face in demonically transfigured form, giving us an ample preview of the kinds of outrageous makeup and special effects that will mark the remainder of the film, as Ash careens from one disaster to another, beginning with the discovery that the bridge he drove across to reach the cabin has now been destroyed, apparently leaving him stranded.

Most of the rest of the film is simply Campbell battling the demons, who deliver a cartoonish amount of punishment to the amazingly durable rubber-faced protagonist. That evening, Ash enjoys a sentimental moment remembering Linda (while a piano plays itself in the background, like something from a Disney haunted house), then is treated to the spectacle of Linda’s body (already significantly rotted and desiccated) as it rises from the grave and recovers its head, dancing bizarrely about on the lawn outside the cabin, before disappearing into the woods. The Linda-thing then reappears, reaches through the window, grabs Ash, and starts to bash his head against the boards that have been nailed over the window opening. Then, suddenly, the film cuts to Ash sitting in a chair screaming maniacally, inviting us to ponder how much of what has just happened (and is about to happen) might simply be his imagination. At this point, things get even more confusing as Linda’s possessed head drops into his lap, seemingly from nowhere, and bites him on his hand, hopelessly blurring the boundary between fantasy and reality, while at the same time making it clear that this is a film that is not much concerned with making sense in any literal way.

That Linda’s severed head seems to continue to be able to act on its own, without its body, is indicative of the crucial role played by “bodily dismemberment” throughout the film. Here, in a venerable horror film tradition, body parts are not only frequently removed, but also take on a life of their own. Severed heads and hands play particularly prominent roles in the history of horror film, and both kinds of dismemberment are important in Evil Dead II, where the hand just bitten by Linda’s head will eventually be severed and become central to much of the rest of the film. In this sense, Evil Dead II looks back at least as far as the crawling severed hand featured in The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), a motif that shows up even more prominently in Oliver Stone’s The Hand (1981), a sort of slasher film in which the slasher is seemingly a severed hand with a murderous mind of its own.

After an extended, violently slapstick battle, Ash defeats both Linda’s body and her head—with a chainsaw that will become crucial later. Chainsaws are, of course, iconic horror-film weapons, at least since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The chain-sawing of Linda’s head (after it is secured in a vise) is particularly spectacular, while Ash also pulls off one of the body’s arms in the process of extracting the chainsaw from it, continuing the dismemberment motif. Ash, though, is sometimes his own worst enemy. As the battle against evil goes on, Ash nearly chokes himself to death when he is attacked by his mirror self—recalling the experience of the protagonist in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (1976). But his real battle with himself occurs when the bite on his hand transfers Linda’s possession to his hand, much in the way that zombie bites traditionally transform their victims into zombies. That hand then delivers a ridiculous beating to Ash, smashing him in the face with virtually everything in the cabin. Ash, though, once again triumphs. First, he pins the hand to the floor of the cabin by plunging a knife through it, much as a character in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple (1984) had done to a killer who was chasing her[2]. Then, dismemberment being the order of the day in Evil Dead II, Ash grabs that chainsaw, cries “Who’s laughing now?” and cuts off the offending hand, splattering large quantities of blood into his face. It’s a particularly grisly scene, but one done with a slapstick touch, less in the mode of later torture porn films—as when Dr. Lawrence Gordon amputates his own foot in Saw—than in the spirit of the famous Black Knight amputation sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Should there be any doubt that the severing of Ash’s hand is meant to be funny, he immediately entraps the amputated part by placing a bucket a bucket over it and weighing down the bucket with a stack of books. The top book on the stack? Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, of course.

The hand is not easily defeated, however. It soon escapes and initiates another battle with Ash, though it has its own troubles, such as getting caught in a mousetrap. When Ash laughs at this development, it escapes from the trap and gives him the finger (of course). It scurries inside the wall, and Ash fires a shotgun at it. Blood trickles from the wall, signaling a hit. Ash cackles triumphantly, only to be hit with an enormous torrent of blood that spews from the wall. And so it goes. Raimi seemingly leaves no possibility for gross-out humor unexplored as he follows Ash and his battles against evil. Campbell, meanwhile, hams it up mercilessly, while virtually every inanimate object in the cabin turns on him at one point or another, buffeting him about like something from The Three Stooges or a Looney Toons cartoon.

Soon afterward, the cast of characters inhabiting the cabin is expanded with what seems like the beginning of a joke, as Ash is joined by an intellectual couple and a hillbilly couple. The hillbilly couple includes the comical Jake (Dan Hicks) and the surprisingly well-groomed Bobby Joe (Cassie Wesley). The intellectuals are Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry), the professor’s daughter, and Professor Ed Getley (Richard Domeier), her boyfriend and Professor Knowby’s associate. The hillbillies serve as (paid) guides to the cabin for the intellectuals, who have come to check on Knowby’s work and who have to hike in because of the destroyed bridge.

Caught up in the battle, Ash nearly shoots the new arrivals as well, but then they, too, beat the crap out of him. Believing he is insane and dangerous, they decide to toss him in the cellar. Jake drags him across the floor and declares, “Crazy buck’s gone blood simple,” once again apparently referencing the recent Coen brothers film. Ash then crashes in full Three Stooges mode down the ladder that leads into the cellar, before finally coming to rest at the bottom.

Given Ash’s typical luck, it is no surprise that Henrietta, Professor Knowby’s wife, is buried in the cellar after the professor killed her because she was possessed by a demon. But, as he failed to dismember her, of course she comes back to life and attacks Ash after her ghoulish corpse, now a deadite, emerges from beneath the floor. Jake pulls Ash from the cellar, and Henrietta tries to follow. Then, in one of the film’s signature moments, Ash stomps the trap-door to the cellar shit on Henrietta’s head, causing her eyeball to pop out and fly across the room—straight into the open mouth of the screaming Bobby Joe.

The battle rages on, as Getley is possessed by a demon, forcing Ash to hack him up with an axe. Green slime spews out instead of blood, just for variety. But Ash has still not employed his most memorable (and groovy) weaponry, which will see him replace his severed hand with the chain saw, based on an idea derived from the Necronomicon, which pictures a “hero from the sky” who appeared in 1300 AD bearing such weaponry. That cue, of course, also sets up the end of the film—and the beginning of the next sequel. But before that happens, the hillbillies are killed, and Ash himself takes another brief turn as a deadite, though he regains his humanity in a ludicrously sentimental moment after he sees Linda’s necklace. He is then able to win a violent battle with Henrietta, who has transformed into a stop-motion animated monster. Annie, too, is killed, but not before she manages to recite a passage from the book that opens the vortex that is supposed to send the evil back out of our world. Unfortunately, Ash is also sucked into the vortex (along with his Oldsmobile). As the film ends, he is back in 1300 AD with that chainsaw on his arm—just as pictured in the book.

Among other things, this ending sets up the next sequel, Army of Darkness (1992), which begins with Ash back in the Middle Ages and proceeds from that point. But it also shifts the film into an entirely new context that is indicative of the way Evil Dead II is not much concerned with staying within the boundaries of any kind; it takes, in fact, a gleeful pleasure in transgressing those boundaries, as when it mixes materials from so many subgenres, often stealing visuals from one subgenre to enhance material from another—as when its victims of demonic possession often look and act like zombies.

Matthew Grant has argued that The Evil Dead is informed by a “pure horror aesthetic” that shifts into comedy and self-reflexivity with Evil Dead II,” but that surely isn’t correct (5).The second film does not represent a radical change of direction from the first; instead, it merely pushes much farther forward into the realm of comic extremity that the first film had already entered. Kim Newman is thus closer to the mark when he argues that “If The Evil Dead shifts the horror film into overdrive, then Evil Dead II (1987) puts its foot through the floor and goes insane” (Newman, Nightmare 279). Indeed, it is as if Raimi and Campbell and the others involved in making Evil Dead II constructed a mad scientist laboratory designed to purify The Evil Dead and extract its most successful elements (the tendency toward visual excess and the push beyond horror into absurd comedy), then deliver them in concentrated form in Evil Dead II.

Thus, Rick Worland is also correct when he describes Evil Dead II as a “swiftly-paced absurdist comedy” (110). One might, indeed, wonder whether it even makes sense to categorize the film as horror, given its heavy reliance on comic excess. Still, the film is compounded from familiar horror film elements throughout its runtime, so that one could only exclude it from the horror film category if one agreed to exclude all horror comedy, but even such as drastic choice would actually only complicate matters further, because the line between horror and comedy is often not at all clear—and what some viewers might find horrific might seem comical to others. It seems best to be inclusive and to regard films as horror films if they draw upon the horror tradition for most of their inspiration, whatever tone they happen to take with regard to the material. And Evil Dead II certainly qualifies according to this criterion.

However, once it is granted that Evil Dead II is a horror film, it is still difficult to decide just what kind of horror film it is. It is clear, for example, Evil Dead II clearly depends on supernatural elements for most of its plot. On the other hand, the over-the-top style of Evil Dead II clearly places it within the realm of the postmodern, and it could very easily be categorized primarily as a postmodern horror film (which it certainly is). Meanwhile, supernatural horror films are usually not as bloody or graphic as, say, slasher films or body horror films, yet the most memorable characteristic of Evil Dead II is the nonstop infliction of bodily damage, conveyed via spectacularly excessive visual effects. All that dismemberment in Evil Dead II could certainly qualify it as body horror, and many individual scenes certainly look like something from a slasher film—albeit an insane one. Along these lines, Murray Leeder has thus noted that the three Evil Dead films, collectively, are perhaps the central example of the “splatter,” or “gross-out” film, a category of “cheerfully irreverent and bloody” films that also includes such examples as Re-Animator and Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992) (Horror Film 69). Finally, I might note that Matthew Grant considers the first two Evil Dead films, along with Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012), as key examples of “cabin horror,” which he regards as a form that grows out of the slasher subgenre and emerges as a distinct subgenre of its own with The Evil Dead. What defines this subgenre more than anything, for Grant, is the cabin setting, which functions as an “isolated site for release of repressed desires” (5). In this remote location, the characters are free to act on pleasure-oriented impulses (largely sexual) that would have been curbed back within the confines of civilization. At the same time, they are also stripped of most of the protections offered by civilized society, and therefore exposed to dangers they would never have encountered back in the safety of that society. This characterization of Evil Dead II is certainly fair, but the emphasis on setting (at the expense of so many other elements) does not strike me as the best way to categorize this film. After all, something like Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2003) would certainly qualify as “cabin horror” by this definition, just as it would also qualify as a “splatter” film. But it contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, so that its horror comes from a completely different source than the horror in Evil Dead II, which is entirely supernatural in its origins.

Of course, one could also argue that the source of the horror in the film is beside the point and that what really matters is the over-the-top nature of the film’s visuals—and of Campbell’s reactions to them. Indeed, one of the reasons why Evil Dead II is hard to categorize among horror films is that it depends so heavily on the bravura performance of its lead actor in order to achieve its effects. Leeder goes on to suggest that “Bruce Campbell is, perhaps even more so than Robert Englund, the prototypical post-classical cult horror star” (Horror Film 70). Indeed, while there have been some great performances in horror films (think of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates or Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter) one would be hard-pressed to think of a performance that was more crucial to the success of a horror film than Campbell’s in Evil Dead II, the overall style and tone of which are so inseparable from Campbell’s excessive hysterics[3].

It is Campbell’s performance that makes the film entertaining—and that provides the clearest indication that this film is not merely a gross-out supernatural horror film, but the gross-out supernatural horror film to end all gross-out supernatural horror films. As Roger Ebert put it in his initial review of the film,

“It looks superficially like a routine horror movie, a vomitorium designed to separate callow teenagers from their lunch. But look a little closer and you’ll realize that the movie is a fairly sophisticated satire. Level One viewers will say it’s in bad taste. Level Two folks like myself will perceive that it is about bad taste” (Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn).

One must go a step further, however. While it is entirely appropriate to see Evil Dead 2 as a send-up of the bad taste that often informs horror films (Jackson’s Bad Taste is perhaps the only more overt example of such a send-up), Raimi’s film is also a demonstration that, when properly executed, bad taste can be good fun. And good intelligent fun. It is, in many ways, a celebration of bad taste in horror films, but one so expertly carried out that the film is enjoyable even for viewers who would not ordinarily enjoy really bad horror films.

This is partly, I think, because Evil Dead II is impervious to the sorts of serious negative criticism that are normally leveled at bad horror films. It is impossible to deconstruct this film effectively, because it already deconstructs itself, lopping off its own rhetorical limbs before anyone else has a chance. Its most horrifying images are of transmogrified women (Linda and Henrietta), devouring feminine monsters who seem to embody the kind of grossly misogynist impulses that horror film has often been (appropriately) accused of promulgating. But Evil Dead II employs these images in such a knowingly self-parodic way that it seems impossible to argue effectively that these images are not (at least in part) a critique of misogyny, a demonstration of how outrageous it can be. Similarly, while the film might be seen by some as a glorification of violence, surely it is better read as undermining the glorification of violence, something that is virtually impossible to do without putting at least some graphic violence on the screen[4]. Finally, while Evil Dead II might be accused of anti-intellectualism (given that all the horrors in the film are unleashed by the work of a clueless professor), its own highly intelligent construction suggests that the film is actually more of a rejoinder to the long tradition of featuring intellectuals as a source (either through evil or incompetence) of trouble in horror films. All in all, then, Evil Dead II is a guilty pleasure that no one need feel guilty for enjoying, even if that someone is a feminist, a pacifist, or (horror of horrors) an intellectual.

WORKS CITED

Ebert, Roger. “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.” Roger Ebert.com (April 10, 1987). https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/evil-dead-2-dead-by-dawn-1987. Accessed March 19, 2019.

Grant, Matthew. “The Cabin on the Screen: Defining the ‘Cabin Horror’ Film.” Film Matters (Spring 2014): 5-12.

Leeder, Murray. Horror Film: A Critical Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

NOTES

[1] In one of the film’s funniest sequences, another point of view shot shows the evil entity once again approaching the cabin to attack Ash. But then it can’t find him, because he hides in the cellar. This particular evil entity is apparently not all that bright.

[2] If this connection to the Coens’ film (which is mostly neo-noir, though it contains horror elements) seems farfetched, one should recall that Raimi and the Coens are friends who have worked together several times. In fact, Joel Coen’s first professional job in the film business was as an assistant editor on the original Evil Dead.

[3] The closest thing would probably be Jeffrey Combs’ performance in Re-Animator, a film that begs for comparison with Evil Dead II in a number of ways.

[4] Indeed, any film that serious undertakes the project of criticizing the glorification of violence in film is apt to come under criticism for precisely such glorification, simply because graphic images are required in order to carry out the critique of such images. Oliver Stone’s much-underappreciated Natural Born Killer (1994) is perhaps the best case in point.