Talking Movies: Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn

Talking Movies

Released: 13 March 1987
Director: Sam Raimi
Distributor: Rosebud Releasing Corporation
Budget: $3.5 million
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley, Lou Hancock/Ted Raimi, and Denise Bixler

The Plot:
After discovering a recorded incantation that unleashes a demonic spirit from the nearby woods and possesses his girlfriend, Ashley “Ash” Williams (Campbell) is tormented and partially possessed by the evil force. Things escalate when locals and scientist Annie Knowby (Berry) arrive at the cabin, only to be set upon by a monstrous, zombie-like demon dwelling in the basement…

The Background:
Back in 1981, long-time friends and collaborators Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert begged and borrowed to turn a simple horror concept into the ambitious, if hazardous, The Evil Dead , a low-budget horror that established Raimi’s directorial style but failed to propel him into the mainstream despite surprisingly positive reviews and being a sleeper hit. After his follow-up projects bombed, Raimi returned to his horror roots for an Evil Dead sequel, but production was immediately upended by rights issues; since Raimi didn’t own the rights to his original film, the opening sequence of the sequel served as a partial recap/remake of The Evil Dead, though now streamlined to focus on only Ash and his girlfriend. While shooting the first film, Raimi had conceived of a sequel in which Ash would be transported back to medieval times, an idea that the studios passed on; however, despite The Evil Dead’s financial success, producer Dino De Laurentiis wouldn’t approve of Raimi’s more outlandish ideas, necessitating a return trip to the cabin. Although the script had been conceptualised for some time, Raimi brought in another long-time friend, Scott Spiegel, to make adjustments and it was Spiegel who took the franchise in a more horror/comedy direction, with him and Raimi both drawing inspiration from their love of the Three Stooges. This was especially evident in Campbell’s slapstick fights against both the evil force and his own possessed hand; Evil Dead II dramatically increased Campbell’s abuse and stunt work, and the set remained notably hazardous for the cast and crew. As before, the film’s special effects and horror were achieved in-camera using a series of dollies, animatronics, and traditional filmmaking techniques; footage was run in reverse, large and uncomfortable suits were worn, and shots often tracked the actors from the rafters and through the walls of the set. Over 880 gallons of fake blood were used during filming, a custom-built prop chainsaw was built to be attached Ash’s severed hand, and the KNB EFX Group had to use every trick in the book, from miniatures to matte paintings, to deliver the film’s far gorier and more ambitious make-up and special effects. This meant that the film again had trouble with the ratings board; when they proposed cuts that would severely cripple the film’s runtime, it went unrated upon release, a gamble which may account for its much lower box office gross of $5.9 million. However, Evil Dead II was met with largely positive reviews; critics praised the direction and performances, especially Campbell’s work, as much as the over the top gore and blend of horror, comedy, and action. Of all the Evil Dead films, Evil Dead II is the most influential; it’s regarded as a cult horror classic and its characterisation of Ash and shift towards horror/comedy was replicated in subsequent comic books, videogames, and the unfortunately short-lived television series.

The Review:
If you’ve seen The Evil Dead then you might initially be put off by Evil Dead II simply because it immediately retcons a great deal of that film; gone are Ash’s friends and sibling, reducing the cast of the initial cabin experience to a vastly different version of Ash and his doting girlfriend, Linda (Bixler). However, I do believe this is to the film’s benefit; the reshot opening sequence, which effectively retells and replaces the first movie, features all of the best parts of The Evil Dead but with higher production values across the board, meaning you can easily skip the original movie and be all the better for it since Evil Dead II establishes so much of the lore, atmosphere, and characterisations that would continue throughout the remainder of the series. The movie opens with Professor Knowby’s (John Peaks) ominous narration regarding the semi-intelligent book, now rechristened “Necronomicon Ex-Mortis” but still referred to as the “Book of the Dead” and containing the same rituals as before, but now with a far more animated face and a great deal more power and influence seeped into its gory pages. From there, the film very much mirrors the first movie; this time, it’s just Ash taking his girlfriend to a secluded, abandoned cabin for a romantic getaway and elements of Scott’s (Richard DeManincor) character are weaved into him.

Ash is far more well-rounded and made dangerously unpredictable by the evil’s influence.

Consequently, in contrast to the first movie, Ash is no longer bookish or some geek who struggles to be assertive; by borrowing Scott’s bravado, Ash is bolstered and given deeper characterisation by a snarky confidence that translates far better once he assumes the role of unlikely horror hero. He still thinks gifting an awful magnifying glass necklace to his girlfriend is a good idea and still exhibits the same likable charisma and tortured conflict seen in the first film, but he’s much more competent and less wishy-washy here, though all his sexual confidence can’t keep him from giving into curiosity and playing Professor Knowby’s tape and bringing forth the evil lying dormant in the forest. Although he doesn’t have to suffer the pain of watching his sister and friends get possessed and picked off by the evil force they unleash, he’s still tormented when Linda is overtaken by the titular evil dead and becomes a gibbering, maniacal zombie-like creature. Ash’s concern and love for a large group of friends is focused all on Linda, making her a much more prominent character in his life and she returns again and again to spitefully mock him or cause him further harm. He’s also the sole focus of the evil force itself; similar to the last film, the evil possesses Linda and even the house itself to taunt Ash, driving him to near madness in a far shorter and more brutal space of time, but it also infects him more than once. Most prominently, it enters his hand, compelling it to attack him and forcing him to sever it at the wrist with a chainsaw, but it also overtakes him completely on a couple of occasions, something that was strangely missing from the first film and works in tandem with Ash’s fractured mindset to make him a dangerous and unpredictable character this time around since you’re never sure when he’s going to suddenly become a flesh-hungry Deadite.

Ash’s love for Linda is one of the few things that keeps him sane, while Annie is the key to banishing the evil.

Although Linda’s role is again quite small, the absence of Ash’s other friends means she takes on a more prominent role in a number of ways. First, as mentioned, all of his attention is focused on her, giving her more to do and more agency in the cabin and allowing Ash’s grief to be largely focused on her. Second, she becomes something of a secondary antagonist after being possessed; Linda proves to be Ash’s Achille’s heel time and again and the evil force doesn’t hesitate to exploit that. While he’s far faster at chopping off her possessed head to defend himself, he remains heartbroken at the loss and even when her headless corpse mocks him and attacks him with a chainsaw, he remains conflicted and reluctant to harm her until he’s pushed to breaking point. Finally, Ash is definitely a much more confident character when it comes to women in this film, but he’s absolutely portrayed as a one-woman man; Linda’s memory is one of the few things that keeps Ash sane and allows him to resist the influence of the evil force, and her necklace has very much the same impact on him as the rising sun, banishing the evil from his body and bringing him to his senses, which allows her to be far more important to the overall plot, and to Ash, than simply being another cackling demon in the corner. Ash also eventually bonds with Annie; while she initially believes that he’s murdered her father and mother, Henrietta Knowby (Hancock/Rami, respectively), her research into the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis means that she’s soon relying on Ash to help them survive until the dawn and recover the missing pages of the book to put a stop to the rampant evil. Like her father, Annie has been researching the book for some time and is excited to get to the cabin so she can bring the book’s missing pages to her father, only to find a deranged man covered in blood and wielding a shotgun. It’s only after hearing about what happened to her parents that Annie starts to realise that the real danger lurks in the cellar and the pages of the Necronomicon and that her ability to read from the book is their only hoping of stopping the evil force.

The supporting cast largely exists to cause problems and get themselves offed in gory fashion.

While Ash’s friends might be gone, Evil Dead II still features an extended cast; Annie comes to the cabin with her research partner, Professor Ed Getley (Domeier), and they enlist the help of two locals, repairman Jake (Hicks) and his girlfriend, Bobby Joe (Wesley), easily the two most annoying characters in the entire film. Thanks to Ash having been tormented by the evil force and jumping at every shadow (not to mention being covered in blood and having a stump for a hand!), Annie and the others instantly distrust and attack him, locking him in the cellar without heeding his warnings. Much like Cheryl Williams (Ellen Sandweiss), sneering redneck Bobby Joe is driven out into the malevolent woods and attacked, though with far less disturbing methods, and Jake becomes so consumed with concern for her that he tosses the Necronomicon’s pages into the foreboding cellar and forces Ash and Annie to go into the woods at gunpoint and find her. Mean, stupid, and cynical, Jake doesn’t believe any of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo Ash and even Annie tries to convince him of, needlessly extending the film and endangering the group and ending up dead as a result. Since Ash is infused with some of Scott’s bluster this time around, it’s poor, unassuming Ed who mirrors Ash from the first film; he’s basically a blank slate there to make up the numbers and add to the body count and give Ash a heroic moment when he puts the possessed academic down with an axe. Professor Knowby takes on a far greater role here as well; not only is he responsible for bringing the Necronomicon  to the cabin and first unleashing its demons, he essentially dooms the characters by burying his possessed wife in the fruit cellar. In a desperate attempt to find redemption, his tormented spirit appears before them to provide the key to dispelling the evil and acting as something of a counter to the malevolent force.

The evil force delights in tormenting Ash and attacking through demonic possession.

Of course, the primary antagonistic force in the film is the disembodied “evil dead”. Unlike in the first movie, where it’s pretty clear that the evil force is lurking in the forest and waiting to strike at its prey, the evil is dormant and quiet until Ash plays the tape recording but no less ruthless than before. Indeed, this time around, the evil force is far more diverse; in addition to urging its victims to “Join us!” with a booming whisper (William Preston Robertson) and wrecking the main bridge back to civilisation, it creepily transforms the front of the cabin into a glaring face and delights in torturing Ash by possessing furniture, lights, and stuffed animals inside the cabin for one of the most amusing and disturbing scenes in the film. The evil force repeats many of the same tricks from the first film, sweeping around with erratic and unsettling movements, bashing through doors, wrecking the only bridge to safety, and infecting its victims through possession and bloodletting, but also has many more options for physical manifestation; it turns Linda into a cackling Deadite and even transforms Ash into a hideous demon, but derives much pleasure from possessing his hand and causing him direct physical harm. Even when it’s cut off, Ash’s hand continues to torment him, even stabbing Annie in the back by the finale, but the evil dead’s most prominent manifestation is the bloated, demonic Henrietta (Raimi) who dwells in the cellar. Both Linda and Henrietta are much more vocal than the Deadites from the last film, issuing threats and torturing their victims verbally as well as physically, with the swollen Henrietta swinging Annie around while levitating overhead. As before, there are ways to conquer the evil force; it’s banished by daylight and strong emotional ties, for example, but those possessed can only be stopped by total bodily dismemberment, something that again proves difficult for the likes of Ash given how much he loves Linda. A new wrinkle introduced here, though, is that the Necronomicon itself also holds the secret to stopping the evil force; since Annie is the only one who can read it and the pages she needs are lost in Henrietta’s cellar, this gives the characters more options and motivation for venturing deeper into the cabin, and the book, for a solution, and the book even contains some prophetic passages concerning Ash’s future adventures and greater destiny within the series.

The Nitty-Gritty:
There’s no doubt in my mind that Evil Dead II is the superior of the first two movies; the film looks so much better and benefits from a better quality of film grain and lighting, higher production values, and the seasoning of Raimi and Campbell as director and actor. It’s still full of the same sweeping, erratic camera work as the first movie but everything looks like it’s of a much higher quality; this extends to the puppets and practical effects, which shine all the brighter here thanks to the greater budget, and to Campbell’s performance. Before, he was a little quiet and understated but he’s really put through the wringer here, quickly forced to endure horrendous torture from the evil force in the first fifteen minutes of the film and spending a lot of it seemingly on the knife’s edge of insanity after flailing about with his girlfriend’s severed head chomping on his hand, being tormented by laughing furniture, being driven through the windscreen of his car, and having been forced to fight and then chop off his own hand! However, while Bruce Campbell’s performances are far better than in the first film, Evil Dead II is really let down by Jake and Bobby Joe. The former, in particular, is exceptionally grating; I get that that’s the point, he’s meant to be a sweaty, unlikeable, self-serving redneck, but damn is he a pig-headed pain in the ass and the most glaringly unwatchable aspect of the film, which is saying a lot considering all the gore involved!

Ash is really put through the wringer here but comes out of it as one of horror’s most iconic heroes.

Luckily, Ash is here to counterbalance this. Ash has to go from cocksure college student to horror hero in far less time than in the first film, but it’s pulled off well thanks to Campbell’s refined charisma and the early going being able to directly focus on Ash’s relationship with Linda while still piling on the madness and abuse towards the character. Ash really goes through a gauntlet in this film; not only is he forced to chop up, bury, and continuously fight against his Deadite girlfriend, he fights himself in some of the most memorable sequences in the entire franchise that really showcase Campbell’s comedic chops and physical performance. While I’m no fan of the Three Stooges, it’s hard to deny Campbell’s physical commitment to the movie, which saw him getting beaten up, repeatedly hit over the head, and almost drown in a puddle. Nowhere is this more memorable than during Ash’s battle against his severed hand, which also doubles as an external representation of the battle that rages within himself; thanks to being infected by the evil force, he’s also susceptible to it and must fight to overcome it by remembering his lost love. Ash is also far more forthright and proactive in this film; having been driven to the brink by the spiteful evil force, he openly stands up to Jake even when he’s armed and constantly tries to warn Annie and the others of the evil at the cabin, only to be met with disbelief and aggression. When Annie and Ash are forced to venture into the cellar to retrieve the pages, Ash completes his transformation into one of horror’s most memorable action icons by reconfiguring a chainsaw into an attachment for his bloody stump, arming himself with a sawn-off shotgun, and spouting his most memorable catchphrase: “Groovy!”

The film perfectly balances its cartoonish humour with copious gore and horrifying demons.

Naturally, given it’s of the same splatter-horror subgenre as its predecessor, Evil Dead II still features copious amounts of blood, violence, and gore, though things are definitely much more skewed towards comedy this time around. As unsettling as it is when Ash’s reflection comes to life, deer heads and lamps giggle at his misfortune, and when his hand is twisted into an infectious claw, it’s all much more over the top and campy, with the evil force’s spiteful demeanour now taking a more playful edge, demonstrated when his severed hand flips him the bird and Linda’s decaying corpse does a little dance for him before smashing his head into the boarded up window with skeletal hands that are clearly being moved by Bruce Campbell. Still, there’s a great deal of gore on show here; Ash spends the whole movie sporting a series of weeping cuts on his face, the cabin tries to drown him in all kinds of viscera, and Ash gets a face full of the red stuff when he first chainsaws Linda’s head in two and then lops his hand off at the wrist. Stop motion effects are still employed here, particularly when Henrietta emerges from the cellar floor and her corpse-like face transforms into a more demonic visage, as are traditional, cheap tricks like running the footage of Kassie Wesley in reverse to make it seem like Bobby Joe has swallowed the witch’s eyeball! Similar techniques are again used to bring the trees to life to attack Bobby Joe, though this time they settle for taking root in her flesh, dragging her through the woods, and smashing her against a tree trunk rather than sexually violating her. Like Cheryl, Ed is transformed into a demonic creature through which the evil speaks, becoming a monstrous ghoul that swallows a chunk of Bobby Joe’s hair and ends up chopped into bloody pieces, though his blood takes on a green hue. Easily the best Deadite effect is saved for Ash, who becomes a monstrous version of himself at a couple of points, while Henrietta fulfils the role of the principal physical manifestation of the evil, dragging Jake down into the cellar and leaving him little more than a torrent of blood.

Although Annie’s able to dispel the evil, Ash is sucked through a portal and winds up trapped in medieval times!

After shaking off the evil’s influence, Ash tools himself up in his now iconic look and ventures into the cellar to retrieve the expanded pages of the Necronomicon, which hold the key to dispelling the evil: one passage forces it to take on a physical form and another opens a rift through which the spirit can be banished. After successfully retrieving the pages from the flooded, rat-infested cellar, Ash is attacked by Henrietta, who bursts from the cellar with a maniacal glee, transforming into a squealing, demonic mass that would make Ray Harryhausen proud! Thanks to a timely distraction from Annie, Ash is able to chop the witch up and finally finish her off with a shotgun blast to the face and a witty one-liner (“Swallow this!”) However, the evil force attacks the cabin in full force, emerging as a gigantic, terrifying tree-like demon with a face so horrifying that a plant instantly withers and it sends a white streak through Ash’s hair! Although Ash’s bastard limb delivers a mortal wound to Annie, she’s able to finish the incantation with her dying breath, banishing the evil to the void but, sadly, taking Ash and his Oldsmobile as well since she never gets to close the portal. Previously, while examining the pages of the Necronomicon, Ash was overwhelmed by a sudden energy when he saw a depiction of the “Hero from the Sky”, a prophesised saviour who defeated the evil back in ancient times. Keen-eyed viewers will note the figure’s similarity to Ash and this brief picture is no coincidence as, in the finale, Ash finds himself unceremoniously deposited back in medieval times. There, he’s initially greeted with hostility by the armour-clad natives but proves himself to be the prophesised hero when he instinctively shoots down an incoming winged Deadite. However, while he’s subsequently hailed as a hero, Ash is left distraught as he realises he’s trapped in ancient times and his long night is still far from over

The Summary:
I mentioned in my review of the first movie that my first Evil Dead experience was Evil Dead II and, even now, I would always point a newcomer to this movie over any of the original three since it really is the most complete version of the story with the perfect blend of horror, action, and comedy. Thanks to opening with a recreation of the first film, one that reduces the cast down to simply Ash and his girlfriend, you get all the best parts of The Evil Dead with higher production values, better performances, and better effects told in a nice concise twenty-odd minutes. From there, the film expands on the original concept and then ends with Ash being trapped in medieval times for a bleak cliff-hanger ending that’s still more enjoyable than most of the third film even though it’s just a short tease at the end. While it lacks a lot of the raw grittiness of the super low-budget original, Evil Dead II more than makes up for it with higher production values and a much more enjoyable presentation; the gore and ambitious effects are much higher quality and shine so much brighter because of it. There are times when it’s a little cartoonish in its execution but, for me, Evil Dead II has always been the perfect balance of the dirty splatter-horror of the first and the ludicrously comedic action of the third film. Ash is a far more well-rounded character, one who transforms from a meek survivor into an action icon with his chainsaw for a hand and one-liners. Crucially, he remains a flawed and vulnerable character; driven half-mad by the evil and overcome by it more than once, Ash becomes as dangerous as the evil he’s fighting and is given far greater characterisation thanks to the film focusing more on him than bland supporting characters. In the end, if you’ve never seen an Evil Dead movie and don’t know where to start, don’t be intimidated by the II in the title and make sure you start here, with what is, for me, still the quintessential classic Evil Dead experience.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What do you think to Evil Dead II? Do you prefer it to the original film and how would you rate it compared to the other films? What did you think to how Ash’s new characterisation and transformation into a more competent action hero? Were you a fan of his battle against his severed hand and chainsaw appendage? Did Jake and Bobby Joe also grate on your nerves? What did you think to the film’s presentation, gore, and the marriage of horror and comedy? Would you cut your hand off so readily if it got possessed? Whatever your thoughts on Evil Dead II and the franchise, feel free to leave a comment below or on my social media.

4 thoughts on “Talking Movies: Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn

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