Thursday, October 18, 2012

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn

Looking back on director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, there's a clear tonal trajectory. The Evil Dead begins the series with a straight-up, grueling, and atmospheric horror experience while Army of Darkness concludes it as the demonic slapstick child of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Jason and the Argonauts. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) falls appropriately in the middle of this shift. Equal parts splatter horror movie and slapstick comedy, it's the kind of movie you'd get if blended the sensibilities of Dawn of the Dead with The Three Stooges, equally adept at making you laugh and squirm.

The Chin himself Bruce Campbell returns as our hapless hero Ash. Once again, he and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) arrive at the isolated cabin in the woods, and it isn't long before an ominous tape recording of passages from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis (the Book of the Dead) releases some dark spirits that possess Linda and try to drive Ash crazy and kill him. Soon, other doomed folks arrive at the cabin: the owner's daughter (Sarah Berry), her boyfriend (Richard Domeier), a redneck (Dan Hicks), and his girlfriend (Kassi Wesley). The forces of the Necronomicon whittle the cast down until eventually Ash must take charge, minus a hand but plus a chainsaw, to send the demons back from whence they came.

Name a type of graphic violence, and it likely appears in Evil Dead 2. We get dismemberment, decapitation, stabbing, chopping, shootings, and the splattering and spraying of all sorts of blood, guts, limbs, skin, slime, drool, and other unidentifiable fluids and substances. Don't look for subtly here; the M.O. of the film is why do anything when you can do it with gallons of blood. The level of excess pushes a scenario nestled firmly in the horror genre over-the-top into parody. It's a comedy disguised as horror movie (or more appropriately, a horror movie possessed by a comedy).

Raimi works in several gags that were clearly inspired by the Three Stooges. Ash stomps on the head of one deadite, causing its eye to shoot out of its socket through the air and into the screaming mouth of another character. Early on, the possessed, decapitated head of Linda attacks Ash, biting down on his hand, and he runs around screaming trying to get it off. Later, Ash's right hand is possessed by the demons, and the rebellious appendage tortures our hero by punching him, smashing plates over his head, and causing all sorts of pain. Ash's solution? Lop it off and affix a chainsaw to the bloody stump. That doesn't stop the hand from continuing to cause trouble.

The evil demonic forces are also good for laughs. Yes, they're dangerous, but they also enjoy tormenting poor Ash and being assholes about it. Ash, trying to pull himself together, looks into a mirror and says everything's fine, only for his reflection to lunge out of the glass and say, "I don't think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound like fine?" The evil also possesses inanimate objects, leading to a sequence in which a deer head on the wall, a rocking chair, a lamp, and other items begin laughing at Ash until he joins in. 

There are other cast members, but this is really the Bruce Campbell show. He's on his own for much of the first half of the movie, and he carries it. Unlike the first movie, in which he was a panicked victim, and the third, in which he becomes a comic book styled hero with no shortage of one-liners, Ash is pretty much a normal guy driven mad until he can take no more. Everything that happens is an excuse to see Campbell get beaten up and thrown around; it's a very physical role, but he maintains comic timing and sarcasm throughout. While not quite the ass-kicker he'd become in Army of Darkness, he's well on his way. Groovy.

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