Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The years have not been particularly kind to Ash Williams, the chainsaw-wielding schlub at the blood-drenched heart of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise – our first introduction to the character, again played by a now middle-aged Bruce Campbell in Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead, finds him squeezing into a man girdle before heading out for a night at the local dive bar. It’s a bit of a shock to see the King looking so washed up – until he starts sweet-talking another bar patron and winds up bending her over the bathroom sink. There’s the Ash we know – he may be older, grayer and a whole lot saggier, but he’s every bit the devilishly charming doofus he’s always been.
Still, in the thirty-odd years since Evil Dead and Evil Dead II (there’s no mention of the character’s time-traveling adventures in Army of Darkness, which has very possibly been erased from the canon), Ash has been stuck in a bit of a rut, working as a stockboy for Value Stop and living out of a trailer. In spite of that, he seems fairly content, numbing himself to the PTSD brought on by his past run-ins with the forces of darkness with a constant stream of booze, babes and bud. It may not be paradise, but it’ll do – until Ash, in his infinite ineptitude, is high out of his mind with a local working girl and decides to recite some lines from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis to impress her. (Oops.)
Naturally, such incantation doesn’t bode well for Ash, who finds the creatures he’s been outrunning for years back at his doorstep. And with Deadites crawling all over, the guy’s left with little other option than to reattach his chainsaw hand and get to work slaying the hordes of Deadites that his own dumbassery has brought down on humankind.
Luckily, though, the King isn’t alone in this fight. ValueStop co-worker and adoring fan Pablo (Ray Santiago), whose uncle was an all-knowing Honduran shaman filled with wise words of prophecy, turns out to be a pretty handy sidekick – as well as a welcome source of comic relief, given that he’s even more lame-brained than Ash himself.
Along for the ride is Pablo’s out-of-his-league crush, Kelly (Dana Delorenzo), whose fire and take-no-shit attitude clashes with Ash’s head-honcho chauvinism. The chemistry between these three brings welcome energy to a series that could have otherwise ended up as a bit of stunt, simply putting Campbell back into his most iconic role and letting him go nuts with it. As it stands, no one’s going to deny it feels damn good to have Ash back, but Ash vs. Evil Dead also brings him new purpose, re-envisioning the lovable loser as both reluctant savior and father figure.
There’s a beating, bloody heart to Ash vs Evil Dead – and that makes it not only great fun but wonderfully unique, an extension of the Evil Dead franchise that’s strong enough to stand on its own. The premiere, “El Jefe,” is an out-and-out blast, reuniting Campbell with director Sam Raimi for a 40-minute romp through Evil Dead history that acknowledges how selfish and loathsome Ash became throughout the later films while simultaneously handing him a hero’s redemption arc that somehow works perfectly.
And visually, the episode is an absolute delight, soaking the cast in buckets of Deadite blood while letting Raimi bring his frenetic demon-cam and other stylistic flourishes to the table. From bottom to top, this thing just coasts, mixing horror and comedy with such verve and vigor that one wonders why there was ever any hesitation, creatively speaking, about bringing Ash and his chainsaw arm to the small screen.
The second episode, “Bait,” finds the series adjusting to its half-hour format and just about sustaining its momentum. Raimi is sorely missed behind the camera, as “Bait” never gets anywhere close to his levels of screw-loose, shaggy-dog energy, but it deepens Kelly’s arc in a way that nicely highlights Delorenzo’s sturdy range, which feels like a smart move for a show working to bring its supporting cast up to its leading man’s levels of charisma and appeal. Still, viewers expecting as bonkers and brilliant a watch as the pilot may leave a tad disappointed – the second episode offers less by way of eye-popping action, raunchy humor and overall vibrancy, instead showcasing what Ash vs. Evil Dead is more likely to look like on a week-to-week basis (which, to be clear, is still pretty great).
The one criticism diehard Evil Dead fans may lobby at this new series is its increased use of CGI. Part of what set Raimi’s original movies apart from the pack were their reliance on practical effects, with staggering amounts of fake blood actually ending up dumped all over actors, and time-consuming makeup effects being used to bring the Deadites to grotesque life, but Ash vs. Evil Dead occasionally leans more into slick, computer-generated effects. Sometimes it works well, like when a Deadite reveals itself by letting its eyes go milky white, but other scenes, like Ash’s run-in with a possessed china doll, are conspicuously out of place.
Ash vs. Evil Dead also suffers a little when it tries to expand its narrative outside of the titular Deadite slayer. Off in a B-plot, Michigan State Trooper Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) finds herself on the hunt for Ash after Deadites kill her partner, and though the actress does strong work in communicating terror and confusion, she feels a little too distanced from Ash to take up as much screen time as she does. Ditto for Lucy Lawless, whose mysterious Ruby is cameoed in the first episode and nothing more. As acknowledged by the title, this is Ash’s show through and through, and there’s no real need to take him off-screen other than to abide by the somewhat ridiculous TV convention that a show must dance between multiple narrative threads in order to entertain.
Little quibbles aside, the show remains a pretty marvellous accomplishment. It at once echoes the visceral “splatstick” mania of Raimi’s films while hitting a funky-fresh, self-referential note all its own. Quite simply, there’s nothing else on television quite like it, and the credit for that mostly rests with Campbell and Raimi, both of whom seem purely concerned with giving Ash the epic, bloody, batshit adventure fans have been asking them to deliver for decades. Here is a show staggeringly confident in its own ability to achieve greatness – and that actually appears primed to reach it. Ash vs. Evil Dead is all guts and glory, arterial sprays and acerbic snark, and as long as it resists the temptation to mess with a winning formula, it promises a rip-roaring good time for horror fans of all ages. Now that’s what I call groovy.
Bringing Ash, his trusty chainsaw hand and hordes of Deadites to the small screen was no small task - but Ash vs. Evil Dead is all treat and no trick, honoring the franchise's blood-soaked legacy with a luridly entertaining and gloriously gory update.