For the last 36 years, former S-Mart employee Ash Williams has been drawing the short end of the stick. For all his pain, The Evil Dead has come out as one of the best—if not the best—horror franchise around.
After the original The Evil Dead (1981), there was Evil Dead II (1987), then Army of Darkness (1992), and the TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead, which premiered in 2015, a full 23 years after the last installment of the franchise. Over the course of three movies and two (soon to be three) seasons, The Evil Dead has gone from horror to a parody of the genre, and the direction the show has taken suggests that it's about to come back full circle. It's a singular kind of growth, and also speaks to something deeper underneath all that blood and gore.
The first movie, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell as Ash, followed five friends as they fell prey to demons in a cabin in the woods, and it's still one of the most iconic horror films ever made. (It famously counted Stephen King as an advocate.) That's why it's all the more impressive that Evil Dead II outstrips the original in reputation—especially as it essentially presented an alternate version of the events of the first film, but with the insanity dialed up to 11.
As a parody sequel, it also established the tone for the franchise as a whole despite its origins—blood 'n' guts 'n' jokes—and gave birth to the most well-known image of its hero. It's Evil Dead II that sees Ash locked in combat with his own hand after it's possessed by a demon, eventually chopping it off and replacing it with a chainsaw. Army of Darkness took the madness one step further, sending Ash back in time to fight deadites in the Middle Ages.
While it might seem hyperbolic to compare Starz's Ash vs. Evil Dead (developed and produced by Raimi) to Showtime's revival of Twin Peaks, the shows aren't too dissimilar in that they're the rare returns that take into account the passage of time. Ash vs. Evil Dead leans into the splatterfest fun that we've come to expect from the franchise, but that humor is balanced (and compounded) by the way Ash has inherently changed with age. The fact that the franchise hasn't come to a close means that this character's been living without resolution for the better part of four decades, and it shows. He's more Bojack Horseman than he is Scary Movie—which, appropriately, is just as much a reflection of Ash's age as it is the changing cultural landscape and the ups and downs of the nostalgia wave.
Since Army of Darkness, the object that cursed Ash to begin with—the Necronomicon—has become his cross to bear, as multiple attempts to destroy it have failed. And he's been effectively exiled from his old hometown because the townspeople don't buy into the existence of supernatural forces, instead blaming him for the murders that took place in The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. The brashness that was so charming in the films indicates a state of arrested development. Now, he's living just as you'd expect someone who's survived that kind of trauma to live (that is, so long as they're not a final girl). There's a melancholy to it all that's magnified by how keenly aware the show is of what it's doing. The throwbacks it deploys aren't just fanservice—they're ways of bringing the franchise back to its pure horror roots.
If there was any doubt as to that shift, the season two finale should put any doubts to rest. The musical cue heard over the credits is exactly the same version of the Charleston that played over the end credits of the original The Evil Dead, and it followed a season that was built entirely around the premise of returning home. Along with dealing with a deadite version of his sister (who was killed in the first movie and the death of his father shortly after their reconciliation, season two saw Ash return to the cabin in the woods that started it all. What cinched the return was the way it was all predicated on Ash's growth. It's beyond time for him to reconcile with the demons he inadvertently let out of hell.
It's keeping this need for growth firmly in the forefront that has justified revisiting The Evil Dead, and also singled it out as unique from its peers. While there are other horror franchises that have experienced similar longevity, there are none that can boast the same kind of genre-spanning, nor the same evolution. Slicing and dicing means nothing without emotional investment attached, and by working the natural passage of time into the narrative, The Evil Dead has got that hook set already. While there are monsters galore, it's best when it exploits the fact that it's a very human drama, and explores the fears that are attached simply to being alive. Much like its protagonist, it's smarter than its reputation gives it credit for, and on top of that, it's bloody good fun.
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