You might not realize it from the cottage industry of comics and collectibles that have sprung up around him in recent years, but Ashley J. “Ash” Williams, the wiseacre-buffoon hero portrayed by cult legend Bruce Campbell in Sam Raimi’s hallowed Evil Dead trilogy, has been MIA for a whopping 22 years. Raimi has made countless overtures throughout that fallow period about developing a fourth film, but apart from a pointless, one-second cameo at the end of 2013’s Evil Dead remake, Ash has taken a long, seemingly permanent siesta. So when he makes his long-overdue first appearance at the beginning of Ash vs. Evil Dead, the television sequel to the films, gyrating like a goon to Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’” as he cinches a girdle around his bloated midsection, it’s not only a welcome sight, but a soothing one. This is Ash precisely as we remember him from Army of Darkness. A bit heavier in the belly and grayer at the temples, but the same big dumb boob.
Ash started life way back in 1981’s The Evil Dead, where he was little more than a gender-swapped Jamie Lee Curtis, desperately fighting for his life against the otherworldly Deadites as the last survivor in an archetypal cabin in the woods. For the sequel, Raimi opted to start employing Campbell’s natural gift for comedy, revising Ash into more of a loudmouth, now drunk on his own burgeoning badassitude. By the time Army of Darkness came around in 1993, Ash’s status as a self-impressed goofball had been cranked up as far as the dial would go. And, while Ash vs. Evil Dead doesn’t directly mention the events of Army (due to rights’ issues, Starz can presently only lay claim to the first two films), that is unmistakably the version of Ash at play in the series.
The series finds Ash older, but not at all wiser, and certainly no more successful. Still a department-store stockboy deep into his middle age, he lives in a disheveled trailer and spends his nights trying to pick up lonely women at the local watering hole with B.S. yarns about how he lost his hand (as if the real story weren’t far more impressive than anything he comes up with). In the midst of a bathroom tryst with one such woman, her face morphs into a ghastly, familiar shade of unspeakable horror that rattles Ash so badly that he almost doesn’t finish doing the deed. It turns out that Ash still has in his possession the Necronomicon – the infamous, flesh-bound book of the dead – of which he has designated himself its guardian. While he has proven himself to be the only person capable of fighting back the book’s sinister powers, he’s also the worst person to act as its steward, as he soon recalls that he recently got high as a kite and tried to impress a French paramour by reading some of the book’s “poetry” and unleashed the Deadites upon the world once more as a result.
Ash, never a hero as a default move, decides to deal with this self-caused crisis by blowing town, stopping at work only to obtain his paycheck before his long-suffering boss forces him to work a full shift before he receives payment. Here we are introduced to Ash’s infinitely more age-appropriate co-workers – Pablo (Pablo Simon Bolivar), an immigrant who foolishly hero-worships Ash, and Kelly (Dana Delorenzo), a comely new-hire instantly repulsed by him. When the Deadites target both the store and Kelly’s father, the trio band together to regroup at Ash’s trailer, which becomes the site of a major Deadite showdown, and where Ash dusts off the boomstick and chainsaw to get back to doing the only thing he was ever any good at.
Ash vs. Evil Dead feels infinitely more of a piece with the earlier films than the Evil Dead remake, which Raimi only produced. That film discarded the schlocky fun and broad humor in favor of something more grueling, visceral and serious-minded. Directed by Raimi, “El Jefe” feels like the director never left his hellzapoppin’ horror world behind. The intensity of the Deadite encounters, the energetic shooting style and propulsive camera moves, and the laugh-out-loud humor are all back in a major way. Most importantly, Campbell hasn’t lost a step over the last couple of decades, sliding right back into his loutish smart-mouth persona without showing any strain. The series gets a few laughs out of Ash’s advanced age, but it otherwise treats him as the exact same dolt we fell in love with all those years ago. Campbell’s gifts for both physical comedy and delivering killer one-liners have not faded one bit. It’s common these days to see older actors reprising iconic roles from their younger days to greatly diminished effect, so it’s nice to see at least one instance where it truly works out.
“El Jefe” sets the stage for Ash to have many Deadite-fueled misadventures with his own Scooby Gang in tow, but the pilot also tosses out a couple of intriguing wild cards. We are also introduced to a cop (Jill Marie Jones) who lost her partner in a grisly Deadite encounter and is struggling to prove her innocence, since her official story is too fantastic for Internal Affairs to buy into. And flitting furtively around the perimeter of the action is a mystery woman (Lucy Lawless) who seems to know far more about the Deadites than anyone else, perhaps even including Ash. These characters have yet to cross paths with our hero, but knowing that such encounters are forthcoming is enticing. The Evil Dead series has always confined Ash either to that remote cabin or to the Dark Ages, so the opportunity to watch Ash do his thing in civilized society, with actual law enforcement to answer to, should offer a tremendous amount of fun.
It’s difficult to look at “El Jefe” as anything less than a triumph. It works as a stage-setter for a wild supernatural series, as a showcase for a lead actor who’s always deserving of one, and, most crucially, as a perfectly interlocking companion piece to the Evil Dead series. The type of rabid fans that Evil Dead has acquired and maintained over the years are the sort who would viciously attack any continuation for shortchanging or sullying the series’ long-standing legacy. I bet even those guys find little to complain about here.
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