Join Ussss ... Join Ussss ... For The Return Of 'Evil Dead'
It's the moment fans of the horror comedy franchise Evil Dead have waited decades to see.
Starz's TV series, Ash vs Evil Dead, begins with a bracing blast of classic rock — Deep Purple's psychedelic anthem Space Truckin' — and the disquieting sight of star Bruce Campbell squeezing his midriff into a massive, leather corset.
That moment says everything about Campbell's character Ash Williams, a vain, aging low-rent ladies man whose only talent is killing zombie-like demons known as Deadites.
But Campbell believes it also says something about his longtime friend, director and producer Sam Raimi, who has a reputation for torturing his star.
"This is Sam's way of tormenting me even when he's not physically tormenting me," says Campbell of Raimi, who has given the actor parts in many of his films and TV shows, from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to three Spider-Man films.
"He's tormenting me mentally," the actor adds. "Because now he knows I'm going to read in every review, 'The aging Lothario starts by hooking up a geezer girdle and lookin' for his teeth.'"
This is a game Campbell and Raimi have been playing for at least 36 years, back when they filmed the first Evil Dead movie.
The film became a cult hit in 1981, spawning a franchise that includes merchandise, two sequels and a 2013 remake. This original movie was explicit, low budget and raw — one female character is molested by trees in a scene — featuring Campbell's Ash trying to save a group of friends, including a pal named Scotty, who are possessed by the Deadites.
"Scotty, listen to me please for God's sake!" a youthful Campbell shouts in one scene, shaking his co-star who has been torn and bloodied by the killer foliage. Scotty replies, "Ash I don't wanna die. You're not going to leave me, are you Ash?"
Campbell says any humor people saw in that first movie was purely accidental.
"If you have really hokey lines of dialogue spoken by actors who have no experience, it's gonna be kinda funny," he adds. "So a lot of people are like, 'You guys ... that horror comedy!' And I ... even today I kinda go, no, uh, uh. We weren't trying to be funny."
Campbell is sitting next to Lucy Lawless, star of the beloved '90s action series Xena: Warrior Princess. Lawless married Xena's co-creator Rob Tapert, who also produced the Evil Dead movies with Raimi and Campbell.
They're a group of friends who have worked together for years — Raimi executive produced Hercules, which Campbell and Lawless appeared in. Xena, Lawless's character from Hercules, of course ended up getting her own show spun off. And Campbell directed a few episodes of that show, Xena: Warrior Princess.
So when Evil Dead became a TV series, it made sense to craft a role for Lawless.
"I've been around for 20 years in their lives, whether they like it or not," says Lawless, laughing. "Bruce was my little TV mentor; taught me how to be a good star and not complain and get in the way of the schedule ... I love being on set with Bruce ... I can torture him a little."
Campbell puts it a different way, "What I like, is you don't have to talky, talky, talk ... I start to explain something to Lucy and she turns away ... she goes and gets a cup of coffee, and I say, 'Well, I guess she understands.'"
The TV show features a middle aged Ash with one hand — he cut off his right hand in a previous Evil Dead movie to keep the Deadites from taking him over. He's accidentally released the Deadites again by reading from the Book of the Dead while trying to impress a woman during a drunken one-night stand.
Lawless enters the story as Ruby, a woman who hates Ash. She blames him for the Deadite attack that killed her family years ago.
"My character is hunting Ash," says Lawless, who only appears briefly in the show's first episode (she says a more extensive scene was cut because it gave away too much story). "The first time, [the Deadites] killed my entire family, and I'm blaming him, and I want to [put] him in the ground."
"When we made the first Evil Dead, it got banned in five countries ... Now thanks to shows like 'Walking Dead,' good gravy, how many viewers do they get every week?"
As the Deadites begin to zero in on Ash and two younger friends, viewers see the trademark mix of gore and humor that fueled the original Evil Dead movies, including a scene where Campbell decapitates a Deadite with his trusty chainsaw, attached to the place where his right hand used to be.
Since the show is on Starz, a premium cable channel, it can be as explicit as they want it to be, with lots of profanity and blood splashed everywhere. Campbell remains surprised there is a home on television for the kind of content that made the first Evil Dead movie an outcast project decades ago.
"When we made the first Evil Dead, it got banned in five countries," says Campbell. "That's what you did with horror movies back then ... you banned them, because they were a fringe form of entertainment. Now thanks to shows like Walking Dead ... good gravy, how many viewers do they get every week?"
Still, not all Evil Dead fans are eagerly anticipating Ash's small screen debut.
Rob Mclaine is a self-described superfan who has built websites devoted to the movies and was inspired by the films to develop a career in the special effects industry.
When Mclaine was growing up in England, the first Evil Dead movie was criticized as an example of "video nasties" — explicit, unregulated films that broke all the rules for what could be shown onscreen.
Evil Dead, he says, "just became the poster child for what video nasties were [accused of being]... despicable and terrible and corrupting," he says. "So a lot of people saw the Evil Dead as a seminal film to see." Mclaine doesn't expect Ash vs Evil Dead to break the same ground.
But Campbell says the TV version, which Starz has already picked up for a second season, continues the film's legacy by fleshing out Ash, who has inspired fans for decades.
"He's the average man," Campbell says with his signature deadpan delivery. "And they can look and see that Ash has no skills. So they can believe in him because basically they're looking in the mirror when they look at Ash."
Translating that appeal to the small screen might just be Ash's biggest challenge yet.
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