While The Evil Dead was a singular work and stands as the pinnacle achievement in B-grade horror for most genre aficionados, the door was left wide open for a sequel by an ending that could have just as well been a closed loop. Nevertheless, Raimi received an attractive offer to make a sequel, and after his follow up Crimewave was met with middling reviews, the story came to fruition and Evil Dead II was born.
Right off the bat, Raimi knew that, though his first film was popular, the sequel would reach audiences that knew nothing of it, so the decision was made to retcon the predecessor into a seven minute opening that still manages to pick up almost exactly where the first film left off. Unlike Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, where the story continues regardless of decade and characters, The Evil Dead series completely changes over the course of a few short days.
Ash, after a full night of having dismembered his girlfriend, is struck by the evil in the forest just before dawn and his possession comes up in full bloom before leaping back into hiding when greeted by the sun. Meanwhile, the daughter of the archaeologist who first translated the Necronomicon has returned from a dig that yielded new pages and wishes to share the find with her father, not knowing that she will find Ash and a slew of possessed corpses.
Raimi also felt that Evil Dead II should infuse more comedy into the horror and took to transcribing a Three Stooges act. To say this works for the film is a gross understatement; between Ash’s endless battle with his own hand and a fit of lunacy that sees him laughing hysterically with the cabin’s decorations, particularly a lamp, the tone shifts quickly from creepy to hilarious, only making the grotesque machinations of evil that much more effective when they pose a legitimate threat.
It would be fair to say that most fans of the series prefer Evil Dead II to the other films, but I have never found this to be the case. Perhaps it was exposure to The Evil Dead and Army of Darkness before getting to the middle installment that caused this, and I certainly concede that Evil Dead II bridges the gap between its better halves marvelously, particularly because Army of Darkness nearly stops being a horror film to become a medieval action comedy.
In retrospect, and when looking at the series as a whole, it’s easy to feel as though the middle film covers too much of the same thematic ground as the first and third in the trilogy. With all the retconning done from one film to the next and the summary of the rest of the series at the start of Army of Darkness, it would be very possible to just watch the first film and jump ahead to the third without missing a beat in the plot. Of course, one would miss some memorably gory blood fountains and impalements, plus the introduction of the chainsaw hand.
Furnished with a much bigger budget, Raimi is not afraid to give the evil a face, albeit briefly, and the decision to open a portal in hopes of banishing said evil is the most exciting plot point in the series. Bruce Campbell, who always seems on top of his game, doesn’t just have to be scared or cool here, and though his best acting comes in the over-the-top Army of Darkness, he does an excellent job transforming Ash from a scared young man into an ass-kicking icon with a psychotic streak.
For horror junkies obsessed with The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II is part and parcel, and it’s not luck that makes both films work. Raimi’s stylistic changes throughout the series always come in little spurts, even if Ash ages 10 years and puts on 20 pounds of muscle over the course of a few days and his shotgun magically changes from the Boy Scout variety into a double-barrel 12-gauge Remington. The fact that it’s not my favorite of the series should deter no one; in a competition of hundreds of similar films, giving Evil Dead II the bronze isn’t for a lack of consideration. But if you feel that it’s too similar to its processor and too little is accomplished, move swiftly on to Army of Darkness.
Though a totally excellent blu-ray is available for a paltry $8, hardcore fans may seek the impressively decorative Book of the Dead edition, which now retails anywhere from $45 to $300 dollars, depending on the condition.