Listen up, screwheads – a brand new Evil Dead box set is loose on these streets, and if you are anything like me, you’ll punch every single fangletoothed demon in between you and your local media store to get your hands on one. The Evil Dead Groovy Collection is a righteous offering even for longtime fans of the franchise who probably already own multiple copies of each installment. And after watching Ashley J. Williams (Bruce Campbell) get his ass beat by demons in glorious 4K resolution to write this quasi-review, something occurred to me. Horror’s favorite action dope didn’t really become a character – an honest-to-Baal character with identifiable wants and needs – until Ash vs. Evil Dead, the sequel series that premiered nearly 35 years after he first drove to that cabin with his doomed friends.
First, the review. The box set is gorgeous – a sturdy cardboard slipcase opens up to reveal a big, glossy hardcover booklet containing all the discs, plus a small write-up on each film and each season of the series. Lionsgate similarly went all-out for their steelbook Rambo box set last year, so if you’re a sucker for slick packaging like I am, they may quickly become your favorite studio in terms of dope-as-hell gift sets. The set includes new 4K Ultra HD editions of The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, plus their respective Blu-ray versions, and Blu-ray copies of all three seasons of Ash vs. Evil Dead. Army of Darkness is puzzlingly absent from the set; I’m not sure whether it was a legal issue (Army of Darkness was released by Universal), or if the film was specifically curated out of the collection. Whatever the case, its absence is both loud and puzzling.
The stars of this new set are the 4K discs, and they look as sharp as the films ever have, particularly Evil Dead 2, which pops right off the screen. (Because it’s a horror movie about one agonizing night in a dusty haunted cabin, I always forget how much color there is in the film’s gore.) The Evil Dead is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is much muddier than its sequel, but that’s owing more to the realities of the film’s shoestring budget and the ravages of time than any deficiency in this new transfer.
Meanwhile, the Blu-ray copies of both films and each season of Ash vs. Evil Dead are the exact same discs featured in previous releases. The Evil Dead hilariously contains trailers for “Upcoming Features” that are already over a decade old, such as the Shawn Ashmore ski lift thriller Frozen (which is honestly worth watching).
The Evil Dead series has been victimized by multiple releases almost as egregiously as the Kandarian demons have victimized anyone who reads from that damn book, so while there’s not much new in terms of special features, virtually every piece of bonus material ever produced over countless DVD and Blu-ray special editions appears to be included here. And buddy, that’s a whole lot of material – there are easily a dozen hours of behind-the-scenes documentaries, retrospectives, cast interviews, original trailers, and commentary tracks for both films as well as every episode of the series. There’s also an additional bonus DVD left over from some mega-special-edition release of The Evil Dead that might have an updated menu but is otherwise untouched from whatever distant year of the early 2000s birthed it. Not that I’m complaining – the disc is loaded with absolutely everything you’d care to know about the making of the original film and its impact on the industry. For completists, it’s a must-have, and for everyone else it’s a welcome inclusion.
Now, onto this new thought I had about Evil Dead’s reluctant, bumbling hero. Ash isn’t much of a character in the Evil Dead films – he evolves from passive witness to dazzlingly chinned quip machine, sure, but he’s not a character. He’s a paper-thin vessel for one-liners, a cartoon hero whose only identifiably consistent trait is exhausted selfishness. He’s a perpetually irritated wiseass, like Bugs Bunny with a hangover. He’s tired of these freaking demons, and he wants to go home. We can all sympathize with that emotion, but he’s extremely two-dimensional.
I’ve seen these movies dozens of times, and I couldn’t tell you one single thing about Ash’s likes and dislikes beyond “he hates monsters and being told what to do.” Fans’ enduring love for the character is based entirely on Bruce Campbell’s captivatingly manic performance, which is half Groucho Marx and half Curly Howard. The character seems to be Campbell and Sam Raimi’s way of poking fun at themselves – a slapstick insult comic who got so tired of being in a horror movie that he finally decided to just start punching demons in the face to see what would happen. He’s a collection of funny reactionary ideas, but not a guy we can relate to.
It’s not until Ash vs. Evil Dead that we get to see the man in context – how he interacts with regular people in a regular environment. And it is both my favorite interpretation of Ash, and the only version of Ash that can truly be considered a fully defined character. It’s not that he begins the series descended even further into the realm of self-parody, having gradually transformed into the biggest, saddest loser. (Ok, it’s not just that.) It’s the fact that, for the first time, we’re given a clear picture of who Ash is as a person. He’s kind of an idiot. He drinks too much and makes terrible life decisions. He’s blunderingly offensive, but not mean-spirited. His lifelong dream is to retire in Jacksonville, Florida. And he has history – a hometown full of old friends and acquaintances who all think he’s a cool guy, or a bum, or a possible murderer, or some combination of the three.
Ash vs. Evil Dead is the first time in nearly 40 years that we actually learn anything about Ash, or get to see how he behaves when he’s not trying to thwart a demonic invasion. Most importantly, we get to see how people perceive him when they’re not merely stuck in a foxhole with him. And virtually everyone in the series has a different view of Ash, making him a surprisingly dynamic character. He also gets his head stuck in a corpse’s butt. He’s still the same guy from Evil Dead II, after all.
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