Birthed in the mind of Sam Raimi and swaggeringly portrayed by Bruce Campbell, Ashley J. Williams broke the mold of what it means to be the protagonist of a horror movie in the 1980s. At the center of Raimi's Evil Dead series, Ash began as a survivor by circumstance, reluctantly fighting off his possessed friends and girlfriend in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Similar to many horror protagonists of the era, he was a sole survivor who defended himself when necessary but ultimately focused on escaping.
Not so with Raimi's cult sequel Evil Dead II.
After a quick retcon of the original film, our hero finds himself in a similar situation. However, what changes significantly is how he reacts. Almost immediately in Evil Dead II, Ash is confronted yet again with a Deadite attack, his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) having been converted by the dark magics of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. While initially reluctant to harm his significant other, Ash eventually decapitates her with a shovel similar to how he did in the original film. This time, however, Ash's status as a victim is essentially buried along with what was left of his girlfriend. After one last attempt to escape is rendered moot, Linda's head is revived and chomps down on his hand. He flees to the shed, where he is confronted by Linda's body, brandishing a chainsaw.
At this critical moment, Ashley J. Williams bucks the trend of the sole survivor and becomes a headlong combatant. He defeats Linda's body and tears it apart with the chainsaw, a dismemberment he couldn't bring himself to do in The Evil Dead. For Ash, the threats against him now require more than simple self-defense. If he doesn't put them on their heels, he won't survive the minions of darkness.
This is almost immediately evidenced when Ash's hand becomes possessed. Instead of looking for an alternative, Ash severs his hand with the chainsaw and attempts to blow it to pieces with a shotgun, denying the denizens of evil a win. With a snide remark and some reckless abandon, Evil Dead II's protagonist transcends his traditional roles and becomes a new kind of hero. Ash doesn't have time to bleed, he has demons and deadites to kill. In the 1980s, it was common to see leading characters such as The Howling's (1981) Karen White (Dee Wallace) or Alien's (1979) Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) use their resourcefulness and resolve in the face of a horrific situation in order to ensure their survival above all else. Although this archetype would remain, a new character paradigm emerged after Evil Dead II.
Ash's aggressive charge into danger—and straight toward his attackers—flipped the script for horror protagonists. Derek (Peter Jackson) in Bad Taste (1987) showcases an Ash-like transformation where he begins as a dense extraterrestrial investigator who becomes a chainsaw-swinging alien slayer who holds his literal brains in with a belt after a near-death experience. Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) of Tremors (1990) is a survivalist that is dense but well-armed and manages to kill monsters without any real plan. Seth Gecko (George Clooney) in From Dusk till Dawn (1996) finds himself trapped in a strip club with a legion of vampires and leads a group of survivors on the offensive to survive the night, using tools like a pneumatic stake drill and hastily-blessed tapwater. These characters and many more took Ash's cue in horror cinema and became nemeses of the monsters that pursued them, risking life and limb to remove the threat once and for all. The objective for many horror protagonists was no longer to simply survive, but to kill before being killed at any cost. After Ash Williams, horror antagonists had a lot more to worry about from those they targeted.
That isn't to say that Ash is several steps ahead when he starts a fight, as the truth is quite the contrary. Even Bruce Campbell has stated that he believes one of Ash's great appeals is that he has very little idea what he's doing. He's flawed, he doesn't have powers or special training, he's just a mortal man who decided he's going to fight and survive on his terms. That tenacity stood out and loomed largely in Evil Dead II and would continue Raimi's franchise well into the present day. This cocksure swashbuckler showed audiences everywhere that a horror protagonist didn't have to be all doom and gloom. Ash Williams will try to solve the problem, even if he doesn't know where to begin, although a chainsaw or a Boomstick are great starting points.
This heel turn for the character also cemented the relationship between Raimi and Campbell for decades. When Campbell began his partnership with the eccentric writer and director, he was a 21-year old producer who had little idea of what solid acting or location shooting was. Raimi put him through the wringer with what he called "torments," and Campbell repaid in kind with one of horror's most iconic portrayals. Now the two are nearly inextricably linked, with Campbell having cameos in so many of Raimi's works such as his Spider-Man Trilogy (2002-2007), Fede Alvarez's Raimi-produced Evil Dead remake, and has even confirmed to be appearing in Raimi's MCU debut in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022).
Campbell's portrayal of Ash and the character's personality can now be found in the DNA of countless characters. Rick O' Connell (Brendan Frasier) of The Mummy, Big Trouble in Little China's Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), and there's even a little of Ash in the character of the antagonist-turned-redemption story Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in The Walking Dead. At times in interviews, Campbell's personality is almost completely identical in his mannerisms to his most well-known character. During a Q&A for the Irish Film Institute, Campbell discussed New Line Cinema's pitch to follow up the film Freddy vs Jason (2003) with a sequel involving Ash. Campbell recalled that the phone call lasted seconds after New Line wasn't keen on his proposal that Ash would kill both slasher movie icons. Dialogue like that almost makes it sound as if New Line somehow got in contact with the groovy Evil Dead protagonist himself for a movie pitch (though it didn't stop DC Comics' Wildstorm imprint from printing a limited series based on the concept).
Would Evil Dead II have become a huge part of cult horror history if not for the transformation of its main character? It's difficult to say. Sam Raimi's directorial and writing style is unique and would have undoubtedly contributed to the film's success in a major way, but if Ash had remained a fairly static character who once again took on the role of a reluctant survivor, the lack of development likely wouldn't have impressed viewers or critics. Empire ranked Ash Williams the best horror movie character, and Cambell explained that the character is popular specifically because he is flawed yet changing and is a character "Hollywood would never allow."
Ask most horror fans who are familiar with the Evil Dead series, and it is highly unlikely that they remember Ash Williams as the panicking survivor he started as instead of the knuckleheaded hero defying all odds that he would become. What sweetens the pot even more for Evil Dead fans is that Ash isn't really special. He doesn't have superpowers like Blade (Wesley Snipes) or John Wick's (Keanu Reeves) arsenal of weapons and training as a professional killer. He simply rides into war by the seat of his pants, often without anything resembling a good plan, hoping to defeat evil or die trying. It's that resolve that made Ash Williams such a unique character during horror's 1980s renaissance and why he persists in popularity to this day.
You can drag Ash through hell like he was in Evil Dead II, but all you'll do is piss him off.
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