My Rifle, My Chainsaw, and Me

Evil Dead II (1987)

Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II (artwork by Dani Manning)
illustration by Dani Manning

Legend has it that it was written by The Dark One. Posesión infernal. Roughly translated, The Evil Dead. A film that served as a passageway to the evil worlds beyond. Through dynamic camera angles, bucketloads of blood, and a chilling amount of Midwestern sensibility, Sam Raimi launched his career as a director. 

With this same blood a sequel was inked. In the year 1987 A.D., Raimi set a bar for an entire generation—a cinematic right of passage…

Okay, well, not initially. Which isn’t to say that Evil Dead II wasn’t popular at the time of its release; it did pretty well after an endorsement from Stephen King, a warm reception overseas, and about a month in theaters. Fast-forward to VHS re-releases over the next decade or so, and the film began conjuring up obsessive fans like moths to a flame—or, y’know, like rogue eyeballs to open mouths. With a unique blend of humor that openly borrowed from a broad history of screwball comedy, to its unflinchingly wild levels of gore, pus, and multicolored ooze (the likes of which had to be snuck past censors via shell company distribution), Evil Dead II seemed to strike a perfect balance between accessible and niche. 

Sam Raimi credits his specific brand of horror-comedy— which he calls “Spook-A-Blast”—to a love of haunted house carnival rides. It’s a style that thrives in suspense, building up a spine-tingling tension that kicks your fight-or-flight response into a hidden third gear of laughter. Like Raimi’s films, those carnival rides are effective because they’re essentially mind games. The rides emphasize your lack of control—even though you can anticipate what’s to come you never know when it will, leaving you at the mercy of both the ride and your own imagination. What’s spooky isn’t the black-light painted Wolf Man that snaps out at you, it’s where your mind wanders in between. It’s the instant avoidance response you have to the metallic ticking of the track as you’re pulled through the darkness. It’s the jerking movement, the cramped car, the faint smell of sweat and stale beer. It’s the thought of the inebriated teenager who helped snap these moving parts together at their rusted hinges. The knowledge that just maybe, just this once, something could actually go really wron—AH FUCK! Okay, that frickin’ owl jumped out at me. Goddamnit. Anyhow.

This fascination with, and manipulation of, emotional psychology is a hallmark of Raimi’s directorial style. Even in the most otherworldly of circumstances, he’s always mining for an emotional core. It’s infused into every aspect of his filmmaking; how he structures his scares and executes his laughs, down to his emotionally-driven character arcs and plot structures. You can practically trace it across his entire oeuvre; it’s what simmers at the heart of the bleak, anxiety-ridden family drama A Simple Plan, all the way through to his blockbuster Spider-Man films, which dedicate as much time to navigating the loneliness of self-actualization in the face of overwhelming grief and heartbreak as they do big budget action sequences. On one hand, it’s a practical decision; the quickest way to create meaningful suspense in both comedy and horror is to ground your audience in a recognizable emotion. On the other hand, it’s exactly that sort of careful groundwork that separates an outstanding and charming film from mere genre schlock—emotional investment is something you’ve got to earn from an audience.

The brilliance of the first Evil Dead film is how it explores doubt, fear, and pacifist inclinations in the face of unthinkable terror. Beyond its unflinching violence and low-budget charms, it makes a point to linger on the anxiety of being thrust into an unthinkably grim situation. Suffocating you in main character Ash’s (Bruce Campbell) anguish as he wrestles with the knowledge that he must kill his loved ones in the most horrifically brutal of ways, lest they return as murderous forces of evil and kill him first.

Conversely, in the first five minutes of Evil Dead II, we see Ash lop his girlfriend’s head off with an ax. He then subsequently gets flung into the air, twirling like a propeller as he hurdles into the unknown through a back-projected forest.

What makes Evil Dead II so sublime is its arch sense of self-awareness. Where the first film grounds itself in group psychology, exploring loyalty and loneliness, its sequel (or remake, depending on whom you ask) is rooted entirely in a focus on the interior. Dopey yet unnerving, hysterical yet humble, clichéd yet distinct; the film is practically a guided journey of self-discovery as seen through a warped funhouse of self-deprecation. It’s easy to miss, what with the absolute smorgasbord of ridiculousness that happily distracts throughout its runtime, but there’s something subliminally familiar about Ash’s journey. As we watch him learn how to harness his failures and weaponize his natural ingenuity in order to become a hero of legend, parts of the film play out like Sam Raimi’s personal Jungian nightmare.

For the first third of the film, Ash is portrayed as a mere passive body. As he makes his way to that fabled cabin in the woods, he moves with a predetermined motion—almost an unconscious participation, guided by a powerful sense of denial that keeps him unaware of the obvious warning signs around him. When he sees a tape recorder (a harbinger of doom in the first film) on a desk, he plays it. When a demon possesses his girlfriend, he brutally defends himself without hesitation. When he returns to the cabin after experiencing a supernatural event, he simply finds a dark corner and sits. When sad piano music miraculously starts to play, he feels a sudden rush of sadness over what he has done. Minutes after his heartfelt tears, he’s beating the disembodied head of his girlfriend into a wall, her razor-sharp molars digging into his fist. Eventually secured between a vice, her head pleads for mercy and Ash dutifully hesitates. Then the entire absurdist scene concludes with Ash screaming as he chainsaws his beloved girlfriend’s face in half. 

The tonal whiplash between over-the-top thrills and unconsciously motivated character movement plays out on almost every level of Evil Dead II, manifesting quite literally with Ash’s inherent duality. Mentally and physically exhausted, in an attempt to ease his anxiety, he steadies himself in front of a mirror. Shockingly, his warped reflection juts out of the mirror and into the room. At this point in the film, Ash doesn’t stand a chance against himself. The sinisterly distorted reflection grabs his shoulders and growls, its nose mere inches from his own: “We just cut up our girlfriend up with a chainsaw. Does that sound fine?!” As maniacal laughter reverberates throughout the cabin, we cut to a close up of Ash’s face twisted in true, wild-eyed terror. But as the camera pulls out, the apparition is gone and only two hands remain—his own fingers wrapped around his throat, choking the life out of himself.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better candidate to embody Raimi’s love of dichotomy than Bruce Campbell. With his chiseled jawline and Disney prince-worthy locks, he invokes a natural charm that sends fans spiraling into  crises of desire, unsure if they’d rather “emulate” or “copulate.” Arguably, Campbell’s most attractive aspect is how he consciously undercuts his leading man good looks with an above-and-beyond dedication to ridiculousness. His comedic sensibility thrives in the most unflattering of circumstances; he roars with the force of Charlton Heston—“You dirty bastards! Give me back my hand!”—while breaking plates over his head with the kooky abandon of Looney Tunes. Even at his most suave he speaks in laughable machismo platitudes, channeling a parody of what you’d think a man with his sort of face would say. It’s a character he and Raimi conceived for Crimewave’s The Heel and slowly folded into Ash over the course of each subsequent Evil Dead film. 

With a role that thrives on expressionistic mugging, brutal self-abuse, and broad comedic timing, Campbell often doesn’t get enough credit for his subtlety. He’s constantly operating on multiple levels, tempering Ash’s desperate intensity with insecure overcompensation rooted in self-defeatism. One minute he’s covered in demonic blood and deep facial gashes, flipping through a rolodex of contorted expressions with the camera angled half way up his nose. In the next, he’s straddling genuine agony and frustration as he plays the straight man against his own diabolical right hand. Campbell is at his most impressive when he’s acting against himself, using physicality to alternate through multiple versions of Ash—the brave man he thinks he is, the scared loser the audience perceives him to be, the psycho he evolves into, and the demonic inverse of all three. Like Raimi’s “Spook-A-Blast” deep dives into psychology, Campbell leans sincerely into Ash’s humanity, grounding his wackier moves in a sense of wounded pride at being betrayed by his own body. There’s something genuinely disquieting about watching Campbell’s performance as Ash stalks his possessed hand through the barrel of a shotgun while it creeps behind the cabin walls. You’re practically rooting for him to blow that sucker to smithereens, rendering the entire scene all the more sardonic in context. 

It’s here, a half-hour into the film, that Ash finally gains the wherewithal to take his first steps towards self-realization. After a traumatizing amputation, coupled with slapstick writhing and a full water-cannon’s worth of black blood being sprayed directly into his face, what finally causes Ash to hit his breaking point is that most foul of indignities: a pratfall. As the possessed deer head on the wall cranes its neck to laugh at Ash’s expense, Raimi slips us into a manic world of villainous dutch angles and zany wide-angled close ups. The cabin laughs at Ash, and he laughs with it. He bends and creeks in sync with a demonic desk lamp, his eyes roll wildly in his head, his riotous laughter seamlessly turns into hysterical weeping at his own helplessness. His mania is finally broken by the sound of the doorknob turning, causing him to uncharacteristically snap into action and take a preemptive strike.

It’s one thing to learn how to assert yourself, but it’s another to learn how to employ your actions strategically. With the arrival of four unsuspecting visitors to the cabin, Ash finds himself thrust into a position of power. His curiosity finally leads to some good for once, stumbling upon the ghost of Professor Knowby who, after mistakenly conjuring the deadites from the pages of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, now tells them how to destroy this evil once and for all. But Ash’s perceived unreliability gets him quickly usurped. He might have more experience than the others, but none of them have any faith in his mental stability—it’s clear he’s barely hanging on by a thread, trying out what he thinks will work but never truly knowing. After Jake the redneck forces everybody out of the cabin in search of his runaway girlfriend, Ash is thrust back again into a situation out of his control. In spite of all he’s been through, and his warnings to the others not to enter the woods, his advice goes unheeded. In this moment of weakness, Ash loses his body completely and succumbs to the forces of evil. 

As you start to peel back the layers, Evil Dead II feels more and more like the ruminations of a young filmmaker trying to figure out how to break into the industry. Whether or not this parallel was subconscious or intentional, it’s clear that a change had taken place in the six years since the original film was released. By 1987, Raimi had evolved from a scrappy wannabe to a money-backed director. Having just come off the surprise success of The Evil Dead, followed swiftly by the commercial failure of his indulgent, live-action cartoon Crimewave, Raimi found himself at a similar crossroads as Ash in Evil Dead II: a man defined by the very thing that fascinates and tortures him, trying his best to strike the internal balance between compliance, subversion, and his truth. In this way, Ash starts to seem more like the Marcello Mastroianni to Raimi’s Federico Fellini, acting as both the idealized hero and the self-critical stand-in.

Just as the sight of his beloved girlfriend’s necklace vanquishes Evil Ash once and for all, it’s an emblem of the past that also cracks the code for Raimi’s career. Presented with an opportunity to make another film after Crimewave, he returned to his own tried-and-true formula, this time employing the help of Scott Spiegel, a childhood collaborator with whom he wrote and directed short horror-comedy films as a teenager, alongside Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell. Like Ash returning to the woodshed, Raimi took stock of what tools and limbs he had at his disposal and Frankensteined himself a new weapon. The result is a divine mix of teenaged irreverence and gore-splattered horror tropes, delivered with the confidence of a professional but presented with a laughably anti-climactic brevity: “Groovy.”

Evil Dead II is the culmination of a childhood dream realized—one man’s flaws transmuted into super powers, an idealized vision of heroism in the face of unspeakable evil. It’s the ultimate underdog movie, a siren call to all of the weirdo misfits that immediately burst into laughter whenever they feel anxious. As Ash finally comes into his own—now a picture of confidence with a stomach of iron—he faces his fear, boldly going where no other would in order to locate the missing pages of the Necronomicon. He emerges from that damp cellar, pages in hand, now ready to punch any and all undead horrors right in the skull with his bare fist. Which, uh, doesn’t work out so hot until he remembers that a chainsaw paired with a shotgun is actually a lot more effective. (Ash may be wiser, but he’s not much smarter.)

In the end, after all of that death, strife, and karo syrup, we come to find that Ash’s entire journey has been akin to a Sisyphean task. Waking up in a strange desert land, surrounded by cheering medieval knights in armor, Ash falls to his knees and dramatically screams to the heavens at the realization of what’s to come. In his heroic attempt to banish the evil that’s been unleashed, Ash finds that instead he’s mistakenly trapped himself with it, hundreds of centuries in the past. It’s an ending that can be read as a commentary on man’s inherent lack of control, or merely a hint of the next film to come (a promise eventually realized in the brilliant, gonzo-comedic sequel, Army of Darkness). But really it’s just a classic Raimi punchline, rooted in the most groan-worthy of career realizations: the only reward for hard work is more work.