Director Sam Raimi bounced back after his box office disaster Crimewave with Evil Dead II, returning to the fertile hunting cabin in the woods established in his low-budget 1981 original. More of a remake than a sequel, Dead by Dawn balances in-your-face shocks with bug-eyed slapstick to create a gonzo pastiche of horror movie tropes. It’s a virtuoso performance by Raimi, masquerading as a gleefully vulgar B-movie, and the film cemented the cult status of leading man Bruce Campbell.
Evil Dead II starts with Ash (Campbell) heading out to the woods with his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler). They discover an old tape deck, and play back a recording of incantations from the Book of the Dead. The spell unleashes an evil force slumbering in the woods, which quickly possesses Linda and attacks Ash.
Later, another group of deadmeat characters turn up, including Annie (Sarah Berry), the daughter of the professor responsible for unearthing the demonic book. Carnage ensues.
While there are other character in the film, they’re all ghoul-fodder, and at the centre stands Campbell’s hyperkinetic performance as the terrified, embattled Ash. While no-one could mistake Campbell for a great thespian, he has a gift for physical comedy and sardonic one-liners. Holding the screen by himself for long stretches, his affinity for Raimi’s vision is demonstrated in a hilarious set piece where Ash gets beaten up by his possessed hand, before cutting off the unruly digits with a chainsaw.
Along with the elderly Elvis in Bubba Ho-Tep, Ash is a screen character who you can’t imagine anyone else but Campbell playing with such gusto. Ash’s transformation from a besieged average Joe to demon-slaying superhero is complete when he readies himself for battle, attaching a chainsaw to his recently amputated stump, uses it to cut down the barrel of his shotgun – “Groovy.”
Evil Dead II is a treasure trove of filmmaking techniques, and Raimi throws just about everything at the screen. There’s crazy angles, stop motion animation, wacky POV shots, fish-eyed lenses, pumped up tracking shots. Dead by Dawn serves as the apotheosis of Eighties horror, rightly or wrongly defined by dumb teens slaughtered in a variety of imaginative and gory ways by an evil force. While it doesn’t dissect the rules as succinctly as Wes Craven’s later Scream, it is best appreciated by horror fans who understand the inherent trashiness of slasher flicks in the Eighties.
Raimi gets the balance just right, making Dead by Dawn one of the best sequels ever made. It is funnier than the original, making the gross special effects more palatable, and scarier than the third film in the franchise, Army of Darkness. It is the perfect mix of comedy and horror, and can be enjoyed on a number of levels – a straight up shocker with plenty of laughs, a comedy about horror, or for film buffs, an exhilarating, balls-out example of a director at the top of his game.