Sam Raimi’s sequel to his breakout hit, “The Evil Dead” (1983), is a return to form after the failure of his “Crimewave,” a black comedy Coen Brothers collaboration that was released with crippling, producer-mandated edits and creative alterations. Perhaps, if “Crimewave” had succeeded, Raimi would have moved beyond his tale of bad things happening in a cabin deep in the woods. Whether he would have returned and helmed this sequel sooner or later, one thing is for certain: “Evil Dead II” is, somehow, even more playfully nauseating, more hilariously funny and drenched in (literally) more eye popping moments than the original. While it’s more of a remake than an outright sequel, Raimi has a kitchen sink approach here, as few scenes go by without something amazing whizzing trough the frame.
Bruce Campbell’s Ash is back and finds himself once again in a deserted cabin. A few minutes of needless exposition pass and suddenly, that jolt of filmic energy snaps open like a foamy beer can. The Necronomicon is opened, another audio recording sets very bad things in motion and the movie is less than 15 minutes in when we get our first decapitation. As Ashe battles the evil spirits, who posses living things and, eventually, the cabin itself, a group of friends make their way to see him, even as the route to his whereabouts are ominously severed.
The early scenes of Campbell, having a bloody slapstick battle with some gleefully cruel demons, is the film at its best. When the focus leaves Ashe and gives us a break with the group of friends on their way to see him, the momentum lags. The supporting cast commits firmly to the premise and endures some gnarly, indie-filmmaking rites of passage (you know you’re a team player when you allow Raimi to film an eyeball flying into your mouth!).
Yet, this is Campbell’s film. While Ash is written and performed in some awfully broad strokes, Campbell’s amazing physical performance, commitment to the sheer insanity of several scenes and willingness to be as goofy as the role requires is as awe-inducing as any of Raimi’s jerry-rigged special effects. Ash is clearly Wile. E. Coyote to the cabin’s unrelenting Road Runner. It’s impossible to imagine this with anyone but Campbell and Raimi making this work like it does. With the former going above and beyond to absorb seemingly tortuous scenes of grisly hilarity, the latter works as a sadistic magician, unleashing one jolting but oh-so-cool moment after another.
The viewer is pulverized by so much aggressive camera work, absurdly gory bits and unceasing nuttiness, it does become exhausting near the end. The simpler but still awfully gross original may be the better work. The astonishing final shot in the original is duplicated here early on in an even more elaborate, seemingly out-of-control manner; it’s a telling detail. Raimi’s film goes over the top almost all of the time but not every attempt to outdo the original works.
Still, it’s impossible not to laugh when Ash is in the midst of a violent kitchen battle with himself. Then there’s the ballsy, quite bonkers final scene, which shows just how far the filmmakers managed to get by shooting for the moon. I prefer the narrative strength and human angst matched with Raimi’s kaleidoscopic visuals that makes his “Darkman” such a marvelous work. If you take “Evil Dead II” as a dark comedy, a sequel about the role of building a bigger mousetrap or (better still) an exercise in excess and a sustained but carefully controlled 90 minutes of escalating chaos. Some of this would have made Luis Bunuel envious and some of this would have made him gag. Both are qualities Raimi and Campbell should be proud of. There’s old fashioned movie magic (as well as an ahead-of-the-game, “South Park” worthy irreverence) that makes this both charming and radical.