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Ash vs. Evil Dead: The Complete First Season

Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // August 23, 2016 // Region 0
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 11, 2016 | E-mail the Author
Hail to the king, baby.

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For some barflys, all it takes is a six-pack and side 1 of Zeppelin IV to get her juices flowing. Some ladies occasionally need a little more coaxing, though, and this naughty little filly's thing is poetry. Ashley J. Williams (Bruce Campbell) doesn't exactly have the complete Yeats on a shelf in his trailer, but, stoned out of his gourd, he reaches for the next best thing. "Kanda. Estrata. Amantos, " he whispers in her ear. Has a nice ring to it, right? "Ilres. Lagt. Nosferatus." Just try not to notice that the guy's reading from a book bound in human flesh and inked in blood. "Kanda. Mantos. Kanda. Kanda. Kanda!" Before you know it, they're kanda-ing each others' brains out, alright.

The good news...? Ash got laid. The bad...? Reading aloud those passages from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis has once again granted an ancient evil passage from an extradimensional Hell to some speck on the map in Michigan. It's been thirty years since Ash last hacked, slashed, and boomsticked his way through the demons that seized hold of everyone he held dear. We've got a music licensing budget, right? Cue up "Back in the Saddle Again". ...or just look on as Ash tries to hightail it out of town. Something like that.

Sure, he's lived on in a bunch of video games and stacks of comic books, but nearly a quarter of a century had passed since Ash last graced the silver screen. If you've been yammering ever since then about how desperately you need Ash to return for round four, the series premiere of Ash vs. Evil Dead delivers and then some. The core team behind the franchise, down to Sam Raimi in the director's chair, returns for that first episode. Its mix of slapstick and splatter, the manic energy, the howlingly hysterical sense of humor, the barrel drums of viscera, the parade of razor-sharp one-liners, that demented imagination, the whirling dervish camerawork and brilliant editing: this blood-drenched Valentine to all things Evil Dead is pitch-perfect. Bruce Campbell is such a force of nature that it's easy to forget that the guy's pushing sixty, stepping back into his most iconic role after a couple decades away without missing a beat. Some dodgy digital effects aside, it's tough to imagine a more triumphant Evil Dead 4 than this.

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So, yeah, Ash vs. Evil Dead makes it a point to keep some things the same. Ash still only has that one hand. Even after all these decades, he's still on the bottom rung at some soulless big box retailer. (Army of Darkness isn't a thing in this series, so they can't call it S-Mart, but you get the idea.) The guy's still tooling around in that Delta 88. He's still a self-serving prick with a nasty habit of taking the easy way out. He's nostalgic enough to keep a shotgun, chainsaw-arm, and a certain book of Kandarian demon summoning rites handy in case of an emergency. But hey! This is an ongoing television series, so the formula needs some shaking up.

In the movies, Ash was pretty much an alone wolf; anyone tagging along with him would inevitably be gruesomely butchered and/or possessed by this hellspawned evil. The list of actors returning for the next sequel is basically one and done. Ash vs. Evil Dead opts instead for a recurring cast. Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) work with Ash at the Value Stop, and whether it's out of a sense of responsibility or just because they have nothing left to lose, they ride shotgun on his quest to curbstomp the Deadite menace once and for all. Wherever Ash goes, a stack of smoldering, mutilated corpses is inevitably left behind, and disgraced Michigan State Trooper Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) is obsessed with figuring out how this string of grisly murders connects with the waking nightmare of the undead that she was subjected to. As far as she knows, Ash is the one to blame for all this (which is...yeah, just not in the way she thinks). Then there's Ruby (Lucy Lawless), a 5'10" question mark who's also hot on Ash's trail and is armed with all sorts of things that'll make frothing-at-the-mouth Evil Dead fanatics' jaws drop when she whips 'em out.

The first two Evil Dead flicks -- the only ones that Ash vs... is all that interested in -- never really strayed too far from the Knowbys' cabin. You can't really do that for ten episodes straight, so Ash vs. Evil Dead takes it on the road. A demon-tainted family dinner! A dust-up with the Michigan militia! A jaunt to the bookstore! A stab at getting intel straight from the maw of Hell that, astonishingly, doesn't go entirely according to plan! Closing the circle by returning to where it all began! You'd probably expect each episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead to clock in right at an hour, but no, not so much. Being on premium cable and all, the length of each installment varies, but you're basically looking at thirty minutes a pop. It's a decision that's sparked some really heated reactions, but the idea is to leave 'em wanting more. Get in. Get out. Surgical strike. Onto the next thing.

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A lot of these changes work brilliantly. Pablo and Kelly quickly won me over, and I don't really want to picture a version of Ash vs. Evil Dead without these actors playing these characters. As someone who's wasted entirely too much of his life wondering how the police react to the aftermath of slashers and supernatural horror flicks, I'm all over the concept of Amanda chasing the three of 'em across Michigan. The series livens up the hellspawned badniks. There are too many Deadites to count, yeah, but demonic forces are unleashed far beyond just that. The new creature designs are phenomenal, with the jittery brainfucker Eligos (pictured above!) in particular standing out. Although the series premiere sets an absurdly high bar that the rest of the season never quite reaches, Ash vs. Evil Dead still captures so much of what've cemented Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness as lifelong favorites. ...and the garage rock / '70s FM soundtrack! Glorious. This series is absolutely the silly, spastic, splatterfest I'd crossed my fingers hoping it'd be.

As short as this season is, running just five hours all told, I kind of wish it were shorter. The pacing can be pretty uneven, especially when Ash careens head-on into a partially possessed Michigan militia or his interminable drug trip fantasy version of Jacksonville. The momentum sputters enough for the early manic energy to flag. The 'voice' of the series isn't as consistent as it should be; I can really feel the difference in style, tone, and approach from writer to writer. Even characterization can be awfully spotty. Everyone suffers from that to some extent, to the point where it feels as if there are four different Ashes in the lead, but Amanda easily has it the worst. The season turns on a dime and transforms her into an unrecognizably different character with a third of her previously established intelligence. If you haven't tuned into the series yet, remember this part where I write "ugh, and the Australian campers...!" You'll know what I mean when you get there.

The first half of the season is considerably stronger than the back half, despite that so many of the final episodes take place in the cabin from the original movies. It's in those concluding episodes where the ensemble kind of works against the series. Claustrophobia and isolation were such defining elements of the original Evil Dead movies. Critical to their strength is that they were really anchored around one character. Ash's gradual descent into madness, the increasing dread...all of that peters out when you suddenly cut away to someone else tooling around outside doing something completely different. Starz didn't exactly fork over a blank check to Sam Raimi, and the seams in Ash vs. Evil Dead's budget definitely show, especially in both the practical and cut-rate digital effects. The final moments of the season are wildly anticlimactic, basically just abandoning everything that was going on to set the stage for season two, but not bothering to do it in any sort of vaguely compelling way.

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Don't get me wrong, though. Warts and all, I still dig Ash vs. Evil Dead. Considering that I've watched the Evil Dead trilogy more times than I'd care to count, it's a little messy trying to write a review of a followup TV series based on a single viewing. I also think I might've gotten more out of the cabin episodes if I hadn't binge-watched this sucker so quickly. Here's hoping that season two -- just a few weeks away as I write this! -- builds on the series' many strengths and tightens up the sloppier bits. Uneven but absolutely still Recommended. If you've never watched an Evil Dead flick before, though, I'd definitely suggest giving at least part two a look before diving in here.

Ash vs. Evil Dead looks really slick in high-def. The only thing is that, for my money, it's a little too slick. As much as the series tries to carry over the frenetic visuals of the original movies, a good chunk of the photography is sparklingly clean, bright, and glossy in a way that just...doesn't seem right to my eyes. I'm also not a fan of video that looks quite so much like video, and the image is often swarming with noise, especially when it doesn't have all that much light to play with. No one else is complaining, though, so chalk that up as another weird hangup of mine.

But hey! Ignore me while we back up to that "really slick" part. Ash vs. Evil Dead is sharp as a tack on Blu-ray: crisper and better defined than the screenshots scattered throughout this review might suggest, even. I'm impressed by how richly detailed the digital photography is, and its use of color -- especially the bold blue of Ash's trademark button-up as well as all the crimson viscera that gets slung around -- can be really striking. The authoring isn't quite where I want it to be, though. A few aerial shots heavily shimmer and look all digital artifact-y (something baked into stock footage, maybe?), and the AVC encode occasionally struggles, like this case-in-point. You might have to pop that sucker open to full size to see what I'm grousing about.

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The most technically troublesome stuff only adds up to a few seconds' worth of footage throughout the entire season, though, so don't sweat it. Ash vs. Evil Dead is less my thing visually than I thought it'd be, but this Blu-ray set is really strong just the same. ...and just to round out all the nuts and bolts stuff, this season is spread across a pair of BD-50 discs, split down the middle with five episodes each.

Ash vs. Evil Dead is rockin' a set of 24-bit, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtracks. Even though I'm a couple speakers shy of being able to take advantage of the whole eight-channel thing, what I am able to hear is pretty much world-class. Just to listen to it, you'd never guess that Ash vs. Evil Dead was made for the small screen. The sound design is so aggressive that it outclasses many theatrically released genre flicks: violent crashes of thunder, the hellish snarl of THE EVIL roaring from every direction, a Deadite skittering around the walls and ceiling, a demon teleporting from one channel to the next, shards of glass telekinetically flung around, and...yeah, the list goes on and on from there. There's an intense emphasis on directionality, and it rarely seems as if more than a few minutes ever pass without some effect leaping from the surround channels up front or vice versa. The subwoofer gets a workout too, from the meaty thuds of fist fights to shotgun blasts to the low-frequency growl of the Deadites' voices. Even with as much havoc as is wrought throughout these ten episodes, dialogue is consistently clean, clear, and well-balanced throughout. Totally awestruck.

Riding shotgun are a French Dolby Digital 5.1 dub (448kbps) and a stereo Spanish surround track (192kbps). Subtitles are dished out in English (SDH) and Spanish.

  • Audio Commentaries: All ten episodes this season are packing commentary tracks. "El Jefe", the series premiere, piles on the names you know and love from all those other Evil Dead commentaries: Sam and Ivan Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell. Tapert and Campbell return for "Bait" with actors Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago. Campbell, DeLorenzo, and Santiago have a pretty good run going with "Books from Beyond", "Brujo", and "The Host". The Chin sits out on "The Killer of Killers" and "Fire in the Hole", with Jill Marie Jones taking his spot. Campbell returns for "Ashes to Ashes" with the rest of the cast, and Lucy Lawless takes over for Jones in the season's final two episodes.

    I like this season and everything, but it's even more fun with the commentaries going. "El Jefe" is a definite standout, although it doesn't really do the screen-specific commentary thing as the Evil Dead High Sheriffs run through the development of this TV series and all the ideas batted around over the years for Evil Dead 4. Ash as a documentary filmmaker! Ash vs. the Machines! The four of 'em also discuss why they settled on a half-hour-ish runtime for this series, how they landed on Starz, and why they shot a series set in Michigan on the complete other side of the world. There are entirely too many highlights to rattle off from there. The way light refracts in New Zealand! All of Lucy Lawless' scenes -- even the ones in the premiere -- being shot in the back half of the season! Campbell chatting up William Shatner about the T.J. Hooker powerslide! Kiwis clumsily attempting American accents! The revelation that fake weed tastes like incense grown in a horse's rectum! Confusing real bloodsucking leeches with the gummy variety! The tricks of the trade for devouring stacks of pancakes on camera! More about saliva improv than you ever would've guessed! What to blast up a rat's ass to get it to move the way you want! The allure of Mary Ann vs. Ginger! The Facebook joke I can't believe I didn't think of! If you pick up this Blu-ray set and never give the audio commentaries a whirl, you're doing it wrong, and I'm not sure I even want you reading this review anymore.
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  • Inside the World (16 min.; HD): The meatiest of Ash vs. Evil Dead's featurettes weaves episode-by-episode recaplets in with the expected behind-the-scenes stuff. Executive producer Craig DiGregorio drives this piece, and he's joined by Sam Raimi, effects wizard Mark Knight, production designer Nick Bassett, and a big chunk of the cast. They tear through the practical effects work, striking the right tone between smirks and splatter, as well as production, character, and set designs. There's some really good stuff in here, including a tour of the reconstructed cabin and a peek at an earlier version of a certain something in a lucite container that I really wanna talk about but friggin' spoilers.

  • Promotional Stuff (4 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras are two quick promotional pieces. First up is a highlight reel of the "Best of Ash", clocking in at a minute and a half. The other is a two and a half minute primer on "How to Kill a Deadite", featuring Bruce Campbell and interviews with a gaggle of fans at a comic-con.

No DVDs or digital copies this time around. There's a long-since-sold out steelbook exclusive to Best Buy, but the regular release scores its own fancy packaging: a lenticular animated slipcover.

The Final Word
You've been clamoring for Evil Dead 4 for twentysomeodd years now. It took a while, yeah, but now you're lookin' at a full season of Ashtasticness that runs longer than the original Evil Dead trilogy all told, and the next run of episodes is just around the corner. As uneven as the writing, direction, and pacing can be in this freshman season, its best moments are so deliriously, infectiously fun -- splatstick in the most glorious way -- that it's essential viewing for any Evil Dead fan. Of course, you've already loyally tuned in and probably even own this Blu-ray collection, so you don't need me to tell you that this season comes heartily Recommended.

Wait, I Should Probably Do Something with These Leftover Screenshots, Right?
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