CULT CLASSIC: Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (USA, 1987)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Danny Hicks, Kassie Wesley

Much of Sam Raimi's early work is tied up in his relationship to the Coen Brothers. After Joel Coen served as editor on The Evil Dead, the Coens utilised Raimi's techniques of creating short films to get money for their directorial debut, Blood Simple. Where Raimi had made Within the Woods, a 32-minute short which became The Evil Dead, the Coens created a fictional trailer for Blood Simple and played it in theatres. The trio collaborated again on Crimewave, a live-action comic-book romp which flopped due to studio interference.
While the Coens weathered the storm and went off to make Raising Arizona, Raimi was faced with the knowledge that another flop could curtail his directorial career. Eventually he gave in to pressure from acclaimed producer Dino DeLaurentiis and signed on to make a sequel to The Evil Dead. And it's a good job he did, because in Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn we have what is arguably his best film - a film that was not only treated better by the censors, but which is darker, scarier, funnier and more thrillingly demented than the original.
There has been much debate among fans of The Evil Dead as to whether Evil Dead 2 is technically a sequel or a remake. There have been many sequels to successful films which have retained the setting or scenario while inserting new characters, but the film is so similar to The Evil Dead in terms of plot and character development that it has to be a remake. The best way to think of the film is through the comic book principle of retroactive continuity, otherwise known as retconning. We are seeing a familiar storyline relayed with new additions and new emphases, to take account of the larger budget, Raimi's maturity as a director, and acknowledging the knowledge and interests of the original movie's fans.
The guiding principle for Evil Dead 2 is to remove all the bad stuff and make the good stuff better. To be fair there wasn't an awful lot of bad stuff in The Evil Dead, but the film immediately benefits from the lack of another tree rape scene. The make-up effects are more ambitiously gross, the camerawork is more kinetic, the slapstick is much better integrated, and the ending is a lot funnier.
The first instance of this principle being put into practice is the first five minutes, which effectively recaps The Evil Dead right up to the point where Ash was possessed by the demon running at him in the famous final shot. All the important elements in the original story remain - Ash and his girlfriend Linda making out, the tape recorder reciting incantations, Linda becoming a deadite and Ash becoming possessed. But while the original was a take on the final-girl scenario, where Ash emerged as the hero by being the only one left, Evil Dead 2 recognises that Bruce Campbell was the best actor and had the best character, so the focus shifts much more onto him.
The shift in character emphasis also has a positive impact on the tone of the film. The Evil Dead was immensely terrifying because it how unrelenting it was: the nameless Lovecraftian force was contrasted by the number of protagonists, any of whom could be attacked and subsequently prey upon the others. With the sequel, we are forced to focus on Ash until the archaeologists arrive in the second half. There feels like there is more at stake because he has no-one he can turn to and we have no hope if he gets killed. While The Evil Dead functions like a supernatural slasher movie, Evil Dead 2 is like a slasher movie that's been started twenty minutes before the end. It's the equivalent of doing Alien with only Ripley on the Nostromo, or The Haunting with only Nell in the house.
Raimi has a habit of putting his stars and audience through the mill; in the scenes where characters get punched, bashed or covered in blood, he's often standing just off-camera pressing the buttons and throwing the dangerous objects. By having the focus on Ash, the amount of pain and misery concentrated on the character becomes intensified to absurd degrees, and this absurdity in turn makes the film much funnier. Because Campbell is a great physical actor, he takes all this punishment in his stride, knowing exactly when to laugh and when to scream.
There is no better example of this then the sequence of Ash battling his possessed hand. Having tried to drown it in the sink, the hand starts bashing Ash over the head with plates and punches him in the stomach until he slumps unconscious into a pile of smashed crockery. On top of the initial absurdity (his hand being possessed and not the rest of him), the hand then proceeds to drag Ash's body towards a meat cleaver lying on the floor. We get a 'hand's-eye view' as it inches closer, only for Ash to stab it, and then cut it off with a chainsaw screaming "Who's laughing now?!". Having delivered the perfect blend of horror and slapstick comedy, Raimi gives us a cracking punch line, as Ash puts the hand in an upside-down metal bin, and weighs the bin down with a copy of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.
Evil Dead 2 also cranks up the humour by taking all the jokes in the first film to their logical conclusions. Instead of a small rickety old bridge that gets destroyed, we have a massive bridge over a vast, gaping chasm. Instead of sweet, awkward small talk between Ash and Linda, we have a goofy line about opening the champagne. Instead of simply wandering down into the cellar to get the pages of the book, we have Bruce Campbell fitting a chainsaw onto his severed arm and fooling around with a sawn-off shotgun. And instead of one pipe bursting and covering Campbell in blood, the whole cabin fills with gallons of blood when Ash shoots through the wall.
Evil Dead 2 also fleshes out some of the horror aspects which were explored in the first film. The Book of the Dead is now officially called the Necronomicon, in reference to H. P. Lovecraft's work of which Raimi was a big fan. The evil force rising up in the woods feels more malevolent, as it not only batters the cabin but manipulates objects in side of it, such as the deer's head and the laughing lamp. Even the zombies make a little more sense than the first film: not only do the humans keep mistakenly seeing them as people they love, so some of the monsters find their last remnants of humanity coming out, such as Annie singing a lullaby to her possessed mother.
The make-up and special effects are also much better constructed. This isn't too great a surprise, since the original effects had no budget whatsoever and were done with whatever the actors could get hold of. But the rubber effects in particular are brilliant, whether in the distorted face of Ash as he emerges from the puddle or the grotesque zombie torsos that are so intricately disgusting. The stop-motion effects are better too, paying homage to the work of Ray Harryhausen while still feeling scary in their own right. Proof of this comes in the revelation of the evil force before it is sucked into the portal; it could look ridiculous, being essentially a tree with a face, but even after 25 years it's still pretty creepy.
As with the previous film, Evil Dead 2 just wouldn't work without the performance of Bruce Campbell. It's fair to say that he did all his own stunts, and looks for every moment like he has been put through the mill, but still keeps coming back for more. Not only is there the goofy, B-movie charm of the original Ash, but the film uses its jokes to show the psychological trauma he is going through. One of the funniest moments finds Ash is staring at his reflection in the mirror, and mutters to himself: "I'm fine." Then his reflection comes out of the mirror, grabs him and says: "I don't think so. We just cut up our girlfriend with a chainsaw. Does that sound... fine?".
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is a horror-comedy masterpiece and the pinnacle of Sam Raimi's career. Everything about the film is better, darker, smarter, funnier and scarier than the original, with Raimi marrying the horror and slapstick perfectly and avoiding any unnecessary awkwardness. It's a fantastic crowdpleaser which just keeps on delivering, with Campbell in his prime and the film firing on all cylinders. And for those who said the original simply couldn't be improved - well, "who's laughing now?!". 

Rating: 5/5
Verdict: The ultimate horror crowdpleaser