Ash vs Evil Dead: The Complete First Season

(2015) *** 1/2 Unrated
294 min. Starz. Directors: Sam Raimi, Michael J. Bassett, David Frazee, Michael Hurst, Tony Tilse, Rick Jacobson. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ray Santiago, Dana DeLorenzo, Jill Marie Jones, Lucy Lawless, Hemky Madera, Samara Weaving, Mimi Rogers.

/content/films/4952/1.jpgOkay, listen up, chuckleheads. Ash is back with a vengeance in Ash vs Evil Dead, an official TV sequel to Sam Raimi's cult-horror franchise. Building off of star Bruce Campbell's recent popularity on television (especially on Burn Notice and its Campbell-centered spinoff film), Ash vs Evil Dead brings the star's signature character roaring back into comedy-horror action.

Campbell is the postmodern William Shatner, only his new show is like Star Trek in reverse, in its trajectory from the big to the small screen. The actor's winking performance style and convention-friendly relationship to his loyal fans feels inextricably woven into the new show, which begins with Campbell sucking his gut into a "man girdle," before moving on to gags about dentures and hair dye to underline the "aging lothario" nature of latter-day Ash Williams.

Ash lives in a trailer, a PTSD-repressing survivor of the cabin-in-the-woods horror depicted in 1981's The Evil Dead and 1987's Evil Dead 2 (the series is legally obliged to avoid mention of the events of 1992's Army of Darkness). In a Shatnerian coup de television, Ash vs Evil Dead even crafts a near-climactic showdown between Ash and his evil double, a la the Shatner-on-Shatner violence in Star Trek's "The Enemy Within." Indeed, Ash is his own worst enemy, half the time shooting himself in the foot by picking fights with the wrong people or otherwise foolishly rushing in to trouble.

It's difficult to imagine how Ash vs Evil Dead could be any more fan-pleasing than it is. Original writer-director Sam Raimi helms the 41-minute pilot "El Jefe" (co-written by Ivan Raimi and Tom Spezialy), and the A-list movie director reestablishes the house style with gusto. The infamous flying-low-through-the-woods shot becomes a motif of the ten-episode season, but the pilot is packed with all sorts of looney fun that conjures back up the "splatstick" style Raimi and friends popularized. When a boozy Ash inadvertantly unleashes the evil by reading from the Necronomicon, demonic forces begin to plague Michigan again by inhabiting humans and turning them into ferocious, homicidal "Deadites."

Ash hits the road with his ValueShop retail co-workers Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), while Michigan state police detective Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), scarred by the murder of her partner, begins tracking the evil and meets a mysterious badass who's doing the same: Ruby Knowby (Lucy Lawless). All roads lead back to Ash and the iconic cabin where it all started. The last three episodes of the season, set in and around that cabin, function as a feature-length "Evil Dead 2.5" of sorts.

But even before we get there, the series makes a wholly convincing case for Evil Dead in a half-hour episodic format, with episodes involving Kelly's "is she or isn't she possessed?"mother (played by a game Mimi Rogers), a two-part visit to Ray's brujo uncle (Hemky Madera), and bloody adventures in the occult bookstore Books from Beyond, a diner, and an underground militia bunker. Each of these set pieces serves well as a playground for inventive horrors, gory makeup effects, and fantastic stunts of carnage and mayhem abetted by the experienced crews in New Zealand where the series (like Lawless' erstwhile Xena: Warrior Princess and Campbell's short-lived Jack of All Trades) is shot.

Surprisingly funny, unique in the television landscape, and prime fodder for the age of ComicCon, Ash vs Evil Dead arrives as an instant camp classic and a point of pride for its premium-channel host, Starz. The show's glibness is, of course, at odds with the high body count of innocent victims, but it's all in bad fun. As the show hits Blu-ray and DVD, a second season readies for launch in October, and as Ash would say, "Me likey," "Let's boogie!" and, of course, "Groovy!"

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1

Street date: 8/23/2016

Distributor: Starz/Anchor Bay

Starz/Anchor Bay sends home Ash vs Evil Dead: The Complete First Season in a fine two-disc set with a nice collection of bonus features. The picture quality features vivid color and palpable textures, although it suffers somewhat from low contrast and weak black level (I suppose it's possible this soft look is intentional, but it's not the impression I got in viewing the show on Starz). On a few occasions, I also noticed some mild compression artifacts—for example, in a wide shot of grassy landscape or an aerial shot of a forest. Audio is splendiferous in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 that ratchets up the horror with immersive surround placement and detailed, robust sound mixing for the horror effects and rockin' soundtrack.

The meat of the bonus features comes in the audio commentaries, one per episode, that fans will dig big-time. Disc One includes audio commentaries for "El Jefe" with creator/executive producer/director Sam Raimi, co-executive producer Ivan Raimi, executive producer Rob Tapert and executive producer/actor Bruce Campbell; "Bait" with Tapert, Campbell and actors Dana DeLorenzo and Ray Santiago; and "Books from Beyond," "Brujo" and "The Host" with Campbell, DeLorenzo and Santiago.

Disc Two serves up audio commentaries for "The Killer of Killers" and "Fire in the Hole" with DeLorenzo, Jill Marie Jones and Santiago; "Ashes to Ashes" with Campbell, DeLorenzo, Jones and Santiago; and "Bound in Flesh" and "The Dark One" with Campbell, DeLorenzo, Lucy Lawless and Santiago.

Rounding out the second disc are a trio of video-based features. "Ash: Inside the World" (15:59, HD) gathers the episodic post-show promos that accompanied each original Starz airing. With some clips and B-roll, these primarily feature the thoughts of executive produceer/showrunner Craig DiGregorio (with passing comments by Raimi and prosthetic technician Mark Knight). "How to Kill a Deadite" (2:31, HD) allows Campbell and fans at what appears to be ComicCon testify to the titular issue, and "Best of Ash" (1:27, HD) is a promo rounding up some choice clips from the season.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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