When the gleefully gory first season of Starz horror comedy Ash vs Evil Dead wraps up Saturday, its bumbling hero will have doomed the world to hell for a chance to visit the vacation spot of his dreams: Jacksonville, Florida.
And to hear showrunner Craig DiGregorio tell it, Bruce Campbell will have barely survived the ordeal.
“We definitely, like, choked Bruce on liquid. He got waterboarded, but with blood,” DiGregorio recalls. “Then there was another instance where he kind of went blind for a while because it’s so viscous and sticky. It got in his eyes and he couldn’t get it out.”
Campbell sums up 10 episodes’ worth of guns, guts, and Deadite dismemberments with Ash-approved simplicity: “People wanted blood, man, and they got it.”
For more than two decades, of course, what the “people” really wanted was more Ash. More buffoonery, more of his undeniable heroism, more smirking, brash badassery. And, man, they got it.
Twenty-three years after Army of Darkness, the last in Sam Raimi’s beloved Evil Dead trilogy, Ash vs Evil Dead brought Campbell back to his most iconic role, picking up with the chainsaw-handed hero well into middle age. The man who saved the world, we learn, has spent his peaceful days in blissful mediocrity, living in trailer parks, picking up women, guzzling beer, and working at a local electronics store.
The fan-proclaimed king of postmodern cool might have petered out the rest of his life in weed smoke-filled squalor had he not accidentally unleashed evil into the world (again) by reading from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the Book of the Dead, while high and trying to impress a girl.
Ten episodes and untold barrels of blood later, not much about Ash has changed. He falls in sort-of-love with a cop, but the romance comes to an abrupt, bloody end. He becomes vaguely attached to his two sidekicks, Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), but their arcs end with them aghast at their friend, who just willingly traded the fate of the world for a chance to skip town with them in his Delta 88.
Ash may be too foolish to ever grow up, but for DiGregorio and many of Ash’s fans, that’s part of his appeal.
“The finale episodes, to me, show that this guy has grown maybe 2 percent, which is all you can hope for in a character like this,” DiGregorio says. “You don’t want huge character shifts. It would feel disingenuous if he left the season having learned everything.”
Instead, Ash is like a walking time capsule, an aging body with a mind stuck in 1981—the year a twenty-something Ash spent the night in a cabin and watched his girlfriend and all his friends get murdered. Back then, we learn through an illuminating acid trip in Episode Four, Ash’s ambitions amounted to one lousy vacation to Jacksonville—a laughably attainable goal that he’s still somehow never achieved.
This is all to say that Ash’s life, on paper, is desperately sad.
“He’s a very tragic figure. He’s Shakespearean!” Campbell says. “He’s a little Joseph Campbell, too. He’s on a hero’s journey, a bumpy road.”
Campbell, who’s known for assuming a kind of hybrid persona when talking Evil Dead—half-Bruce, half-Ash—starts channeling Ash’s half-baked wisdom: “’Cause if you’re a lazy bastard, you don’t have to go the hero route. You can just sit in your trailer, drink beer, and watch softcore porn and your life is over,” he says, authoritatively. “But if you’re the hero, you gotta step out and make decisions, and some of them are gonna be really bad. People are gonna croak. Ash is saving a lot of people, but he’s also got a lot of people killed, too.”
That the beer-bellied Ash is so unlike most of pop culture’s hyper-competent heroes, Campbell says, is what keeps luring him back to Evil Dead. “He’s so flawed. First scene [of the series] that Sam [Raimi] writes for Ash, he’s putting on a man-girdle. To me, that’s just so awesome,” he says. “Other directors, they’d be too afraid. ‘Oh, no, we can’t do that. That would just be unflattering.’”
“I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah, it is! Ash has dentures, for god’s sake!’” (And a bad knee and a bum shoulder.)
In the season finale, Ash returns to that old cabin in the woods for a supernatural showdown with Lucy Lawless’s Ruby, who reveals herself to be the original author of the Necronomicon. Campbell says the cabin’s interior set, faithfully re-created room-by-room from Raimi’s 1981 original, blew him away.
“It gave me hives. It made the hair on the back of my head stand up,” Campbell says. “They got the cabin so right. I could literally walk from room to room and look through a doorway, and through every door was the right perspective down the hallway. Every window you looked through, you saw the correct door the other way.”
“They had the tape recorder, they had the laughing lamp, they matched the doilies and the tables.” He pauses. “It was just…flawless. So, really disturbing.”
The real-life Tennessee cabin that Raimi, his brother Ivan, and producer Rob Tappert (a college buddy of Ivan’s, and Lawless’s future husband) once scouted for Evil Dead, meanwhile, has long since burned down; only a chimney survives. The topic prompts Campbell into another fit of Ash-isms.
“People are sneaking onto the property, they’ve now dismantled two-thirds of the chimney and I tell them, stay off that goddamn property! You’re gonna get buckshot up the ass!” he says. “The address got out on the Internet. So I’ve been to signings where people bring a brick from that stupid fireplace and I sign their limestone brick.”
Minus Ash’s gruff posturing, one could almost infer a tenderness in Campbell’s voice for those “people”—the Evil Dead devotees—he keeps talking about. When asked what reservations he had about stepping into Ash’s shoes again, Campbell replies promptly, “Just letting fans down, that’s the only thing I ever worried about.” He betrays his affection when talking about the tattoos that Evil Dead fans send him, too. (He has over 300 saved in his “collection.”)
A determination not to let fans down also seems to have motivated Campbell’s one mandate on set, his “bold statement” as the custodian of Ash’s unique legacy: “I’m not saying anything that I don’t want Ash to say. It’s just that simple,” he says. “And he better not sound like everybody else. Ash has to be an amalgam, he has to be a throwback. He’s a Luddite. But he’s an idiot savant. He’s actually a way more complex character than I think most people think.”
DiGregorio promises that Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season—premiere date TBA—will divulge more about Ash and his backstory, beyond what little we’ve learned through his acid trip and three movies.
But Campbell gets to the heart of why fans really keep returning, decade after decade, to Ash and his battle against the undead.
“[Evil Dead] was the little movie that could. We’re not Star Wars—we never were. Nobody was famous in the movie and nobody’s really famous today,” Campbell says, breaking into self-deprecating laughter. “They did their own thing and I think people can relate to that.”