“A big jolly splatterfest” — Talking “Ash vs Evil Dead” with Bruce Campbell and Lucy Lawless

Jeff Pfeiffer

It was just past the first day of winter in New Zealand when I arrived at a location called Riverhead, just outside of Auckland, to begin watching the filming of the new Starz series Ash vs Evil Dead, which airs Saturdays beginning Oct. 31. Coming from the northern U.S., I didn’t find the weather to be quite what I was used to as “winter.” It was very pleasant: sunny, temps in the high 50s, low 60s Fahrenheit. The nice climate added to the loveliness of the filming location, a scenic pine forest. As a fan of the original Evil Dead films, I was thrilled as soon as we came upon this location, where the brunt of the series’ outdoor sequences are filmed, as it recalled the dark woods that were the setting for the first two movies. It looked like a location that just cried out to have an Evil Dead film shot there.

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And almost immediately upon arrival, I walked up to a scene being filmed that looked like it could have come from one of Sam Raimi’s classics (which probably makes sense, as Raimi directed the first episode of the series and was key to maintaining the tone among the other episodic directors). “Action” was called by the director of this particular episode, Michael Hurst, and a young woman was seen running through these beautiful and scary woods, only to fall down. But instead of being grabbed by a monstrous “Deadite,” the villains of the films and this series, she was captured by a survivalist group that she and her friends, including Ash (Bruce Campbell, reprising his role from the films), had stumbled upon while on the hunt for the creatures. The woman, Kelly Maxwell (played by Dana DeLorenzo), doesn’t take things lying down even when she does fall. She gets up and snarks at the guards, and right away you get a sense that she is almost like a female version of Ash, which DeLorenzo agreed with in a later interview. Women have clearly become more empowered in this series from their days as helpless Deadite victims in the original films.

But while some things have changed, including Ash himself, to a degree, Campbell, whom I also spoke with on set, confirmed that everything that fans have loved from the Evil Dead franchise will be on hand in this series — horror, comedy and plenty of Deadite and human gore. From the bit of filming I saw, I have no reason to doubt that.

On the other hand, newbies should also enjoy the show. And before you go thinking that this is like The Walking Dead, think again. “Watch 10 minutes of it, and you’ll see how different it is,” Campbell said.

For one thing, the Deadites are no mere shambling zombies, as Campbell described.

“They’re very smart, very crafty, very clever. They use deception; they can talk like an adult. They can drive cars. They might be able to fool you for a little bit, like knocking on somebody’s door, or outside a door. They’re not shufflers and mumblers. There’s an intelligence, a very, very malevolent intelligence, behind them, so they’re great foes. Take somebody who you would have to kill, and make them a really good foe that’s hard to kill. They’re strong, they’re possessed. You’ve got to cut their head off, you’ve got to get ’em with a shotgun, you’ve got to dismember them. You’ve got to do something.”

As an additional difference, Ash vs Evil Dead is a half-hour series. Campbell explained the rationale for that decision: “[It was] in order to keep the pace lively, and to stick with the humor. If we did an hour show, this wouldn’t work. It’d be a completely different show. Not that it wouldn’t work, but it wouldn’t be like the show that we’re doing. We have a fast-paced, humor-laced show.

“The nice thing is, nobody has to know the Evil Dead franchise to get into this. It’s not that complicated. We’ll give you all the recap you need.”

Here’s a bit of a recap for you now: Ash, still a stock boy (now at Value Stop instead of S-Mart) and chainsaw-handed monster hunter, and now an aging lothario, has spent the last 30 years avoiding responsibility, maturity and the terrors of the Evil Dead. When a Deadite plague threatens to destroy all of mankind, Ash is finally forced to face his demons — personal and literal.

Aiding Ash in his battle are his famed chainsaw, and a newer power glove that comes equipped with special features.

“[Ash] was just limping along with a wooden hand for a while,” said Campbell, “but now he’s got to have more stuff. Think of it as a utility hand that can do whatever you need at the time. Anywhere from a penlight to a screwdriver. It’s like a Swiss army knife.”

Ash lives in his trailer, pulled behind the trusty 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 fans will remember from the Evil Dead films. Stepping inside the trailer, it had all the hallmarks of a self-centered man on the run living alone, from an unmade bed to a tool area where Ash perfects his weapons, to an unkempt kitchen, to fishing pictures on the walls, and a 2002 wall calendar that never got taken down. It’s a glorious, purposefully designed mess.

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Among the detail of the trailer are items that Campbell and executive producers Raimi and Rob Tapert recall fondly from their youthful days in Michigan. “They got Faygo Redpop,” Campbell said, “they’ve got Michigan State University, Camp Tamaqua, a lot of the references. The car has the Camp Tamaqua sticker. The car’s really well done, too. We got the original cars back. That’s impressive.” Not only does Ash crash in his trailer, but sometimes the walls of the trailer themselves even crash in — some were made to be removable during scenes such as a Deadite attack.

Along with DeLorenzo, Ash’s other sidekicks in his ongoing battle with the creatures are Pablo Simon Bolivar (Ray Santiago), one of Ash’s coworkers at Value Stop; and Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), a disgraced Michigan State Police trooper determined to find Ash and prove his responsibility in the grisly murder of her partner.

Also on the hunt for Ash is the mysterious Ruby, played by Lucy Lawless, in a re-teaming with her former occasional Xena: Warrior Princess costar Campbell. Everyone, including Lawless herself, was very closemouthed on just what Ruby is up to, but it’s clear she blames Ash for the Deadite outbreak.

“She’s after Ash,” Lawless — a native Aucklander who is no stranger to filming in her homeland — tells me, “and I liken her to Jaws. You can’t see the whole fish at once. You certainly can’t see it in the first episode, so she is the impending doom. She is gunning for him because he’s the source of all evil as far as she’s concerned, and she plays dirty — and yet remains with clean hands the whole time.

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“Before the end, we’ll see [Ash and Ruby] together,” Lawless adds. “Whether it becomes a workable, loving relationship, we have yet to see. I suspect not.”

Ash does have a relationship of sorts with his new, younger friends. In fact, during one bit of filming I watched, Ash even gets a little sentimental and concerned for his group as they are all gung-ho over going to battle without realizing the danger. He seems almost fatherly, which would be a very new direction for the usually irresponsible Ash.

“You have to flesh the character out,” Campbell said. “I think between the three movies, he only had about 20 lines of dialogue. Now you actually have to have him talk like an adult. He’s the leader, and you have his younger team, so yeah, he’s a father figure. He’s a lot of things: team leader, squadron leader, den mother.”

That’s not to say Ash has totally changed. The wiseass ladies’ man is still on display at times.

“Ash will have his time with the ladies,” said Campbell. “He won’t always succeed. The old lines that used to work don’t always work, so he’ll have to evolve his methods.”

“That’s what we love about [Ash],” Lawless adds, humorously. “He’s still the same lovable loser, except now he’s old, too. (Don’t tell Bruce I said that.) He’s still an ass, not even a wiseass. He’s just an ass, but in some ways, he’s become a bit ossified. He’s a bigger ass than before, like he knows more mechanically about the world, but he is not at all wise, not wiser. He’s just a walking tragedy, and that’s what we love about Ash. You want to see him suffer, and that’s what I’m doing here.”

Original Evil Dead fans are older now, too, but Lawless agrees with Campbell that they will enjoy the new series, even if she herself wasn’t overly fond of the first movie.

“I saw [the original movies] when I was 17,” she said. “I don’t think it was new. It was already kind of a classic, and I was so appalled by the first Evil Dead that I walked out in a huff. [The series is] more like the comedy Evil Dead. I like to call it a big, jolly splatterfest. … I think hardcore fans are going to be really pleased. You’re scared to mess that up for them, but I don’t think [we did]. I think they’re going to be really pleased. The scripts are bloody funny, and they’re beautifully done.”

Other things have changed with age, of course, including some of Bruce Campbell’s stunt work.

“I do more than the average actor,” Campbell said of his stunts, “but I’m not an idiot. You can’t shut the production down if you risk hurting yourself. No, I have a very excellent stuntman who … he stays very busy.”

Despite modern tweaks, though, original Evil Dead fans should enjoy the new series, especially with Raimi’s influence.

“Sam’s involved in everything,” Campbell said. “Nothing passes without the poobah’s stamp. That’s how it should be. Fans should know that he’s going to have his grubby little paws in there. It’s quality control. You need that. Especially for someone who doesn’t know the series, we can guide the new directors.

“We’re going to draw in the audience that likes horror, and that likes action, and that likes comedy,” Campbell concluded. “Anybody who likes those three, come on down. … You’re getting a horror and a comedy. It’s not just one thing. The horror’s real, though. We’re not spoofing the horror.”

Ash vs Evil Dead airs Saturdays at 9pm ET/PT on Starz beginning Oct. 31.

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