Episode 101: “El Jefe”
[Photos courtesy Starz Entertainment]
The Evil Dead franchise is a special area of horror genre. The three movies (four if you count the reboot, five if you give honorary mention to My Name is Bruce – and don’t get me started on the stage musical or the video games) are the ‘cabin in the woods’ trope mixed in with plenty of gorn and a sense of camp and dark humor thanks to director/co-producer Sam Raimi’s penchant for both cheap horror and the Three Stooges. (If you want a great play by play of how the first movie was made, warts and all, check out Bruce Campbell’s autobiography If Chins Could Kill.)
Ask almost anyone who’s seen the movies, however, and the prevailing reason for why they’ve outlasted other cheap horror movies from that time period is down to star Bruce Campbell. While in the first Evil Dead he’s just the lucky sole survivor, by the time Army of Darkness rolled around, his “Groovy” catchphrase and his unlikely luck with the ladies made him the epitome of the loveable asshole. In fact, the role has become such a signature part of Campbell’s life that My Name is Bruce is a direct reference to the fact that he can’t seem to escape being Ash.
So, when Starz announced that there would be an Evil Dead television show, it was inevitable that Campbell’s involvement would make or break the show. Add in the help of Sam Raimi (who directs the first episode, and also co-wrote it with brother Ivan and Tom Spezialy), composer Joseph LoDuca, executive producer Robert Tapert (with production company Renaissance Productions), an appearance by Lucy Lawless (and Raimi’s Oldsmobile, of course), the pilot episode of Ash Vs. Evil Dead feels like a ‘let’s get the gang back together’ production, with a few ‘not getting any younger’ playful jabs at Campbell. (In the first scene, he’s putting on a girdle as he’s getting ready to try and get lucky.)
First, the plot: Ash somehow manages to pick up the sole woman at the bar he goes to. While in the middle of having sex in the bar’s restroom, the woman is possessed by a Deadite. He knows he has to get away, but in true Ash style, he has to finish first. He then goes home, and tries to figure out how the Deadites managed to come to be. As is typical of Ash, he’s the king of the stupid mistakes. He suddenly remembers he had read out of the Necronomicon with one of his dates while high.
We then transition to the X-Files-like state troopers Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) and her partner Carson (Mike Edward) investigating a disturbance at a stereotypically creepy house. Carson is, of course, killed by the end of this scene (poor guy didn’t even get a first name on IMDB).
We then go back to Ash, where he is ready to go off and get the book translated and get the hell out of Dodge. But he can’t leave until he picks up his check. Alas, apparently due to pesky rights issues, he’s no longer working at S-Mart, but is at the still generic Value Stop. He encounters co-worker Pablo (Ray Santiago), who obviously hero worships Ash, and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), who clearly isn’t going to fall for Ash’s normal schtick and whose mother just died six months ago.
We transition back to Fisher, who is under investigation by internal affairs and due a psych evaluation because of her partner’s death. She’s still seeing Deadites, but wondering if she is just going crazy, but is told by an unnamed Lucy Lawless that, “Sometimes what you think you saw is exactly what you saw.”
Back to Ash, trying to finish his day so he can get his check, we’re given an awesome battle with a tiny doll that’s reminiscent of the fight with Evil Ash. After being helped by Pablo, Ash tells him (and those newbies watching who may not know the movies the series is based on) a summary of the first Evil Dead movie. (And, due to those pesky rights issues, there’s no tale of his following trip to Medieval England.)
Pablo tells Ash that his shaman uncle spoke about the one man who will rise to stand against the evil, known as the title drop El Jefe. Ash refuses the call, despite it popping up all around where he’s been. “Let it choose somebody else now,” he says, but Pablo counters that he can’t outrun evil. Meanwhile, Kelly’s father is seeing someone in the house – and it’s Kelly’s dead mother. Pablo and Kelly drive off to try and figure out what to do.
After a quick cut to Fisher, who goes back to the house to discover that she’s not going insane, we’re back with Kelly and Pablo showing up at Ash’s, who is “about to haul noogies”. Which is when they are attacked by the Deadites. And in a scene you’d expect more out of Excalibur, we have the revelation of Ash’s boomstick, and – after a ‘who’s more important?’ conversation between Ash and Kelly – the chainsaw. “It’s good to be back,” Ash says as he finally accepts the call to once again fight the evil he has brought about. How does he feel about it? “Groovy.”
Overall, the episode is a great start. Pilot episodes are notorious for being mediocre. You have to introduce your characters, get your back stories/world building in (especially for genre shows), and start any season arc you may be going for – all in a relatively short period of time. “El Jefe” works the nostalgia angle to its benefit. There’s just enough of the movies here for die hard fans, with enough new stuff for newbies to join in the fun. As is expected, there’s plenty of gorn – and Raimi is smart enough to use a combination of CGI and traditional effects to make the horrors believable (or unbelievable in the right way). There’s even the use of the recognizable ‘tree cam’. (I’m just waiting for Ted Raimi to show up – isn’t it in his contract to be in every Sam Raimi production?)
There’s also a surprisingly diverse cast. From the Latino Pablo to the African-American female Fisher, Campbell is the only white male among our (surviving) heroes. And most of the time, he’s the butt of the joke. And while yes, I sighed a bit that it seems like Kelly is starting to succumb to Ash’s ‘charm’ (not the least because of the age difference between the two), it at least was more in a ‘you dressed up nice’ kind of reaction after Ash answers the call to become a hero.
Do you believe in the existence of evil? What makes Ash (and the Evil Dead franchise) so great is that it’s so wrong it’s right. And “El Jefe” fits that like an artificially-produced hand.
The first episode of Ash Vs. Evil Dead is still available to stream for free on the Starz website.
Angie has been published in LA Weekly, The Mary Sue, and Stage Directions, to name a few, and soon will be adding Den of Geek as well. You can see more of her work over at her website.