‘Ash vs Evil Dead’ Review: Sam Raimi Revival Is Gory Fun for Hardcore Fans

Star Bruce Campbell captures comedy-horror tone of series’ later movies

Decapitated heads, spewing blood, deadpan quips: It’s nice having Ash Williams back. “Ash vs Evil Dead,” the first television iteration of the “Evil Dead” franchise that began with 1981’s big-screen “The Evil Dead,” is a winningly familiar mixture of over-the-top gore and sarcastic humor, all of it anchored by Bruce Campbell’s reliably meta-ironic performance as the titular antihero. Two episodes in, this Starz series focuses on delivering tried-and-true pleasures to hardcore fans, and as such will probably only appeal to those who are already cued in to the films’ gonzo B-movie aesthetic. But then again, “The Evil Dead” has always been a proud cult item.

Debuting Halloween night, “Ash vs Evil Dead” introduces its scary-funny atmosphere early on, revealing that Ash (Campbell) is still a wise-cracking loser three decades after his initial encounter with the Book of the Dead, whose pages unleashed evil spirits that killed his buddies and girlfriend. During a night of getting stoned with a woman he’s trying to bed, Ash foolishly reopens the book and recites passages that once again summon malevolent forces into the world. Soon, Ash and two of his convenience-store coworkers — loopy Pablo (Ray Santiago) and gorgeous Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) — are fending off rampaging Deadites (humans possessed by spirits) while seeking a key to undoing the book’s demonic power.

Created by filmmaker Sam Raimi, who directed the first three movies, “The Evil Dead” series started off as straight-up horror before morphing into a comedy-horror hybrid, Ash’s battles with Deadites drawing laughs precisely because the bloodshed was so delightedly, nauseatingly excessive. The “Ash vs Evil Dead” pilot, also directed by Raimi, aims for the tonal mix of 1987’s “Evil Dead II,” giving Campbell lots of opportunities to flaunt Ash’s blasé-badass demeanor in between some pretty ace action-horror sequences that wear their gratuitousness and knowingly low-budget sheen as badges of honor.

Admittedly, none of this is particularly revelatory, executive producers Raimi and Campbell mostly indulging their and their fan base’s nostalgia for an iconic character. But if they’re merely reanimating the corpse, “Ash vs Evil Dead” nonetheless deserves credit for striking the exact right modest tone, acknowledging the silliness of the entire endeavor while still generating sufficient thrills and giggles.

After establishing some of the franchise’s signature elements — Ash’s chainsaw hand, the evil spirit P.O.V. as it furiously swoops through the air toward its prey — the series does a nice job developing a rapport between Campbell and his young costars. At this early stage, Pablo and Kelly are already funny, likeable supporting characters, raising hopes that “Ash vs Evil Dead” will be a true ensemble piece. (And that’s not even mentioning series regular Lucy Lawless, who barely appears in the first two episodes, and Jill Marie Jones as a determined policewoman who wants answers after her partner becomes a Deadite.)

At 57, Campbell simply doesn’t have the madcap lightness he once brought to Ash. (When he tries to evoke some of the character’s earlier slapstick grace, it comes across as awkward.) And yet, getting older has only made Ash more comically pathetic, a middle-aged deadbeat living in a trailer park trying to score at bars and skipping out on his minimum-wage job. The franchise’s central joke is that Ash may be an oaf, but when evil comes knocking, he’s inexplicably the only man capable of saving the world. Campbell, a longtime pro who’s made a career as a self-mocking genre star, remains a whiz at conveying Ash’s smartass charm without soft-pedaling his lovably unenlightened attitudes. Advising Pablo, who can’t seem to woo the unattainable Kelly, Ash offers stoically, “Yeah, I know it’s not a very P.C.-thing to say these days but, uh, chicks are like that. It’s just a fact.” In the world of “Ash vs Evil Dead,” demented spirits are a piece of cake for our hero — dames are another matter entirely.

“Ash vs Evil Dead” premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on Starz