“life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”— William Shakespeare
IT SEEMS STRANGE to say that I like my horror movies with a coherent plot. I seems even stranger to say that I appreciate a horror movie that has philosophical significance. And now, I intend to write about not one, but three films that possess both plot and philosophy: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.
The Evil Dead, subtitled “the ultimate experience in grueling horror”, released in 1982, and it’s sequel (?) Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), follows the adventures in terror of Ash Williams, who, along with an assortment of companions, unknowingly (through the recitation of passages from the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead), conjure up evil spirits that, over the course of the film, knock off each of the unfortunate unintentional conjurers “one by one”.
The first film of the trilogy The Evil Dead, starts off with nothing spectacular: five college kids (including Ash, his sister Cheryl, his girlfriend Linda, his buddy Scott, and his girlfriend Shelly) head up to an isolated cabin in the woods (not The Cabin in the Woods — That’s a different movie. And an entirely different moral situation) where they drink moonshine, smoke weed, and generally do what young folks in a typical horror flick set in an isolated cabin in the woods do.
While snooping around the cabin, Ash and his male companion, Scotty, stumble upon an ancient reel to reel, which just so happens to be the property of an archaeologist who just so happened to be translating passages from an ancient Sumerian text containing incantations and rituals for demonic resurrection.
Playing a mysterious reel-to-reel tape containing ancient Sumerian demonic incantations….what could possibly go wrong?
Well, as expected, reawakened evil immediately sets to systematically possessing and killing (most horrifically) each of the young, nubile campers.
As dawn breaks, Ash, the lone survivor, emerges covered in blood from the cabin. But as Ash breathes a sigh of relief, having survived an encounter with the evil dead, we follow a remaining evil spirit through the woods, through the cabin, eventually running headlong into Ash himself as the camera fades to black.
We assume that Ash has not escaped the evil dead, but is the last of its victims. That is, until 1987, when Evil Dead 2:Dead By Dawn was released.
It’s been rumored that Sam Raimi, having taken so much heat for the excessive violence of the first Evil Dead film, wanted to make a movie that was more appeasing to the censors.
This may explain why Evil Dead 2 is less of a sequel than it is a remake of the original film.
The film opens as Ash and his girlfriend Linda are heading up to the totally deserted, so far away from civilization that, if you were attacked by an onslaught of demonic forces, no one would hear you screaming cabin in the woods.
Once again, Ash, while rifling through someone else’s stuff, stumbles upon an old reel to reel containing a recordings read from the Necronomicon.
And, as expected, Ash and his girlfriend are besieged by the spirits of the evil undead. After beheading and dismembering his girlfriend, Ash is (eventually) joined by a different group of Red Shirts, including the archaeologist’s daughter, Annie, her assistant Ed, a hillbilly with a serious case of hyperhidrosis named Jake, and his too cute for this guy in real life girlfriend named Bobby Joe.
As this film ends, Ash and Annie must read from the Necronomicon to send the evil back to its own time. During the film’s climax, Annie is killed (she’s stabbed in the back with the Kandarian dagger), but the beleaguered Ash is sent back in time with the demon.
Luckily for Ash, this time he is not unarmed, and he slays the evil creature with a blast from his shotgun (his “boomstick”). Evil Dead 2:Dead By Dawn ends as Ash is being hailed as a hero.
The last of the trilogy, Army of Darkness, opens where Evil Dead 2 leaves off. Ash finds himself held captive by a medieval army, being led off to his death. During Ash’s trip, he guides us, by way of voice-over, through a flashback. We once again see Ash and his girlfriend Linda (this time played by Bridget Fonda) heading up to that God-forsaken cabin in the woods.
We’ve seen it all before: Ash and Linda head up to the cabin, Ash finds reel to reel, Ash plays reel to reel, Linda is caried off by demonic forces, Ash battles the evil dead, Ash goes back in time, Ash ends up a slave on his way to death. However, the adventure (this time) does not take place in the cabin. Ash must retrieve the Necronomicon and banish the evil dead by reciting the words: klaatu barada nikto.
Of course, Ash fails to say the words correctly.
And this, my friends, is where the philosophy begins.
The original The Evil Dead seems simple enough — it follows the formulaic plot employed by dozens of genre films: stick a group of twenty-somethings in a remote place and kill them off one by one. Throw in a few obligatory boob shots and some pot smoking before someone gets sliced in half or shot through the head with an arrow.
The plot of The Evil Dead (and similar films) is pretty repetitive, except I do believe that The Evil Dead is the only horror film that I know of that contains a scene where a character is violated by a tree. Not with a tree, by a tree.
But there is something else at work here.
It is the character Ash himself.
As The Evil Dead closes, we are left to assume that Ash has suffered the fate of his companions. Yet, Ash returns in Evil Dead 2. Not only does Ash come back, he comes back with his girlfriend Linda , and we know that Linda died in the previous film.
Ash, however, seems completely unaware that any event that is happening in this film already happened in the first film. Now, we could take the films at face value assuming that Sam Raimi liked the plot of the original film so much, and enjoyed torturing star Bruce Campbell so thoroughly, that he felt the need to remake his first film.
That might very well be true.
However, we are given a clue that there is something else going on on a deeper level.
While searching through the Necronomicon for the incantation that will send back the evil spirit to its own time, Annie and Ash happen upon a page bearing a picture of a man standing, arm raised up holding a chainsaw.
When Annie flips to the page, Ash gasps. He tells Annie that he feels as if someone has just walked over his grave. The picture in the Necronomicon looks, with an exception of the image wearing a pair of white pants, like Ash. Annie tells Ash that the traveler was predicted to come to vanquish the evil. Ash remarks that the traveler “didn’t do a very good job”.
Finally, in Army of Darkness, Ash is thrust back in time where, with chainsaw on hand, he leads Richard and his army in a battle against the deadites. The priests tell Ash that he is the traveler that was predicted to save the people from the forces of evil. And, as Ash observed in Evil Dead 2 , the traveler didn’t do a very good job.
Ready for the philosophy?
When I first noticed that there was something odd about the continuity of the Evil Dead films, I had assumed that the underlying plot was time travel. It was easy enough to assume this because in Evil Dead 2 destroying the evil required opening up a portal in time.
That was before I had heard of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche posited that we can judge the overall value (or meaningfulness) of our live by asking ourselves this basic question: would you want to live your life over again? Nietzsche, being the excellent humorist that he was, added one small catch — the life that we live eternally would be the exact same life that we had already lived. We cannot change a thing about our lives, we must live each day, month, hour, and second as we had lived the first time around — for an eternity.
Ash, at first glance, seems to be stuck in some sort of loop. He seems to be repeating his life over and over (at least three times). However, not only does Ash seem unaware that he is repeating his life, each Evil Dead film is slightly different from the one the preceded it.
In each film, the group at the cabin is different. In each movie, the actress playing Ash’s girlfriend Linda is different. And each ends differently. So, in a strictly Nietzschean sense, Ash’s life is not the same. Also, Nietzsche’s question is one about life’s meaning. There seems to be no such meaningful scheme for Ash. Ash just goes through the motions and learns absolutely nothing in the process. The fact that Ash seems unaware of the fact that he repeats the same routine suggests that Ash could not make the decision to live the same life repeatedly as Nietzsche requires for eternal return. So, by my estimate, Ash’s cabin in the woods-based adventure, is not Nietzschean.
So what is it then?
As I was eliminating Nietzsche, I started to think of another doomed to repeat himself kind of guy: Sisyphus.
Sisyphus, having been condemned by the gods, is doomed to push a large rock uphill, only to have the rock slide back down the mountain when he reaches the top. For Sisyphus, he is condemned to repeat the same futile act for an eternity. No matter what Sisyphus does, the rock will roll back down the hill.
Sisyphus’ punishment sounds more like Ash’s predicament than Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.
The first clue to this interpretation of the Evil Dead trilogy came in Evil Dead 2, where Annie and Ash are looking through the Book of the Dead. To the viewer, the picture of the traveler clearly is Ash, and Ash’s reaction suggests that the man depicted in the book is him. Annie tells Ash that a prophesy tells us the the traveler was sent to the past to destroy the evil, which suggests that there are higher forces at work in the scheme of things.
Prophesy tends to deal with matters that are assigned by the gods (or God) that humans must abide by or fulfill. So, we can (somewhat safely) assume that Ash’s predicament may have been arranged by the gods, like Sisyphus.
So, like Sisyphus, perhaps Ash has been condemned to repeat the same futile act — namely having a succession of girlfriends named Linda killed by evil demons, being sent back in time to rid civilization of evil demons, and ultimately screwing up, which will require him to repeat the task all over again.
But, unlike Camus’ Sisyphus, who ultimately finds happiness in his condemnation (he comes to gain happiness through the attempt to roll the rock uphill. The rock staying there is no longer a goal that Sisyphus seeks), Ash remains unaware that he is condemned to repeat his life over and over again.
On the DVD commentaries for the Evil Dead films, both star Bruce Campbell and director Sam Raimi express a disdain for the character Ash. It seems that, from their point of view, Ash may be too stupid to figure out that he has been to that cabin before. For example, Sam Raimi calls Ash an “idiot, coward and a braggart”.
In the end, Sisyphus is able to derive some meaning out of his futile existence. However, Ash Williams, it seems, is condemned to live a life best expressed by Shakespeare.
Ash Williams’ life is full of sound and fury, but ultimately it signifies nothing.