Evil Dead is perhaps the most wildly chimeric franchise in horror cinema. Not a single one of the five movies in its catalogue conforms to a singular identity, or even feels the same. The first movie (released in 1981), for instance, is a low budget horror movie that was intense, scary, and experimental (especially in its approach to camera work). Sure, it had its comedic moments, but it didn’t lean into it all the way. The horror-comedy identity it carries later on really starts being fleshed out in Evil Dead 2 (1987), only to fully embrace the mix in the third movie, Army of Darkness (1992), a direct sequel to part 2’s reimagining of the first film.
This is perhaps best reflected in how its signature character, Bruce Campbell’s Ash, behaves in each one of the movies he’s in (specifically the first three, then followed by the Starz TV series Ash and the Evil Dead, and the various video games based on the universe). He goes from typical college student in the first Evil Dead (1981) to punchline-spewing/chainsaw-wielding hero in Army of Darkness. We can’t speak of one Ash, but of several Ashes. The version people know and love today is mostly the one from Army of Darkness, the one where he’s at his most quotable.
Perhaps the only constant throughout the movies is the source of the demonic threat: the Book of the Dead. This is where the universe’s signature demons, the Deadites, come in. They are a nasty bunch and they might just be the most sadistic, brutal, and evil entities in horror cinema, easily living up to the Evil Dead name. They are cruel and gleeful in their violence, and they settle for nothing less than swallowing souls. And yet, they also change and evolve as the license grows.
All of this to say, the franchise’s DNA can be quite tough to untangle in any traditional way. It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of a movie universe that built its identity as it went along, to the whims of its creator Sam Raimi.
In the best possible way, Evil Dead is a franchise that relishes in the possibilities of creative freedom when it is allowed to be as chaotic as it wants. It’s one of the most fascinating pieces of cinema because of it, mostly because it hasn’t been torn to pieces to later be rebuilt by higher-ups and corporate interests to the extent other licenses have been (look at Star Wars, the MCU). Not that it hasn’t been meddled with entirely, but Raimi and company have managed to keep most of their vision for it under their control.
So, where does the latest movie in the Evil Dead-verse, the Lee Cronin-directed Evil Dead Rise, rank in it? Can it be fairly ranked even? Is it enough of an Evil Dead movie or is it something else? Things get complicated and messy here, so let’s see if we can find where it fits.
For the purposes of this ranking, I’m sticking with the movies. It makes for a more manageable sample size and it doesn’t short-change the many other mediums the franchise has expanded into (with comics being among its most important story-wise). Also, I don’t believe it’s possible to be a purist with such a mercurial bunch of films, so I’ll be basing my ranking on how well they got the story across and how memorable they end up being because of it.
5. The Evil Dead remake (dir. Fede Álvarez, 2013)
This movie came as a surprise for reasons that hit at the core of the franchise. It was a remake of the very first movie, but it wasn’t entirely clear who it was for. If it was a way to reintroduce the audience to the story, then the absence of Campbell’s Ash or a character that could inherit the role made it a somewhat strange and disjointed experience.
The movie itself boasts some great Deadite sequences and the makeup effects (by a team of artists that included Vinnie Ashton, CJ Goldman, Suzy Lee, and Jane O’Kane) elevated them by keeping things grounded and practical. The story is partly driven by an addiction metaphor that carries through well, but it ultimately felt a bit generic (a few years too late after the torture porn craze of the early aughts, which ramped up the gore considerably). It’s not as playful with the camera as Raimi’s original and the signature malice of the evil afflicting the cast isn’t as imaginative as what came before.
Not a bad movie, ultimately, but one that didn’t really push the Evil Dead brand in any meaningful way.
4. Evil Dead Rise (dir. Lee Cronin, 2023)
Lee Cronin’s stab at the Evil Dead franchise stands at the crossroads between the 2013 remake and the original trilogy. Its story, which follows a single-parent family in a rundown apartment building that’s about to get the Deadite treatment, certainly attempts at establishing a kind of balance between the new and the old, but it doesn’t quite result in an interesting or new way forward for the universe.
Rise gets one thing undeniably right: the Deadites. Alyssa Sutherland’s possessed mother character, Ellie, stands as one of the most terrifying performances both in the series and in recent horror outings overall. Taking a cue from the original films, the demonic presence here is oppressively evil and it echoes that sinister enthusiasm found in the Deadites from the 1981 film. The generous amounts of blood and gore on display assures viewers Cronin has his eyes on the ball, and it works for the most part.
Where it doesn’t really do much is with its characters. Rise borrows more from the remake than anything else in this department, opting for characters that aren’t entirely memorable (other than Ellie). Establishing a new Ash-type character or anchor character could’ve pushed it all further. In fact, this was a great opportunity to give audiences a female Ash, a new face that could steer Evil Dead into uncharted territory (an idea that has already been explored in the Army of Darkness comics). Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
Rise feels like an Evil Dead movie. In fact, it captures the tone of the very first movie and its remake very well, more so than that of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. It’s just missing good characters. It seems to be betting on different Books of the Dead to tie in new movies together, but it really needs a compelling character or characters to make this new phase stand out.
3. Army of Darkness (dir. Sam Raimi, 1992)
The Ash we know today, the horror icon, got forged in Army of Darkness. Bruce Campbell dialed up the comedy for part three, going for slapstick and physical comedy in the tradition of the Three Stooges, and it worked well enough to cement Ash as a staple of the horror genre, a legend.
Raimi went from horror/comedy in Evil Dead 2 to dark fantasy/comedy in Army, emphasis on comedy. The shift can be jarring, though. Ash only has one or two quips in part 2 (most notably when he says ‘groovy’ after he attaches a chainsaw to his bloody stump and fashions himself a boomstick), whereas he’s a walking quote factory in part 3. Lines like “Hail to the king, baby” and “come get some” became synonymous with the franchise, becoming Easter eggs themselves when said by some characters in Rise and in the remakeas a tribute to the originals.
The movie does sacrifice a lot of its horror in the name of fun. The good thing is, it turns Army into the funniestmovie in the series in a way that’s unique to it, a distinction it carries to this day. There’s funny, and then there’s Evil Dead funny. Ash becomes the voice of its universe and creates a kind of expectation with his presence in that, physical or not, he should be present or alluded to in everything Evil Dead (hence the callbacks in Rise and the remake).
2. The Evil Dead (dir. Sam Raimi, 1981)
When it comes to pure horror, there’s no beating the original. The Deadites in this one are loyal servants of sadism. Despite the budget constraints, Raimi managed to put on a display of evil the series has yet to match (though Rise comes very close with Deadtite Ellie).
The movie establishes the lore and mythical foundations future outings will adhere to. It places the story in a lone and isolated cabin in the woods (setting up a style that favors small living spaces as a kind of signature of the series, which Rise sticks to but Army of Darkness doesn’t), it features a book bound in human skin that can awaken sleeping demons, it has the reciting of ancient words by accident to bring forth the monsters, and it boasts excessive amounts of blood and gore.
While this movie’s Ash isn’t as quotable as the other ones, Campbell still stands out as the strongest character of the bunch and a worthy protagonist we can follow as his sanity gets tested by the Deadites.
Raimi’s signature camera work makes a statement in The Evil Dead, adding to the already experimental nature of the film while simultaneously carving out a space for itself in the genre. The very first Evil movie is a classic and an outstanding example of horror to boot. It’s an extreme possession story with soul-hungry demons that behave like cruel children playing with tiny insects. It’s my personal favorite and a top-ten best horror movie of all time.
1. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (dir. Sam Raimi,1987)
This is the one, the Evil Dead formula perfected. It precisely strikes the right balance between horror and comedy while never losing sight of what made the first movie so great. It’s a strange specimen of a movie, though, if we take the first three movies as a legitimate trilogy. It’s not a direct sequel per se, but rather a reimagining of the first.
The story starts things off with Ash and his girlfriend taking a trip to the cabin in the woods without the three other friends that feature in the original. Once there, events are sped up to free up space for deeper explorations of the lore and of Ash’s character. By exploring Ash, I mean letting him take a more aggressive and personal role against the Deadites. He doesn’t quite become the Deadite hunter he is in Army of Darkness, but he certainly tries to meet the Deadites’ violence with his own.
Dead by Dawn is also the first time we get chainsaw-hand Ash. Being such an integral part of the character, it’s easy to forget Ash never gets to use the chainsaw in the first movie. It’s a frustrating tease as he gets close to putting saw to flesh, but it never materializes. Evil 2 fixes that and makes it a part of the character’s identity.
The Deadites retain their sinister look from the first one, but they’re made even more monstrous. The special effects come courtesy of Tom Sullivan, who worked on all three films. They’re playfully maniacal and equally terrifying.
With a more exaggerated take on terror and an eye to build upon the possibilities of the first film, Evil Dead 2 is the perfect Evil Dead movie. Hail to the king.