Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Bruce Campbell’s performance as Ash in the Evil Dead franchise.
There are a lot of reasons people gravitate towards horror movies more than any other genre. Some want to satisfy a carnal appetite, engaging with shocking images that you won’t find in a rom-com or indie drama. Others approach the genre like a thrill-seeker, except rather than jumping out of a plane, they are sitting in a comfy seat, letting their BPMs increase from scare to scare.
For myself, horror is an outlet to role play. I don’t anticipate ever having to run for my life from a pack of monsters or a masked maniac. Still, horror films offer a template for us to suss out how we might handle the most stressful situations, both imaginable and unimaginable. It allows us to ask ourselves, what would our natural reaction be to an otherworldly danger? Would our bodies take us down the path of fight or flight? The experience of watching a horror film can be like rehearsing a play that will likely never open, but you’re glad you know your lines just in case catastrophe strikes and your friend group cracks open the Book of the Dead.
If you’ve watched enough horror films and can spy all the tropes and clichés, you may be able to trick yourself into believing you’d be the badass who saves the day. But let’s not kid ourselves here. While we’d like to think we’d all stand tall in the face of evil and laugh, would we? Ask any horror hound, and they’d be the first to tell you that as much as they love horror movies, they’d never actually like to be in one. This reality is why we’re drawn to horror movie protagonists, like Bruce Campbell’s Ash in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, that let the audience see their fear before they turn into the fighter we always knew they’d become by the finale.
What draws us to Campbell’s Ash is not just his skill at cracking sardonic jokes amidst geysers of blood. It’s the idea that Campbell uses Ash’s outward cowardice to define his character, even as he’s forced to become the hero he never wanted to be. Campbell’s Ash whimpers and whines as he unhappily slices and dices his way through hordes of demons, giving us an every-person horror protagonist that is more relatable than we may want to admit.
The Evil Dead helped popularize a now-familiar horror setup. A group of college kids decides to take a quiet vacation to a secluded cabin in the middle of the woods. After settling into their new digs and cracking open a few beers, the group discovers a mysterious book and a tape recorder. On it is an incantation that awakens an unexplainable force that besieges the hapless twenty-somethings, transforming them into Deadites–the series’ central antagonists.
Unless you saw The Evil Dead when it first premiered in 1981, you likely already know Campbell’s Ash will become the film’s hero. But Campbell intentionally doesn’t give us that impression when we first meet his character. Ash is a bit of a quiet dork, allowing the machismo of the group to primarily come from his friend Scott (Richard DeManincor, credited as Hal Delrich). Throughout the opening act of The Evil Dead, you’d be forgiven for believing Scott would ultimately emerge as the film’s hero. As supernatural madness begins to seep into the cabin, Scott remains headstrong. He understands the quick decisions the group needs to make to save their skins, like systematically disembodying his Deadite-possessed girlfriend.
Where Scott runs straight into the fight, Ash remains on the periphery, allowing his terror to overcome him. When Scott has to kill his girlfriend, he asks Ash to use the ax in his hands to do it for him. But Ash can’t. He’s frozen in place, staring into the abyss of his friend’s possessed eyes. Scott rips the weapon from his hands and begins chopping as Ash shrinks behind him, feeling the impact of every swing of the ax. The way Campbell plays Ash in this moment, trembling as he vacillates between watching in horror and averting his gaze, is an emotion the audience can identify with. We would like to believe we could rise to the occasion like Scott, but if we’re honest with ourselves? We’d likely act as Ash, cowering against a wall, unable to deal with the misery in front of us.
Throughout the rest of the Evil Dead franchise, the misery Ash faced in the cabin hardens him to such a degree that he barely resembles the character we met in the original film. As he’s pummeled, prodded, and assaulted by the Deadites, he’s transformed from a reluctant hero into, as Campbell describes it, an “ugly American.” In an interview with Hollywood Soapbox,
“Well, look, the first Evil Dead is pretty straight. It’s kind of a melodrama. There’s not a lot of cracking jokes. By the second Evil Dead, he’s sort of like a veteran with a little more sardonic cracks here and there. By the time you get to Army of Darkness, he’s sort of the ugly American. He’s morphed into the full braggadocious guy — I’ve been through stuff; get out of my way.”
That said, Campbell never allows Ash’s inner cowardice to fade, even as he’s unwillingly thrust back into the fight against evil. We see it early in Army of Darkness as Ash learns he is about to die next to the mortal enemy of Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove). Rather than bravely facing his fate at the bottom of a Deadite infested pit or trusting in his own inner strength after dealing with these undead baddies over the last two films, he regresses to his coward-self. “Wait a minute. You’ve gotta understand, man. I never even saw these assholes before!” he wails, pleading to Henry, “You’ve gotta tell them you don’t know me. We never met! Tell him!”
Here, again, we find ourselves relating to Campbell’s Ash. We’ve all been in the wrong place at the wrong time before, and Ash’s reaction to his situation feels like something we would do if met with a similarly grave misunderstanding. Watching him try to weasel his way out of his ultimate destiny is refreshing in a genre that often surfaces the hidden strengths of the hero protagonist rather than illuminating their obvious weaknesses.
Bruce Campbell built his reluctant hero on the back of his character’s spinelessness, giving added depth to what could have easily been a one-note performance. This is something essential to Campbell when choosing his roles. As he told Rolling Stone, “The trick is to not make ’em one-dimensional assholes…I like flawed characters. Perfect characters? That’s for superheroes. Gimme a dyslexic plumber any day.”
Bruce Campbell’s Ash was a fresh interpretation of a horror hero in 1981. He wasn’t some insurmountable fighter like other movie heroes of the 1980s and 1990s. We love Ash because he’s a character always on the verge of completely losing it, which is how most of us would react if greeted with a cadre of demons waiting to swallow our souls.
It’s proof of the power of Campbell’s charm and charisma as an actor that, despite Ash being one of the most cowardly heroes in horror history, he’s also remembered as being one of the coolest as well. I mean, by the end of the series, the man has a chainsaw lashed to one arm while he wields a sawed-off shotgun in the other. That’s patently badass.
The character has rightfully become a horror movie icon, not only because of the hardware Ash grafts to the stump where his hand once was but because Bruce Campbell gave audiences a uniquely relatable representation of how we might react trapped in a horror movie. Sure, we may be able to muster up some courage in the face of evil. But most likely, we would have to fight against our own cowardice to reluctantly save the day, just like Ash first did in that tiny cabin deep in the woods of rural Tennessee.
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