In 1981, Sam Raimi gave the world The Evil Dead. The film shocked viewers with its hardcore violence and black humor. Six years later, Raimi re-defined the horror genre itself by giving us what is widely considered not only to be one of the best horror-comedies of all time, but also one of those rare sequels that surpasses the original. That film was Evil Dead II. But while some would just consider this film to simply be comedic chaos, there is actually a tight structure and growth to how this it intertwines its comedic and horror elements.
The first thing that works in Raimi’s favor is the existence of the first film. This helps him greatly. The first film had a great deal of black comedy running through its veins. With this in mind, Raimi then takes those kinds of jokes and explodes them to outrageous proportions for his follow-up. By simply summing up the first film within the first ten minutes, Raimi can then go full steam ahead with his lunacy.
The opening narration and montage gives the audience the rules behind the EVIL and establishes what will happen. We are then introduced (or re-introduced depending on if you’ve seen the first film) to our main character, Ash Williams (played by the always wonderful Bruce Campbell). This is who the Evil will be torturing. The film must first establish these elements and give us a typical horror set up (ie. without much humor) before it goes off the rails. Raimi wisely gets his audience use to what is happening before turning it into a full blown circus.
The camera movements also lend themselves to how the film plays out. By constantly keeping the camera moving, Raimi creates a sense of tension; that anything could happen at any time. The audience understands the rules of a horror film. We know that tension leads to a big scare. So when Raimi replaces the jump scare with a joke, it makes the moment even funnier because we weren’t expecting it. By creating the dynamic of “a man being picked on by Evil”, Raimi can also do horrible things to Ash without sparing the laughs. And by adding the element of Ash being destined to be a hero, we now know that the Evil cannot kill him. This means that the point is no longer to “kill Ash”, but to “mess with Ash”. Because of this, we are then treated to hilarious moments like having demonic spirits smack Ash’s head against a wall, trip him, and even straight up slap him across the face.
Sight gags and physical comedy work hand in hand with the idea of someone being “poked at” by the undead. But this all has a point. The point is to take Ash, a comedic buffoon, and mold him into the hero he must become. So there is an arc to the torture. Once the physical jokes fail, the psychological torture begins. Ash is then haunted by his dead girlfriend’s head, which bites him on the hand to comedic effect. Then her body comes back for more. But Ash rises above all of these challenges and defeats her. So what happens next? The Evil possess his hand, taking from him the most useful tool a person has. But once again, Ash fights against it, chopping off the hand. At which point the hand itself becomes a character, bringing another comedic element to the film. The point is to get Ash to his breaking point. But he refuses to give in, even if it comes at the expense of his own physical or mental well being. Raimi builds up horror until Ash succeeds and breathes a sigh of comedic relief into the world.
Raimi also uses this idea of building until something is funny in his use of violence. Something that is horrifying can be made funny by making it to an extreme level. For example: some blood is gross, a lot of blood is disgusting, but an absurd amount of blood is funny because it doesn’t make logical sense. Raimi plasters his heroes in buckets upon buckets of blood, making the whole affair look like a live-action cartoon. Raimi himself has described the film as "if the Three Stooges made a horror film”. In fact, the Three Stooges are directly referenced in several moments. A classic Stooges gag is someone being poked in the eye. So the gross Raimi version of that is when someone’s eye pops out and lands in another person’s mouth.
But something Raimi understands is that there is a time and a place for comedy. So he needs to hold back in certain moments. Once Ash is fully possessed by the Evil in the Dark Night of the Soul (Act II Climax), the comedy takes a back seat. Our main character is no longer jovial and fun, he is what we feared he could become. Ash is our doorway into the comedy of the film and with him taken over by the Evil, the comedy is almost non-existent. But once he frees himself (through memories of his girlfriend and the power of love, of course) the comedy can begin again. But it isn’t quite the same. By going through this ordeal, Ash is now the hero he was destined to become. He is no longer a wimp, but a badass. Ash now fights back with confidence and uses his weakness (lack of a hand) to his advantage by attaching a chainsaw to it. Now we get some new comedy having to do with how Ash has chosen to fight back. The chainsaw is ridiculous, but at this point in the film, it makes perfect sense and only adds to the madcap energy we have been thrown into.
Sam Raimi my favorite filmmaker. I think he is the king of horror comedy. But his comedy did not come by accident. He had a meticulous arc to his rise and fall of scary moments to funny moments that blend perfectly. By making the comedy come mainly from a single character and how the Evil affects him, Raimi effectively makes us terrified, then breaks that tension with a hearty belly laugh. Many other sequels and franchises followed in Raimi’s footsteps: making the follow-up films funnier and more outrageous. This includes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part 2, which explodes with blood and black humor. Re-Animator and its sequels also followed this pattern of upping its violence to comedic proportions. Even modern films like Shaun of the Dead and the remake of Piranha have links to Sam Raimi’s original classic. So thank you, Sam. Thank you for ushering in a new genre of filmmaking. You may not have invented it, but you redesigned it. And we as audiences worldwide are forever grateful.