3.17.2013

Excessive laughter

Evil Dead II: the comic excess of horror.

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987) is less a sequel to his original Evil Dead (1983) than a remake of it: both films open with Ash (Bruce Campbell) heading to a remote cabin in the woods with his girlfriend, unaware that he’ll be spending most of the weekend doing battle with murderous zombies.  In his essay “Lethal Repetition,” Richard Dyer suggests that the horror genre is as compelled to repeat acts of violence as its villains are—that, in its endless proliferation of sequels and remakes, it plays out the same scenarios, images, and plots with a single-minded obsession not to be found in other genres.  I would argue that the Evil Dead films do not just exemplify the horror genre’s compulsion to repeat itself across multiple films: repetition is built into the very structure of each individual film, both of which are driven by a series of gags rather than by any real plot.  The films are simply about the progression and escalation of human-zombie encounters, which grow increasingly gorier and more absurdly comic as each film goes on.  They’re determined to sustain this keyed-up, giddy feeling of sublime disgust until, finally, they (and we) collapse, exhausted.

The gags are funny and horrifying, often at the same time.  In Evil Dead II
, which is more broadly comic than the original, one of Ash’s own hands becomes possessed, prompting him to cut it off, whereupon it continues to pursue and attack him like an animal.  The general vibe of both films is one of insane, hysterical laughter, as if the slow dread of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was ratcheted up to a slapsticky, funhouse pitch.  Raimi was apparently influenced by The Three Stooges; the films also resemble the balletic violence of the Looney Tunes cartoons.  The bodies of both the humans and the zombies are cartoon bodies: they lose limbs and great quantities of blood, fall through walls and floors, are slammed and dragged and beaten and stabbed, yet they remain resilient and always ready for more. And they’re aware of how funny they are: both films feature sequences in which characters are consumed by prolonged, maniacal laughter.  It’s not that the bodies are necessarily repeating the same actions over and over again; it’s that they’re in constant, uninterrupted states of excess—bleeding, screaming, running, oozing.  And, like Road Runner or Wile E. Coyote, they’re in constant, schizophrenic motion.

I understood the comic appeal of this even as a kid, when I saw (and loved) the first Evil Dead film (I had programmed our VCR to tape it as it aired on the USA network at 2 a.m. one night).  Somehow, I understood it to be hilariously, nauseatingly funny.   Although, like the second Godfather film, Evil Dead II is generally felt to be superior to its predecessor, my loyalties lie with the original, perhaps because it seems less consciously cheeky and less emphatic about underscoring how silly its excesses are.  It simply piles on the blood and the gore and the guts with a kind of deadpan grimace until, feeling as if you’re about to be crushed beneath the weight of so much bodily stuff, you can’t help but break out in deranged laughter.              

Ash fends off his own hand in Evil Dead II.

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