The Madcap Legacy of ‘Raising Arizona’ and ‘Evil Dead II,’ 30 Years Later

Zaniness is in short supply these days. In this grim-dark universe directed by Zack Snyder that we’ve created for ourselves, any attempt to be a little bonkers should be recognized. Why can’t we go to the movies and see Wolverine and Xavier get into a Three Stooges-esque poke fight? Where are the quick-zoom POV shots of Iron Man chasing Captain America? And for God’s sake, why doesn’t Batman dance anymore?

The films of 2017 may not be as ready to indulge in total insanity as one might hope, but 30 years ago, the films of 1987 gave us enough to last a lifetime. Just look at RoboCop, or Predator, or The Running Man, or Innerspace. 1987 gave us a movie about John Lithgow finding and adopting Bigfoot, and everyone was like, “Yeah, OK, that makes sense.” And in March of that year, two of the most insane movies of all time were released a week apart: on March 6, the second feature from Joel and Ethan Coen, Raising Arizona; on March 13, Sam Raimi’s follow-up to his cult horror classic, Evil Dead II.

There’s no way to summarize either of these movies and actually convey the experience of watching them. At least, not in a way that makes coherent sense. Watch, I’ll demonstrate:

“Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter kidnap a baby because she can’t conceive.”

OK, I’m with it so far.

“And then John Goodman and William Forsythe, Cage’s prison buddies, kidnap the baby from them.”

Alright, I think I get it.

“Also, a figure only known as The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse chases them throughout the movie and has the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo as Cage for reasons that go unexplained and at the end of the movie, he explodes. Plus the entire movie is scored by a yodeling soundtrack.”   

…Please get out of my house.

In the same vein, Evil Dead II goes from “Bruce Campbell fights demons in a cabin” to “Bruce Campbell chops off his possessed hand and replaces it with a chainsaw while household items in the cabin laugh at him” pretty damn fast. Both films go over the top, feature iconic performances from its lead actors, and play with a lot of the same cinematic techniques. In fact, both Raising Arizona and Evil Dead II feed into each other in interesting ways.

That stems from the close working relationship between Raimi and the Coens at the time. Joel Coen worked as an editor on the original Evil Dead, and the brothers wrote Raimi’s follow-up film, 1985’s Crimewave. If not for the total box-office failure of that film, Raimi may never have gone back to the well to make an Evil Dead sequel. In 1994, he acted as second-unit director for the Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy, and when the brothers released their snow Midwestern crime thriller Fargo in 1996, Raimi followed up with a snowy Midwestern crime thriller of his own, 1998’s A Simple Plan.

To watch Raising Arizona and Evil Dead II back-to-back is to see similar sensibilities filtered through genre. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Raising Arizona’s blatant riff on The Evil Dead’s ever-lurching-forward camera. Evil Dead II uses the technique to showcase the demon chasing Ash. The Coens imitate it in the scene in which Florence Arizona discovers her baby (Nathan Junior, I think) is missing. The camera weaves up and around and through the desert and ascends up to the open window and doesn’t stop until we are inside her screaming mouth. It’s a well that Raimi returns to often, and it’s a fun thing to see the Coens crafting this sort of tribute to their fellow filmmaker.

Both films represent a comedic step forward for the filmmakers, too. The Evil Dead, though campy, is a straight horror film, and the Coens’ first film, Blood Simple, is a tense, violent crime thriller. Raimi is a man raised on Looney Tunes and the Three Stooges, but he’s also well-versed enough in intellectual pursuits that he’s able to throw in a joke involving a copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms being placed upon Ash’s detached hand. And what would the Coens be if they didn’t try their hand at every form of comedy there is, from screwball to stoner and everything in between? Few filmmakers operate with the level of cleverness that Raimi and the Coens do, and Evil Dead II and Raising Arizona are prime examples of the directors at the top of their games.

Which brings us back to 2017, when zaniness is in short supply, right when we need it most. Raimi has slowed down in recent years; his last film was 2013’s Disney blockbuster Oz the Great and Powerful, a perfectly fine but mostly forgettable entry into his canon. He does, however, produce the TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead, and in fact directed the pilot episode, where we see he hasn’t lost his touch for ultraviolent comedic horror. The Coens are still two of the most respected filmmakers around, and made a welcome return to wackiness with 2016’s Hail, Caesar!

But Raimi and the Coens haven’t worked together for a long while. Around the mid-’90s, their careers veered onto different paths. The Coens started winning Oscars, while Raimi got called up to take on the Spider-Man movies. To watch Raising Arizona and Evil Dead II is to watch three men whose tastes and sensibilities mirror each other, feed into one another, and it creates something truly memorable, creative, and, yes, insane.

So maybe it’s time for the trio to reunite once more. Whatever the result is, it can’t be worse than Crimewave. And even if it is, maybe it’ll lead to their next wonderful, totally bonkers and off-the-rails masterpiece, in which Bruce Campbell and Nicolas Cage fight zombie mutants in space. A guy can dream, right?

Michael Smith lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and only abducts babies from couples who have more than they know what to do with.

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