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Somme Bombardment Begins

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 241st installment in the series. 

June 24, 1916: Somme Bombardment Begins

Britain and France had agreed to mount a major offensive on the River Somme as far back as December 1915, but the timing remained vague, in part due to Douglas Haig’s replacement of Sir John French as overall commander of the British Expeditionary Force around the same time, with further confusion generated by unexpected events including the Easter Rising in April and the  death of War Secretary Lord Kitchener in early June. 

But as spring gave way to summer and the German assault on Verdun continued, mounting French desperation left the British little choice but to commit: following the French failure to retake Fort Douaumont, on May 26 French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre warned the British that the French Army would “cease to exist” if they delayed much longer. Then on June 11, following the German conquest of Fort Vaux, Philippe Pétain, the savior of Verdun, asked Joffre to urge the British to move up the date for their attack. Finally, as the Germans unleashed a new attack even closer to Verdun in late June (see below), in an unusual deviation from the usual civil-military protocol French Premier Aristide Briand personally urged Haig to act swiftly, warning of dire consequences for their alliance if the British failed to attack.

Preparations for the massive Anglo-French assault on the Somme had been underway for months, and went forward on an awesome scale, reflecting the Allies’ hopes that the “big push” would deliver a decisive blow to the German military and maybe even end the war. Most of the work was focused on equipping the area around the Somme with infrastructure to support the British Fourth Army, numbering 400,000 men and 100,000 horses, all of whom had to be supplied with food, water, and ammunition. The British had also accumulated over 1,500 artillery pieces to deliver one of the heaviest bombardments in history, requiring millions of shells to break up the enemy’s defenses. These figures don’t even count the contribution from the neighboring French Sixth Army, which would carry out a simultaneous push to the south. 

In the first half of 1916 the British and French built two new railroads connecting the supply hub at Albert and the Somme, later complemented by dozens of new narrow-gauge “trench railways” connecting the bigger rail hubs to supply depots near the front. The Allies also repaired roads and bridges, erected vast camps with tents and barracks for hundreds of thousands of men, dug new wells and laid out dozens of miles of water pipelines, and built electric generators and a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire to serve as a nervous system connecting it all.  Edward Liveing, a British subaltern, recalled the final weeks before the assault: 

The roads were packed with traffic. Column after column of lorries came pounding along, bearing their freight of shells, trench-mortar bombs, wire, stakes, sandbags, pipes, and a thousand other articles essential for the offensive, so that great dumps of explosives and other material arose in the green wayside places. Staff cars and signallers on motor-bikes went busily on their way… Horse transport and new batteries hurried to their destinations. “Caterpillars” rumbled up, towing the heavier guns. Infantrymen and sappers marched to their tasks round and about the line. Roads were repaired, telephone wires placed deep in the ground, trees felled for dug-outs and gun emplacements, water-pipes laid up to the trenches ready to be extended across conquered territory, while small-gauge and large-gauge railways seemed to spring to being in the night.

However the sheer scale of the preparations also meant there was no chance of surprise, as the Germans were bound to see these efforts and draw the obvious conclusion. On that note Lieutenant Own William Steele, a Canadians soldier from Newfoundland serving in the BEF, wrote in his diary on June 21, 1916: 

The Hun certainly appears to be expecting our visit, for they are, according to reports all along the front, hard at work. There is an immense amount of traffic everywhere. Opposite our own particular position, he is seen working by day and night… Only last night, he could be plainly heard strengthening his wire work, and even adding to it, etc. 

On paper at least, it shouldn’t have mattered that Germans knew what was coming, because the plan was simply to annihilate them with a “creeping barrage” of artillery and the explosion of nineteen giant mines tunneled under the German positions – and in truth, even the Germans were surprised by the unparalleled ferocity of the Allied attack. But British planners didn’t reckon with German engineering skill, which allowed tens of thousands of German troops to wait out the bombardment in deep concrete dugouts burrowed 40 feet underground; the Germans also built a second and third line of trenches for defense in depth. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from directing artillery fire against German artillery and strongholds. 

Nonetheless the initial bombardment, which began on June 24 – a full a week before the infantry attack on July 1 (delayed from June 28) – was by all accounts an awe-inspiring and terrifying spectacle, as a thousand British guns saturated the German trenches with over 1.7 million shells in eight days. Like the German maelstrom at Verdun, the rumbling of the great guns was heard over a hundred miles away, and was even said to be audible in London when the winds were favorable. 

Many observers compared the incredible downpour of steel to natural phenomena. Stanley Spencer, an officer with the Royal Fusiliers stationed further north on the Western Front, recalled: 

… night and morning, we hear the peculiar roll and thunder of hundreds of guns farther south in preparation for the Somme offensive. The sky was continuously lighted up by innumerable flashes, the earth shook and the air seemed to quiver with the restless rumbling and muttering that constantly rose and fell, and rose and fell again, like the rising, breaking, and subsiding of enormous waves. 

The shelling continued relentlessly through the night into day and then night again, when the dark sky turned into a nightmarish carnival of blinking, stuttering lights. Frederick Palmer, an American war correspondent, left a vivid description of the preparatory bombardment at night:

After dark the scene from a hill, as you rode toward the horizon of flashes, was one of incredible grandeur. Behind you, as you looked toward the German lines, was the blanket of night pierced and slashed by the flashes of gun blasts; overhead the bloodcurdling, hoarse sweep of their projectiles; and beyond the darkness had been turned into a chaotic, uncanny day by the jumping, leaping, spreading blaze of explosives which made all objects on the landscape stand out in flickering silhouette. Spurts of flame from the great shells rose out of the bowels of the earth, softening with their glow the sharp, concentrated, vicious snaps of light from shrapnel. Little flashes played among big flashes and flashes laid over flashes shingle fashion in a riot of lurid competition, while along the line of the German trenches at some places lay a haze of shimmering flame from the rapid fire of the trench mortars. 

Incredibly enough, men from the artillery crews were apparently able to rest during the shelling, according to Palmer, who noted that in many places the guns seemed to fire in shifts: 

It seemed that all the guns in the world must be firing as you listened from a distance, although when you came into the area where the guns were in tiers behind the cover of a favorable slope you found that many were silent. The men of one battery might be asleep while its neighbor was sending shells with a one-two-three deliberation. Any sleep or rest that the men got must be there in the midst of this crashing babel from steel throats. 

Palmer also noted the stupendous cost of the bombardment:

The flow of ammunition for all came up steadily, its expenditure regulated on charts by officers who kept watch for extravagance and aimed to make every shell count. A fortune was being fired away every hour; a sum which would send a youth for a year to college or bring up a child went into a single large shell which might not have the luck to kill one human being as excuse for its existence; an endowment for a maternity hospital was represented in a day’s belch of destruction from a single acre of trodden wheat land. 

The effect on the German troops subjected to this shelling was predictable enough, as they were forced to remain in their cramped concrete dugouts day and night for eight days, often cut off from supplies and unable to sleep amid the explosions pounding the earth above them. Above all, they wondered when the other shoe would drop. The German private Eversmann of the 26th Reserve Division wrote in his diary on June 26:

The barrage has now lasted thirty-six hours. How long will it go on? Nine o’clock: a short pause of which we avail ourselves to bring up coffee, each man got a portion of bread. Ten o’clock: veritable drum fire. In twelve hours shelling they estimate that 60,000 shells have fallen on our battalion sector. Every communication with the rear has been cut, only the telephone is working. When will they attack – tomorrow or the day after? Who knows?

However the important thing from the German soldiers’ personal perspective – and from a strategic perspective as well – was that most of them were still alive as the British infantry prepared to attack on July 1. An officer in the 26th Reserve Division, Lieutenant Cassel, noted with satisfaction: “On the whole we had very few casualties: some sentries were wounded and in one dugout that was partly squashed there were some deaths and seriously wounded. But the company on the whole, and my platoon in particular, kept its battle strength, thanks to the superior quality of our construction in the position.”

The failure of the bombardment, compounded by a number of mistakes on the day of the attack, would result in one of the worst debacles of the war – making July 1 the bloodiest day in British history.

Germans Unleash Phosgene Gas At Verdun 

On June 22, 1916 the Germans unleashed a terrible new chemical weapon, phosgene gas, as part of another massive assault intended to finally capture the hills above the Meuse overlooking the citadel of Verdun – their main objective during the months-long battle, which would force the French to abandon Verdun or send untold numbers of men to their deaths in an effort to eject the Germans. In the end, the Germans achieved neither aim – but only after a nightmarish struggle for Fort Souville, one of the last French strongholds protecting the citadel of Verdun. 

The shells containing phosgene, called “Green Cross” gas by German soldiers because of the special markings on the shells, began falling on the evening of June 22, and soon thousands of men were screaming and gasping for breath – their panic only deepening as they discovered that their gas masks didn’t protect them from the new weapon, developed by German chemists for exactly that purpose. Men and horses died by the scores, with many of the former supposedly turning a shocking green color.

The German gas attack targeted French artillery all along the line, forcing gun crews to flee and so leaving the infantry in the trenches unprotected. At 5 a.m. the German infantry advanced in dense masses, soon overrunning French defensive works and entering the village of Fleury – more than half way to Fort Souville. By now, however, the phosgene gas was starting to dissipate and French gun crews were returning to their positions. As the fighting continued Joffre sent four fresh divisions to shore up the defenses before Verdun. The German attack had been blunted – but just barely.

For ordinary soldiers on both sides, conditions at Verdun somehow become even worse. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, described the German gas attack in his diary entry on June 22: 

At 9 p.m. an avalanche of fire bursts on the ridge, the relief has to be delayed, it would be impossible to pass. Is it an attack? There is gas as well as shells, we can’t breathe and are forced to put on our masks… My company is placed in one line, without any trench, in shell craters. It’s a plateau, swept continuously by machine-gunfire and flares… The terrain is littered with corpses! What an advance! It’s dark, one feels something soft beneath one’s feet, it’s a stomach. One falls down flat and it’s a corpse.

Amid continuing fighting, Desegneaux wrote on June 26: 

Our 220 mortars bombard Thiaumont: we must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. We attack incessantly. It’s four days since we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun; filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing. I am unrecognizable, frighteningly dirty.

In a later diary entry Desegneaux described one of the most awful, and tragically common, scenarios of the war: grievously wounded men dying slowly in front of their comrades because no stretcher bearers could make it to the frontline positions under heavy fire. On June 30, 1916 he wrote: 

Numb and dazed, without saying a word, and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us. The wounded are increasing in numbers around us. These poor devils not knowing where to go come to us, believing that they will be helped. What can we do? There are clouds of smoke, the air is unbreathable. There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood… One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off, and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously one begs me, ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die, Lieutenant, I’m suffering, help me.’ The other, perhaps more gravely wounded and nearer to death, implores me to kill him with these words, ‘Lieutenant, if you don’t want to, give me the revolver!’ Frightful, terrible moments, while the cannons harry us and we are splattered with mud and earth by the shells. For hours, these groans and supplications continue until, at 6 p.m., they die before our eyes without anyone being able to help them. 

Not long afterwards an anonymous soldier from the French 65th Division, stationed on the west bank of the Meuse, painted a similar picture in a letter home: 

Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one’s way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench. Farther on, there are many wounded to tend, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don't have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground...

See the previous installment or all entries.

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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15 Fun Facts About Army of Darkness
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On February 19, 1993, Army of Darkness—the third installment in Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead franchise—made its way into U.S. theaters. You probably know all about Ash’s boomstick, but on the occasion of the hilarious horror comedy's 25th anniversary, it's worth a closer look.

1. ARMY OF DARKNESS ISN'T THE ENTIRE TITLE.

The film’s title is stylized onscreen as Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness. This phrasing was Sam Raimi’s homage to the defunct Hollywood tradition of putting stars’ names in movie titles (like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)—but the studio feared the long title would confuse moviegoers, so it was shortened for official purposes to just Army of Darkness.

2. EVEN THE SHORTER TITLE WASN'T RAIMI'S FIRST CHOICE.

Army of Darkness is the third installment of the Evil Dead series and the first to take place during the Middle Ages. Raimi’s original title for Army of Darkness was The Medieval Dead.

3. BRIDGET FONDA FINALLY GOT TO WORK WITH RAIMI.

Bridget Fonda makes a cameoas Ash’s girlfriend Linda during the beginning flashback sequence. She is the third actress in three films to play Linda (following actresses Betsy Baker and Denise Bixler). Fonda—a huge Evil Dead II fan—had originally auditioned to be in Raimi’s previous film, Darkman, but didn’t get the part.

4. ASH'S CAR HAD A LOT OF SCREEN EXPERIENCE.

The 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 allegedly appears in all of Sam Raimi’s films.

5. DARKMAN MADE ARMY OF DARKNESS POSSIBLE.

Raimi wanted to make Army of Darkness immediately following 1987’s Evil Dead II, but he struggled to find funding to finish his trilogy. The financial success of Raimi’s 1990 film, Darkman, eventually convinced Universal Studios to split the $12 million budget with executive producer Dino De Laurentiis.

6. A SUBTLE SCIENCE FICTION REFERENCE PLAYS A KEY ROLE.

The words Ash must utter to safely retrieve the Necronomicon (“Klaatu verata nikto”) are actually a variation on a phrase from the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that film, “Klaatu barada nitko” is the phrase one must say to stop the robot Gort from destroying Earth.

7. THE SKELETON DEADITES WERE AN HOMAGE.

Their design is a tribute to visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen.

8. THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Billy Bryan, the actor who portrays the second monster in the medieval pit, also portrayed the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters.

9. SAM RAIMI'S BROTHER WORE A LOT OF HATS.

Ted Raimi—who makes cameos in all of his brother’s films—appears as three different background characters in Army of Darkness. He is first seen as a sympathetic villager, then as a dying soldier during the final battle, and, finally, as an S-Mart employee in the last scene.

10. RAIMI HAD TO FIGHT FOR AN R-RATING.

In keeping with the gory first two films in the series, Army of Darkness received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. It was subsequently bumped down to an R rating after the filmmakers pointed out that the ostensible gore in the film was happening to skeletons.

11. PLAYING EVIL ASH WAS TOUGH FOR CAMPBELL.

It took makeup artists three hours to get Campbell ready for shooting.

12. RAIMI STORYBOARDED EVERY SINGLE SHOT IN THE MOVIE HIMSELF.

About 25 shots in the final battle are taken from storyboards originally used in the 1948 Victor Fleming film Joan of Arc, which were brought to Raimi’s attention by visual effects supervisor William Mesa. Mesa got them from a friend, who got them from Fleming himself.

13. THERE'S AN EASTER EGG FOR TREKKIES.

Star Trek fans will recognize the location where Ash learns the “Klaatu verata nikto” incantation. The scene was shot at the iconic Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, California, where the famous “Arena” episode from Star Trek was also shot. The movie also shot in the Bronson Canyon area of Griffith Park in Los Angeles that served as the Batcave for the 1960s Batman television show.

14. THE STUDIO CHANGED THE ENDING.

Bruce Campbell stars in 'Army of Darkness' (1992)
Universal Pictures

The original conclusion of the film—which Universal Studios deemed too negative—featured Ash taking too much potion to get back to the present day and waking up in a future, post-apocalyptic London. The ending can be seen on subsequent director’s cuts of home video versions of Army of Darkness.

15. EVEN AFTER YEARS OF TRYING, A SEQUEL NEVER MATERIALIZED.

Beginning in 2015, Bruce Campbell reprised his role as Ash in the Ash vs Evil Dead TV series. While fans of the Evil Dead franchise love it, Raimi spent years trying to get a sequel to Army of Darkness off the ground. On the commentary track for the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead, Raimi even shared a few of the discarded ideas he had for the film.

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