Army of Darkness (1992)
Dir. by Sam Raimi
Starring Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz and Marcus Gilbert
At the end of Evil Dead 2, series protagonist Ash Williams found himself sucked through a portal and stranded in the past. Now trapped in the Middle Ages, he has nothing but his wits, his shotgun and his chainsaw to help him retrieve the Necronomicon and defeat a horde of Deadite zombies in order to return to his own time.
Until it closed while I was in high school, my family always used to frequent a mom & pop video store called Video Junction. I was never allowed to rent any of the horror videos as a kid, but I always liked to go into that section and just look at all of the box art. In one corner of the horror aisle they had the poster for this movie on the wall, and I always loved how gloriously over-the-top it looked. I didn’t see the movie itself until some time in my mid teens, when I caught it on TNT. It was edited for content and was already halfway through, so I had no idea what was going on, but I still found it incredibly amusing. I think it took until maybe my senior year for me to finally see the whole thing uncut from start to finish, at a Halloween party.
The trajectory of the Evil Dead trilogy is really fascinating. The original Evil Dead, from 1981, is a low-budget horror classic that immediately became a cult film, despite a rather ill-advised scene where one of the characters gets raped by an evil tree. The follow-up, Evil Dead II in 1987, leaned much more on the black comedy that existed in the original, though it still had plenty of graphic horror sequences. Army of Darkness, however, is a straight-up comedy that just happens to have the undead in it.
At times, it almost plays like a deliberate parody of the first two movies in the series. There’s an increasing amount of slapstick as the movie progresses, leading up to the scene in the graveyard where Ash gets his face stretched like a Looney Tunes character and literally engages in a Three Stooges eye-poking routine with a bunch of skeletal hands. It seems like the actual horror elements that remain in the movie are almost incidental. It’s fairly easy to imagine a version of this movie that starred Jim Carrey instead of Bruce Campbell (though I can’t really imagine Carrey pulling off a lot of Ash’s dialogue with the same deadpan hamminess).
Of course, the drastic change in tone from the first two movies never really bothered me all that much, since this was the first movie in the series that I actually saw. I had no clue what was going on (I started my first watch right before the windmill scene), but teenage me laughed his ass off. While adult me doesn’t find the film quite that funny any more, I was still enormously entertained by it.
Sure, a large number of Ash’s lines are groaners, and his attitude towards Sheila occasionally skirts the line of inappropriateness. It never manages to cross that line, however, for which I’m glad. I hadn’t actually seen Army of Darkness in about a decade, and I didn’t know if it had aged as badly as the “romances” in other fantasy films that I’ve re-watched, such as The Beastmaster.
I think that this is a movie that’s tailor-made for group watching. I happened to watch it this time around with a large group of people over Slack, many of whom had never seen it before. There was a constant stream of banter going back and forth about the movie’s ridiculousness, like our own improv version of MST3K. I still think I would have enjoyed it without the audience, but the group definitely enhanced my viewing experience.
Getting back to the actual filmmaking for a second, Army of Darkness had a budget that was three times that of Evil Deads 1 and 2 combined. However, it was still a low-budget movie, even for the time period. The sets, costumes, etc are all noticeably cheap. Everything about the castle and the knights has a very Monty Python-esque feel to it, which is of course perfectly in keeping with the movie’s general tone.
Most of the budget likely went to the movie’s creature and makeup effects, which is one place that the movie definitely punches above its weight class. The final battle scene alone was probably hell to shoot with the number of puppets, stop-motion characters and prosthetics on display, but they manage to make you forget how cheesy the rest of the set and costume design’s been. Ash’s evil twin, as leader of the Deadite army, ends up looking like a member of Gwar who accidentally booked a gig at a cheap Renaissance festival. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Most of Army of Darkness can’t really be called good in any normal sense. However, a B-movie that knows exactly what it is and embraces it can be just as, if not more fun than a higher budget movie with more artistic pretensions. Army of Darkness was never going to win an Oscar (though it DID get nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Makeup), and that’s perfectly okay. But if I’m channel-surfing on a Saturday afternoon, I’m much more likely to stick with Ash and company than I am any of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Hail to the king, baby!
-They originally shot an ending where Ash accidentally goes too far into the future and ends up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. That version got shown in theaters in Europe, but I think I prefer the reshot American ending instead. The fight in the department store has some of the movie’s best one-liners and action gags.