Talking Movies: Army of Darkness

Talking Movies

Released: 19 February 1993
Director: Sam Raimi
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $11 million
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Richard Grove, and Ian Abercrombie

The Plot:
Thrust back to medieval times by the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, Ashley “Ash” Williams (Campbell) finds himself the only hope of fending off a veritable army of Deadites, led by his own demonic doppelgänger (also Campbell).

The Background:
In 1981, up-and-coming director Sam Raimi and long-time collaborator Bruce Campbell brought together friends and family alike to produce one of the most controversial splatter-horror films of all time, The Evil Dead. Despite regular on-set mishaps and tensions, the film was surprisingly well-received and, after his mainstream career failed to take off, Raimi returned to the concept six years later for a sequel. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (Raimi, 1987) might have been part-remake due to rights issues but it was met with largely positive reviews; its over the top gore led to it becoming a cult horror classic, though it would take another six years before a third instalment would see the light of day. After Darkman (ibid, 1990) proved a modest critical and commercial success, Raimi began developing ideas he’d had for the third film while shooting Evil Dead II, primarily a large-scale medieval piece with a time-displaced Ash. Producer Dino De Laurentiis was still onboard to provide financing for the film, though Raimi and his cohorts still had to fight to get the funds they needed for this larger venture. As ever, production was troubled by difficult conditions; the sweltering heat and Raimi’s penchant for abusing his life-long friend Bruce Campbell, and the gruelling shoot caused issues during the production, to say nothing of the painstaking practical effects work needed to bring the much larger concept to life. Having struggled with the ratings board with his previous Evil Dead films, Raimi purposely set out to make Army of Darkness more a slapstick horror/comedy and toned the gore way down, only to be hit with an unfairly high rating as penance for releasing the previous films independently. Additionally, studio interference saw Raimi’s original vision for a bleak cliff-hanger ending changed to a more hopeful one, and it’s often not clear which version you’re going to be watching when you purchase a copy of the movie. Finally, while Army of Darkness$21.5 million box office gross made it a relative success, many have been divided in their opinions on the film; some praised the presentation and effects work, others criticised the slapstick approach. While the film went a long way to further cement Ash as a horror icon and is often seen as a cult classic, it remains a contentious entry in the franchise and its events are often overlooked or outright ignored in subsequent entries (though this is also due to licensing issues).

The Review:
In my reviews of The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, I made it pretty clear that my bias is firmly towards Evil Dead II on being the best of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy. For me, it’s the perfect balance of horror and comedy and really cemented Ash’s character as a reluctant hero who transforms into a horror icon after being put through the wringer by a malevolent force. Evil Dead II set Ash up nicely as a cursed victim forced to see those he loves and cares about either turned into zombie-like Deadites or brutally murdered before his eyes, and constantly haunted by the evil force no matter how hard he fights, and Army of Darkness immediately sets about reminding viewers of this with yet another recap of the previous movie in the opening. This time, it’s narrated by Ash, firmly placing him as the main character and focus of the franchise and this movie, and quickly skims through the events that saw Ash lose his hand and end up being sucked through a vortex to medieval times.

A frustrated Ash must set aside his ego and assume a heroic role to clean up his mess.

Understandably, given the horror and the trauma that he’s gone through, Ash is pretty tetchy in this film. While it’s nice to get a sense of his life before the horrors of the cabin, seeing him as a dedicated and knowledgeable S-Mart employee, any vestiges of his original bookish demeanour have been completely swept away and replaced with a bitter, antagonistic bravado that sees him openly mouth off to anyone, regardless of their authority or stature. He has, officially, had enough of this shit, basically, and his only concern is finding a way back home; he doesn’t want to be some prophesised hero, he doesn’t want to get involved in the issues between Lord Arthur (Gilbert) and Duke Henry the Red (Grove), and he certainly has no intention of battling the Deadites any more than he has to. Thus, he makes a deal with the Wise Man (Abercrombie) to retrieve the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis to help them turn the tide in their war against the Deadites but on the proviso that the Wise Man uses the book to send him back home, no questions asked. Unfortunately for Ash, life is never that simple; the evil force constantly conspires against him but is only part of the problem in Army of Darkness. Ash’s ego and sense of superiority means he not only expresses his frustration to the masses but also fails to heed the Wise Man’s words; despite being little more than a retail employee, Ash sees himself as their physical and intellectual superior, a façade he maintains even as he’s blundering his way through the movie. This same bravado, brought on after the trauma he’s experienced, causes him just as much grief as any reanimated skeletons as he refuses to listen to proper instructions and ends up raising the titular army of darkness in his haste and selfishness to get back home.

A spurned Sheila finds herself transformed into a spiteful witch by the evil’s power.

The opening recap once again shows Ash at the cabin with Linda (Bridget Fonda) but skims past her relevance pretty quickly this time around (and even completely omits Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry) from the narrative) to instead focus on Sheila (Davidtz). Since Arthur captured Ash alongside Henry and his men, who killed her brother in battle, Sheila is initially instrumental in condemning Ash to the Deadite pit since he’s assumed to be one of them. Like all of the “primates” in Arthur’s kingdom, Sheila is suitably impressed by Ash’s prowess in battle and his “boomstick” and quickly reverses her ill will towards him, which he initially callously dismisses since he’s busy living up the rewards of being hailed a hero. Although he’s as gruff and flippant towards her as he is to the other “primitives”, Ash finally gets the chance to get laid after being impressed by her spirited nature, but bashfully spurns her when given the choice between returning home or helping her and her people fight off the evil he’s unleashed, with even Sheila branding Ash a coward for this choice. Although it seems as though Sheila is doomed to become little more than a damsel in distress when she’s swept away by a Deadite gargoyle, she actually assumes the role of secondary antagonist after being brought to “Evil Ash” and transformed into a Bride of Frankenstein-esque (Elsa Lanchester) witch by his kiss. Her kidnapping proves to be just the kick up the ass Ash needs to get his shit together, but her demonic visage almost proves his undoing in the finale when she causes his supped-up Oldsmobile to crash and delights in tormenting his body and his heart.

Ash has no time for the Wise Man’s riddles or the rivalry between Arthur and Henry.

This is the first Evil Dead production to have a large cast of characters, and all of them react to Ash in different ways. Initially, Ash is met with suspicion by Arthur, though Ash is far from impressed by either Arthur or Henry and, once he escapes the pit, Ash immediately punches Arthur out and humiliates him. Although flippant towards Henry, especially as he was in chains when they met, Ash earns the duke’s respect after allowing him and his men to go free, which pays off dividends in the finale. It’s thanks to the Wise Man, who has knowledge of Ash’s greater destiny from his familiarity with the Necronomicon, that Ash is able to win the awe of the crowd and begrudgingly quest for the book. However, he loses the respect of the masses after dooming them all to death and destruction through his ineptitude and, while Arthur and the Wise Man are honour-bound to uphold their end of the bargain, they condemn him for his foolishness, but are soon relying on his surprising scientific acumen and military tactics to defend the castle. Ash’s eventual leadership skills and engineering abilities are so impressive that even Arthur is forced to offer his begrudging respect. Though a proud and seemingly cruel king, one who’s not only ore than happy to toss his prisoners into his Deadite pit to the amusement of the braying crowd but also freely executes any escapees with a crossbow, Arthur’s first priority is the safety of his people. He’s waged bitter war against Henry the Red for some time but is driven to find and protect the Necronomicon not to use it against his enemy, but to put an end to the Deadites that have infested his land. Still, the rivalry between Arthur and Henry runs so deep that, at first, it seems as though the duke has condemned his enemies to their fate; however, thanks to Ash’s rallying cry in a deleted scene, Henry and his men arrive just in the nick of time to help turn the tide against the invading Deadites and peace is finally fostered between the two as a result.

Ash sprouts an evil double who raises an army of the dead and seeks to conquer the land!

Naturally, the evil force is back at work in Army of Darkness; somehow, it’s already been unleashed across the land, despite the Necronomicon being hidden in an ominous cemetery. The demonic forces it unleashes and possesses are now freely referred to as Deadites and attack people openly, causing much fear and panic in the lands, and the evil force continues to be both possessed individuals and an invisible, roaring spirit that relentlessly pursues Ash. However, Ash is wise to its tricks this time around; he knows when it’s playing possum, when to fight, and when to flee when it’s nearby, though he’s far more capable in a one-on-one situation than when chased by the invisible force. For the first time, the evil force is given stable and consistent physical form in this movie; previously, it was simply limited to cackling, monstrous possessed bodies but Army of Darkness sees Ash once again battle against himself when the force manifests through his reflection in scenes that recall his experiences at the cabin in the second film. The result of this is Ash literally (and bloodlessly) splitting into two after his evil twin sprouts from his body; despite being a morally grey character, the more recognisably “Good” Ash triumphs over his evil twin and leaves him for dead, only for “Evil Ash” to return to life as a rotting, skeletal corpse that acts as the embodiment of the evil force and seeks to conquer the living through the titular army of darkness. Evil Ash gives Campbell more chances to showcase his range, being a maniacal and raving, pirate-like figure that ramps all of Ash’s arrogance and hot-headed bluster up to eleven, taking a possessed Sheila as his bride and digging up an army of the dead to ravage the land. The Necronomicon also gains more personification this time around; there are three books, each capable of biting and attacking Ash when he screws up the magic words, and the Deadites take a number of forms, from gibbering zombies to screeching witches, but is primarily represented by an army of skeletons. The evil force is also far more playful this time around; it’s still spiteful and malicious, but its loquacious and quirky skeletal troops are just as likely to get into slapstick scrapes as they are the skewer their victims.

The Nitty-Gritty:
The Evil Dead films had always been fairly comedic up to this point; even the first, which is easily the grittiest and splatter-horror of the bunch, had its ridiculous moments, but Army of Darkness takes the comedy/horror atmosphere of Evil Dead II and runs with it! Some of this is a little lost on me; the Three Stooges were a bit before my time and I’m not really a fan of their slapstick comedy or repetitive routine, so seeing Ash fend off skeletal limbs as they bonk his nose and box his ears is a little too childish for me. A lot of the comedy is focused on Ash’s 20th century sensibilities, slang, and technology and the fear, awe, and confusion it inspires in the natives; to these people, Ash’s rudimentary science and bog-standard weaponry are like magic and his bravado is able to impress all the more since they are so enthralled at his ability to defeat the Deadites with his strange weapons. His grouchy demeanour is also a fun source of comedy; he’s far more selfish and outspoken this time around and only undertakes the Wise Man’s quest because he has no other choice to get home. The film also boosts his action hero status up to eleven, gifting him even more memorable one-liners and moments, as well as using his engineering abilities and 20th century science books to not only fortify the castle defences and turn his beloved Oldsmobile into a bad-ass fighting machine, but also somehow construct a working artificial hand using an armoured gauntlet and the gift of a montage!

Ash is now an arrogant fool who’s only separated from his evil double by a fine, grey morality.

Indeed, for me, much of the film is again carried by Bruce Campbell; I may not agree with every decision made to blow Ash’s characterisation so ridiculously out of proportion but there’s no question that, again, this is his show (as evident in the opening titles, which actually call the film Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness). If you enjoyed Ash’s fight against his severed hand in Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness takes that horse and well and truly flogs it to death by having Ash be set upon by cackling, miniature versions of himself using some ambitious, if dodgy, composite effects. These diminutive little gremlins torment Ash, stabbing and tripping and mocking him at every turn and forcing him into more and more comical extremes as he tries to stamp and drown them out. Ash’s character is also expanded upon in ways that would continue to be featured in subsequent adaptations and continuations of the franchise; now a much more self-serving anti-hero, Ash primarily fights for himself and makes no bones about it. He basks in the adulation of the people only to feed his ego and is more than happy to leave them to their fate after unleashing the book’s evil since he’s fed up with all the fighting and everything it’s cost him and just wants to go home. He has a change of heart, of course, but Ash’s hesitant nature literally manifests itself into a separate being in this film and it’s a grey morality that separates “Good” Ash from “Evil” Ash. Evil Ash is more obviously the personification of the evil force that’s been hunting Ash all this time and is bent on the wholesale slaughter and possession of the living, painting him as more obviously “bad”, but it takes a great deal of motivation for Ash to get his shit together and start fighting for something other than his own self-preservation, turning him from a reluctant but bad-ass hero to a flawed braggart who needs to be pushed into defending others.

Some impressive effects feature in the finale, which sees Ash either stranded in the future or returned to his normal life.

Thanks to focusing more on bombastic action and wacky, slapstick comedy, blood and gore is all-but-absent from Army of Darkness. While there is an impressive geyser of blood when one of Henry’s men is tossed into Arthur’s Deadite pit, there’s none at all when the recap shows Ash chopping off his hand and even the Deadites are less intimidating, save for the decaying visage of Evil Ash, and more likely to rattle off quips and play fight than tear flesh from bone. However, Army of Darkness raises the titular army from the grave with some remarkable practical effects, puppets, and old school camera techniques in the explosive and overly ambitious finale, which sees Ash forging gunpowder and becoming a symbol for the people to rally behind in the battle against the stop-motion effects, corpse-like costumes, and gibbering puppets used to bring the army of the dead to life. Ash uses his steam-powered Oldsmobile to mow them down using a bladed attachment and, despite being physically outmatched, proves an adaptable, if desperate, brawler, when he clashes swords with Evil Ash. Ash manages to hold both Evil Ash and a Deadite soldier at bay with a surprising deftness before setting him on fire, reducing Evil Ash to another babbling skeleton, and blowing him up using a bag of gunpowder. This restores Sheila to normal and results in victory, but Ash finds himself conflicted; he briefly considers staying in the past, where he can continue to be hailed a hero and even live like a king, but ultimately he decides that he belongs in his own time. The Wise Man finally repays his bravery with a solution to his time displacement; depending on which version of the film you watch, Ash either has to drink five droplets of a special potion or repeat another magic phrase to enter a deep sleep. Either way, he screws up this process once again and either ends up sleeping too long and waking up in a post-apocalyptic future or returns to his mediocre life as an S-Mart employee where he wows his co-workers with his tall tales and continues to fend off the vengeful Deadites (which, incidentally, has always been my preferred ending).

The Summary:
To this day, I struggle with Army of Darkness. It’s certainly the biggest and most ambitious of the original Evil Dead trilogy, with a much larger scope and cast of characters and it really expands upon the lore of the franchise in its own way, but it’s such a jarring genre shift from the last two movies that it just doesn’t always land for me. Ash’s bravado has been ramped up to such an extreme that he’s gone from a quirky and unlikely action/horror hero to a selfish wise-ass who’s both too arrogant and blockheaded to remember some simple words and yet adaptable and knowledgeable enough to craft an artificial hand and a steam-powered quasi-tank using medieval technology. Ash is at his most unlikable here at times, which works in the sense of him setting aside his ego and fighting for something other than himself, and I totally get that he’d be frustrated after everything he’s been through, but it makes him more of a cliché than someone to root for. The film is super toned down compared to the last two, relying on slapstick comedy and over the top action rather than gore and horror, and sadly rehashing a lot of the entertaining aspects of Evil Dead II through a watered-down presentation. There are some good aspects, such as the impressive (if overly ambitious) special effects and Bruce Campbell’s charisma, but I’d argue they’re not enough to give this much consideration. While I prefer the “good ending”, it really doesn’t matter which version you watch as the film is barely ever referenced and I can’t say I’m sorry about that. You’re much better off sticking with the cliff-hanger of the last movie and assuming that Ash found his way back using the book rather than sitting through this, unless you have little kids who want to get into horror but aren’t quite ready to see the gory content of the first two movies.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Are you a fan of Army of Darkness? Which ending do you prefer? What did you think to Ash’s characterisation as an arrogant blowhard? Did you enjoy the shift towards slapstick comedy or do you prefer the gory content of the other films? What did you think to Evil Ash and the Deadite army? Did you enjoy the special effects used in the film or do you find it too dated and cringe-worthy? Would you like to see Army of Darkness get more recognition or do you think it’s better off ignored? Whatever your thoughts on Army of Darkness and the Evil Dead franchise, drop a comment below or on my social media and be sure to check out my other Evil Dead content.

4 thoughts on “Talking Movies: Army of Darkness

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