‘Army of Darkness’ 30 Years Later: Is it Sam Raimi’s Best Horror Movie?
The horror legacies of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are inextricably linked. The now legendary pair met in high school back in 1975, sharing their love for crime films and the horror genre. After meeting producer and longtime collaborator Rob Tapert, the trio scraped some money together to make the proof-of-concept 32-minute 16mm film Within the Woods. They managed to get it in front of a screening for The Rocky Horror Picture show on Halloween weekend in 1978. A critic from The Detroit News gave it a rave, leading to friends and family raising enough funds to get Evil Dead off the ground.
Raimi’s mad hatter energy and Campbell’s roguish good looks helped Evil Dead stand out when it was first released in 1983. The original, and its half remake, half sequel Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn may have never seen the light of day if it wasn’t for Stephen King’s review in Twilight Zone Magazine calling Raimi’s feature debut “the most ferociously original horror film of the year.”
Evil Dead II is rightly credited with cementing Raimi’s signature splatstick style, but the trilogy capper Army of Darkness (which somehow celebrates its 30th anniversary this week) shows an entirely new level of Raimi’s imagination. Army of Darkness takes his love of the “Three Stooges” and “Looney Tunes” that helped define the wackiness of Evil Dead II, and transports it outside the confines of the cabin into a medi-Evil horror adventure.
Loosely based on Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Ash is sent back to the Arthurian age after the Necronomicon opens up a time vortex tornado. After killing a Deadite, he’s deemed a hero and sent on a quest to retrieve the Book of the Dead in order to send him back home. Of course, Ash fouls up the incantation “Klaatu Barada Nikto” (a nod to The Day the Earth Stood Still) and is summarily attacked by a number of imposter Necronomicon books in one of the best comedy action scenes in Army of Darkness. Ash has to eventually fight thy Army of the Dead to get back to his own time after accidentally unleashing hell on the helpless plebes.
Depending on which version you watch, Ash either makes it back to S-Mart in the Theatrical Cut or winds up a man out of time in a distant futuristic wasteland in Raimi’s preferred original ending. Universal thought that finale was too bleak and the ending was changed to the more heroic conclusion seen in the theatrical version.
Raimi prefers that version for a reason. Sending ash to the future as an embattled horror version of Rip Van Winkle would have set up the absolutely bonkers premise of Evil Dead 4. That unmade film would have followed the futuristic Ash and the modern day Ash on two separate, parallel encounters with the Deadites.
In all honesty, the premise of Evil Dead 4 would have probably been too much of a good thing. Raimi uses Army of Darkness to let his unhinged imagination run wild. But the story is still contained enough to be a straight adventure narrative that never goes completely off the rails. Army of Darkness takes the Raimi formula that defined the demonic mania of Evil Dead II and incorporates it into a twisted send-up of classic quest films like John Boorman’s Excalibur.
While Evil Dead and Evil Dead II may be scarier than Army of Darkness, the threequel trades the overpowering sense of dread in the earlier films for a more personal, childlike horror adventure story. With every swashbuckling sequence, Raimi seems to be living out a fantasy in a sandbox of his own, macabre creation. Army of Darkness was the largest budget he had ever had on an Evil Dead film, and the battle sequences almost work as a calling card for Raimi’s future career in tentpole Marvel franchises.
The meta-inspired title card, Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, also hints at another reason why the third film in the series is Raimi’s most personal film. The long-lasting friendship between Campbell and Raimi culminates in a form of hero worship showing a world where Ash could be King. Ash may be quite a bit dimmer in the third outing, but his one-liners and star-making moments showcase Campbell more than the raw physicality of Evil Dead II ever did. Army of Darkness feels like a love letter to their journey onscreen and off.
And make no mistake. Army of Darkness may be a little bombastic and over-the-top. But it is still a horror movie. Any film directed by sam Raimi paying direct homage to Ray Harryhausen that also features Bill Moseley as the Captain of the Evil Dead (not Evil Ash!) definitely has its dark heart in the right place.
Be sure to celebrate Sam Raimi’s classic this weekend on whatever versions (or multiple versions) you have in your collection.