Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness at 30!
In 1981 Sam Raimi shot the horror genre in the arm with his debut feature film The Evil Dead. What could have so easily been another run-of-the-mill low-budget cabin-in-the-woods-style horror movie was instead a frantic and visceral film thanks to Raimi’s energetic camera work and a tinge of zany humor injected into it. He followed that up in 1987 with Evil Dead 2, which leaned far more to the comedic side but without losing any of the horror. It was essentially a scary Three Stooges movie. That film ended with hero Ash Williams being transported to the Middle Ages. Six years after that the trilogy ended with Army of Darkness a movie completely different from what came before but 30 years later it’s clear that it’s a movie out of time.
Picking up where Evil Dead 2 left off, Army of Darkness is a far cry from the dark woods and secluded cabin of the first two films. This film is bright, its landscapes are big, and its period setting is fully realized. This is no longer just a straightforward horror film, it’s a full-on medieval-times set action-adventure comedy with some light horror elements. You could watch it without ever having seen the other two and you would miss virtually nothing story related. It’s a trilogy-ender that works as a standalone. Evil Dead is an extraordinarily malleable series and that’s never more apparent than when watching Army of Darkness. It’s completely different than the rest of the series, but it fits in completely.
Focusing on Ash’s efforts to get back to his own time, he has to help obtain the Necronomicon, which puts him in opposition to the Kandarian Demon. The Demon takes the form of an evil Deadite version of Ash, who commands a skeleton army. There are still the classic Raimi first-person demon shots, the excessive blood effects, and some scares but this is largely a classic-style adventure film. Its structure, pacing, and content are reminiscent of historical adventure films of the 50s and 60s.
While the costume and set design are solid, there are moments where the budget shows itself. There’s an obvious green screen in some scenes, superimposing, and even claymation skeletons. In a lesser film, those would be problems, but here they elevate it to a level of timelessness. The period setting and set design are so evocative of classical Hollywood that, combined with the skeleton effects, you could just as easily call this film ‘Ash and the Argonauts.’ There’s an anachronistic quality to it in how it feels like it’s from different eras. Its classic sensibilities mixed with Raimi’s filmmaking and Ash’s qualities as a 90s action hero make it feel like a film from no particular era. That makes it timeless.
Raimi’s frenetic camera movements are a staple of his filmography, and there in full force here. His ability to make the camera itself such an active participant gives the film such a fresh and modern feeling even despite coming out 30 years ago. Claymation skeletons don’t feel outdated here because Raimi’s filmmaking skills never allow them to be.
The camera is in the thick of all the action during the climactic battle scene, and Raimi’s directing leaves the stilted stop-motion animation to feel like a feature of the skeleton’s anatomy instead of a technological constraint. They outnumber the humans, they move with an unpredictability that keeps them a threat, and their bodies are used for many comedic gags. What would be a hindrance to the quality of most films, Raimi turns into a strength.
Army of Darkness is still an Evil Dead film, so there are plenty of horror thrills to be had here as well. There are Deadites and fountains of blood and evil spirits in the woods. The scene where Evil Ash grows from Ash’s body is one of the freakiest things in the trilogy. It may not be as horror focused as the other films, but it never feels like anything other than an Evil Dead film.
The disparate elements really shouldn’t work. The medieval setting, the physical comedy, the horror, and the quip-filled protagonist all blend seamlessly thanks to Raimi, but even more importantly thanks to star Bruce Campbell.
While Campbell showcased his physical comedy chops in both previous films, it’s Army of Darkness that lets him shine as a movie star. It’s hard to watch the film without questioning how he never became a huge star. Ash, in this film, is a full-fledged action hero. He fights off Deadites and skeletons, he gets the girl, and he spouts off one-liners like they’re going out of style. He’s your prototypical action hero of that era, but Campbell carries himself like a 1950s Hollywood star. He’s handsome, charming, charismatic, and physical.
Campbell overemphasizes all his actions in such a way that perfectly meshes with the tone of the film. Whether it’s his exaggerated facial expressions, the way he throws his body into the action scenes, or how he punctuates all his lines with the utmost conviction. His performance is evocative of stars like Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas and how they carried themselves the same way. Campbell is playing a man out of time, but he quite literally feels like he is one himself.
Army of Darkness is such a hodgepodge of ideas and tones that it shouldn’t work. It does, though, thanks to Raimi’s unifying vision and filmmaking style combined with Campbell’s all-in performance. This is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be, and it’s incredibly happy to be just that. It’s equally of its era and so clearly inspired by prior ones that it remains timeless. So much of it evokes filmmaking of the past while being so uniquely Sam Raimi that nothing feels dated 30 years later. It feels meticulous and purposely crafted to live on throughout time as one giant romp through Deadite-infested medieval times. It succeeds. Hail to the king baby!