I’d always loved movies but Evil Dead 2 was the first film that made me notice how filmmaking works, thus making Sam Raimi my first film school professor. One of the first horror movies I was brave enough to watch, at my friend’s insistence, I couldn’t believe a movie could use horror elements but essentially be a comedy. And the technique. You mean you can put the camera there? You can edit those two shots together? Imagine my disappointment when I discovered the original Evil Dead played it straight. Army of Darkness promised to continue the tone of Evil Dead 2, and literally pick up from the cliffhanger ending.
I’d heard about The Medieval Dead through Fangoria so was waiting for it at least a year. I didn’t care that they called it Army of Darkness. Medieval Dead was a better name but I knew what it was and ultimately the movie was what’s important. You can still enjoy Scream knowing it was supposed to be Scary Movie.
Interestingly, some of my high school classmates did not know it was a sequel. They didn’t know the opening recap was actually a whole movie! (Understandable. In 1993, six years from a cult horror movie was long enough for Universal to reasonably position it as a stand-alone.) I saw it on opening night with a crowd that cheered for Ash attaching to the chainsaw in the pit. I don’t know how a Glen Burnie, MD audience were such Evil Dead 2 aficionados but they seemed to know exactly what they were there for and I was glad to be with them.
Army of Darkness begins differently than Evil Dead 2 ended. Ash is no longer worshipped by medieval knights, but rather captured and enslaved. I didn’t really mind the inconsistency, as long as I had another slapstick Ash adventure.
They’ve added the S Mart job which doesn’t contradict anything. We’d never heard what his job was before. They also made Ash more of an asshole. I guess it makes sense after all he’s been through. He’s a sexist pig too, which I have to believe is a satirical version of the macho ‘80s Action hero. Embeth Davidtz seemed a good sport about it, having fun as the trophy love interest turned evil demon, Sheila.
Army of Darkness doesn’t reinvent the genre like Evil Dead 2 did, but then Raimi could only invent his signature style once. Applying it to new genres like western or superhero was thrilling, but when you’re as distinct as he is just making another Sam Raimi movie is worthwhile. We only get one every few years.
In between Evil Deads I had also loved Darkman. By the time he made his next film, The Quick and the Dead, Raimi became my favorite director. His sense of humor and irreverence were exactly what I’m looking for in movies.
Army of Darkness did get to bring Evil Dead 2 style to new genres like the medieval knight epic. A stop motion skeleton army certainly fit the Evil Dead 2 style. Sending Ash off to find the Necromicon alone gives us the Evil Dead 2 fix in the middle section. The visual effects are a bit more sophisticated with the mini-Ashes, but it’s the heart and soul of Ash trying to fight evil forces that really like to mess with him. New gags like the mini Ashes, the Evil Ash and all the wrong books are fun new twists on the Evil Dead mischief.
The pit fight and castle fight are gloriously over the top too. Raimi finds funny angles in the pit, especially when Ash gets kicked in the balls. This time I noticed the amount of wind blowing in the deadite scenes. All these years of admiring Raimi’s craft and I just now noticed that the reason those angles work is how much wind is blowing around debris and deadite hair. They must’ve had giant fans all over the set, and must’ve been hell for sound.
I suppose it’s also an ultra-violent R-rated riff on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He’s got guns, cars and chainsaws against knights and peasants. It’s also gleefully immature with jokes about your shoelaces are untied and you’ve got something on your face. I didn’t even know the klaatu barada nikto reference yet, but I just loved the joke where you cough over the word you don’t want them to hear.
In the decades since, the extended cut and original ending have complicated the legend of Army of Darkness. I actually prefer the S Mart ending. The original ending where Ash sleeps through the end of the world makes sense intellectually because Ash is an idiot, but it lacks the bombastic action comedy that is Evil Dead at this point. Honestly, why introduce S Mart if you’re not going to return to it? I certainly wanted to see more slapstick action, but I can’t honestly recall anything in the extended cut that I miss.
Young Fred always wanted his favorite movies to be longer. Now I appreciate a lean 75 minutes before credits. It’s also a testament to how much of most movies is redundant filler. We follow Army of Darkness just fine with rapid visual storytelling. We don’t need every beat explained. And there’s still plenty of mythology about the book and Duke Henry (Richard Grove). It all fits in under 80 minutes. I mean, it feels like way more happens in this than a three hour Transformers movie.
We got an Evil Dead remake that was more focused on grueling violence than comedy. Ash vs Evil Dead is the sequel to the Ash movies but that leans even more heavily into the comedy than Army of Darkness. Drag Me to Hell was the most Sam Raimi movie Sam Raimi has made since perhaps The Quick and the Dead, a spiritual sequel perhaps with all new characters and mythology (but still an eyeball in the mouth.)
The real joy has been to see Raimi apply his style to big budget studio movies. We got three Spider-Man movies with Evil Dead style Doc Ock origin scenes and absurd slapstick at Peter Parker’s expense! I also loved his Raimi-esque approach to Oz, the Great and Powerful, and his restrained movies like A Simple Plan and The Gift (Blanchett, not Bateman) were equally effective.
So basically, if I had to reassure 1993 Franchise Fred about his classmates not getting Army of Darkness and worrying there’d never be another movie like it, I’d tell him to be patient (not my virtue back then). Just wait ‘til you see the Sam Raimi western when you’re working at the movie theater, and covering his Spider-Man movies as a professional journalist. Those’ll tide you over until Evil Dead returns.