Man, here we are on Sam Raimi’s fifth movie, and I feel like it’s his fourth major breakthrough. THE EVIL DEAD was the smashing debut that put him on the map, CRIMEWAVE didn’t do much for him but EVIL DEAD 2 was the cult masterpiece that moved him from the map to the pantheon, then DARKMAN was his first studio movie and first actual big moneymaker.
But during the couple years he spent trying to get DARKMAN going he’d also agreed to make an EVIL DEAD III with Dino De Laurentiis, this time with a bigger budget to accommodate the Medieval Dead concept he’d wanted for 2 but had to abandon because it was too expensive. Produced by De Laurentiis and released by Universal, ARMY OF DARKNESS not as expensive as DARKMAN, but is arguably larger in scope – it’s a period piece with a castle, lots of knights in armor, horses, catapults, an army of skeletons, plus various possessed ladies, a flying beastie, an Ash that grows a second head and then splits off into a monstrous Evil Ash, etc.
And from my perspective, ARMY OF DARKNESS seemed like the movie that turned the most new people on to Raimi and THE EVIL DEAD, and therefore set the tone people expected from him and especially Bruce Campbell from that point on.
Watching the three EVIL DEADs close together it’s very noticeable that Ash is a totally different character in each of them. First he’s a pretty normal college student who becomes the main character only because he’s more honorable than his friend and doesn’t want to abandon his girlfriend. In the second he’s a punching bag for supernatural forces until he takes charge and sort of transforms or self-actualizes (and self-surgeries, come to think of it) into an action hero. But in this one he’s more of a buffoon, a nerd in his regular life who turns into a cocky asshole when transported to the past with the advantage of an operable shotgun and chainsaw. He proves himself with violence, demands help getting back to his own time period, then, as he’s apt to, accidentally summons the god damn evil dead (or Deadites as they call theme here).
So the tone of the movie is very different – the horror concepts are treated seriously, but the Deadite warrior dialogue kind of sounds like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, some skeletal hands do a Three Stooges routine with Ash’s face, and at the end their leader’s skull pops open and blows like a train whistle. Maybe even without all that, Ash’s frequent funny reactions to everything (and the broader goofiness of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court premise) would make it more comedic than EVIL DEAD II. It’s a horror comedy adventure, complete with Ray-Harryhausen-tributing stop motion skeletons. This jokier version of Ash was carried over into the eventual TV series continuation, and I’ve always felt it was the reason many people were shocked that Fede Alvarez’s 2013 EVIL DEAD was (like the movie it was remaking) not really joking around.
For part II they couldn’t get the rights to footage from part 1 to recap its events at the beginning, so they decided to reshoot them. This time they did have the rights to footage from part II, so they used it, but they still redid some shots of Linda so she could be played by Bridget Fonda. According to Campbell’s memoir, “She had been a fan of the series and asked for a small role. What were we gonna say, ‘No’?” The Evil Dead Companion adds the additional context that she had auditioned to play Julie in DARKMAN and was so good she made Raimi cry, but he felt she was too much younger than Neeson to play his girlfriend.
That’s another thing you notice watching the three movies close together: Raimi does not give a fuck about continuity. So he has the three Lindas, and suddenly Ash is making constant references to his job at “S-Mart” that was never mentioned once before, and the ending of EVIL DEAD II is far from set in stone. Ash still falls through a portal to 1300 BC, is captured by soldiers, shoots a demon in front of them and is hailed as their chosen one, but not in the same way we saw it the first time. Now it’s stretched out from one incident to the whole first act of the movie. It amuses me because it was normal back then to fudge that sort of thing, but I think it would drive people crazy in an internet world.
Every time I watch ARMY OF DARKNESS, the part I’m excited for is that first stretch, when he’s thrown into a pit to battle captured witches, the wise man (Ian Abercrombie, JACK FROST 2, GARFIELD 2) throws him his chainsaw, he leaps up and catches it on his stump, does this badass ENTER THE DRAGON type pose…
…climbs out of the pit, terrifies everyone with his “boomstick” and berates them as “primitive screwheads.” He also frees fellow prisoner Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove, POINT BREAK, EXTREME JUSTICE, SCANNER COP, MONEY TRAIN) on what seems to be a whim, but turns out to be crucial to later saving the day.
After some time lounging on a throne, being fed grapes and giant hunks of meat by various women, being attacked by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990 star and veteran stuntwoman Patricia Tallman as “possessed witch” (or, as he calls her, “she-bitch”), and being a dick to Sheila (Embeth Davidtz, before SCHINDLER’S LIST), Ash is sent on a journey to get the Necronomicon so they can fight the evil and send him back. But first there’s an admittedly shameless callback to the chainsaw hand montage as he has them build him a robotic metal hand. It ends with him saying “Groovy” again.
I often forget that this is the section that’s most reminiscent of the other two films. He rides into the woods, a fog rolls in, faint moans can be heard, and the evil force cam chases after him (on a horse instead of in his Oldsmobile). When he takes shelter in a creaky windmill it takes on the role of the cabin in the woods where he’s terrorized for a while. Once again his reflection in the mirror becomes evil, but this time it breaks and the tiny reflections on each shard become tiny little Ashes with high-pitched voices. They knock him out, tie him up like Gulliver and one dives into his mouth, taking him over like Henrietta’s eyeball did Bobby Joe. An eye grows on his shoulder, then it becomes a second head that he fights with until it splits off as a separate self-proclaimed “Bad Ash.” Good Ash shoots him in the face, saws him into pieces to bury, and as the other Ash’s severed head taunts him from the pit, original Ash has my favorite line: “Hey, uh… what’s that you got on your face?” before he shovels dirt over him.
When Ash takes the Book of the Dead without saying an incantation properly it awakens “the army of the dead” made up of “every worm-infested sonofabitch that ever died in battle” and dooms the, uh… whatever the knight guys are called, because “the evil has a terrible hunger for the Necronomicon and it will come here to get it.” Bad Ash crawls out of his grave as a rotted ghoul in bone armor to lead the Army of Darkness against them.
Though this is all caused by his fuck up, Ash doesn’t want to be the chosen one, and insists on being sent back right away, to everyone’s great disgust. Only after Sheila is kidnapped by a winged demon does he feel enough shame to turn into an action hero again and lead them in battle. He uses a chemistry textbook from the trunk of the Oldsmobile to make explosives, inspires the men to step forward (“You can count on my steel!” says blacksmith Ted Raimi) and calls for help from Henry the Red and his men (the LORD OF THE RINGS movies have a few parts that remind me of ARMY OF DARKNESS).
So the last half hour is mostly fantasy movie style battle, and it’s fun to watch all the ways they depict this evil army, including 10 puppets, some stop motion shots (courtesy of “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow of THE TERMINATOR and Flying Burrito Brothers fame) and hundreds of extras in various levels of makeup depending on how close they needed to be to the camera. Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger, who had formed their company KNB since working together on EVIL DEAD II, did that makeup while Greg Nicotero was off working on THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (the Raimi-Craven rivalry continues). DARKMAN’s makeup genius Tony Gardner handled Evil Ash. And there are many other fun gimmicks throughout the movie, including Ash’s arms and face stretching as they’re sucked into a portal inside the book, tombstones blasting off like rockets, some fire stunts, and Evil Ash being burnt down to a skeleton with eyeballs, kinda like the poster for part II.
One way they accomplished so much with the budget was by having the company Introvision, who had done many effects on DARKMAN, actually be producers. They built sets and miniatures, but they specialize in a patented front projection technique. Bruce Campbell could fight with a skeleton by standing in front of a screen that the already-animated footage projected onto it, and they could see through the viewfinder how it looked instead of having to wait weeks for it to be composited.
In the below shot, for example, I believe it’s Bruce Campbell and two others standing in front of a movie screen onto which footage of the large Bruce Campbell is projected. The results of these shots can be a little cheesy looking sometimes, but I think they work as a Harryhausen tribute, and they’re kind of like a primitive version of how The Mandalorian is made now.
As had become sort of tradition in horror movies since the ‘80s, there’s a copy of Fangoria visible in Ash’s trunk. It’s an issue with FREDDY’S DEAD on the cover, but you can’t see that under a copy of Dark Horse Presents. The detail that most captured my horror nerd heart at the time was seeing Bill Moseley credited as “Deadite Captain.” It was of course well before HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES and his career renaissance, so I really only knew him as Chop Top from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 and had seen him in SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT III: BETTER WATCH OUT and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990. It turns out most of his stuff was cut from this. I think I hear him laugh right before Evil Ash says “Gimme some sugar, baby,” but I’ve never spotted him in the theatrical cut. He plays Evil Ash’s henchman with an eyepatch and horned helmet, seen not very clearly in this shot from the director’s cut:
Oh, also I’m pretty sure this is MANIAC COP director (and DARKMAN dockworker) William Lustig doing his S-Mart shopping in the background here:
Does it make sense to say this is Raimi’s most visually subdued movie up to this point? Maybe not. Raimi and returning DARKMAN d.p. Bill Pope certainly get some Raimi shit in there. We get an arrowcam, a spikecam, a fireballcam, a spearcam and a shotguncam. We get the trademark side views of flying objects. I gotta appreciate that. But it seems to me like most of the castle/skeleton/fantasy movie stuff (which is most of the movie) is shot more straight forward. Which is fine. The shift from horror to fantasy adventure, and the way this is mixed with Raimi and Campbell’s goofball humor, makes it a one-of-a-kind movie, and I always respect a sequel that goes this far to not be a rehash. But for me personally the “grueling horror” of the other two movies is a much more potent cinematic experience and definitely more my speed. So I’ve only watched this one a million times instead of two millions times like the others.
ARMY OF DARKNESS was originally intended for a summer of ’92 release, but got pushed back because of an unrelated dispute between Universal and De Laurentiis (they were fighting about the rights to Hannibal Lectre). When it finally did come out in February of ’93 it seemed like I’d been reading about it forever, and teenage me was very excited that this great director was following DARKMAN by returning to EVIL DEAD and paying off part II’s outrageous ending. I told everybody I was going to go see it after school on opening day, and it turned into a big group outing.
Then when we got there they started debating about which movie we were gonna see.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I came to see ARMY OF DARKNESS. I’m seeing ARMY OF DARKNESS.” But the friends all decided on something else (I wish I remembered what). So it ends up this one younger kid who knew my sister but who I didn’t really know was the only one who went with me, and he hadn’t seen the EVIL DEAD movies and didn’t know anything about it. But afterwards he said, “You were right!”
He wasn’t the only convert. Though it didn’t do much more than break even in theaters, on video ARMY OF DARKNESS introduced a much wider audience and new generations to THE EVIL DEAD and to Bruce Campbell. It’s hard to explain what a rock star figure he seemed like at the time, even though the movie obviously recognized it with its animated smoky lettering saying
before ARMY OF DARKNESS.
It’s like he was Godzilla or something. Because he was! The next year, when he starred in the quirky western TV series The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., it seemed like a huge breakthrough into the mainstream. It is a fact that I only started watching The X-Files because it was the other new show playing after the Bruce Campbell show. And I knew more than one person who went to see CONGO specifically because they saw him in the ad. (I didn’t go, specifically because I guessed he would die in the opening.)
In the days when Anchor Bay were the best company releasing horror and cult films on DVD, it became a joke how many special edition re-releases the EVIL DEAD movies in general and ARMY OF DARKNESS in particular received. (Here’s a comparison of numerous DVD and blu-ray releases.) This was possible in part because Universal had rejected Raimi’s initial version of the movie, making him shorten it and shoot a different ending that wasn’t as “negative.” For a while, the original ending was legendary. We heard about it, then we saw it in the comics adaptation, then we saw a shitty VHS bootleg, then we finally got an official DVD of it. Ash is prescribed 6 drops of a potion to sleep until the present, but accidentally counts the fifth drop twice, oversleeps and wakes up in a post-apocalyptic future. That’s the ending you get on the director’s cut, which, through various extensions throughout, runs 15 minutes longer than the 81 minute theatrical.
That was a cool ending, and I laugh when he wakes up, sees a bunch of junk and says, excitedly, “Manufactured products!” Had they ever made a sequel, that would’ve been a good one to follow up on, and it makes no sense that Universal made them change it. However, I’m glad they made that error, because I prefer the theatrical ending. Basically, they gave Raimi a bunch more money to shoot more stuff, and he went balls out. In the new ending Ash is working his shift at S-Mart, boring the shit out of his co-worker (Ted Raimi again) with his presumed-to-be-bullshit story about getting sent back to the past.
Suddenly the lights dim, a powerful wind blows through the store, and the trademark evil force cam zooms down the aisle to a customer who turns around, possessed. And it’s a big battle scene with this ghoul cackling, hand-springing, leaping, flipping, flying and punching. Ash punches through a glass case to get a Remington, and rides a rolling cart while pumping off shots (this time is it a tribute to HARD BOILED?). My favorite part is when he whacks the ghoul with his rifle and she gets knocked back but bounces off a conveniently displayed trampoline. As she flips above him he fires five more shots into him, and the movie ends with the famous line “Hail to the king, baby” as he dips his co-worker (Angela Featherstone, CON AIR, THE WEDDING SINGER) for a passionate kiss like he’s Fabio on the cover of a romance novel. It’s such a tour-de-force couple minutes of energetic, over-the-top filmmaking that the movie feels incomplete without it.
(Also, the transported-to-the-future ending is kind of a remix of II’s transported-to-the-past ending, and can’t really feel as out-there the second time around.)
The three-issue comic book from Dark Horse Comics, adapted and fully painted by John Bolton, included not only the original ending, but the skeleton horses that Raimi wanted but couldn’t get to work, and the unfinished “Temple Ruins” scene. Cinefantastique‘s massive ARMY OF DARKNESS issue (knowing their audience, they called it “EVIL DEAD III” on the cover) mentions miniatures being shot for the scene, but also that it had not been finished during principle photography. At least in the comics version – which was definitely made when some of the film had been shot, judging by the accuracy of many of the panels – it was a much more elaborate version of the scene where Ash agrees to quest for the Necronomicon after being attacked by the “Possessed Witch.” In this version he’s waiting for the elders to discuss the situation in these temple ruins, and the witch knocks over a giant pillar, creating a domino effect. One of the columns falls and crushes the witch’s legs, but she still keeps coming. Ash cuts her head off and punts it like a football, but he can still hear it laughing at him in the distance when he says, “I’ll get your damn book.”
If this had been the end of Raimi’s acension, it still would’ve been an impressive run. Within a decade he’d made the hit super hero revenge movie, the disowned but worth seeing comedy and the horror trilogy where each installment is a beloved cult classic in its own right, culminating in this great achievement of getting Universal Studios to release a weird skeleton movie starring his high school buddy Bruce in multiple roles. He’d made movies starring Liam Neeson and Embeth Davidtz before SCHINDLER’S LIST and Frances McDormand before FARGO. But next he would take things even farther in a movie that would star the two biggest names he’d ever worked with, plus two more who were about to blow up even bigger than that, and he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his style or personality to do it.