I have a new Halloween tradition, and that tradition’s name is ARMY OF DARKNESS. It has been a long time since I enjoyed a movie as much as I enjoyed Army of Darkness, which is the third film in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.
The film picks up right where its predecessor EVIL DEAD II left off, with hero Ash Williams, played by Bruce Campbell, stranded in the middle ages after being sucked through a time portal.
In case you’re not familiar with the franchise, in the very first Evil Dead film, released in 1981, a group of friends goes to a cabin in the woods for a getaway. There they find the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the Book of the Dead. They play a recording of a researcher reading sections of the book, which unleashes unspeakable horrors.
The first Evil Dead movie is notoriously gruesome, it was originally given an X rating solely for violence and gore, which almost never happens. The X rating is now known as NC-17, and most NC-17 ratings are given to films with graphic sexual content, being rated NC-17 for violence alone is rare. And the movie earns the rating. It is incredibly gory, even by today’s standards. Director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert didn’t care about censorship when they were making the movie, and therefore made it as gruesome as possible, and it shows.
The 1987 sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, takes a more slapstick approach to the story. It is not clear if the sequel is a remake of the original or just a straight sequel, since it summarizes the events of the previous movie but excludes some of the characters. This is because when he got around to making the sequel, Raimi did not have the rights to the original film, since the sequel was produced by a different company, so Raimi was forced to summarize.
Evil Dead II is an excellent sequel, delivering just the right mix of horror and comedy. Those are two genres that are difficult to mesh, but Raimi makes it look easy. At the end of the second movie, hero Ash manages to send the evil force back to where it came from, but in the process gets sucked through a portal and deposited in the Middle Ages, which leads to Army of Darkness.
Released in 1992, Army of Darkness is an absolutely glorious movie. I watched it a few days ago from start to finish for the very first time and adored every single moment of it. It’s the least gory and the least frightening of Raimi’s Evil Dead films, and as such may be looked down upon by hardcore horror fans. And to be honest, the film isn’t particularly scary, but it is a hell of a lot of fun and is much more accessible to casual viewers who don’t necessarily want to drown in a sea of gore.
Let me just say right now that I love Bruce Campbell. The guy is an incredibly gifted physical actor, and he’s an extremely likable protagonist. Before becoming an Evil Dead fan, I mostly knew Campbell for his role on the TV show Burn Notice and his cameos in all three of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, but The Evil Dead is where Campbell got his start. He seems like a really great guy in every interview I’ve seen with him, and I consider myself a big Bruce Campbell fan.
The guy will probably never win any Academy Awards, but when he’s as entertaining and endlessly watchable as he is in movies like Army of Darkness, who the hell cares? He has several iconic lines in these movies (“This… is my BOOMSTICK!!”) that he delivers with aplomb (“Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun.”). I just freaking love him, seriously, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the shotgun-wielding, chainsaw-handed Ash in these movies.
Army of Darkness is as campy as it is enjoyable. Ash is promptly imprisoned by the men of Lord Arthur, who suspect him of being an associate of Duke Henry. Lord Arthur and Duke Henry are at war, and no one likes Ash when they arrive at Lord Arthur’s stronghold. Ash convinces them otherwise by destroying a deadite, one of the series’ signature baddies, and afterwards goes on a quest to find the Necronomicon, defeat the evil, and find a way back to his own time.
But Ash being Ash, he completely bungles it and ends up unleashing an Army of the Dead, led by his own evil clone. Whoops!
The special effects in this movie are absolutely fantastic. I can’t say for sure but I highly doubt that there is any CGI in the movie, which means that most if not all of the effects were done practically. The army of skeleton warriors looks great, and some of them have different clothes, weapons and voices, which gives them a lot of personality. I also love the squeaky skeleton voices, some of which were done by Sam Raimi himself.
The effects were done by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, who are movie veterans perhaps best known these days for creating the zombies on The Walking Dead, and they did incredible work creating the skeleton warriors in Amy of Darkness.
Army of Darkness isn’t particularly scary, it’s too campy and full of slapstick to be very frightening. But it is tremendously entertaining and a perfect Halloween movie. The special effects are kick-ass, the story is fun, and Bruce Campbell is perfect in the lead role.
Evil Dead fans are probably feeling pretty spoiled these days, since in 2013 there was a successful remake of the original Evil Dead that took the franchise back to its gore-soaked roots. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the remake and, well, let’s just say the words “bits and pieces” were chosen intentionally. There are scenes of violence in the remake that are so stomach-churning I won’t even describe them here, but if you’re a glutton for punishment a lot of the gory highlights are included in the film’s red-band trailer. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Mind you, I’m not saying the remake is bad necessarily, in terms of modern remakes of classic horror movies, most of which are a dime a dozen, the 2013 Evil Dead remake is viewed as being one of the better ones. All I’m saying is that the squeamish need not apply.
And in 2015, Starz debuted Ash Vs. Evil Dead, a TV series continuing the exploits of Ash, everyone’s favorite goofball monster hunter. I watched the first season and enjoyed it immensely. Bruce Campbell is as great as Ash as he ever was and the show finds that crucial balance between slapstick humor and brutal horror, and even manages to tell a story that keeps you guessing and delivers surprisingly solid character development. If you’re a fan of the Evil Dead franchise but haven’t watched the show yet, check it out ASAP.
So that’s my little overview of the Evil Dead series, with special emphasis on Army of Darkness. I’m a relatively new fan of the franchise, and it’s not for everyone, but if you can stomach it the series knows just how to deliver the gory goods.