From persistent conflicts with Universal to a hellish post-production that involved reshoots, multiple cuts, and an entirely different ending, Army of Darkness shouldn’t nearly be as watchable, nor as beloved, as it is. Behind the scenes, it had all the ingredients of an unmitigated disaster that could’ve sullied Sam Raimi’s career before he would’ve gone on to given us some of the most enjoyable and realized comic book adaptations of their era.
I mean, at one point the film was going to be called “The Medieval Dead,” or simply “Evil Dead III,” but Universal insisted the title be changed to something more marketable and appealing for general horror movie fans. The result was “Army of Darkness;” and it still gravely underwhelmed at the box office.
After making a raw, grungy horror film with the first installment, and a gonzo, whacky shock-fest with the sequel, the only real direction Raimi could take a third movie was a goofy, campy comedy. The end result is as if Mel Brooks and The Three Stooges developed bloodlust and decided to darken their comedy against a backdrop of a swords and sandals period piece. The results, as one might expect, are decisively mixed, providing you didn’t grow up with the film and cut your teeth on its brazen assault of convention.
At the end of Evil Dead II, Ash (Bruce Cambpell) was transported to the Middle Ages against his will. The film opens with him working as a housewares salesman at an S-Mart department store before regurgitating that story to a customer. Upon his arrival, Ash was enslaved by Lord Arthur’s (Marcus Gilbert) men, but once he snaps his trusty chainsaw into his hand-socket and defeats some ghouls in a spike-laden windmill, his respect is earned. After fighting every grotesque demon in the world, he now must take on an army of skeletons while searching for the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in order to return to his rightful place in time. Wooing one of the local women (Embeth Davidtz) wouldn’t be a bad course of action to take either.
If Evil Dead II wasn’t already influenced by early comedy, Army of Darkness shows inspiration, like the Book of the Dead, never dies. It’s not wall-to-wall gags, but it’s predicated on amalgamating the absurd with slapstick sensibilities, at times recalling Three Stooges tomfoolery in its pursuit for cartoonish violence.
The look of Army of Darkness is beautiful. Bill Pope’s visuals make the landscapes of the Middle Ages pop with their vibrant sunniness, underscoring a significantly different visual look to this installment. Joseph LoDuca returns as composer, but gives this swords and sorcery take on the material something more fit for a late-80s epic, with heavy synthesizers. It all converges to give credence to a pulpy atmosphere.
Army of Darkness has more of a studio-controlled essence about it, however. The film totters the line between parody and action-adventure, and ultimately peaks relatively early, during the windmill sequence in which Ash must escape from a trench that is flooding with water with two walls of spikes quickly closing in on him. That is the film’s most developed setpiece, and before long — more like “before short,” as the film is a pithy 75 minutes without credits — the final 20-25 minutes are a monotonous skeleton battle. If there’s one thing all three of Raimi’s films excel at, it’s knowing when to get out. You could devour all three of these films first thing in the morning and be done in time to grab lunch — the way it should be, with material this thin.
NOTE: As of this writing, Army of Darkness is available to rent on multiple platforms.
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ian Abercrombie, Bridget Fonda, and Richard Grove. Directed by: Sam Raimi.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!