Army of Darkness was the first film in the Evil Dead trilogy that I saw, by a margin of several years. For this exact reason, there's always going to be a slightly abashed little part of me that calls this one my favorite of the three, though when I don my critical thinking cap and really weigh it against the great horror film The Evil Dead and the peerless horror-comedy Evil Dead II, I have to admit that it's really just not as good as they are, and not because the category of "horror" can't really be applied to Army of Darkness in any useful way, except that movies in which a rotting zombie leads an army of skeletons sort of "has to" be filed at least provisionally within that genre, even when the skeletons are mostly content to re-enact '30s comedy routines.
The problem - and please, let's go right on and put "problem" in quotes, because no matter which film is the least of the trilogy, all three are pretty great - is maybe that Army of Darkness isn't quite as bold as its older siblings. The Evil Dead was a movie with something to prove: the work of an immensely clever raw talent who wanted to show off to the world in the biggest way he was able. Evil Dead II has the obvious hallmarks of a "holy shit, can you believe what they're letting me do?" movie, made by a director who didn't realise how great relative creative freedom married to something resembling an actual budget could be. Army of Darkness has personality and talent to spare, but it simply doesn't feel like it's being expelled from Raimi's very self the way the others do; and its relatively flush studio budget (relatively - we're miles and miles away from Spider-Man territory, yet) steals a little bit of the messy, winningly humble DIY sensibility that informed the others.
Regardless, it's still a pretty fantastic, massively idiosyncratic movie that has the goods where it counts: as a loopy work of imagination that never fails to be entertaining because it never gives you a chance to figure out where you are: there are massive narrative jumps and even (though in a muted way) shifts in tone that leave the film more like a combination of three or four mini-movies than one single plot, and it's awfully difficult to get used to the rules and mode of one segment before we're pitched right into the next. It's filmmaking in the best tradition of P.T. Barnum and other great showman-hucksters: you may not be enlightened or bettered as a human, but by God you will not be bored for even a second.
Following on the bizarre sequel hook at the end of Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness opens with a recap of the first two movies (this time the ever-changing Linda is played by Bridget Fonda, in a blatant sign of just how much tonier this movie is), showing how the luckless Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is warped through a vortex in time created by the evil Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, ending up somewhere in the early 14th Century, in what we'll assume is England for want of something better. Here, his chainsaw hand and shotgun mark him out as a great hero to the locals, though the very irritable Ash only wants to figure out a way to get back where he belongs; the learnéd sage (Ian Abercrombie) at the local royal court suggests that he needs that very same Necronomicon, which at this point resides in a nearby graveyard, and since the king's soldiers need the book to shore up their own defenses, it's a win-win situation: Ash retrieves the book, gives it to the wise man, gets sent home, everybody has what they want.
Of course Ash, being a bit of a preening doofus asshole, manages to screw up the wise man's fairly simple instructions, and instead of safely retrieving the book, he in fact manages to unleash an army of dead soldiers, let by the zombie of his own evil twin, created while Ash was mixed up in a strange affair with a magic mirror in a haunted windmill. And this army is going to surely defeat the good humans, if Ash isn't able to use 20th Century science to help save the day. It is, pretty unambiguously, an uncredited adaptation by Sam Raimi and his older brother Ivan of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and the original ending makes that even clearer.
Let's hit the pause button here, and consider an issue that materially affects how one is to discuss the film. Army of Darkness exists in four distinct versions: the 96-minute director's cut that premiered in 1992 and was later shelved until the DVD era, the 81-minute 1993 U.S. theatrical cut, the 88-minute 1993 international cut, and the 1997 television cut that we don't need to consider at all. I have not seen the international cut, though my understanding is that it's materially the director's cut with the ending from the U.S. theatrical cut; so allow me to limit my discussion to just the first two. The director's cut, on the whole, is a much better movie: consisting in large part of slightly longer scenes of violence (often by just a second or two), it has a slight reordering of shots compared to the theatrical cut, and largely re-works a couple of important moments. For the most part, it flows much better, giving scenes room to breath, and the first of the two rejiggered scenes, Ash's experience in the windmill, is infinitely better in this cut than the frankly obtuse version that showed up in American theaters. On the other hand, the second majorly altered sequence, the epic battle between the army of darkness and the human knights holding their castle, is perhaps a bit better in the theatrical cut; some shots go on a bit, and while the story of the battle is clearer in the longer cut, the mood is better in the shorter. Also, the theatrical cut includes a line of dialogue that is incontestably superior to its director's cut equivalent: having been taunted by his evil twin, calling him a "little goody two-shoes", Ash calmly blows the monster's head off with his shotgun and snarks- well, that's the rub. In Raimi's preferred version, Ash says, "Not that good". In the later version, he says "Good, bad, I'm the guy with the gun." Which is better by pretty much every rubric I can identify.
The big difference, though, is the ending, and when one says, "I prefer the X cut", they're not referring to the niceties of how in the windmill sequence, there are long shots devoted to the Mini Ashes that make it clearly what the geography of the scene is. The Raimi-endorsed ending, hewing to Connecticut Yankee, has Ash taking too much of a sleeping potion that ends up sending him 100 years too far into the future, to find a post-apocalyptic London at his feet. The ending that he whipped together for the U.S. release that Universal finally approved of - because it was happier - finds Ash successfully returning in time using the Necronomicon, but accidentally bringing a zombie with him that he has to fight in the S-Mart where he works.
Let's not belabor the point: I like the theatrical ending better, all due respect to Raimi and Campbell, and happily admitting that the post-apocalyptic ending is conceptually tighter and much better suited to future entries in the franchise (an unlikely development two decades on, but Raimi seems hellbent on making it happen). It's just not as funny, nor as fun, nor as brazen. After all, "another damn thing happens to Ash" is pretty much par for the series course at this point; the outright, over-the-top absurdity of the S-Mart sequence is much bolder than just more of the same, and more interesting besides: cabins in the woods and old castles are fine movie locations, but dropping a zombie in a run-of-the-mill American store is just, I hate to use the word, but cooler. It hits us where we live, and satirises our daily life, and is just a more engrossing thing. Also, I wouldn't give up the line "Name's Ash. [pumps shotgun] Housewares." for anything in the world.
Alright, then let's unpause. Army of Darkness, in any and all versions, is primarily a slapstick comedy in which horror film characters enact ancient rituals of eye pokes and ear pulls and falling onto hot stoves face first. The idea behind the movie seems to have been, at least in part, just to find out whatever the hell would happen if you did musty Three Stooges bits with skeletons; the answers is that it's fucking hilarious, in a way that the Stooges can never be, because of how utterly deranged and absurd it is. For all that the film seems like a sever break from the Evil Deads, with its much different narrative scheme, and transplanted setting, it represents in this regard the end point of a smooth evolution: each film in the trilogy has a harder time taking the material of the series mythos seriously, and where Evil Dead II tends to gentle mock itself and The Evil Dead through exaggeration and sarcasm, Army of Darkness jumps into outright ridicule, nowhere better embodied than in Ash himself. For the Ash of this film feels a little different than before, meaner and more cutting, given to insulting people for no reason other than because he's pissy and they got in front of him. The nightmare beasts that were so threatening in The Evil Dead have been turned into cartoon characters, and the one man whois most justified in being utterly terrified of them obviously doesn't care.
It would be wildly easy for this to turn into something sour and cynical, to the point where it would be almost unbearable to watch. The only reason it doesn't is because of how much joy is going into the project: Army of Darkness is a movie's movie, cheerfully referencing the great Jason and the Argonauts, and lingering over its vibrantly cheesy special effects with real, obvious love for the sets and monsters it evokes. I is a celebration of artifice and spooky atmospherics, refusing to take its content seriously mostly because it's so pleased to have fun, and if that leaves it the shallowest of the Evil Dead trilogy, it is nonetheless maybe the most wholly charming.
Reviews in this series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)