Archive for February 19, 1993

Army of Darkness

February 19, 1993

If you ever want to get a funny debate going among movie-loving friends, ask them what they think of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987). Some will immediately laugh and gush, “Great movie.” Others will say, “Stupidest movie ever made.” Still others will say both in the same breath. The debate, I suspect, will begin anew with Raimi’s Army of Darkness (which Universal refused to release under its proper title, Evil Dead 3: Medieval Dead). This, too, is the sort of film that inspires a response like “Jesus, that was dumb, and I loved every minute of it.” Army of Darkness is stupid in the fearless, half-admirable way that the best Ren & Stimpy episodes are stupid; it keeps topping itself just when you think it can’t. Actually, “stupid” isn’t the right word here — a better label might be “campy,” and very intentionally so; Raimi’s Evil Dead films are essentially gutbucket comedies, and this one’s no exception. This extended guitar riff of a movie blows the doors off any fantasy-adventure I’ve seen in years.

Raimi, known mostly to readers of Fangoria for directing the first two Evil Deads before stumbling onto mainstream success with Darkman, hasn’t outgrown his devotion to monster movies, superheroes, and the Three Stooges — the three pop phenomena that guys gravitate to but most women find inane. (Army of Darkness is not the ideal date movie.) Raimi is a playfully inventive director — his movies are big, junky toy boxes — and his affection for senseless, sophomoric trash is infectious. He turns violence and gore into slapstick, yet he isn’t cruel; his affection extends to his characters, even the slobbering zombies. Especially the slobbering zombies.

Army of Darkness picks up at the exact instant that Evil Dead 2 left off, but if you missed the first two installments (though obviously I recommend them), the new movie stands pretty well on its own. Raimi re-introduces us to Ash (Bruce Campbell), the college student who found the ancient Book of the Dead out in a cabin in the woods and unleashed the forces of hell, one of which possessed his girlfriend. (Amusing trivia: Bridget Fonda plays the girlfriend in the new footage.) After much mayhem and blood-spritzing, Ash somehow created a vortex that spirited him to Medieval England, along with his crappy ’73 Delta-88 Oldsmobile. Armed with a shotgun and a chainsaw (the latter of which is attached to the stump of his right hand), Ash now finds himself fighting the “Deadites” and questing for the Book of the Dead, his only ticket home.

Raimi, who wrote the script with his brother Ivan, approaches this scenario as if someone had given him a deep pail of Magic Markers and told him to draw the ultimate comic book. The setting is Frank Frazetta by way of Monty Python, the action strictly Three Stooges Meet Jason and the Argonauts (lots of eye-boinking). Like Brian De Palma, Raimi borrows from a lot of sources but mooshes the stolen elements into an inspired style all his own. As usual, he shows you things you don’t see every day: a shot of an arrow in flight, filmed from the arrow’s point of view (Raimi loves that shtick — he’s done the POV-of-flying-object in almost all his movies); a sequence in which Ash’s face is pulled like Silly Putty. Raimi doesn’t have a thing on his mind except to give you a raucous good time, and he does. In a period when you can almost see the director’s dour face hovering over the camera, worrying about being taken seriously, it’s a goddamn relief to have someone like Raimi who cackles gleefully from the first shot.

It’s been six years since Evil Dead 2, and even longer (13 years) since Raimi and Campbell finished shooting the original Evil Dead, so Campbell has lost his frat-boy look (his Ash still acts like one, though). But age has given him an edge: After the crap he went through in Evil Dead 2, nothing shocks or impresses him any more. When a crowd of grateful people hail him, he muscles through them: “Yeah, yeah … Right … Get the fuck outta my face.” Wiry and demented, Ash slams his way through the most chaotic and absurd situations (such as when he breaks a mirror and his own tiny reflections emerge from the shards of glass and attack him) as if he were dealing with nothing more unusual than a loud kegger. Campbell, a gifted physical comedian with a deadpan knack for cheesy B-movie dialogue, fits into Raimi’s fantasies as snugly as Robert De Niro fits into Martin Scorsese’s urban dramas. Buddies since high school, these two deserve each other, and deserve to grow old together on film.

Darkman was Raimi’s crossover hit because it satisfied the audience’s need for a comic-book movie with style and a kidding sense of itself; unlike Batman and Dick Tracy, it came out of nowhere, with no particular pretensions. If Army of Darkness becomes another hit¹, that’s because it has everything connoisseurs of great junk look for: zombies in armor, swordplay, gunplay, slapstick, a damsel in distress, a truly loopy hero, jaw-dropping visuals (literally, in one case), and enough slaphappiness for ten movies. Army of Darkness is epic fun. If all Sam Raimi wants to do is make cinematic comic books, I won’t mind as long as they’re as energetic and screwy as this one.

¹ The movie, of course, was not a hit. After gathering dust on the shelf since 1991, it was released in a February 1993 death slot, considerably cut (from 96 minutes to 81) and with a watered-down, studio-mandated ending. Most critics dismissed it, and it went away fast. For years, fans had to settle for bootlegs of the Japanese laserdisc to see the film as Raimi intended it. Nowadays, though, both versions are readily available on DVD. It’s generally agreed that Raimi’s original (much darker) ending is by far the better of the two.

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