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Released in theaters on February 19, 1993, the third film of the beloved Evil Dead series marked a major departure from the previous entries. Plucky anti-hero Ash Williams finally got to leave the cabin, and thanks to the success of Sam Raimi’s Darkman, Army of Darkness received nearly three times the budget of Evil Dead II. Which meant insane makeup and special effects by Tony Gardner, Robert Kurzman, and Greg Nicotero, expansive set pieces spanning centuries, and Bruce Campbell doing a lion’s share of work on screen as both Ash Williams and the film’s big bad, Evil Ash. Yet despite the fanbase behind Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, not many showed up to see it in theaters, and Army of Darkness was considered a bomb. As is often the case, Army of Darkness built up an army of fervent followers in the years that followed, becoming the Star Wars of home releases for horror.
Inspired by the likes of Jason and the Argonauts, The Three Stooges, Conan the Barbarian, and the work of Ray Harryhausen, Sam Raimi, and his brother Ivan worked on the script before, during, and after production on Darkman, deciding early on to set it in the 1300s. The original title of the film was even intended to be The Medieval Dead. Raimi storyboarded every single frame of the ambitious project that took 100 days to shoot during the summer heat on location in Bronson Canyon and Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park near Los Angeles. The rough shoot, the complex fight choreography, and the heavy prosthetics that Embeth Davidtz had to wear once her character, Sheila, had been brought over to the dark side was so rough on her that she nearly quit acting. But it paled in comparison to what Campbell had to endure, not only as leading man Ash, but as various incarnations of Evil Ash, from miniature to undead. Campbell may have been used to the physicality of these films, but the scope of Raimi’s vision brought it to a whole new level of torture.
While Evil Dead II already started the transition of his series into comedy, the bigger budget and comedic influences translated to full-blown horror slapstick. Classic adventure films may have played prominent roles in the screenwriting process, but Raimi infused a lot of sci-fi references as well. The very words that Ash was supposed to recite to safely retrieve the Necronomicon, “Klaatu verata nikto,” was a play on the phrase from The Day the Earth Stood Still used to prevent Gort from destroying the world.
Despite the big budget aesthetic of Army of Darkness, it still possesses that underlying beating heart of blood, sweat, and tears that began the franchise. Campbell’s Ash may be the face of the series, but Army of Darkness also marked the return of two more franchise/Raimi staples: The Oldsmobile Delta 88 and Ted Raimi juggling multiple roles. If there’s one thing more trustworthy than that of Ash’s boomstick or chainsaw hand, it’s the Delta 88, his trusty steed and bearer of precious weapons and cargo like issues of Fangoria magazine. Ted Raimi has appeared numerous times in the Evil Dead series, sporting multiple minor roles at a time (Henrietta for the win), and he plays about 4 different characters in Army of Darkness. Another trademark is that the recurring appearance of Ash’s girlfriend, Linda, is once again played by an entirely different actress. This time it was Bridget Fonda, an actress that was so fond of Evil Dead II that she asked for a role in Army of Darkness.
Memorable lines and amazing special effects aside, Army of Darkness is an ambitious film with so many ideas crammed in. The original ending saw Ash botch his journey home, waking up in the apocalyptic future, signaling that Raimi’s far-reaching ideas for Ash’s future were limitless. It was an ending that the studio didn’t like, ordering the much more uplifting ending in the theatrical cut. There are about four different variations of Army of Darkness now, and it’s a rare instance with the theatrical cut is the best – Raimi’s version is long and overstuffed, making the streamlined theatrical a much more fun viewing experience. But the multiple versions also inspired Raimi on where he could take the series next, wanting to offer up two different Ash timelines in sequel form based on both theatrical and director’s cut endings; one that would follow Ash in the future and one that followed where he left off in the theatrical cut.
Clearly, the less than stellar performance at the box office meant those ideas never panned out, and that’s probably for the best considering the passage of time that followed meant a Raimi/Campbell produced remake in 2013 and a TV series after nearly two decades of fans begging for more. Army of Darkness is that quirky film that sits at the opposite spectrum of Evil Dead, making for one of the most unique horror franchises. It’s quotable, ambitious, fun, and not at all like the serious horror of its roots. It still holds up well 25 years later, and the rewatchable factor means that I’m ok with the various home releases (though I think I’d like one with a newer commentary, please). Most importantly, it serves as a sort of history lesson in what can happen when you don’t support what you love. When Army of Darkness finally did earn its rightful audience on home video, it took nearly 25 years to get more, something we won’t get a second chance with if we fail to support Ash vs Evil Dead.
There’s a line at the end of the film where Ash explains, “Sure, I could have stayed in the past. I could have even been king. But in my own way, I am king.” It’s a prescient line of dialogue that still rings true today. Hail to the king, baby.