Over the course of two days in Ash Williams’ life, he manages to age 10 years, put on 10 pounds of muscle, kill his girlfriend (played by three different actresses!) at least three times, turn a 20-gauge single-shot New England Pardner into a double-barreled 12-gauge Remington that only needs to be incidentally reloaded, learn enough about engineering to build a robot hand out of 14th century materials, and change from a doofy wuss into a one-line spewing badass. In spite of this retroactive continuity and the unnecessary need to summarize each subsequent film at the outset, The Evil Dead trilogy is unassailable precisely because Army of Darkness kicks ass.
Ash’s latest adventure opens with him exiting the portal opened in Evil Dead II to find himself in the non-restaurant medieval times, and naturally he’s got to continue the longest 72-hour period in his life with no sleep and find a way to banish the demons of the Necronomicon, now called Deadites, with the help of a chainsaw hand and a fistful of boomstick.
While The Evil Dead was straightforward horror film made campy by the lack of intentional laughs, the follow-up took the ridiculousness of the enemy to the next level by undercutting the inherent terror with slapstick, but some moments still engage a straight face. By Army of Darkness, horror has stopped being a consideration, mostly because Bruce Campbell’s legendary Ash is no longer afraid of the Necronomicon’s progeny, unless it’s the right moment for a laugh.
By all rights, Army of Darkness is an action film with more than the occasional one-liner to cut the tension, because almost all the jokes come from Ash being a macho smartass, but there’s really no action film like this one. By merging A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Jason and the Argonauts, and Exaclibur, writer/director Sam Raimi creates the best castle siege sequence in film history up until Lord of the Rings and Kingdom of Heaven, and probably the only one that offers just as much action as it does comedy.
It’s easy to forget that, to many, Army of Darkness is a presupposition; at some point in our youth we simply absorb the film. While Raimi might not be considered a filmmaker of the first order, it’s not particularly easy for any writer/director to transit so freely between genres, and he’s made a definitive horror film, followed by a horror/comedy, followed by an action/comedy.
If this was difficult for Raimi to do, you’d never know it; every minor detail in Army of Darkness, from facial expressions, to gun shots, to stunt staging, to cross cutting, to pacing, to lighting, to sound design, is perfect. Is there any better example of a film that can simultaneously make you laugh and fill you with trigger-happy adrenaline this continuously?
With Army of Darkness, Raimi completed his trilogy, and with this film clocking in at a tidy 81 minutes, you can polish off all three in the time it takes for you to watch The Return of the King. I’ve said without reservation that Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises forms the only perfect trilogy in cinema history. You can’t just make three great films, they must be bound together thematically in a manner that opens and closes an arc and the three-piece can’t be sullied by additional entries after the fact.
The Godfather, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings all dip in quality in their third installments, but The Evil Dead series gets a second wind, and while it is by no means a perfect trilogy due largely to the paroxysmal retconning, it can be said without reservation that Army of Darkness makes this trilogy the most fun in cinema history.
Few films have as storied a history of releases to format as Army of Darkness, each edition boasting different special features and different cuts of the film; unfortunately, the ‘director’s cut’ is full of only half-remastered outtakes that fail to fully integrate with the finished footage, so consider the theatrical cut a head above the rest. It seems more likely than ever that a definitive version including both films won’t exist on blu-ray, so if you’re a true aficionado, consider the Boomstick Edition on DVD; it houses both cuts and the most comprehensive collection of special features, like the hilarious and scantly heard Bruce Campbell commentary on the director’s cut.