Hail To The King, Baby | Army Of Darkness After 25 Years

I first saw Army of Darkness as a teenager on a VHS rented from Xtravision, and I’m not exaggerating to say that I thought it was the greatest movie ever. I was a traditionally geeky fantasy-obsessed kid, and the combination of cool witty protagonist and animated skeletons blew my tiny mind. Twenty-five years later, it’s harder to ignore the paper-thin characterisation, the occasional thoughtless misogyny and the movie’s complete disregard for the basic laws of reality. And yet, it’s still all such wide-eyed childish fun that it’s hard not to smile along.

Evil Dead II - headstuff.org
“Dead by dawn! Dead by dawn!”

The first Evil Dead movie put director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and star Bruce Campbell on the map. But it was far from an overnight success. The original Evil Dead [1] was released in 1981 with a one-cinema premiere. Everyone who saw it loved it, but its low budget and schlocky nature made it difficult to get it picked up. One of those who saw it and loved it was legendary film distributor Irvin Shapiro, and he got it a non-competition slot at the Cannes Film Festival. That might have been the end of it, except that among the audience that night was one Mr Stephen King. He loved the film, and later that year ranked it number five in his favourite horror films of all time for USA Today. That gave enough interest to get it a big release in the UK, where it was perfectly timed to ride the “video nasties” wave to both fame and infamy. The rest is history.

Raimi and Tapert followed up Evil Dead with Crimewave, a collaboration with the Coen Brothers that justifiably sank without a trace. They faced career oblivion, but once again Stephen King came to the rescue. He heard that they were talking about a sequel to Evil Dead, and persuaded Dino de Laurentiis to fund it. Part sequel and part remake of the original, Evil Dead II shifted the tone from horror with touches of comedy into a full-blown horror comedy in the hopes of greater mainstream success. The gamble paid off, and though the film lacked the cult status of the first film, it was a hit. Raimi and Tapert parlayed the success into funding for Darkman, a comics-inspired original superhero film that was originally envisioned as a Shadow movie before they failed to get the rights. The film (with Liam Neeson in his first starring role) was a critical and financial success. Following this Raimi was able to get studio backing to make one more film in his Evil Dead trilogy, and one that paid off the hook ending of Evil Dead II in spades.

Army of Darkness - headstuff.org
“This…is my boomstick!”

The second film had ended with Ash Williams sucked through a time portal to the year 1300, and though Army of Darkness doesn’t quite follow that ending exactly it does follow that premise to its logical conclusion. In fact this practice of following a joke to its logical and plot-affecting conclusion is largely what drives the entire thrust of the movie. Something has to – the characters (Ash included) are largely one-note caricatures. The exception, as in the rest of the series, is the Deadites – the titular “Evil Dead”. They ooze a charisma and glee throughout that elevates the film and helps to make it truly memorable. Whether it’s a screeching monster in a pit, an army of malevolent skeletons or an evil duplicate of Ash himself; the monsters never skip a chance to torment, usually in a slapstick fashion. Of course it’s Bruce Campbell himself who truly sells that slapstick over-the-top humour, while also delivering the most cheesy and ridiculously funny lines in a masterfully straight-faced (and tough-jawed) fashion.

The film has been described as “a live-action cartoon”, and it’s true that the pendulum swings even further over to comedy this time round. This works in the film’s favour, as it allows the lack of both historical accuracy and sensible plot to be quickly skated over and ignored. The setting is sketched out simply through medieval costumes and through giving the two sides in an apparent civil war English and Scottish accents respectively. At one stage Ash magically gets his shotgun back from nowhere, while when he finds the Necronomicon, which the locals have been desperately searching for, it’s literally sitting out in the middle of a graveyard. Yet the film is deeply consistent in its own internal logic – of course it makes sense that the evil duplicate Ash killed early in the film comes back to life to be the Big Bad for the final act. The final comeuppance of his nemesis makes literally no sense, but you accept it. And in retrospect while the original ending (”I slept too long!”) is more memorable; it’s the ending it was released with (”Hail to the King, baby!”) that better suits the arc of the film in my opinion.

Army of Darkness - headstuff.org
“I’m bad Ash… and you’re good Ash! You’re a goody little two-shoes!”

My delight in it aside, Army of Darkness was released to moderate success and a somewhat lukewarm critical success. However it turned out to be an extremely good time to release an eminently quotable film that appealed to a geek audience. The early internet loved Army of Darkness, and it helped to gain Raimi a solid and loyal fanbase. This allowed him to branch out through the 90s into Westerns (with the classic The Quick and the Dead), crime films, romantic dramas and more. His biggest commercial success came in 2002 with Spider-Man, a film which (along with X-Men, released two years earlier) helped to rehabilitate the superhero film and lay the groundwork for its modern dominance. [2]

So is Army of Darkness the greatest movie ever made? Probably not. The charm and enthusiasm does help to carry the movie past its many flaws, but those flaws are still there. It’s not a great movie. But it’s still a lot of fun, and a joy to watch even through adult eyes. It’s worth seeking it out, if you haven’t seen it. And if you have, it’s worth watching it again. Hail to the king, baby.

Images from Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness.

[1] “Original” is a bit of a misnomer, as it was actually a remake of a student film called Within The Woods that the trio had made three years earlier.

[2] Ironically it was probably the poor reception of Spider-Man 3 that took the bloom off Raimi for many fans.


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