Army of Darkness: The Weirdness of Sam Raimi’s Medieval Dead

Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness concluded the Evil Dead trilogy on a very different note.

With Army of Darkness, the concluding (at the time!) installment in what became known as the Evil Dead trilogy, Sam Raimi completed a series that swerved from nasty yet funny horror into full-blown slapstick comedy – with mixed results. The first Evil Dead – an instant cult classic upon its arrival in 1981 – was a lunatic mix of outright horror, black comedy and sight gags, a movie that gave you the creeps and made you laugh out loud at the same time while also introducing Raimi’s energetic, wildly creative visual style. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, issued in 1987, amped up the gore and gags at the expense of the horror, but was still outrageously entertaining.

By the time Raimi got around to Army of Darkness five years later – having made his major studio debut in between with 1990’s underappreciated Darkman – he seemed to have lost his taste for the more horrific elements that the original Evil Dead had possessed. Army of Darkness begins right where Evil Dead 2 ends, dropping our long-suffering hero/schlub Ash (Bruce Campbell) into the Middle Ages, where he has to deal with both the local populace and the army of Deadites that are terrorizing them. One escapade follows another as Ash is captured by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), romances local gal Sheila (Embeth Davidtz), and must search for the ancient Necronomicon to find a way to return to his time — fighting an army of Little Ashes and a malignant Evil Ash along the way, not to mention the title mass of Deadites.

It’s certainly the most ambitious of the three Evil Dead films, with Raimi benefiting from an $11 million budget (more than three times that of Evil Dead 2) and the resources of Universal Pictures behind him. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Army of Darkness also suffered from being too big (relatively speaking) for its own good, with nearly all the sharp edges of the first two movies sanded down and the thing playing very much like a live-action cartoon. I distinctly remember sitting down to watch it in a theater and sort of getting a sinking feeling as the movie unspooled and I realized this was quite a different cap to the series than I had expected (not that I anticipated a true “horror movie,” but perhaps something with a little more bite).

Interestingly, the idea of taking Ash back in time was originally going to form the basis of the second film, but Raimi and company (including co-producers Campbell and Rob Tapert) weren’t able to get the budget to do it. Campbell told Bill Warren for his book The Evil Dead Companion that Evil Dead 2 “was originally designed to go back into the past to 1300, but we couldn’t muster it at the time, so we decided to make an interim version, not knowing if the 1300 story would ever get made.” But when the second film made enough money to warrant a third, Raimi went back to the Middle Ages story, which was originally and brilliantly titled The Medieval Dead. The story borrowed elements from a wide range of influences including Jason and the Argonauts (for the fighting skeletal Deadites), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (which featured a similar time-traveling device), and The Three Stooges.

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The movie was filmed in several California locations, including the famous Bronson Canyon (home to the entrance of the Batcave from the 1960s Batman TV series) as well as more remote areas near the Mojave Desert and in the Sierra Pelona Mountains. Conditions were often hot during the day and cold at night, making it uncomfortable for cast and crew alike as many scenes were filmed during the evening. Bruce Campbell had perhaps the toughest job of all as he had to perform numerous fight scenes with either nothing in front of him (the stop-motion Deadites would be added later) or having to navigate through mechanical and prosthetic effects on set.

There’s no question that what holds all these disparate elements together in the film is Campbell’s portrayal of Ash. Comfortable in the character after the two previous films, Campbell perfects Ash’s fierce (if not very bright) determination and his unerring ability to make every bad decision possible, yet keeps you rooting for this tremendous goofball the entire time. The actor’s physicality is put to impressive use as well and his timing is impeccable. Ash is perhaps one of the best parodies of a traditional hero ever committed to celluloid, and one could argue that Campbell’s impossibly square jaw and scene-stealing chin are the film’s best visual effects.

In fact, he kind of carries the film, which spins drunkenly from setpiece to setpiece until finally reaching the climactic confrontation with the title militia, in which Ash leads the humans in one massive battle against the Deadite minions. All is set to right and as his reward, Ash is given a potion and an incantation to recite (“Klaatu barada nikto,” nudge nudge) which should send him to the present again — and does, in one of two endings filmed for the movie.

Raimi’s original, more gleefully nihilistic finale found Ash drinking one drop too many of the liquid and sleeping way too long, ending up in a post-apocalyptic England of the future. But Universal Pictures didn’t like that sign-off, so a new one was filmed in which Ash does successfully get back to his time and his job at S-Mart, but fights off the one female Deadite who has managed to travel forward as well.

Although he thought that Ash screwing up one more time and ending up in some future cataclysm was more in keeping with the character, Raimi told Warren, “I kind of like the fact that there are two endings, that in one alternate universe Bruce is screwed, and in another universe he’s some cheesy hero.” But it wasn’t just the ending that got changed. Raimi’s original cut came in at 96 minutes, but Universal trimmed it down considerably to 81 minutes — inadvertently making the movie that played in theaters faster moving but somewhat less coherent (and more upbeat with the new “happy ending”). While Raimi understands why even some fans like the theatrical cut better, his Director’s Cut is his preferred version. It may seem a little bloated, but it adds enough material that clarifies some of the more jarring transitions in the Universal cut.

There were actually two more versions of the film prepared as well, perhaps indicative of the confusion that the movie might have caused to its distributors and exhibitors. Producer Dino De Laurentiis ordered an 88-minute edit of the film for international release, essentially a trimmer version of the Director’s Cut but with the Universal ending at S-Mart added on. The fourth version was readied for television, also 88 minutes but making a lot more trims for violence and language (the TV version used overdubbed dialogue to replace that not suitable for small screens). In all three edits, a lot of existing scenes are cut down in size, with the edits ranging from a few seconds to as much as two minutes, while alternate takes are used for a few and in some rare instances (as on the TV version), a deleted scene is restored.

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I don’t have the time or patience to go through all the differences, but the multiple versions have all been available in some form through the years (there’s even a fan-edited version out there that includes just about every scrap of footage and clocks in at 104 minutes). Some have been harder to get than others, or existed as murky “gray market” home video releases, while the TV version has aired numerous times over the years. The Scream Factory set collects all four versions for the first time on a North American Blu-ray/DVD release (a German set did the same in 2013), making it the most complete archive of the many versions of Army of Darkness available on these shores to date (the set also includes a feature-length retrospective documentary and a rollicking commentary from Raimi and Campbell on the Director’s Cut, among many other bonuses).

Army of Darkness was a transitional moment in Sam Raimi’s career — his next three movies (The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, and For the Love of the Game) found him leaving the horror genre behind entirely and pursuing a more mainstream line of filmmaking that eventually led him to helming the first trio of blockbuster Spider-Man films. His own directorial style matured as well, and while he’s made some excellent movies along the way, the original blend of lunacy, wacky creativity and almost sadistic glee that permeates the Evil Dead movies never quite returned (although it came close on the Starz series he and Campbell have created, Ash vs. Evil Dead).

Perhaps that’s why, despite it still being a blast to watch in many ways, Army of Darkness feels uneven and is the least effective of the Evil Dead trilogy. It represents Sam Raimi letting go of his past and, like Ash himself, hurtling into an uncertain future.