Revisiting the Medieval Oddity of Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness

With the much-anticipated return of Sam Raimi to the director’s chair for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I finally managed to find the time to revisit his third Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness. It has horror, fantasy and comedy elements — something that Raimi would incorporate in his upcoming Marvel film. Except for Army of Darkness carries an R-rating while the latter gets a toned-down PG-13.

Frankly, the so-called R-rated Army of Darkness (I’m referring to the theatrical cut, not the director’s cut) doesn’t really justify its rating in the first place. The violence is there but it’s mild and even cartoonish, which is a far cry from what Raimi did in the first two Evil Dead. It’s not like the earlier Evil Dead films were devoid of cartoonish gore and violence. There were actually loads of them but still executed in a mean-spirited, no-holds-barred manner.

Groovy

The thing is, Raimi didn’t intend to make a scaled-down Army of Darkness if it wasn’t for the studio’s (Universal Pictures) demand for PG-13 at the time. This also explained why the film gets butchered into many different cuts. Well, four versions, to be exact including the Theatrical Cut, International Cut, US Television Version and finally, the Director’s Cut. The latter ran 15 minutes longer than the 81-minute theatrical version, complete with added footage like Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Sheila’s (Embeth Davidtz) sex scene and of course, Raimi’s original ending.

Instead of the Ash vs. the female zombie in the S-Mart department store that most of us saw in the theatrical ending, the Director’s Cut is bleaker by comparison. Here, Ash did manage to make it back to the present day, albeit not what he’s expecting at all. And that is finding himself waking up in a post-apocalyptic London as a result of oversleeping after taking too much potion.

The skeleton warriors in "Army of Darkness" (1993)

Looking back at Army of Darkness, I have to say this third film remains a step-down effort, particularly when compared with the superior 1987 sequel Evil Dead II. The sheer bonkers amped-up horror gore, violence and dark comedy that made the aforementioned second Evil Dead film such an undisputed genre classic is sorely missed in Army of Darkness.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I do admire Raimi’s ambition of stretching his Evil Dead franchise beyond the usual one-unlikely-hero-fighting-against-the-forces-of-evil-in-a-single-location that preceded the first two films. The idea of seeing Ash trapped in a medieval era and unwittingly unleashing an army of the skeleton warriors after obtaining the Necronomicon a.k.a. the Book of the Dead and mispronouncing the words “Klaatu Barada Nikto” does sound like a wickedly fun premise. As a standalone film, yes. But not if Army of Darkness is directly connected to the Evil Dead films. I simply can’t help but feels Raimi’s decision to wrap up his Evil Dead trilogy is too unconventional for its own good.

Back to the perspective of viewing this as a standalone film, Army of Darkness has plenty of fun and quirky moments. Raimi’s homage to 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, complete with the stop-motion animation of the skeleton warriors during the climactic finale is the obvious highlight here. Bruce Campbell clearly has a field day reprising his role as Ash and here, he is blessed with some of the best quotable dialogues in the Evil Dead trilogy (among them include “Shop smart. Shop S-Mart” and “Gimme some sugar, baby”). Not to mention the elaborate Three Stooges-like slapstick moment, where Ash has to deal with his doppelganger a.k.a. Bad Ash.

Good Ash vs Bad Ash in "Army of Darkness" (1993)

Army of Darkness made its theatrical debut during the February 19-21, 1993 opening weekend, where it could only muster a paltry US$4.4 million at No. 6. That weekend also saw Bill Murray-starred Groundhog Day still ruling the North American box-office chart for two weeks in a row. By the end of its theatrical run, Army of Darkness ultimately faltered with just US$11.5 million, even though it managed to make a worldwide total of US$21.5 million. Certainly not financially successful enough for a film that costs over three times more than Evil Dead II with an US$11 million budget.

Interestingly enough, Army of Darkness wasn’t the original title here because Sam Raimi initially wanted it to be called The Medieval Dead. However, Universal Pictures didn’t like it and subsequent title changes were used including Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness before it was officially shortened to Army of Darkness instead.

The dismal box-office result of Army of Darkness pretty much killed off the hopes of getting the green light for a fourth Evil Dead film. It only took over 20 years later that fans of the franchise finally got their wish but rather in a series format titled Ash vs Evil Dead, where Bruce Campbell reprised his iconic role as Ash. The series lasted three seasons before it finally got cancelled in 2018.