In Defense of the Black Sheep of the Evil Dead Trilogy
Mitchell Brown explores the public perception of the character of Ash Williams within the Evil Dead Trilogy and the impact of Army of Darkness on the franchise.
Army of Darkness (1992) is often considered the weakest entry in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, and I’ve never understood why. I recognize that Evil Dead II (1987) is widely regarded as the best. It’s a beautiful blend of campy horror, The Three Stooges (1922) style violence, incredible makeup, and practical effects. Standing out because of its willingness to steer the franchise in a completely different direction, Army of Darkness maintains a high level of inventiveness while informing pop culture’s perception of the character of Ash. It sets the groundwork for blockbuster films that Raimi would make later in his career.
A direct sequel to Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness follows Ash (Bruce Campbell) back to a secluded cabin with his girlfriend, Linda (Bridget Fonda). After a tape recorder reads passages from the book of the dead, Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, an evil force, possesses Linda and Ash’s hand. Hijinks ensue, and Ash travels with his car to 1,300 A.D. through a wormhole where he is captured by Lord Arthur and turned slave with Duke Henry the Red and a couple of his men. With a shotgun and a chainsaw gauntlet, he must win the loyalty of the villagers and fight an army of unarticulated skeletons led by his undead clone Evil Ash (Campbell), if he has any hope of getting home.
Army of Darkness has merit because it's a sequel that took risks and broke from the established formula of the films that preceded it. Whereas the first two are horror films (with Evil Dead II adding comedy into the mix), this film is a swashbuckling comedic adventure with a more distinct emphasis on humor. In contrast, the horror elements are goofy and toe the line of being outright ridiculous.
After the delightful experience of rewatching the Evil Dead trilogy, what stands out is how this film informs pop culture’s perception of Ash. The Evil Dead (1981) portrays Ash as your typical college student who isn’t particularly clever and doesn’t ooze bravado. Frankly, he’s boring. Evil Dead II presents him as a bumbling personality but with more agency when fighting the Deadites. However, he doesn’t become rigid and filled with one-liners until the final act, taking the fight to the enemy instead of remaining defensive. If Ash is a superhero, Evil Dead II is his origin story.
Army of Darkness gives him the personality he’s known for and follows him through to Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015). He’s a smartass, overly confident, and almost comically selfish, which Campbell plays flawlessly. He doesn’t care that the Deadites are taking over the world; he just wants to go home. When the village guilts him for dooming them all to the incoming demon army and the abduction of his love interest, Sheila (Embeth Davidtz), Ash steps up and becomes the leader he needs to be. His character arc in the film demonstrates that he’s matured—at least a little bit.
Something worth noting is where the notion of Ash being an idiot began. If you’ve heard the Evil Dead II commentary, you know that Campbell calls out how slow-witted Ash is, but in reality, he’s a smart guy. Ash crafted a functioning robotic gauntlet in the 1300 A.D., knows how to ride a horse, is a competent fighter and dualist, builds the skeleton-killing fan for his car, and makes gunpowder from a formula in a college textbook.
The titular “army of darkness,” the horde of puppet skeletons led by Evil Ash is an absolute joy to watch. It evokes some of the most entertaining moments in the film. It’s unique in that the threat isn’t a massive conglomerate of faceless monsters for the heroes to fight. Instead, they exchange witty banter. The skeleton army is given depth and personality with small moments of levity and little asides spoken.
The army is an excellent example of Raimi’s disregard for logic in favor of shenanigans, such as how skeletons can play bagpipes and flutes made of bones. That same logic is applied in the action sequences. Many unarticulated skeletons are either thrown at Ash or conveniently idled so the souped-up Oldsmobile can demolish them. Raimi isn't taking the film or himself too seriously. Instead, he and Campbell are having fun with the material.
Chances are that it’s unlikely anyone will name Army of Darkness as their favorite film in the Evil Dead trilogy. It’s understandable, but it has value in the same impact as Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) or Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) because it wasn’t afraid to take a chance and upset the status quo. In doing so, it shaped one of the most iconic heroes in the horror genre, paving the way for Raimi to further refine his style and become the filmmaker he is today. Hail to the King, Baby!
Mitchell Brown is a Wisconsin-based horror enthusiast and writer. He is an aspiring screenwriter graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, majoring in English with a minor in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres.