Before Sam Raimi directed one of the biggest movie three-fers of modern times with the Spider-Man series, he polished off a whole trilogy whose combined budgets, even adjusted for inflation, would probably buy him about 11 seconds’ worth of Sandman footage — without detailed backgrounds or complex movements. Basically, eleven seconds of Sandman waiting for a bus in Albany. Army of Darkness, the third and final Evil Dead movie, is the most expensive entry in Raimi’s labor-of-love horror trilogy, which means that its creatures are made of whole skeletons rather than just rotting goop.
The Evil Dead pictures are too low-budget to assume that their target audience has the money to have seen previous installments; as Evil Dead 2 essentially retells Evil Dead 1 with extra demon-fighting, it’s easy to imagine the series continuing forever as an extension of one very long demon-infested night. But in Army of Darkness, our chainsaw-handed, shotgun-wielding hero Ash escapes from that remake purgatory (after one more quick recap of the first two films) via a time portal, landing squarely in his own hell: a medieval landscape full of brutes and ghouls.
The change of scenery emboldens Ash (played, as usual, by the unsinkable Bruce Campbell); amongst a less advanced civilization, he completes his metamorphosis from everyman to action hero, dismissive quips emanating from just above his square jawline. ‘All right you primitive screwheads, listen up!’ he offers to get his new hosts’ attention.
So while Army of Darkness is the least gory, least gonzo of the series, it does hold the bizarre distinction of having the best dialogue. Its predecessors are nearly silent films, save for shrieks, screams, and splatters. Here, Campbell has the airspace to cement his status as the Cary Grant of low-budget horror comedies — perhaps as a reward for several movies’ worth of physical punishment which shows little sign of stopping in round three.
Though the slapstick is less slippery, less gruesome, Raimi hasn’t lost his taste for it, particularly of the Campbell-slamming variety. Ash meets his heaviest abuse in a graveyard full of bones whose previous owners were apparently early Three Stooges fans; he’s also captured and prodded by miniature men, and eventually splits into two. Naturally, a deformed Evil Ash will later lead a skeleton army on a castle attack. Lucky that Good Ash is willing to share the secrets of gunpowder with his primitive new friends.
Those skeletons are more charmingly retro than scary, but then the Evil Dead movies, even at their most twisted, have never really been about fear. They’re Raimi’s DIY calling cards, as well as a Grindhouse-level celebration of energetic trash. The Campbell performance, equal parts iconic and ironic (even the most heroic incarnation of Ash is something of an arrogant jackass; witness his hilariously haughty responses when coached to remember a crucial magic spell) elevates the film from great fun into a kind of insane genius.
Like both Ash and his zombie nemeses, Army of Darkness just can’t be killed. Even a studio-mandated ending softening the consequences of Ash’s inability to remember that incantation (‘Klaatu, Barada, Nikto!’) is a riot. Finally, a trilogy that goes out on a delirious high note.