ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 25, 1993
By Steve Newton
Sam Raimi, the imaginative director who turned the horror world on its ear with 1983’s shocking cult hit Evil Dead—and then did it again by remaking that film on a bigger budget and calling it Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn—has achieved one of the film world’s biggest wimp-outs. With Army of Darkness—the third film in his Evil Dead trilogy—he turns his back on the horror genre that brought him fame in the first place and delivers instead a cartoonish sword-and-sorcery fantasy, albeit one with some pretty cool monsters and special effects.
It looks like the mainstream success Raimi tasted with his previous film, the comic book-style Darkman, has put a damper on the taboo-crossing, anything-goes approach that won him favour in the ’80s. It’s enough to make a gorehound weep.
In Army of Darkness, Bruce Campbell returns as Ash, the zombie-battling character from the first two Evil Dead flicks, who is hurtled by demonic forces back into the Dark Ages. At first he is persecuted by the humanfolk he meets there, but after using his trusty chain-saw and 12-gauge shotgun to exterminate a couple of evil dead, he wins their trust and the affection of his medieval love interest, Sheila (South African actress Embeth Davidtz).
The people decide that Ash has been sent to help them defeat the Deadites, the legions of zombies who have been making their lives hell. They send him off on horseback to recover the Necronomicon, the “Book of the Dead”, which holds the key to their survival.
Aside from a couple of well-staged and exciting fight scenes, the whole first quarter of Army of Darkness is boring and wordy, but once Ash gets out into the open landscape, the fun starts. The film’s finest moments occur after Ash takes refuge from an unknown presence that chases him—via Raimi’s trademark close-to-the-ground, rushing camera style—inside a windmill.
While there, the antsy Ash shatters a full-length mirror, and from its shards three miniature evil Ashes emerge. Some hilarious slapstick occurs when Ash does battle with the tiny versions of himself, and the laughs continue when Campbell’s skills as a physical actor are tested in a Three Stooges-like graveyard scene that sees him menaced by a horde of gravebound skeletons.
A multitude of make-up- and special-effects artists were employed for Army of Darkness, and some of their work—as in the effects involved with Ash’s procurement of the Necronomicon—is quite amazing. But unlike Raimi’s other Evil Dead flicks, the effect of all this cinematic wizardry has no unnerving cumulative effect; the fancy stuff is there and then it’s gone, and you’re left going, “Gee, that was neat. So what?”
Without the visceral impact and maniacal energy of its predecessors, Army of Darkness fails as anything but a tongue-in-cheek kids’ adventure show.