Sunday, February 19, 2023

Roll the Bones: Army of Darkness at 30

Nerd culture has become established as the predominant culture today with what used to be strictly cult stuff now being mainstream fare (when M.O.D.O.K., in all his weirdness, is featured in the #1 movie in the country, you know you're living in a full on nerd world) but in 1993, things were not so groovy and the chances were that unless you were a regular Fangoria reader, you did not know or care that this new movie called Army of Darkness was actually the second sequel to The Evil Dead. To this day I continue to find it wild that the Evil Dead movies were considered so cult and their audience so insignificant that Universal didn't even think it was worth calling attention to Army's sequel status in its marketing and instead chose to promote it as a stand alone movie. In certain circles, though, Army qualified as a massive event. 

Seeing Army on an opening day matinee with a fellow nerd buddy of mine remains one of my favorite movie going memories. Back when I saw Evil Dead II at a midnight show in '87, the then-surprising turn it took towards comedy caught me completely off guard (in a way that delighted me) but now, of course, I felt I was going in prepared. Turns out I was blindsided all over again by the complete avalanche of Bruce Campbell one liners and the transformation of Ash into a caricature of a macho action hero, a portrayal that walked the line between sincerity and send up. After thirty years of being endlessly quoted, the lines in this movie are so familiar now but I remember losing it in the theater hearing all of them for the first time. 

If there's any one movie that made Bruce Campbell into an enduring cult icon it's this. Evil Dead 1 & 2, as great as they are, wouldn't have put Bruce over the top like this one did. It's just a bummer to stop and realize that, wait, this was the last time Bruce was the lead in a movie that had a wide theatrical release. It's fucking wrong is what that is. 

As for the debate about which ending is better, the theatrical S-Mart ending or the original "I slept too long!" ending, I think just about everyone who saw Army theatrically would go for the S-Mart ending. Even though having Ash blow it and wake up in a post apocalyptic wasteland is 100% in character, it feels too much like a retread of II's downer ending and Army needed to bring something fresher to the table. While it might have been insisted on by Universal, I love that rather than begrudgingly comply with this artistic compromise, Sam Raimi choose to go so insanely hard in embracing the studio's mandate for an upbeat ending. "Oh, you want a more commercial ending? HERE YOU GO!" 

Thirty years later, Army of Darkness still rocks. It will never not be cool that in the same year that Steven Spielberg and ILM reinvented the art of movie FX in Jurassic Park, Raimi and co. made a movie whose idea of spectacle was an army of skeleton puppets. Even better, a handful of skeleton puppets that had to be shot to look like an army. At no time is Raimi trying to sell anyone on how convincing any of this is, he's all in on the obvious artifice of it, and that's what makes it great. For me, this movie's defining moment is when in the heat of battle, someone off camera throws a skeleton into the frame at Campbell who grabs it and breaks it over his knee. The Deadites here don't explode in CGI dust when they die, they just get trashed like cheap pieces of junk. Bruce isn't facing some slick adversary like the T-1000 here. Instead, much like the retro aesthetics that Francis Ford Coppola brought to Bram Stoker's Dracula the year before, Raimi crafted Army as a tribute to the naive movie magic of an earlier, less sophisticated age. Even with all the skeletons on display, there's not a jaded bone to be found here. 

Hail to the King, baby! 

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