Army of Darkness: So Good, It’s Bad!

There was a time back during my university years when I was quite obsessed with Army of Darkness and its star Bruce Campbell. At the height of all this I owned four different versions of the film including one with an alternate ending. I had read Campbell’s biography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of A B Movie Actor and his exceedingly average follow-up novel Make Love! the Bruce Campbell Way. I would visit his website, search out and view his copious films and television appearances — no matter how small. I played a number of the video games based on Evil Dead and other games he appeared in such as the tie-in games to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. Then around about fifteen years ago, I all but lost interest as I did with quite a number preoccupations (both harmful and harmless), when I got married and started a family. 

Since this time, I wouldn’t say I grew to dislike the film or the lead actor but did see this period of my life as an extended and wasteful adolescence that unfortunately is not uncommon among those of my generation. In fact, considering there are still plenty of men my age now who have retained these obsessions, I arguably grew up relatively fast in comparison. 

With all this said, I still retain a fondness for this film which is now thirty years old and what follows is my attempt to explain its continued appeal. 

I first saw this movie in middle school when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. Thinking back, I am still baffled we were allowed to watch this but then, the following year I was watching Blade Runner for a film study in English. I can’t say I enjoyed it initially but it soon had my attention and remember thoroughly engaged — especially the final battle sequence at the end. It wasn’t until either late in high school or early in university that I saw it a second time and began to appreciate it even more on a second and many subsequent viewings. It was also around this time that I saw the original two Evil Dead films and anyone who is familiar with the series knows that the second is just a higher budget remake of the first that sets up the events of Army of Darkness. It is perhaps important to add here that I have always disliked horror films and have never understood their appeal. Although full of both intentional and unintentional comedy, the original Evil Dead films are firmly in the horror genre and so unlike many fans of the series, I don’t hold the original films in high regard and haven’t ever watched them again since seeing them all those years ago. 

While elements of its horror origins remain in Army of Darkness, they are deliberately comedic even in spite of the limited effects budget. The swashbuckling fantasy aspects are much stronger and these are certainly the elements that appeal to me. Ray Harryhausen films were an acknowledged influence as was Conan the Barbarian and Mark Twain’s  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. This is the simplest explanation for why the film appeals to me and so many others but it goes beyond this. 

Although it did have a theatrical release, it is very much a B movie. It had a low budget, relatively unknown cast and the special effects and set design looked dated even for the time. Embeth Davidtz plays the love interest Sheila and is by far the most capable of the actors but this was her first theatrical role. I recall in a DVD commentary track Raimi or Campbell saying something to that effect as well. This is not to say the other actors are bad just that she stands out as more capable. In general, many aspects of the film are poorly done but it is entertaining nonetheless. This is partially why I have inverted the idiom “So bad it’s good” in the title. Despite it’s objectively poor acting and visual effects, it is still a good film. 

Something I didn’t notice initially but now can’t not notice now is the clash of the film’s setting and it being shot in California. In Medieval/fantasy films, one can’t help but imagine the much greener British isles in contrast to the arid landscape of California. It is only in the scenes filmed at night or indoors that this is less noticeable. There is also the more forested areas in the second act but you can still see the geography doesn’t match. Ultimately, as with the dated effects, this just adds to the B movie vibe. 

The other less discussed reason for its appeal is there simply aren’t that many great fantasy/adventure films. That is not to say there aren’t plenty of films in the genre; just that most simply aren’t very good. There is a reason why the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films are so well-loved even among many Tolkien purists. That’s because even despite not matching the quality of the source material, they were a very noticeable step up from every fantasy film released previously. The limited technology with visual effects before the advent of CGI is certainly a reason for this but the main reason is most were simply bad films. As in this film, it is easy to overlook the dated visual effects because it is a good film. It has a solid three act structure, an interesting premise, likeable characters and comes in under two hours running time.

The major appeal is Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams and rightly so as he is the star. Campbell, like many much more popular actors, tends to play the same man in different situations. Think Tom Cruise and Sean Connery, the latter of whom didn’t even trouble to disguise his Scottish accent when playing a Spaniard opposite a Frenchman playing a Scottish Highlander — it didn’t matter!  There are some notable exceptions but generally Bruce Campbell is the same braggadocios American in everything he appears in. The interesting think about Ash is how frequently he switches between this unwarranted confidence and cowardice. In one scene he’s doing anything he can to get out of a wrongful execution and the next he’s threatening everyone within the castle walls with a shotgun. He’s a wimp that just wants to get back to his job in a department store but then he’s capable of crafting a functional mechanical hand with a knight’s gauntlet and later a working steam engine; both using Medieval blacksmith tools and some college textbooks. He’s ready to abandon the people after ignoring their explicit instructions and warnings but has a change of heart after Sheila (Davidtz) is captured and is suddenly able to give these men combat training with their own weapons. There’s no sense when you stop to think about it but then you’re not supposed to.

Then there’s his famous one-liners which I’ll not be a bore readers by listing here. I can say that one of the appeals of seeing multiple versions is that some of the most famous one-liners don’t appear in certain releases. My preference is for the original Australian release which is probably the same one released in Europe too. The original US version has a number of minor differences. The other interesting thing is I was familiar with many of these lines before I saw the film because they were copied in Duke Nukem 3D which came out a few years before I first saw the film. As I’ve discussed previously, this is something common with video games but due to the popularity of the latter, many now associate these lines with Duke Nukem and not Ash Williams. Campbell himself has spoken up with understandable irritation about this.

The film is also just hilarious but it is difficult to explain why. It is one of those films that gets amusing the more you watch it until you’re just familiar with everything and that alone keeps a smile on your face. It is great to watch with the right sort of friends but still enjoyable on its own. If some of what I’ve described above doesn’t sound amusing than it is probably not your cup of tea but this is anther big reason why it has maintained a strong fanbase for so long.

There was talk of a sequel or sequels for many years after it released and while it wasn’t a blockbuster, it wasn’t box office failure either. The movie did eventually see continuation from 2015 to 2018 ago as a TV series Ash vs Evil Dead. As I mentioned above, I dislike horror and this series certainly returns to the horror roots over the fantasy/comedy elements that made Army of Darkness so appealing to me.  Thus I’ve given this series and other media adaptations a miss outside of a game released for iPhone over ten years ago. I’m not bothered by this as the movie doesn’t really need a sequel. It is still a fun one to watch now and then and I expect I will still think so ten years hence.

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