by Steve Habrat
In 1987, director Sam Raimi remade his 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, dropping the simple stone-faced terror that turned the original into such a hit and planting the tongue of the series firmly into its bloody cheek. This slapstick remake, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, would go on to become even more wildly popular than the terrifying ’81 original. Personally, I’ve never cared for Evil Dead II nearly as much as the original film and I was never convinced the film struck the proper balance of Three Stooges comedy and hair-raising terror. Hey, that’s just me! In 1992, Raimi and his ever-game star Bruce Campbell brought the series to a close with the even sillier Army of Darkness, a medieval epic that, at least to this guy, was infinitely more entertaining than Evil Dead II (I can just hear some of you horror fans now). Dropping almost all of the scares and embracing more action and adventure, Army of Darkness wins the viewer over almost instantly with its ever-quotable one-liners and its never-ending string of comic book gags. Yet while Army of Darkness does keep your eyes glued to the pulpy thrills, the jokes and the plot end up getting stretched to the breaking point, causing this brief eighty minute romp to wear out its welcome near the climax. Luckily, Raimi has the good sense to wrap everything up before Army of Darkness really falls to pieces.
After briefly flashing back to the events of Evil Dead II, which concluded with Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell) getting sucked into a portal opened by the Book of the Dead and spit out in medieval England. After tumbling out of the sky, Ash is immediately confronted by Lord Arthur (Played by Marcus Gilbert) and his men, who instantly accuse Ash of working with Duke Henry (Played by Richard Grove), Arthur’s sworn enemy. Ash is taken, along with the captured Henry, to a nearby castle where he is forced into a pit, which houses a snarling Deadite waiting to rip souls to pieces. Ash dispatches the ghoul and in return, he wins the trust of the terrified villagers, the beautiful Sheila (Played by Embeth Davidtz) and the castle’s Wiseman (Played by Ian Abercrombie), who bargains that if Ash is to venture into the haunted countryside and retrieve the mysterious Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, he can return to present day. Ash reluctantly accepts the offer, but after goofing the magic words he was supposed to say upon retrieving the book, he inadvertently awakens an army of the dead. To make matters worse, this army is led by a demonic twin of Ash. After Sheila is captured by a flying Deadite, Ash decides to align himself with the medieval soldiers and destroy the advancing demonic army.
Leaving most of the toe-curling thrills and chills in that legendary cabin, Army of Darkness quickly opts for Three Stooges style humor and heaping doses of fantasy action. For those who love blood and guts, the only carnage to be found is at the beginning, when one poor sap is shoved into the pit with a Deadite and a geyser of gore sprays into the heavens. It is absolutely hilarious and almost like Raimi is purging all of the gore from his system before launching headfirst into seventy minutes of solid belly laughs and action. Most of the time, it feels like Army of Darkness is poking fun at the action genre, from the tough-as-nails hero Ash and his bottomless pit of one-liners (“Give me some sugar, baby!” “Name’s Ash. Housewares.”), to the gratuitous explosions that rain down on the final showdown. Never once does it feel as if Raimi is taking all the action and adventure too seriously and he launches it at us at breakneck speeds. While this certainly keeps Army of Darkness very interesting, it also exhausts the film by the grand finale. It appeared that Raimi was moving at such a furious rate that he almost wore himself out and lost his grip on the entire project. Luckily, Mr. Campbell and his glorious lantern jaw comes to the rescue.
The true success of Army of Darkness rests on the chain saw of Mr. Bruce Campbell, who seems to be having an absolute blast jumping and throwing himself around like a madman. Right from the get-go, Campbell’s Ash chews right through Raimi’s dialogue and he does it with plenty of fiery confidence. Just wait for the scene where he has to recite the magic words before retrieving the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (cinema buffs will remember those magic words from The Day the Earth Stood Still). When he isn’t muttering a classic one-liner (trust me, it is LOADED with them), he is busy socking, slapping, and poking himself in the face or busy battling a handful of feisty miniature versions of himself. His enthusiasm for the role is infectious and it is an absolute blast watching him throw himself into every scene with such gusto. In a way, it is almost a shame he is so good because every other actor or actress in the film is caught in his shadow. As for everyone else, Gilbert and Grove are largely forgettable as Lord Arthur and Duke Henry. Davidtz is just a pretty face until she gets to unleash her dark side near the end of the film, but most of her sinister vibe comes from the prosthetics applied to her face. Abercrombie checks in a fine performance as the Wiseman who believes that Ash is the savior that they have been waiting for. Keep an eye out for George A. Romero alum Patricia Tallman as an evil witch, Sam Raimi’s brother Ted in a number of different roles, and Bridget Fonda as Ash’s gal Linda.
To me, the fact that Army of Darkness isn’t simultaneously trying to be funny and scary is why it works better than Evil Dead II. I understand that many will not agree with me, but I just never thought that Evil Dead II was as funny or scary as it thought it was (I was left longing for the slow build and straight faced terror of the original). Army of Darkness is well aware that it is just a roller coaster ride and it makes absolutely no apologies about it. There are small tastes of the horror that Raimi unleashed in 1981, but for the most part, this is strictly an action comedy ripped from the pages of a comic book you have never heard of. And while the medieval action does wear thin, Raimi picks it up for one last boomstick blast of demonic action in the aisles of present day S-Mart. Overall, as a gonzo send-up of the action and fantasy genre, Army of Darkness is about as giddy and playful as they come. The action may start to slip from Raimi’s grasp, but this is Campbell’s show from the first frame all the way to the last. He may very well be the grooviest action hero of all time, and his shotgun never runs out of ammo. Gotta problem with that?
Army of Darkness is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before the unnecessary 1998 remake of Psycho, a film that certainly was not begging to be remade, the 90’s saw the altar of George Romero desecrated by make-up artist turned director Tom Savini’s utterly pointless carbon copy of Night of the Living Dead. To this day, every time I sit through it, I can’t help but ask “why?” To be fair, I suppose we are still asking that very question today, as we’ve seen every classic remade or re-envisioned. Astonishingly, Romero is listed as an executive producer here, further making this finely tuned machine even more enigmatic especially today due to his outward disapproval of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead slips up from its perfect execution, maddening tweaks to the story, and, well, the use of color. The film is vacant of any real terror and it seems touched by Hollywood, especially the electric guitar and synthesizer score that distractingly bellows over the arguing between the iconic characters. What made the 1968 Romero classic such a landmark was it’s rough around the edges presentation, never shying away from what it really was: an unapologetic horror film with attitude. Savini misunderstands that the film itself posses the anger and the characters were there simply to guide it along its path. Here, Savini makes every character angry, while the studio grabs the film by the hand and leads it along, leaving it’s furious independent sensibilities behind to be eaten by the make-up heavy undead.
Night of the Living Dead ’90 has no place in the era that it was made. It wasn’t a time that was gripped by panic, fear, violence, and uncertainty. Stripped off all its political and social relevance, there is no reason for the dead to walk other than for Hollywood to showcase their latest special effects. The storyline for Savini’s contribution is basically the same, a dysfunctional brother and sister, Johnnie (Played by Bill Moseley) and Barbara (Played by Patricia Tallman), take a road trip to visit their deceased mother’s grave. Upon arrival, several ghouls instantly attack them and the irritating Johnnie imitation bites the dust. Barbara frantically makes her escape to an remote farmhouse where she bumps into zombie killing juggernaut Ben (Played by Tony Todd), testy Harry Cooper (Played by Tom Towles), Harry’s cooperative wife Helen Cooper (Played by Mckee Anderson), and the young Tom (Played by William Butler), and his frizzy haired girlfriend Judy (Played by Katie Finneran). The bickering group attempts to board up and defend the farmhouse from the restless corpses who lurk outside. The group soon falls victim to their own unwillingness to work together, forcing them to make a desperate final effort to survive until morning.
About the only contribution this film makes to the annals of the horror genre is a profession approach to the source material versus what Romero, then a novice filmmaker, produced in 1968. Everything here is a notch more ornate, which makes the events seem preposterous and inane. Some of the zombies border on demonically possessed human beings much like what was found in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. They wear cloudy eye contacts and have yellowed skin. Some have their stomachs sewn up while other animated corpses loose their garments due to the slits cut into the back of the clothing so they could be easily dressed. It looses the “they are us” echoes that resonated through the original. The film attempts to drive the “they are us” idea home, giving the line to Barbara who slips it in at climax. Romero’s zombies were never this intricate, making the ghouls assaults all the more unfathomable. What has happened to these individuals? These are our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Here, they seem like filler background characters. They are the furthest things from “us”. The ghouls resemble Halloween decorations you toss out into your front yard.
If the fact that you are sitting through the remake of Night of the Living Dead is maddening enough, the acting will send you through the roof. No one in this film brushes a subpar performance, with characters that find themselves frenzied who shouldn’t be and characters making drastic turns in their personality. Barbara, who in the original film was sent to a state of shock and never fully returns, snaps out of her catatonic state and becomes a pistol packing sex symbol. It’s awkward. Ben is all melodramatics, shrieking to the heavens when he dispatches a contorted zombie heap. Why would he be kneeling out in the front yard shouting at the sky? You’re going to attract more zombies, you dumb ass. Ben also appears to be looking for a fight in this version. I preferred him as the calm and collected individual who pushed back only when he was pushed far enough. Helen Cooper remains largely the same given she is only a minor character and Harry is still his difficult self. He insists everyone stay in the cellar and refuses to help board up the windows. Judy and Tom, the confused youths caught in the middle of the warring pairs, act like dimwitted hillbillies. Judy is always blubbering yet somehow she pulls it together to drive the getaway truck to the gas pump on the property. Don’t get me started on the alteration made to how the truck is engulfed in flames. In 1968, it’s an accident. In 1990, it’s just plain stupidity.
Night of the Living Dead 90 is amusing for all of the references to the 1968 original. The alterations still make reference to the original film, the most obvious is the scene where Harry and Helen’s daughter Sarah (Played here by Heather Mazur but made famous by Kara Schon) rips her mothers throat out with her teeth opposed to dispatching her dear old mum with a cement trowel. As she eats at her mother’s neck, blood splatters across the cellar wall where a cement trowel hangs. It doesn’t help that Sarah resembles as large colonial doll done up like a vampire. It’s not nearly as traumatic as the original death scene. The film also relies on more gore to keep the horror fans glued to the action. There are more infected wounds on the zombies, more gunshots to the head that end with a shower of brains leaking down their foreheads, and charred bodies are munched on. The original only showed brief glimpses of the savagery, mostly leaving the truly vile stuff to the imagination. Savini, who was a photographer in Vitenam and did gore effects for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead opts the sadism to be up close and personal.
This film is largely forgotten for a reason. I’d bet money on the fact that many do not know a remake of the Romero classic exists. This film lacks any attention-grabbing camera work, every shot remaining immobile. Romero may have been a new kid on the block in the filmmaking neighborhood, but he filled his work with artistic camerawork and some fairly bizarre Dutch tilts at inimitable times. Romero knew how to creep us out and make his film an atypical nightmare. There is none of that here and it’s as if Savini was reading from a “How To” book on filmmaking. It’s a simple wide shot, medium shot, close-up, repeat. He never takes a risk and the only brush with risk is the nod to Dawn of the Dead at the end, in which Barbara joins a merry gang of hillbillies hunting the ghouls and making a party out of it. The film is also sluggishly edited together, another departure from Romero’s classic. He applied frantic, pithy editing that bordered on visual nails on a chalkboard. It honestly made me squirm the first time I saw the original. It added another layer of intensity. This film wouldn’t know intensity if it bit it on the ass. Night of the Living Dead ‘90 is flat, artless, and minimal, banished to the murky depths of horror for good reason. Hopefully, it never rises up like on of its undead protagonists to see the light of day or the black of night again. Grade: D-