Of all the movies on this list, I'm most surprised that Army of Darkness didn't rank higher. It's the rare horror movie that is hugely popular among people who aren't particularly fans of the genre; then again, maybe that's the reason. The first Evil Dead is still unsettling in the way its low-budget scares take on a surreal, nightmarish quality; Evil Dead II is famously funnier, but it builds to the comedy gradually, allowing the laughs to come out of the pure insanity of the situation. Army of Darkness, on the other hand, is all one-liners and slapstick from the beginning. To be clear, the slapstick is mostly hilarious, and the one-liners are justifiably quoted on a regular basis by geeks of all stripes. But the go-for-broke approach might make it easier to overlook as a horror movie - almost everyone agrees Army of Darkness is a blast, but is there even a moment in the whole movie that's actually scary? To put it another way - and I say this with affection for my friends and fellow nerds - any movie that is beloved by LARPers and fans of Dungeons & Dragons probably isn't going to be, as the original billed itself, "The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror."
But while Evil Dead II remains my favorite of the three and a perfect blend of horror and humor, Army of Darkness was my favorite as a kid, and it's still a blast. I suspect it's the closest to Sam Raimi's own sensibilities - the first Evil Dead was a calculated choice on the director's part to create a movie in a commercial genre, but the broad humor that takes over Army of Darkness is closer to the shorts he made as a kid, and his love of the Three Stooges is evident throughout the movie. Raimi and his brother and co-writer Ivan used the third movie's comparatively bigger budget to make a feature-length goof on the monster movies of their youth, with the climactic battle serving as an epic valentine to Ray Harryhausen. It's the perfect gateway movie for kids with an interest in monsters and scary stories, and a safe one too; it's insane that Raimi had to trim the movie to avoid an NC-17, because, a few bloody bits and a flash of nudity aside, it's a PG-13. Twenty years later, the 2013 Evil Dead, which is a hundred times more violent and disturbing, was released into multiplexes with an R rating.
I must confess an unpopular opinion, though: I actually prefer what I once heard Bruce Campbell refer to as "the ridiculous John Woo ending" to the original one. I get that Ash is supposed to be an eternal heel, and having him screw up yet again is logical, but having him wake up in the future plays like a middling Twilight Zone ending. It's better to leave Ash as the hero and the king of the S-Mart, as the movie's best joke is the way it elevates this goofball to heroic status. It helps that this is Campbell's best outing in the series - it's both hilarious and endearing to see a guy who started making movies with his buddies in Michigan rise to the occasion of playing a buff, smart-ass action hero in a studio film. When Ash is wrestling with a demonic twin sprouting from his shoulder or battling a Deadite in a pit, Campbell's skill for comic timing and purely physical acting (often at the same time) rivals any of the bigger action or comedy stars of the time. As silly as Army of Darkness gets, Bruce keeps it weirdly grounded.
Sidenote: For those who can make the trip to Syracuse, the Palace Theater is showing all four Evil Dead movies on 35mm on Friday, October 24. I can't make it, but you should.
U.S. Release Date: February 19, 1993 (Also released that day: Like Water for Chocolate, Mac)
What critics said at the time:
"Mercifully clocking in at 81 minutes, this enjoyably campy hokum combines A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Three Stooges slapstick, and frenetic comic-book pacing with special effects that seem like hand-me-downs from Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts; it's calculated for ten-year-old boys of all ages and persuasions, whose howls of glee are programmed into the mock-macho material at regular intervals. This is old-fashioned fun until the climactic battle, which almost comes across like routine bone piling after all the flights of fancy." - Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader
"Raimi's style depends on deliberately abrupt transitions-wild, violent contrasts of silence and sound, stillness and hysterical movement, that blast the narrative forward like the succeeding stages of a rocket. At 81 minutes (including a shamelessly padded end credit sequence), 'Army of Darkness' is nothing if not compact; Raimi realizes that his film depends on sheer momentum, rather than story or character, and wisely refuses to wear out his welcome." - Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune