Some directors are lucky enough to have a muse, an actor they collaborate with so easily and intuitively that it raises their work to a higher level than either could achieve alone. Scorsese has DeNiro, John Cassevetes had Gena Rowlands, Edgar Wright has Simon Pegg, with Nick Frost thrown in as a bonus. The ying and yang of director and actor is rarely as intrinsically linked or as hilariously abusive as between Sam Raimi to Bruce Campbell. If anyone needs an example of how a great collaboration can save a film, look no farther than the second sequel in the Evil Dead series, Army of Darkness. Because nobody could have pulled off this kind of absurd ambition better than these two knuckleheads.
With the exception of Coscarrelli’s Phantasm series, the Evil Dead trilogy has the strangest trajectory of any single director’s vision. It starts in 1981 as a low budget (mostly), straight-faced shocker about a cabin full of friends who unknowingly release an ancient, body-possessing evil. Thinking only as far as the premiere, a young Sam Raimi and his pals from Michigan throw everything they have into this unrelentingly gruesome horror show. To everyone’s surprise, the movie becomes a success in the burgeoning VHS market, and Raimi is back 6 years later with Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. A half-remake, half-re-imagining, Raimi pairs down the cast and expands the mythos, ramping up the madness by a factor of ten. The result is a perfect blend of horror and comedy, but a far cry tonally from the first film. In 1992, Raimi makes an even more shocking left turn with the next sequel, Amy of Darkness (aka, more appropriately, Medieval Dead). He leaves behind the gore filled cabin in the woods and drops his main character almost 700 years into the past, loses most of the horror elements, and turns the story into a screwball fantasy adventure, complete with King Arthur, a steam-punk robot hand, and wisecracking skeletons. On paper, it sounds like a terrible idea, and it probably would have been if not for Raimi’s not-so-secret weapon, Bruce Fucking Campbell.
Bruce Campbell’s rise from small-time nobody to the B-movie god he is today is inextricably linked to The Evil Dead. The Michigan native cut his acting chops on his buddy Sam’s 8mm shorts, including the proto-Evil Dead proof of concept, Within The Woods. When Raimi began translating it to feature length, Bruce was one of the actors/crew/shemps who made it happen. Much like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, though, Campbell’s Ash initially shows little sign he will be the last one standing. If they first movie hints at Campbell’s charismatic potential, the sequel is a full strength punch to the face. Bruce makes Evil Dead 2 his show from the first frame to the last. His physicality, comic timing, and unbridled (and unhinged) energy turned Ash into a horror icon. In a decade defined by Jason, Freddy, Chucky, and other marketable miscreants, Evil Dead is the only horror franchise known for its hero rather than its villain.
The unlikely success of Army of Darkness can’t entirely be attributed to Bruce, though. The man has been in more than a few stinkers that not even his vast charisma could save. It’s Sam Raimi’s professionalism, ingenuity, and boundless enthusiasm that allows Campbell to truly shine in AoD. Raimi is intimately familiar with his friend’s style and strengths. He knows how to challenge Bruce, bring out his best, and most importantly, abuse him mercilessly. You can practically feel Raimi’s glee with each punch, slap, and pratfall he makes his star endure, take after take. When Ash is riding through a forest, you can bet Sam is always right off screen, personally smacking Bruce in the face with a branch. It’s that kind of brotherly love that elevates the slapstick to another level.
This is fortunate, because more than the ambitious action, impressive creature designs, and high adventure, slapstick is at the heart of AoD. The opening credits are cleverly staged to read “Bruce Campbell vs The Army of Darkness,” but Sam and Bruce’s love of old-school physical comedy is so prominently on display that it might as well be “Bruce Campbell vs. the Zombie Three Stooges.” Ash goes so far as to actually do a Curly-style eye poke block at one point. He stops just shy of saying “nuyuck, nuyuck, nuyuck.” There are also liberal doses of cartoon sound effects, Crypt Keeper level puns, and a couple of facial prosthetic gags that could have come straight out of Tom & Jerry. In anyone else’s hands the movie would be a stogy groaner, but Bruce and Sam earnestly giving it their all makes even the corniest moments laugh out loud funny.
In a way, Army of Darkness could be one of Sam and Bruce’s goofy 8mm shorts, except on an 11 million dollar budget. It is indulgent and hokey and 180 degrees from the expected trajectory. Yet, into this unlikely environment Campbell gives us the ultimate Ash. For one thing, Campbell is in peak physical form, flexible enough to survive his multiple acrobatic pratfalls, and strong enough to handle the heavily choreographed sword fights (with only the occasional trip to the hospital). More importantly, he perfects the mix of what makes Ash so much fun: bravado, shortsightedness, and righteous demon killing skills hidden beneath a thick coating of total incompetence. It takes talent to come off as both cool and bumbling simultaneously (just ask ol’ Jack Burton), but no one has mastered the art of bad ass buffoonery like Ash. He causes as much trouble as he fixes, arguably more. The titular army Ash is up against exists solely because he can’t be bothered to remember three magic words (brazenly lifted from The Day The Earth Stood Still, no less). However, where his brains, brawn, and courage might fail him, Ash can always count on his greatest weapon: his mouth.
Evil Dead 2 was filled with great lines, from the ubiquitous “Groovy” to “Who’s laughing now?”, but Campbell’s delivery is so on-point in AoD that every word out of Ash’s mouth is instantly quotable. Seriously, I dare you to find a single line of dialogue that Bruce does not turn into a gem. Even the tritest cliché like “Oh, that’s gotta hurt” can elicit a grin when he says it. There’s a reason the 90s era first-person shooter Duke Nukem 3D steals practically every one of Ash’s lines for its over-the-top hero. Nice try, but no digital muscle head can complete with the king.