Army of Darkness
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Credit: Universal Pictures

This Week in Genre History: Army of Darkness lost the box office battle but won the war to become a cult classic

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Feb 24, 2021, 4:30 PM EST

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

I was working at a movie theater in the middle of small-town Central Illinois back in 1993, my senior year of high school, when a movie starring no one I'd ever heard of was suddenly booked in our sleepy little theater. And here is my confession to you, wise, cool SYFY WIRE reader: Until I was upstairs splicing the reels together for Army of Darkness, I had no idea who Sam Raimi was, let alone what in the world Evil Dead was… let alone that there were two Evil Deads. Not all of us were raised in cool video stores, you know.

But what was remarkable about Army of Darkness, even to a teenager who knew nothing about any of this, is how in on the joke I felt watching it for the first time. There was obviously a joke to the whole thing, the sort of giddy horror-film nerd-dom that has driven Ash's adventures for several decades now. But to watch the film back then, for the first time, without even knowing there were previous films, was to feel let in on a cool secret. I was watching the third film in a series I had no idea had ever existed, and it felt like it was made just for me. As the film turns, remarkably, 27 years old this year, it still feels like it sprouted straight from the subconscious.

Why was it a big deal at the time? We all know the story of Evil Dead by now, yes? You are reading this on SYFY WIRE, after all. Evil Dead (actually The Evil Dead) was a project Raimi and his childhood best friend Bruce Campbell created together. Campbell ended up getting the starring role in the film, playing Ash, the leader of a group of Michigan State students who were attacked by demonic somethings, just because he was also a producer and therefore the only guy who would stick around for all of filming. (Raimi ended up getting editing help from a young editor's assistant named Joel Coen.) Stephen King ended up seeing the film out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival and helped get it distribution, which led to the film being a surprising cult hit and bringing about the sequel, Evil Dead 2.

Most people who knew anything about film knew this coming into Army of Darkness. But I sure didn't.

To be fair to ignorant high school me, it is worth remembering that, for all the cult love for Evil Dead 2, it was anything but a hit. It ended up making back its budget and then some, but only after slowly building up status as a midnight movie and true horror fan obsession. People who loved Evil Dead 2 wanted a sequel, desperately, but this was before you could point to Twitter clout and Reddit groups for fan enthusiasm.

Raimi, because he wanted a bigger budget this time, had to scrounge up money the old-fashioned way: Get it from Dino De Laurentiis. The infamous producer had partly financed Evil Dead 2, on the recommendation of Stephen King, and Raimi convinced him they could go even bigger on the next one. De Laurentiis happened to owe Universal Pictures a couple of films on a deal, so he made Army of Darkness one of them.

That was the good news. The bad news was that what Raimi was making was so weird, and so directly related to those previous two films (which, remember, almost nobody on earth, including me, had seen), that Universal was generally baffled upon watching it. So they took it over, and next thing you knew, there was a new ending, and somehow Bridget Fonda showed up. And the movie was pushed to the wasteland of February. So now it was compromised — reshot and dumped into a month full of bad movies. Who says big budgets are positive?

What was the impact? Like me, ordinary audiences saw this picture of an actor they'd never seen, promoting the third film of a series they'd never heard of, and were clueless as to what to think about it. But unlike me, they didn't work in a movie theater, so they didn't have to see it. So they didn't. The movie barely made it out of the gate its opening weekend, making only $4.4 million, finishing below The Crying Game and Aladdin, two movies that had been out for more than four months. Freaking Sommersby, widely considered a huge flop itself, finished ahead of it even though it had been out for three weeks. It vanished from theaters pretty quickly thereafter. The movie might have had a bigger budget, and it might have been released to more theaters than either of the first two Evil Deads were, but people just didn't know what to make of it.

The thing is, though: There were people, like me, who saw it and thought, "I have no idea what this is, but I want more of it." The movie ended up with a similar cult following to the first two Evil Dead movies, but larger. What's the old joke about the Velvet Underground? They didn't have that many fans, but every one of their fans started a band? That's how it felt with Army of Darkness. From what Universal considered a "flop" launched an industry. 12 years after the film came out, there was a role-playing game. Eight years afterward, there was a video game. And then there was a whole television program that ended up being bigger, and longer, than the movies themselves — decades later!

Has it held up? Perhaps not surprisingly, the stuff that Universal insisted on adding, particularly the extra "happier" ending, feels out-of-spirit with the rest of the film. (Though Raimi himself says he has grown the like the extra ending.) And it is incredibly bizarre to see Bridget Fonda show up.

But boy, the thing remains an absolute blast today. For a film that has essentially been meme'd to death over its nearly 30 years of life, it's still fresh, exciting, and hilarious. And I swear, I'll be thinking "Shop Smart: Shop S-Mart" every time I'm in a big box store the rest of my life.

That's maybe the final lesson of Army of Darkness. It was a film that Raimi and company made to finish off a film series, but it ended up launching something entirely new, and much bigger, and vaster. It didn't matter that the few people who saw Army of Darkness knew the whole story. They ended up filling in the rest with their imagination and seeking out the rest of the universe they'd missed. They ended up creating a whole new universe, of video games, of board games, of comic books, of television shows. That's smart. That's S-Mart.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.