Army of Darkness: Bruce Campbell's Ash proves characters don't have to grow
Despite his calamities Ash will always be The King, baby
It's thirty years since the release of Army of Darkness, the third — and arguably most quoted — instalment of the Evil Dead horror series.
The story, involving Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) being transported back to medieval times and becoming an unwitting hero, is a vast departure from the previous two films. It’s comedic in tone, with none of the gore or jump scares that made the previous films infamous.
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However, it’s loved just as much, and that’s thanks to a showstopping performance from Campbell who here shows the true value of the iconic character: he never changes.
“Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun”
It’s true that the characterisation of Ash changes from the first film to the third. In 1981’s Evil Dead, Ash is more a ‘Final Guy’ character, a focal point for the audience as he sees his loved ones taken from him.
1987’s Evil Dead II, a sequel and partial remake of the first film, develops Ash into the character we know and love. He’s far more charismatic, and capitalises on Campbell’s knack for slapstick.
In Army Of Darkness, that characterisation grows, but the man himself doesn’t. Ash is put into a position where he can save a medieval kingdom from an undead threat, but he’s far from the hero they need. Rude and self-absorbed, his indifference to anyone but himself is shown when he meets rebel leader Henry The Red (Richard Grove), scoffing “well hello, Mr Fancy Pants!”.
It’s clear that, despite what he’s been through, Ash is still a hilariously flawed character, and is arguably as much the cause of the events of the film as he is the solution.
Utterly convinced of his own superiority, this arrogance is highlighted in one of the funniest scenes. Ash waves off the insistence of the kingdom’s Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) that he remember the phrase "Klaatu barada nikto", which will allow him to remove the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (Book of the Dead) safely.
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Once he arrives at the book’s site and has to choose between three books, he forgets the last word (“Necktie? Nectarine? Nickel?”) and instead coughs through the last part, unleashing an Army of Deadites that makes things much worse.
Given that he repeats the same mistake at the film’s end, it’s a fine example of a hero being beloved precisely because he’ll never learn.
It’s hard to properly label Ash as a hero, as most of his actions are motivated by self-interest. However, Army Of Darkness makes it clear that the truly interesting aspect of the character are the flaws. When attacked by a demonic version of himself who claims he is the “Bad Ash”, Campbell kills the imposter and quips “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun”.
There’s no progression because he feels he doesn’t need to grow, illustrated in the film’s theatrical ending where he turns down the chance to be king to return to his old job at a supermarket.
It’s funny, it’s charming, and it creates an enduring legacy.
Name’s Ash: Housewares
While Ash hasn’t been on the big screen in thirty years (bar a cameo in the 2013 Evil Dead remake), his adventures have continued in other formats. Through comic books, and video games, the character has made well-received comebacks, but always with a similar disposition.
As Campbell explained in the Evil Dead II DVD commentary, he’s a “a bad slow thinker and a good fast thinker", and subsequent stories usually show him with an overabundance of confidence covering his incompetence. There have also been references to the character in the actor’s other work.
Campbell directed himself in the 2008 comedy My Name Is Bruce, playing a fictional version of the actor unwittingly roped in by fans to fight a God of The Dead. The film is knowingly referential to Campbell’s cult status, and more or less follows the pattern of an Evil Dead adventure.
2002 B-movie classic Bubba Ho-Tep saw Campbell playing an elderly version of Elvis, but many will point to the concept of an unequipped, oblivious hero fighting the undead to have echoes of Ash.
Keeping a close relationship with Evil Dead director Sam Raimi, the actor specialised in a string of cameos for the filmmaker’s Marvel projects, most recently Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness, where Campbell played a pizza vendor who fights with his own possessed hand (a nod to Evil Dead II).
Hail to The King, Baby
In 2015, Ash Williams made his live action return in Ash Vs The Evil Dead, which ran for three seasons. Despite approaching his late 50s, it appears Ash is still the same person – remaining in a menial position at a convenience store, living out of a trailer, and causing all his own problems.
The characterisation of Army of Darkness is still very much in place, as Ash drunkenly releases a demon while trying to impress a date with the Necronomicon. Joined by younger allies in the fight to save the world, Ash still hilariously improvises his way to accidental heroism.
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Many franchise updates are criticised if the main character doesn’t evolve, but for Ash Williams it is the whole point. Army of Darkness was the birth of a cult legend, establishing many of the tropes and catchphrases that would define him and comedy-horror as a whole.
Three decades, that oblivious charm still works, proof that despite his calamities Ash will always be The King, baby.
Army of Darkness is available to rent or buy online.
Watch a trailer for Evil Dead Rise