Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.
Once upon a time, I took a man I was dating to a screening of Sam Raimi’s 1992 horror-comedy classic Army of Darkness. Now, he had never seen Evil Dead or Evil Dead II, but I figured I was going to be the one to open his eyes to the wonder that is Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell). As I joyfully watched Ash get transported back to the 14th century I began to see an odd look creep up on my date’s face: Boredom. Confused, I urged him to stick with it as we watched Ash simultaneously offer doom and salvation to Lord Arthur and his people. Eventually, my date leaned over to me and said, ‘Can we leave? This is so stupid.‘ Needless to say that relationship did not work out.
The fact that someone could not enjoy Army of Darkness still baffles me to this day as it stands as one of the most beloved horror-comedies in existence. Why has Army of Darkness stood the test of time so well? Jack Black as the character Barry in High Fidelity sums it up perfectly by saying, “Because it’s a brilliant film! It’s so funny and violent and the soundtrack kicks fucking ass.” While this is certainly a condensed review of the film, Barry is not wrong. One of the key aspects to Army of Darkness‘ effectiveness is the incredible score composed by Joseph LoDuca. A stunning piece of work in both style and execution, LoDuca’s sonic creation adds value in spades to the third, and most ambitious, installment in the Evil Dead franchise.
The third collaboration between LoDuca, Raimi and Campbell, Army of Darkness showcases all three at the height of their respective fields. By this point in the story, Campbell has embraced Ash Williams in new and unprecedented ways. His performance borders on audacious in all of the best ways. With a character this bold, this comedically infused with swagger, it was important that the rest of the film offered a compatible production value. Luckily for us, Raimi was riding the high of Evil Dead II‘s growing cult status as well as his success with 1990’s Darkman. Despite Darkman‘s slightly sluggish initial weekend box office numbers, the film went on to more than double it’s initial budget. This impressive return on investment for the up and coming filmmaker gave him that ‘Hot New Director’ scent so loved by Hollywood and provided Raimi the capital he needed. Maximizing this momentum, Raimi took his beloved franchise to uncharted and unexpected territory; 1300 A.D.
Once the project was green lit, it made sense that Raimi would call upon his friend LoDuca to once again score the world of Ash Williams. However, just like every other aspect of the film, the score would need to be different this time around. While the two previous installments of Evil Dead were certainly ambitious in story and style, their budgets and set design called for more minimal, less traditional scoring styles. (Although Evil Dead II was certainly larger in scale than Evil Dead) Utilizing intelligent choices in terms of instrumentation, LoDuca created two unique scores that fused acoustic and synthetic elements in potently effective, story driven ways. But Army of Darkness requires way more than just some cabin in the woods. The sheer scale of the story alone requires a much larger, much different sonic support system.
“The sheer scale of the story alone requires a much larger, much different sonic support system.”
From the moment Ash touches down in the past, he begins to embark on his own unique hero’s journey. Immediately reminiscent of film’s like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Clash of the Titans (1981) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Raimi creates an Ash specific adventure-fantasy. In order for this storyline to play out effectively, LoDuca needed to match the film’s trajectory with his musical tone. Flushing out his historical orchestration choices, LoDuca utilized the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to provide a full, traditional size orchestra sound. Similar to the visual call backs to adventure cinema’s past, LoDuca’s boisterous, full bodied score pays tribute to similar themed works by Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa and Mario Nascimbene. Had Raimi and LoDuca chosen to scale back the film’s musical scale, it’s possible the story would have shifted from perfectly, beautifully absurd to less effective and cheesy.
For example, let’s take a look at the track titled ‘The Pit.’ Here we see Ash tossed into Lord Arthur‘s courtyard pit, mistaken for an enemy warrior. Not only is this his first imminent brush with death, it’s also his first chance to showcase his abilities to the surrounding public. As he staggers, struggling to fight off a particularly nasty well witch, he eventually garners enough sympathy for The Wiseman to throw down his iconic chainsaw. Once Ash becomes reunited with his weapon, he enters full hero mode and that’s the moment where the music kicks in. Once the music starts we hear percussion on both the low and high end emphasizing the danger and physical bones scattered around the shallow water. Synchronized strings heighten our own internal fear response while punctuated horns build on-screen tension and emphasize character actions. Layers of sound groups chime in at artfully staggered times, coordinating beautifully to Ash‘s fight with the pit dwelling water demons.
This correlation between score and on-screen action will become a recurring trait of Army of Darkness‘ score. Throughout the entirety of the film, the score acts hand in hand with the sound design, providing emotional support to the story’s style and execution. Where the music goes, what instruments play when, and when the score is absent all tie directly to the action on screen. At the hand of a lesser composer, this close knit relationship could become tired and subconsciously exhausting to audiences. However, LoDuca manages to cultivate a diverse and effective score that not only keeps audiences engaged, but enjoying Ash‘s on screen antics.
This intimate symbiotic relationship between score and action gets flipped the other way around in the film as well. Previous to LoDuca’s involvement in the film, Raimi managed to involve none other than Danny Elfman in the production. Details are vague as to exactly why, but Elfman created one single song for Army of Darkness; the infamous ‘March of the Dead.’ LoDuca himself once speculated in an interview that Raimi hired Elfman to create a song so that he could shoot around the song.
When viewing the associated scene, this idea makes sense. Bone flute playing skeletons march along with Elfman’s track as drum beats are executed on unfortunate skulls. This subtle sonic breaking of the fourth wall keeps the scene intentionally fun and focused on the incredible practical effects. The echoing space of the song’s recording is felt in both the grandeur of it’s orchestration as well as it’s accompanying visuals. As the darkness of both night and evil descend upon Ash and crew, Elfman’s score creates an atmosphere neither fully triumphant nor fully doomed. The outcome still to be determined, it sets the stage perfectly for the madness that’s about to unfold, blending effortlessly with LoDuca’s surrounding work.
“Had Raimi and LoDuca chosen to scale back the film’s musical scale, it’s possible the story would have shifted from perfectly, beautifully absurd to less effective and cheesy.”
Following Army of Darkness and its successful release and reception, LoDuca would go on to work extensively in television as well as film. His newly embraced, incredible knack for action-adventure scores would go on to serve him well on shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, Young Hercules and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. He would also return to straight horror on films like Curse of Chuck, Cult of Chucky and Boogeyman. And yet, Ash has never been far from LoDuca’s heart. His return to Ash‘s world in Ash vs. Evil Dead helped catapult the lovable buffoon back into the mainstream with significant impact.
For these reasons and so many more, Army of Darkness is required listening for those interested in the soundtrack realm. For years the score was notoriously unavailable, but lucky for us now, there are a few options to choose from. In 1993, Varese Sarabande released a CD and cassette of the score including both LoDuca and Elfman’s contributions. But it wouldn’t be until 2015 that Mondo would release a beautiful double LP the soundtrack. While not super cheap, it is an iconic and worthy piece for any collector’s shelf.
It’s a rare and beautiful thing to have a composer be as intimately connected to a franchise’s success as LoDuca is to Evil Dead. From the very moment Ash first appears on screen, LoDuca’s fingerprints are all over his chiseled, arrogantly misguided character. Supporting such an over-the-top entity requires support on all fronts and LoDuca was certainly one to rise to the challenge. His intelligently nostalgic choices combined with artful orchestration and versatility of skill set have helped create not only one successful film, but an entire franchise. And if that isn’t groovy, than I simply don’t know what is.
Which Joseph LoDuca score do you love most? Have a score you’d like us to cover? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!