Horror films used to be primordial spook shows, tapping midnight-dark fears. Now they tap bodily goo: rivers of blood, dripping limbs, eyeballs that go pop in the night. Thanks to the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street series (all schlock derivatives of Psycho), as well as creative-dismemberment cult favorites like Dawn of the Dead and Re-Animator, we now have an entire generation of moviegoers who can spend 90 minutes viewing bodies ripped apart by power tools the way a previous generation watched beach-party comedies. And since the audience no longer takes horror seriously, neither do the movies themselves. Fear, dread, and anxiety are out; kinetic gross-out comedy is in the grosser (and therefore funnier) the better.
In Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness and Peter Jackson's Dead-Alive (unrated), there's gore and mayhem aplenty, but it's all a goof, a naughty game of how-far-can-we-go? (and will-you-still-look?). These are movies made by a new breed of gonzo splattermeister. Raimi and Jackson demolish the old dark house of classical horror and, in its place, erect a fun house of campy mayhem.
Some fun houses, of course, are more fun than others. Army of Darkness is the third installment in Raimi's madly inventive Evil Dead series and the first one in which his manic inspiration appears to be flagging. In the first two films, Raimi simply placed his characters in a cabin in the forest and let the hyperkinetic beasties run wild. Imagine a woodland remake of The Exorcist starring the Three Stooges, and you'll have an idea of Raimi's demented talent.
In Army of Darkness, the director sends his usual hero, the square-jawed wiseacre Ash (Bruce Campbell), through a time warp and back to the Dark Ages, where he comes on like a smart-ass cross between Indiana Jones and Mad Max. With his Dudley Do-Right chin and light-as-air machismo, Campbell is a walking human cartoon, and it's fun to watch him drop insults in late-20th-century slang and treat his medieval hosts, including the demons, with brazen contempt (''Yo, she-bitch, let's go!''). There are also a few flashes of Raimi at his best: A loony-tunes sequence in which Ash does bloody battle with lilliputian versions of himself, an encounter with the Book of the Dead that leaves his face all bent out of shape. As always, Raimi's ''evil dead'' are amusingly corporeal: In Army of Darkness, the rubber-faced ghouls and witchy-poos don't just spook you-they thwack you in the face.
Still, there are major valleys between high points; the movie lacks the insane relentlessness that made the previous Evil Dead films such funny, original rides. It's supposed to be a joke that the medieval characters, in their robes and fake beards, look like they just stepped out of a grade-C storming-the-castle epic. Raimi, though, doesn't push the joke far enough: This spoofy cast of thousands looks a little too much like a crew of bland Hollywood extras. By the time Army of Darkness turns into a retread of Jason and the Argonauts, featuring an army of fighting skeletons, the film has fallen into a ditch between parody and spectacle. Raimi, who had a hit with 1990's Darkman, is working with a bigger budget than he had on either of the other two Evil Dead films; he did more there with less. Time to let these dead rest in peace.
Anyone who thinks over-the-top horror is strictly an American phenomenon should check out Dead-Alive, a black-comic monster mash from New Zealand that manages to stay breezy and good-natured even as you're watching heads get snapped off of spurting torsos. The movie starts out as a cornball neo-Psycho spoof about a nebbish (Timothy Balme) and his awful mother (Elizabeth Moody). But as soon as Mum gets bitten by a Sumatran rat monkey and turns into the undead (a condition that, naturally, proves contagious), director Peter Jackson simply pulls out all the stops and keeps them out.
Dead-Alive is one outrageously gruesome set piece after another, a movie in which the human characters are boring but the limbs, eyeballs, and especially intestinal tracts have an exuberant life of their own. There are no rules in Jackson's slapstick carnival of gore. Bodies tear themselves in half; rib cages are ripped from their owners; a murderous monster baby burrows into someone's head from the inside; the hero plows through a living room full of zombies while wielding a raised lawn mower. Do you really want me to go on? Dead-Alive obviously isn't for everyone, but it's the most delirious bloodbath since Re-Animator, the kind of horror movie that makes you want to turn your head and then dares you to look away. Army of Darkness: C+ Dead-Alive: B