Has there been a movie in the horror pantheon as endlessly quotable as Army of Darkness? And a hero – not a villain, but an actual bona fide good guy – as enduring as Ashley J Williams? But amidst all the nostalgia and love for Bruce Campbell’s grandstand performance in the lead role, it is often forgotten what a mixed bag the actual movie is.
At the dawn of the 90s, Sam Raimi was not yet the household name he is today. Indeed, outside of the Evil Dead movies, he only had the minor success of Darkman and the calamitous failure of Crimewaveto his name. But the Evil Dead brand held a lot of stock, particularly amongst horror fans, and when the third was announced as being the big budget (relatively speaking), epic Grand Guignol capper to the series, anticipation ran high.
Magazine such as Fangoria were heavy with stories of the castle set and armies of extras being assembled for Medieval Dead as it was titled then. This was going to be the horror to end all horrors.
But Army of Darkness was a comedy.
In retrospect, it was obvious. Evil Dead 2 was essentially a more comedic remake of Evil Dead and Raimi, along with cohorts Campbell and producer Rob Tapert had long been open about their love of slapstick comedy along the lines of the Three Stooges.
For horror fans, though, the sight of Campbell being ‘hilariously’ poked in the eyes by skeletal hands (accompanied by Loony Tunes sound effects) and indulging in pratfalls felt like a disappointment at best, a betrayal at worst.
The movie did moderate business at the cinemas, enough to get Raimi into the director’s chair for The Quick and the Dead and a steady ascent in box office returns until the explosion of Spiderman in 2002. Over time, though, the unique nature of Army of Darkness saw its cult following increase and with it numerous versions on home video formats.
And so to this latest Blu-Ray release, Army of Darkness: Director’s Cut.
The movie is the same for the most part. Our dim-but-arrogant hero, Ash (Campbell) has been thrown back in time to the 14th century courtesy of the sinister tome from Evil Dead 1 and 2, the Necronomicon. He finds himself caught between two warring armies, both beleagured by the undead. The local folk see Ash as their saviour, the one prophecised to fall from the skies and deliver them from the evil of the Necronomicon. Ash, for his part, just wants to go home.
The plot is cookie-cutter stuff and the acting is up and down throughout. The effects – a combination of optical effects, stop-motion animation and practical make-up – have aged badly. Much of the humour falls flat.
But then there is Bruce Campbell.
His Ash is a movie character unlike any other (bar, perhaps, Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China). He is far from bright, he is obnoxious and utterly selfish. He treats his love interest inArmy of Darkness like crap and dooms many innocents to death because he couldn’t be bothered memorising three magic words.
Yet, he is utterly likeable. Campbell spits one-liners with aplomb. “Listen up, you primitive screwheads,” he shouts to a medieval crowd, brandishing his shotgun, “this is my Boomstick!” And a hundred t-shirts were born.
His commitment is extraordinary, too. He also plays the main villain (under prosthetic makeup) and has endless battles, horse rides and physical comedy moments. The only real mystery from Army of Darkness is how Campbell didn’t come out of it a huge star, such is his scenery-chewing presence here. Surrounded by numerous extras and special effects, he dominates every shot he is in.
The “director’s cut” element comes in the ending. Army of Darkness was initially released in the UK (where, thanks to the video nasty era, Evil Dead had a massive following) with a bleak ending whereby Ash mucks up coming back to his own time. Universal baulked at this and had the ending re-shot for the US release, which sees Ash back in the hardware store he works in (“Shop smart, shop S-Mart”), a conquering hero against a wandering Deadite.
This version restores that original ending and it is easy to see what upset the studio so much, despite being consistent with the bumbling nature of the character. After 90 minutes of rollicking fun, a downbeat ending is jarring and feels out-of-step with the rest of the film. Maybe this time, the studio was right, and the embattled Ash really did deserve his happy ending.
The Blu-Ray transfer is patchy throughout – occasionally slipping to DVD quality or even worse for many shots. Grain changes all over the place and the general feel is of a hurried release without much care given to it The feel extends to the extras, of which there is a paltry image gallery of very familiar shots. Disappointing.
DIRECTOR(S): Sam Rami | COUNTRY: USA | YEAR 1992 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Madman Entertainment | RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9 | REGION: B / PAL | DISCS: 1