"Shop smart! Shop S-Mart!"
By Steve Vivona
Anchor Bay, Widescreen
When I first saw Sam Raimi's hyperkinetic horror masterpiece, "The Evil Dead," I hated it. I couldn't see what distinguished it from the rest of the slasher tripe being released at the time, and equated it with the Friday the 13th films and others of its ilk. Then I saw "Evil Dead 2" in 1988.
The sequel (more of a remake) infused humor into the proceedings while still maintaining the horror. Raimi's over-the-top camera angles and sweeping camera moves still impress me. In my eyes he took the first film and made it better. Another bright move was eliminating the rest of the cast from "Evil Dead" and concentrating on one character, Ash (Bruce Campbell).
As played by Campbell, Ash is the low-rent DeNiro to Raimi's Scorcese, his on-screen alter ego. As the series progressed Ash became increasingly dull-witted and Raimi exploited Campbell to great comic effect. In the first film Ash is one of many college students who, while on a trip to a remote cabin, invoke evil spirits known as the Deadites. When all is said and done Ash is the lone survivor of the demon rampage.
The story for "ED2" eliminated most of the characters retaining only Ash and his girlfriend Linda. She is overtaken by the spirits leaving Ash to battle them on his own. By film's end Ash has defeated the evil but is pulled back to medieval times through a vortex meant to dispel the Deadites.
Which brings us to "Army of Darkness." After two independent productions Raimi and Co. found themselves financed by Dino DeLaurentiis and Universal. This film would be less horror, more fantasy and more slapstick. That upset many, but the film was a worthy successor to its predecessors. It was certainly different but it retained that same spirit. There was no denying this was a Sam Raimi film.
Our moronic hero Ash finds himself a prisoner in the past, and he soon realizes the Deadites are plaguing the countryside. He decides to help "the primitives" if they can return him to his own time. Ash is charged with finding the Necronomicon, the book that can either release or capture the demons, and that has plagued him for the last two films.
Ash retrieves the book but not before he mispronounces the sacred words which raise the Army of the Dead, led by his evil counterpart. Ash is then forced to lead the populace in a final battle with the Deadites, but will he be successful and return to his own time and his job at S-Mart?
"Army of Darkness" is pure Raimi. He employs the same hyperactive visual style that is his trademark (or was if you saw "For Love of the Game," ugh). The story is a perfect blend of fantasy, comedy and horror, and his hero Bruce Campbell is in top form for what seems to be his swan song as Ash.
The film is essentially Raimi's version of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," with demons of course. As always Ash is forced to confront the Deadites when all he wants to do is get the hell out of there. In this film Campbell really came into his own as the lovable lunkhead. Campbell valiantly endured whatever physical tortures Raimi had in store for him, and he really proved he's got a true gift for physical comedy.
"Army of Darkness" was cut from 96 to 81 minutes by Universal, and they demanded Raimi shoot a new ending. In the original cut, after he defeated the Deadites, Ash was given a magic potion that enabled him to sleep away the centuries. Each drop represented a century and of course the dope miscounts and sleeps through the apocalypse.
In the new version he returns to his job at S-Mart and foils a Deadite attack. "Hail to the King baby!" Both endings have their virtues but I'm partial to the original because it retains the spirit of the "Evil Dead" films.
Happily Anchor Bay provided both cuts in a limited 2-disc special edition last year. Additionally there was a terrific audio commentary with Raimi and Campbell, never before seen deleted scenes, a featurette, storyboards and a trailer. The limited edition went out of print quickly but AB recently released a director's cut with all the supplements (the theatrcial version has always been available).
The transfer for both versions is terrific and both are letterboxed at the proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Colors are strong and vibrant and the image is crisp.
Raimi followed "AoD" with "The Quick and the Dead," a western starring Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman. After that film failed at the box office he toned down his trademark hyperactive style and brought us "A Simple Plan" and "For Love of the Game." I always believed his strengths lie with fantasy and I couldn't have been happier when he was announced to direct the film based on my favorite Marvel Comics character, "Spider-Man." I just hope there's a part in there for Bruce Campbell somewhere!