Army of Darkness (1992)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: October 4th, 2022
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Franchise deviations have rarely met with warm receptions throughout horror history, as this genre—arguably more than any other—thrives on formulas designed to meet audience expectations. Once a series does something well, it’s expected to keep doing that thing without much of a fuss, and the horror annals are lined with cautionary tales like Halloween 3, Jason Goes to Hell, and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, instances that made it abundantly clear that audiences will revolt the moment someone mucks with the formula. The success of the Evil Dead franchise is all the more remarkable in this respect, as Sam Raimi never allowed the series to lapse into formula in the first place. His first sequel took the latent humor lurking in the original film’s mean streak and pushed it to the forefront, twisting Evil Dead 2 into a splatstick masterpiece. The end of that film—which flings unlikely hero Ash back to the medieval period—all but assured that any follow-up would stray even further into unfamiliar territory. Once Raimi and company returned to the franchise in the 90s, they went all in on the “Medieval Dead” premise with Army of Darkness, one of the most stark and successful franchise digressions of all-time.
In fact, “digression” might be underselling what Raimi pulled off with this wholly unconventional sequel. After all, most franchise oddballs still manage to stay firmly within their original genre. Army of Darkness, on the other hand, transports its predecessors’ spook-a-blast horror theatrics into a sword and sorcery film by way of the Three Stooges. After landing in the Middle Ages, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is mistaken as an enemy spy by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), who enslaves and nearly executes the bumbling time-traveler. However, when Ash slays Arthur’s Deadite pit monster, the locals celebrate him as a hero, granting him the opportunity to seek counsel with Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie), a sorcerer who says he can only return to his own time if he retrieves a very familiar-looking book.
Ash, oozing machismo and faux bravado, reluctantly accepts the challenge but cements his place as a horror icon. While Campbell came into his own in the previous film, Army of Darkness features the depiction of Ash that has etched itself into the popular consciousness during the past 30 years; an arch, sarcastic Lothario who with an assortment of one-liners at his disposal even though he really has no clue what he’s doing. Campbell is remarkable here, once again diving into the physical comedy with aplomb and taking Evil Dead 2’s one-man-show routine to an even grander, more fanciful stage that eventually finds him battling an entire legion of Deadites led by his evil doppelganger.
However, this role has always demanded some gravitas from Campbell too: deep down, Ash still has to exhibit the vulnerability of that college kid from the original film who’s been flung into horrific circumstances. He meets what must have been an exceptional challenge in Army of Darkness, a movie that primarily asks him to play a near-parody of not only himself but fantasy movie heroes. Balancing the cool, cocksure swagger with that glimmer of vulnerability makes off the difference: sure, Ash is a loudmouth dunce, but he’s our loudmouth dunce. While Raimi has and always will deserve credit for the impish spirit that guides this franchise, Campbell has been instrumental in embodying that spirit. Obviously, The Evil Dead moved beyond him with the 2013 re-imagining (and will continue to do so with the upcoming Evil Dead Rise), but Campbell’s goofball charm is still synonymous with the franchise for a reason.
For his part, Raimi matches Campbell’s energy with yet another spirited take on this material. Armed with a budget three times larger than the combined $4 million spent on the previous two entries, Raimi goes full kid-in-a-sandbox, unleashing a delightful assortment of action and effects sequences. His signature, rambunctious style only grows more infectious with this abundance of resources, as this medieval fantasy world becomes a tapestry of gory creature effects and Three Stooges routines, a peculiar but critical blending that captures the essence of The Evil Dead. It’s not just the setting or premise that defines this premise—it’s Raimi’s unrelenting, boundless energy, not to mention his dedication to putting Campbell through the ringer. That might be the most impressive thing about its popularity compared to other horror digressions: Army of Darkness really only takes the bare essentials of the franchise and leans on its director’s demented funhouse sensibilities to smooth over the transition into another genre. I don’t think it’s Sam Raimi’s best movie, but it’s the most Sam Raimi movie: a big, delirious romp that’s equal parts silly and spooky.
Like many cult classics, Army of Darkness didn’t quite get off to an auspicious start: while it had a respectable showing at the box office by nearly doubling its budget worldwide, it did so in the shadow of studio meddling and Hollywood politics. Universal infamously cut the film down and ordered a new, more upbeat ending, and didn’t even release the film until they settled a feud with producer Dino De Laurentiis. Contemporary reviews were largely indifferent, which of course did little to dissuade genre fanatics: while “cult classics” inherently and organically grow their reputations over time, it’s fair to say that Army of Darkness was destined for this status. The Evil Dead has always occupied that kind of space: despite its enduring popularity with fans, it’s never quite broken into the mainstream in the same way most of its horror franchise contemporaries have. Maybe that’s due to Raimi’s resistance to formula—had he simply served up The Evil Dead 3 in the 90s, maybe it would have been a crossover hit. I think that would have robbed us of something special, though: how often does a creator do exactly what they want with an entry in a beloved franchise? History not only insists that it’s not just rare—it’s a nearly impossible feat to pull off, and it’s even rarer still when those entries are immediately well-received as Army of Darkness was.
Army of Darkness’s cult classic status was solidified rather quickly with the advent of DVD, where demand for the title was obvious to an almost comical degree. Five different editions were available within six years of the format’s lifespan, cementing its place as a frequent staple on every collector’s shelf alongside its predecessors. Blu-ray was a different story, though: after Universal issued its own edition in 2009, it took Scream Factory six years to deliver a Collector’s Edition boasting four different cuts of the film and an absurd amount of supplements. It was the definitive edition until yet another format came along, so here we are again, upgrading Army of Darkness on 4K UHD. Scream Factory once again handles the honors, presenting the theatrical cut in both HDR and Dolby Vision. The upgrade is noteworthy: while the film elements show a little wear and tear towards the beginning of the film, even these minor flaws quickly subside, yielding to a wonderfully restored presentation. While the low-budget nature of the film itself has its limitations (particularly with some of the optical effects), the fidelity here isn’t in question: this is as faithful a presentation as you’ll ever see short of owning an actual 35mm print of the film. (Yes, I’m aware that 8k is a thing, but I doubt it will ever take off for various reasons).
As has been the case with other recent Scream Factory upgrades, this new edition retains all of the supplements from the loaded Blu-ray release, with the 96-minute long Medieval Times: The Making of Army of Darkness serving as the centerpiece. In recent years, Scream has largely moved away from these types of comprehensive documentaries in favor of simply filming separate interviews, but this is a good reminder of how engrossing these retrospectives are. Even Raimi’s absence from this one does little to diminish its effectiveness (and it should be noted that Raimi participates in other supplements, including an audio commentary on the director’s cut).
Speaking of cuts, there is one issue here that may cause some trepidation: only the film’s theatrical cut has been upgraded to 4K, while the others remain in previous resolutions. While this isn’t surprising when it comes to the TV cut (which is naturally stuck forever in SD), it’s a bit surprising that Universal didn’t upgrade the director’s cut and the international cut from 1080p. From what I can gather, this is an issue on their end, and Scream is simply working with what was provided. As such, the enthusiasm for this upgrade is a little tempered, especially since so many fans prefer Raimi’s director’s cut, which is truly the most Sam Raimi movie, right down to the bitterly ironic ending. It could be that Universal just doesn’t see the value in restoring this cut, but I’m sure my fellow collectors agree to never say never when it comes to future Army of Darkness editions. At a certain point, these things are going to come in the mail with samples of Tide, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’re right here a few years from now talking about a more definitive 4K release. For now, though, this one is excellent and is made even more so by Scream’s decision to offer a steelbook edition now instead of waiting a few years later to entice us once again. Now that all of the Evil Dead movies (including the remake!) have been upgraded, I think we can rest easy and consider this shelf space settled—for a while, anyway.
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