I've mentioned it before, but one of the turning points in the movie-loving part of my life was Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 greatest cult classics (back when EW printed awesome articles like a list of 50 great cult classics). One of their picks was Evil Dead II, and for whatever reason, I dove headfirst into Raimi's entire catalog. I remember sitting outside a local multiplex, examining the Evil Dead Book of the Dead DVD I'd impulse-purchased for $30 -- another first, one of the earliest collector's editions I remember buying.
People go both ways when choosing between Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness (some folks will call me crazy, but from my perspective, the original seems less-revered). I admit that I, like Entertainment Weekly, would probably pick Evil Dead II, but picking one over the other is like choosing a favorite winning lottery ticket.
Watching the final product for the umpteenth time, it's still stunning to me that the movie was ever made. I don't know how popular The Evil Dead and its sequel were in 1991, but the idea that they had a vocal enough cult following to get a medieval sequel greenlit by one of the world's most powerful producers (Dino De Laurentiis) and a release from a major motion picture studio like Universal is hard to envision. Even when he makes new movies, it's hard to envision executives reacting to Raimi's usual blend of slapstick comedy, horror and action, and in 1992, I doubt even an Evil Dead fan would have expected the film's full-force shift from blood-drenched cabin-in-the-woods horror to broadly comedic, Ray Harryhausen-inspired action-adventure.
As a result, it'd be interesting to see how much of an effect the studio had in presenting Army of Darkness as a stand-alone picture. Aside from the drastic change in setting and lack of splatter, the film also mostly replaces the Deadites with skeletons (I guess the skeletons are Deadites, because they're raised by the Book, but I always thought of Deadites as possessed people, with the white eyeballs and warped facial features). Army of Darkness doesn't completely ignore its predecessors -- there's a short recap at the cursed cabin, complete with Bridget Fonda cameo -- but any knowledge of the previous films feels more like spotting an easter egg than picking up on some overarching theme. Obviously, this hasn't bothered Evil Dead fans, but I can imagine if I'd read about this stuff back before the movie came out, I'd have been seriously skeptical. Then again, maybe it's all intentional. Evil Dead II notoriously starts out with a far-less-obvious recap of the original without most of the supporting cast members, and the end of that film doesn't quite jive with the beginning of this one. It actually puts the recap in Army of Darkness in a peculiar void; since it picks up on already-altered threads from Evil Dead II and alters them further, it's like a flashback to a movie that doesn't actually exist.
Don't let me confuse you, though, the story is simple. In case you, dear reader, are one of the few and far between who hasn't seen Army of Darkness, the story follows beleagured hero Ash (Bruce Campbell), trapped in the 14th century after getting unceremoniously sucked through a time warp (accompanied by his 1988 Delta Oldsmobile). To return to the present, Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and a wiseman (Ian Abercrombie) send Ash to retrieve The Book of the Dead, which should contain the necessary enchantments to both banish the monsters roaming the lands and transport Ash home. Not surprisingly, Ash makes a few mistakes here and there, and ends up leading Arthur's meager forces against an army of walking dead.
The charms of the movie stand firmly on the back of one man, and that man is Bruce Campbell. Even excepting the Evil Dead series, the guy is a cult hero, having popped up in everything from Maniac Cop to "The X-Files". There's no doubt a considerable chunk of his fanbase comes from his roles on "Hercules" and "Xena" (also Raimi productions) and his short-lived role as the title hero of "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.". These days, the man is making waves on USA's spy show "Burn Notice", and fans of any of the above owe it to themselves to check him out here. It'd be easy to overlook the nuts and bolts of the performance, because not only is this an oft-quoted movie, but on one level he just looks like a wise-ass. Aside from the comic-book direction and some goofy skeletons, though, Campbell is the one bearing the brunt of defining the movie's tone, both as Ash and the evil, decaying version of Ash that reassembles itself when the dead begin to rise (not to mention the entirely wacky miniature versions of himself that pop up in the windmill). Even his slightly deadpan narration is pitch-perfect.
There is a long-running debate over whether the theatrical or director's cuts of the film are superior. The biggest difference between the two is the ending: in the director's cut, Ash is a moron, in the theatrical print he kicks ass. Over time, I've come to agree with more of Sam's argument for the former ending, but even if Ash is a bonehead, I think I still like the guy too much to not choose the theatrical ending. What I do miss are the numerous extensions to the windmill sequence, the longer love scene, and some other trims here and there, but the director's cut has some slow spots, and the theatrical version presented here is just fine too. Ironically, the one edit that's appeared on DVDs and accomplishes the most (a scene explaining, in great detail, why Ash runs headlong into a mirror) doesn't show up in either cut.
Much like The Big Lebowski, another quiet, building success, Army of Darkness is no doubt reaching a point of mainstream awareness, but that doesn't mean it isn't awesome. If you like horror, movies, Sam Raimi or Bruce Campbell, there's really no excuse for not owning a copy of Army of Darkness. Actually, you probably already do. There's quite a few copies of Army of Darkness to be had, and truth be told, I imagine 90% of the readers will be wondering more about the disc contents below than the film review above. So what does this version have in store?
The treatment of the title logo is kinda cartoony, but I like the splattery look of the artwork Universal's whipped up for the DVD. Why it isn't blood-red (since I'd guess that's the idea) is beyond me, but they used the classic poster art, which scores them a pass in my book. I also think it's amusing that almost 20 years later, Universal still seems reluctant to call Army of Darkness a sequel to the other two Evil Dead films, although Bruce is credited with the original in the synopsis. Underneath a glossy slip is identical artwork on the case, which is an alternate eco-friendly design that uses less plastic instead of punching big holes in the sides. Inside the case (evidenced by a gigantic sticker) is a Hollywood Movie Money-style check coupon for $5 off Halloween candy at selected retailers, which expires on November 30th.
The Video and Audio
Just like every other horror geek on the planet, I've bought Army of Darkness approximately eighteen billion times. I had the Anchor Bay "Special Edition", I had the Anchor Bay "Bootleg" Director's Cut, I had the Anchor Bay "Boomstick Edition" and I had the non-anamorphic Universal DVD. Hell, I even have the MGM R3 disc, which has a digitally remastered transfer of the Director's Cut (not presented here). Most recently, though, I had the Universal HD-DVD Combo Format disc. I never owned an HD-DVD player, but I'd noticed that the SD-DVD side was digitally remastered. Compared to the non-anamorphic Universal disc (released on August 19th, 1998, according to Amazon -- more than a decade old!), the HD-DVD Combo Format transfer was a revelation. Colors jumped off the screen, fine detail was excellent and it looked like a brand-new movie.
Maybe it's because I'm studying it more closely, but the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation on the Screwhead Edition isn't as impressive. Colors are still vivid, and detail is definitely stronger, but the overall quality of the image wavers from scene to scene (one shot, peering up out of The Pit, looks terrible, but other shots seem like they were filmed yesterday). There's also reasonable amount of fine film grain throughout. The best-looking shots are brightly-lit outdoor shots, like the ones following the opening credits. Obviously, some of the footage prior to the credits, taken from Evil Dead II, doesn't look as good, but that's not a flaw of the transfer. All in all, Army of Darkness offers a pretty clear upgrade over the non-anamorphic Universal disc, and it also improves on the clarity of the Anchor Bay discs (which are also framed incorrectly at 1.78:1).
Dolby Digital 5.1 sounds pretty damn good. The last time I watched Army of Darkness on a television rather than my computer, I didn't have a 5.1 surround sound system, so I can't really compare it to any previous mixes of the movie, but directional and atmospheric effects are very good, and the dialogue sounds crisp and bold. It may not be an improvement on other versions, but this is a rock-solid mix. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles are included.
A sticker on the front cover of the slipcover boasts "ALL-NEW BONUS FEATURES"! Flipping the DVD over and looking at the back, though, reveals the disc only contains one non-footage extra, a featurette called "Creating the Deadites" (21:29). I was a little worried that it would just turn out to be "The Men Behind the Army", the lone featurette from the endless Anchor Bay DVDs, but this is in fact an all-new featurette produced by Universal, hosted by KNB Effects founders Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero. Their interviews are bolstered by VHS footage and photos taken by KNB during the film's production. The extra treads similar ground as "Men" (and no doubt includes some of the same footage), but it contains lots of technical information on how the effects work and lots of funny reminiscing from Berger and Nicotero. Also, maybe I haven't been paying attention, but Greg looks shockingly businesslike -- he's chopped off his trademark foot-long hair!
The only other two extras are the film's alternate ending (4:42) and highly entertaining original theatrical trailer (2:04), which any fan of Army of Darkness has no doubt seen an uncountable number of times.
So, what gives? I hate to beat an undead horse, but this is, as I've pointed out, this is the seventh American DVD edition of Army of Darkness (eighth if you count the Combo Format HD-DVD), and yet again, the film doesn't get a definitive set of bonus features. Sam, his brother Ivan and Bruce recorded a commentary for the director's cut, a cut which seems like it should have fit on this disc via branching -- which, I might add, is a practice Universal is championing, especially with genre DVDs like The Last House on the Left, The Unborn, The Strangers and Doomsday. There's also deleted scenes and an entire storyboard track that have gone MIA. We've also never heard from anyone other than the usual suspects (Sam, Ivan and Bruce) on any edition of Army of Darkness to date. I'd love to hear any stories from Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert or Ian Abercrombie, cinematographer Bill Pope, composer Joe LoDuca, editor Bob Murawski, Universal execs or even extras. The new featurette is pretty good, yeah, but it doesn't make up for the omission of other stuff, and it still doesn't give the movie a good, solid, final word on DVD. It would also have been really cool if Universal had taken a cue from Anchor Bay and crafted a Book of the Dead edition to go along with the existing too, but that borders on wishful thinking.
The bonus features, like the film, include English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and French and Spanish subtitles. Surprisingly, no advertisements of any kind play when you pop in the disc.
Any really casual fans who already own a theatrical cut DVD of Army of Darkness and aren't A/V junkies can consider this half-hearted attempt by Universal to grab a slice of the cult classic's pie non-essential, but if you are 1) a newcomer; 2) a casual fan who only invested in the previous Universal disc or only owns one of Anchor Bay's "Director's Cut" discs; 3) a hardcore Evil Dead fan; or 4) committed, renowned Evil Dead collector and DVDTalk Forum member xage, then I suppose this is the TC DVD for you. Even then, the majority of those people can wait until this lightly recommended disc can be had for $9.99.
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