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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Army of Darkness (Blu-ray)
Army of Darkness (Blu-ray)
Universal // R // September 15, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 16, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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Alright,
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you primitive screwheads: listen up. See this...? This is my Blu-ray. A single-layer BD-25. Not the Bee-Dee-Ay's top of the line, but whatever. You can find this in the home media department. That's right: this sweet baby is being churned out in high-def just in time for Halloween. Retails for about $19.95. It's got 1080p24, VC-1-encoded high definition video, a 24-bit, lossless six-channel remix, and an HD making-of featurette. That's right. Shop smart. Shop S-Mart. You got that?

Okay, the smart money says I'll accidentally stumble back onto this review in a couple of weeks and cringe at all of that, but...c'mon, we're talking about Army of Darkness, and I'm a lifelong cult cinema nerd; I'm never gonna be able to write an introduction that'll seem worthy.

So, The Evil Dead was a straight-up microbudget horror flick, and Sam Raimi yanked the steering wheel over to splatter-comedy a few years later with the partial-remake/mostly-sequel Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. For the third time around...? They've left anything that even looks like horror back on the shelf, opting instead for more of a epic-lite, campy slapstick-adventure. Think the Monty Python brigade after getting a bite chomped out of them by the Zombie Three Stooges, then fork over a bunch of typewriters, eleven million bucks, a dog-eared copy of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and DVDs of Return of the King and the collected work of Ray Harryhausen, and you're somewhere in the neighborhood. There are oodles of blurb-friendly words in the Big DVD Reviewer Book of Clichés I could lob out to describe Army of Darkness: hysterical, frenetic, campy, cult classic...but yeah, I'll stick with "essential" or...I dunno, "life-affirming".

As if you really need a recap, Army of Darkness picks up where Evil Dead II left off (well...kinda). Ash (Bruce Campbell) -- a prickly schlub who just wanted to spend a weekend with his foxy girlfriend in a remote cabin but wound up instead with a chainsaw for a hand and squaring off against an ancient evil -- has managed to get him trapped seven hundred years or so in the past, sentenced to death by a bunch of warring Brits who assume he's allied with their long-bearded arch-nemesis, Henry the Red. Oops. After carving up the beasties in the pit o' certain doom and introducing the villagefolk to his boomstick, Ash is hailed as their savior...the chosen one that the prophecies claim will rid the Bri'ish countryside of the terror of the Deadites. Well...that's the idea, at
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least. Ash just wants to trot back to the future, and if he has to quest for the Necronomicon to do it...yeah, whatever. All he has to do is toss out a couple of magic words so he doesn't unleash an unstoppable, unyielding army of the dead, and how hard can that be?

Army of Darkness screams ahead like a Porsche with the brakeline snipped. It never leans back to catch its breath: just one spastic, manic, batshit-crazy sequence after another for seventy minutes and change. I mean, this is a movie where Ash is chased through the forest by an ancient evil, holes up in a rickety windmill where a smashed mirror spills out a bunch of Lilliputianish Mini-Evil-Ashes, and then he...uh, grows a second head. No cutaways to some bland, stuffy B-plot. No filler, monologues, or whatever sandwiched in between. All of that psychosis is separated by just a few seconds a pop. It ranks up there as one of the most endlessly quotable flicks of all time too; even if you've never given Army of Darkness a spin before, you probably know half the dialogue chapter and verse through e-mail signatures, nods in other TV shows and movies, and that half-battalion of geeky friends of yours who won't shut up about it. C'mon, reams of cacklingly awesome dialogue, stop-motion animation, a skeletal army, an overcaffeinatedly breakneck pace, a chainsaw for a hand, deliriously off-the-wall action, and Bruce Campbell?!? Sold.

Ask any frothing-at-the-mouth Evil Dead fan which cut of Army of Darkness they prefer, and dollars to doughnuts you'll hear "director's cut!"...or "the bootleg version" or something that's not the theatrical version served up on this Blu-ray disc. The extended version of the flick sports a much darker ending than the cranked-up-to-11 demon-fried brawl featured here, along with a soft-focus love scene and around ten minutes piled onto the climactic assault. I've gotta admit that I'm that guy who
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prefers the theatrical cut, though. Its hypercampy ending is one of my favorite chunks of the entire Evil Dead saga, this version is home to one of Ash's most legendary lines ("good...bad...I'm the guy with the gun"; replaced with the room temperature "I ain't that good" in the extended cut), and it's just leaner and paced like it's hopped up on a bagful of Pixy Stix with a Jolt chaser.

For whatever reason, no one's ever gotten around to hammering out a proper release of any of the extended cuts of Army of Darkness on these shores. The version issued (and reissued and re-reissued and re-re-reissued and...) by Anchor Bay was assembled from borderline-unwatchable video fished out of a closet, and although MGM actually did their fan-favorite region 3 DVD the right way, importing a disc from overseas and ponying up for a multiregion player is kind of a lot to ask for someone as lazy as I am. For a while there, it looked like Universal was gonna do it: the initial specs for this Blu-ray listed an audio commentary that was only recorded for the extended version of Army of Darkness, after all. As it turns out, though...? No dice. Just the 80 minute theatrical cut, a crappy copy of the alternate ending, a trailer, and an admittedly great retrospective with the KNB FX guys. Why? Some sort of licensing hiccup? General apathy? Maybe Universal is just apeing Anchor Bay's bad habits and is setting the stage for another reissue a year or two somewhere down the line. Sure, I'm all for having one of my favorite movies handy in high-def, and maybe there are extenuating circumstances or whatever, but c'mon...give us fanboys something for our twenty-however-many bucks.

The quick recap: Army of Darkness? Incandescently, indescribably brilliant. This Blu-ray disc? It's in high-def, yeah, but that's pretty close to its only selling point: there's a $29.98 MSRP slapped on this disc, it's not the cut most fans prefer, and pretty much all of the extras from earlier DVD editions have been lopped off. If you read that and still want to fork over your credit card, then...yeah, you and I both have it bad. Otherwise...? Wait until the price eases back or -- even better!-- hold out for yet another special edition down the road.


Video
Hmmmm.

Army of Darkness is kind of all over the place in high-def. Some of it's unavoidable: the image degrades a good bit whenever an optical effect kicks in, and the fair amount of rear projection work has never stood out as particularly convincing on any format, let alone in something as revealing as 1080p. Army of Darkness is saddled with a mildly processed, oversharpened look -- there are some thin but hard edge haloes scattered around in here -- and the photography ranges from a soft, grainy haze to snippets that look like they could've been shot last Tuesday. It really varies from one shot to the next. Most of it looks okay...a noticeable improvement over anything I'd hope to catch on DVD. When it's bad, it's cringeworthy, although the worst of those shots look pretty terrible on the parade of DVDs from Anchor Bay too. At its best, though...? Army of Darkness really can look awfully nice. Even with the digital fiddling that it's clearly been subjected to, many, many shots are still reasonably impressive: crisp, nicely detailed, and an enormous step up over the stack of other DVDs I have. Some of the particularly fine patterns -- chainmail and intricate details in the wardrobe, f'r instance -- stand out in particular, although there are a couple of brief moments where those patterns shimmer in motion. Compared to the HD DVD from a few years back, this Blu-ray disc strikes me as seeming faintly crisper but saddled with a little more noise reduction...a pretty marginal difference.

The most dramatic difference between this and what you're probably used to seeing is the completely upended color timing. Anchor Bay's DVDs were dark and cast in more of a blueish tint, while this Blu-ray disc -- like the HD DVD and cable broadcasts that've been making the rounds for a few years now -- is considerably brighter and warmer. The sunny exteriors in particular have more of a sunbaked look to them, and although I'm not sure which palette most closely matches Sam Raimi and Bill Pope's original intent, this feels more natural than the gloomier, overcast DVDs I'd spun for ages. If you want to get a sense of just how much things have changed, click on any of the thumbnails below for a stack of comparisons. Heck, click all of 'em if you want. It's okay. I'll wait.



The full-size screenshots littered elsewhere around this review don't exactly do this Blu-ray disc justice. If An American Werewolf in London is clinging onto the lower rungs of "good enough", then Army of Darkness has shuffled at least a little further up that ladder. It definitely has its share of problems, from heavy-handed noise reduction to excessive edge enhancement, and I don't think the image would hold up well at all on a projection rig or for people with a habit of planting themselves unusually close to their displays. From where I'm sitting, though...? Army of Darkness looks unexceptional but nice enough in high-def.

Army of Darkness is lightly letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and since this cut of the movie only clocks in at 80 minutes and there really aren't all that many extras to speak of, its VC-1 encode fits comfortably on a BD-25.


Audio
I thought Universal's six-channel remix of Army of Darkness was pretty underwhelming when I first gave it a whirl a few years back, but now...? I kinda like it. This 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn't rattle the room or anything; the low-end is pretty timid, a few stretches of dialogue sound dated and lightly clipped, and there isn't much in the way of the sort of distinctness and clarity you've been spoiled to expect out of a newly-minted Blu-ray disc. Otherwise, though...? It's pretty solid, and none of those hiccups are all that unexpected for a remix of a seventeen year old stereo flick anyway. This is a pretty spry mix, and the surrounds hardly ever stop chattering away to further reinforce atmosphere, action, and Joseph LoDuca's brilliant score: the clatter of hooves, a geyser of the red stuff, the hellish roar of that offscreen wave of evil, a creaking windmill, the skitter of the Mini-Ashes, flaming arrows searing their way across the night sky... The film's inhumanly quotable dialogue comes through well enough and never finds itself slinking towards the back of the mix or anything. There's a little bit of heft to the lower frequencies but a lot less than I'd really expect for a movie with so many shotgun blasts and megaton explosions. Don't expect this lossless remix to curl any toes, but for what it is...? Yeah, I liked it.

Army of Darkness also serves up a Dolby Digital stereo track alongside a lossy DTS 5.1 Spanish dub. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), Spanish, and French.


Extras
The first announcement that Universal belted out for this Blu-ray disc included an audio commentary, a stack of deleted scenes, the usual behind-the-scenes routine, and a making-of featurette with Bruce Campbell. Um, none of that actually made it to this disc, though. Oh well. Maybe something a little more definitive will roll around when Army of Darkness is re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-released in 2018 or whatever.

As for what did make it...? Not much.

  • Creating the Deadites (22 min.; HD): The two reigning
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    high sheriffs from KNB FX pop up for this shiny new retrospective. Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger run through their extensive effects work for Army of Darkness -- everything from Harryhausen-flavored stop-motion animation to full-size puppets -- and delve in-depth into the fabrication, design, and inspiration behind just about every last Deadite, skeleton, and monster in the flick. They still have quite a bit of their work from Army... at their fingertips even all these years later, and the featurette also tears through a stack of home movies they shot on the set. Comprehensive, genuinely insightful, as personable as ever...it's almost enough to make me want to crank up that recommendation in the sidebar, really.

  • U-Control: No picture-in-picture video or interactive bells-and-whistles this time around: just tiny behind-the-scenes photos that periodically pop up in a skeletal frame.

  • Alternate Ending (5 min., SD): Though Universal did tack on the bleaker original ending to the flick as an extra -- one that's more in step with the downbeat endings in the rest of the Evil Dead series -- it's the same lackluster, non-anamorphic snippet from that DVD they churned out eleven years ago or however long it's been now. Kind of a drag that they didn't give this a fresh pass when they retransferred the rest of the film a few years back.

  • Trailer (2 min., SD): Last to step up to the plate is a standard-def, letterboxed theatrical trailer.

Oh, and tucked inside the shiny blue case is a $5 gift certificate to buy candy because...I don't know, because. Army of Darkness is a BD Live-enabled disc with online trailers and all too.


The Final Word
I'm a card-carrying Army of Darkness fanboy and all, but it's kind of tough to look at this Blu-ray disc and not shrug it off as a missed opportunity. C'mon, the movie's been a punching bag for a decade now with the eight quadraseptazillion repackagings and re-releases on DVD, but instead of finally hammering out something truly definitive, Universal opted instead to chuck most of the announced extras out the driver's side window and only bother with the theatrical cut of the flick. I mean, there's something to be said for having a high-def copy of one of my desert island discs in my grubby little hands and everything, but someone, somewhere's eventually going to do it right, and if you already have three or four copies of Army of Darkness on the shelf, you might as well hold out for something better. Recommended for completists and the uninitiated, but everyone in the middle should probably twiddle their thumbs waiting for a price drop or the next in a neverending parade of reissues.


Oops, I Made Too Many Screengrabs
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