The Evil Dead was a straight-up microbudget horror flick, and Sam Raimi and company shot the definitive splatter-comedy a few years later with their partial-remake/mostly-sequel Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. The third and as-of-now final installment leaves all traces of horror behind, going for more of a epic-lite, campy slapstick-adventure. Team the Monty Python guys up with a resurrected Three Stooges, give them 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 in the general vicinity. There are all sorts of blurb-friendly words in the DVD Reviewer Handbook I could toss out to describe Army of Darkness: hysterical, frenetic, campy, cult classic...but "essential" pretty much sums it up for me.
As if you need a recap, Army of Darkness picks up where Evil Dead II left off (well, kinda). Ash (Bruce Campbell) is 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. 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. Not exactly. Army of Darkness never really lets up -- it's one manic sequence after another for seventy minutes and change -- and that plus Bruce Campbell equals the greatest movie ever.
Ask any frothing-at-the-mouth Evil Dead fan which cut of Army of Darkness they like the most, and dollars to doughnuts you'll hear "director's cut!" or at least some label other than the one used to signify the theatrical version on this HD DVD. The extended cut of the movie features a much darker ending than the up-tempo, action-oriented epilogue included here, along with a soft-focus love scene and around ten minutes piled onto the climactic assault. Since I swim upstream and maintain against the grain, I'm that guy who prefers the theatrical cut. Its campier ending is one of my favorite parts of the entire Evil Dead series, it's home to one of Ash's most legendary lines ("good...bad...I'm the guy with the gun"; replaced with the blander "I ain't that good" in the extended version), and it's just leaner and Pixy Stix-with-a-Jolt-chaser fast-paced.
There hasn't been a proper release of any of the extended cuts of Army of Darkness stateside. The version issued (and reissued and re-reissued and re-re-reissued and...) by Anchor Bay was assembled from cruddy, borderline-unwatchable video elements, 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. Even though I lean more towards the theatrical edit anyway, there's no question that the overwhelming majority of the movie's fanbase (myself included) would've preferred to see a sterling high-definition presentation of the longer cut of the film instead of the essentially worthless 480i version of the theatrical edition on the flipside of this disc. Some sort of licensing hiccup? Total apathy? Setting the stage for an inevitable reissue a year or two down the road? I'm all for having one of my favorite movies handy in high-def, and I realize that Universal may be limited in what they could toss onto this disc, but c'mon...give us fanboys something for our twenty-however-many bucks.
The quick recap: Army of Darkness? Incandescently, indescribably brilliant. This HD DVD? It's in high-def, yeah, but that's really its only selling point: there's a $34.98 MSRP slapped on this disc, it's not the cut most fans prefer, and other than a who-cares trailer, 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 you and I have way too much in common. Otherwise...? Wait until the price eases off or, even better, for the eventual special edition.
Video: I've read some kind of brutal write-ups of this 1.85:1 high-def release, but having seen Army of Darkness far too many times on far too many different formats, I really don't have any complaints about this HD DVD's visuals. There are only a few specks scattered throughout the movie, and the slightly grainy texture of this lower-budgeted flick has been preserved. Keep your expectations in check, though; Army of Darkness doesn't (and shouldn't!) have the sort of silky-smooth sheen of some hyperbudgeted CGI spectacle from the twenty-aughts, many of the more dimly-lit exteriors look flat and drab, and a few shots that have appeared unusually soft on every other release look much the same here. Given all that, this is a solid presentation, at least to my eyes.
I don't have the MGM region 3 DVD or Universal's original non-anamorphic release handy, but I did compare this disc to the THX-approved theatrical edition and the bootleg director's cut that Anchor Bay issued on DVD seven years ago. Even the DVD side of this combo disc is sharper and more detailed than the Anchor Bay releases, especially the abysmal presentation of the director's cut. The color timing also looks more accurate on this new Universal release. The Anchor Bay discs have a darker, colder palette that emphasizes grays and blues, and although this may look better in some of the screenshot comparisons tossed around this review, the often brighter Universal disc is the clear winner in motion. The placement of the sun in daytime exteriors and torches throughout the twilight siege on the castle more closely match what I'm seeing on the Universal release. Indicating that THX certification is completely meaningless, the edge enhancement pervasive throughout the Anchor Bay theatrical edition has been (mostly) wiped away. I still spotted some ringing around high contrast areas, but much of that may be owed to the original photography. Film grain also looks tighter and more natural on this release than the coarse Anchor Bay transfer.
The thumbnails throughout the review have had the brightness slightly boosted, but click on any of them for untainted, higher resolution screenshot comparisons across these three releases. Because we're such good friends and all, I'll even give you a bonus one. The differences are naturally more dramatic when splashed across a big-screen TV, and the HD DVD side eclipses all of 'em.
Audio: Army of Darkness was originally screened in stereo, and even though this disc sports a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix, it sticks pretty closely to the way I'd guess it sounded in theaters. The rule o' thumb seems to be no beasties? No surrounds. Aside from such moments as the engulfing roar of evil through the forest and most notably the climactic Deadite siege on Arthur's castle, the surrounds are reserved primarily to lightly reinforce the score by Raimi mainstay Joseph LoDuca and, briefly, Danny Elfman. Dynamic range is fine, and the movie's unrelentingly quoted, every-line-is-in-someone's-message-board-signature-somewhere dialogue comes through well enough. Y'know, all in all, it sounds like a decent mix for a lower-budgeted action/adventure flick shot fourteen or fifteen years ago, probably 'cause it is.
Supplements: Universal has been plowing through some of the titles they'd licensed to other companies on DVD: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Traffic, Dazed and Confused, and now Army of Darkness. All of those landed elaborate special editions at one time or another on DVD, but on these HD DVDs...? Borderline-nothin'.
Universal's DVD/HD DVD combo of Army of Darkness loses virtually everything from the Anchor Bay DVDs. No deleted scenes. No commentary. No alternate ending. No international or extended cut of the film. No storyboards or conceptual art. No special effects featurette. The one and only extra is a trailer, and even then it's just an ancient, standard definition, full-frame clip on the DVD side of the disc.
Conclusion: Kind of a tough sell, really. When I buy a movie on HD DVD, I want it to be semi-quasi-definitive; I don't want to feel like I have to hold onto any older DVDs or wonder if something better's lurking in the pipeline. With Army of Darkness, it's not a matter of if a beefier special edition is coming out so much as when. Army...'s an all-time fav, but with a kinda hefty sticker price and no extras to speak of, this HD DVD is really only for collectors 'n completists.