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ARMY OF DARKNESS:  DIRECTOR'S CUT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz
Director:  Sam Raimi
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  96 Minutes
Release Date:  July 25, 2000

Film ***

Army of Darkness, the third entry in the cult favorite Evil Dead series, didn’t do much for me when it first came out.  It seemed to be a picture more interested in silly over scary and faux pas over fright.  But it’s grown on me.  Quite a bit, actually.

The thing is, I didn’t appreciate at first that director Sam Raimi wanted silly.  For this film, he and star Bruce Campbell pulled out all the stops in an homage to The Three Stooges, favorites of theirs.  One need only look at the first two films to understand their love for this comic troupe runs deep, all the way to calling their monster-extras “fake Shemps”.  And I realized, as much as I loved the first two movies, this one completes a logical progression.  The first film was pure fright.  The second was designed to make you laugh in between the shrieks with some inventive physical comedy behind the horror.  So the final film ends up being virtually a straight slapstick comedy.  And it is pretty darn funny.

It picks up where Evil Dead 2 left off, with our intrepid hero (of sorts) Ash going back in time to the Middle Ages, still driving that ugly Oldsmobile, still wielding a chainsaw for a hand, and still packing some serious heat in the form of his sawed off shotgun.  How will he get back?

The answer lies, naturally, in that accursed volume known as the Book of the Dead.  Ash must retrieve it for a king and his knights, so they might protect themselves from the evil dead.  And since it was the book that took him back in time in the first place, they can also use its power to return him home.

As you might expect, Ash screws it up royally, and in some delightfully funny and imaginative sequences, he unleashes the Army of Darkness…skeletons and dead bodies that literally rise from their graves to take arms against the living.  It’s going to be one hell of a fight.

This limited edition director’s cut version is about 15 minutes longer, and most of the extra footage comes in the form of lengthening a few sequences.  Certain parts of the climatic battle are longer, as is the hysterical scene with the Tiny Ashes, which is really a Stooges’ fan’s delight.  The scene even plays out with actual Stooge sound effects sampled and used to accent the comedy.  And one line of dialogue is also different; a classic to Evil Dead fans.  In this version, after Ash blows away Evil Ash, he quips, “Good, bad…I’M the guy with the gun.” 

The major difference between the two is the ending.  The director’s cut ends in the same style as Evil Dead 2, with Ash seemingly on the verge of another nightmarish adventure (part 4, anyone?), as opposed to the theatrical cut, which wraps things up a little more.  When Universal originally distributed this film, they reportedly weren’t interested in anything that came before this movie, or in anything that might come after—hence, Sam Raimi didn’t get to use the more obvious title Evil Dead 3 or his other tongue-in-cheek pick, Medieval Dead. 

One should remember, too, when watching this film, that it was made before digital effects became the mainstream.  So virtually every effect in the film is purely cinematic and optical, including mattes, forced perspectives, make up, masks, stop motion animation and puppets.  Some of it looks a little dated, but it’s hard not to appreciated the imagination and fun that obviously went into creating these illusions.  Personally, I find the limitations add to the humor quite a bit.

And at the heart of it all is Bruce Campbell, the ever endearing wise-ass who loves to say the lines that make you wince, like “gimme some sugar, baby”.  He brings a sense of courage and daring to the physical comedy, and he seems completely at ease with interacting with special effects.  His goofy charm and unashamed cheesiness help make the picture as entertaining as it is.

And, since this version of the movie nicely sets up the possibility of a Part 4, fans have been asking for years:  will we see it?  The sad answer is, probably not.  The question has been posed repeatedly to both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, who both claim they’d be more than happy to do it.  The problem?  Army of Darkness, despite a small legion of dedicated fans, was a box office flop.  And flops don’t commission sequels.  So, we fans have to look at Army as the last of the series, and just consider in our imaginations that Ash is still running around in the future somewhere, still trying to pick up women with ridiculous lines, still trying to get home, and still screwing it up royally. 

Video **1/2

Sadly, this disc marks a step down in quality from Anchor Bay’s previous release of the theatrical cut on disc.  That DVD was THX certified, and looked quite good.  This disc doesn’t make that grade, though in all honesty, I don’t fault Anchor Bay.  It’s important to remember that this disc contains a good deal of cut footage, which obviously wasn’t kept up and preserved as nicely as Universal’s final cut.  Many of the night scenes, including the big battle at the end, suffer from a lot of grain and occasional strong lack of definition.  The inconsistencies from one shot to another are indicative of what footage has been re-inserted.  Same with the Tiny Ash sequence; certain parts look considerably more washed, more grainy, and more worn than others.  During other scenes, however, the quality is still good, and the disc starts on a great note, with some beautifully rendered daylit shots, where images are sharply rendered and coloring is good, natural looking, and well contained.  Overall, the disc is hardly unwatchable, but scores a little lower than Anchor Bay normally gets because of elements they couldn’t control.

Audio ***

This original Dolby Surround mix is mostly good, with a fair amount of dynamic range.  Most of the audio mix is forward centered, where dialogue is clear and the music is especially good, sounding loud, powerful, and full.  The single rear channel is used sparingly, but adds an extra dimension to the battle scenes, and occasionally a bit of ambience with some thunder and rumblings for more foreboding ones.  I should point out, in the interest of quality’s sake, that Anchor Bay’s theatrical cut has a re-mixed 5.1 soundtrack.  I consider both versions of the film equally good, so the choice is up to the individual fan:  the theatrical cut is a better quality disc, but this version is the much sought after director’s cut.  AND is soon to be a collector’s item.

Features ****

The disc includes a terrifically funny and informative commentary track with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, plus a few comments from co-writer Ivan Raimi a little later on.  If you like commentary tracks, this is one of the all time best.  Not only do Sam and Bruce seem to remember everything about everything, they’re also both certified smart alecks who kid each other mercilessly throughout.  Their dry senses of humor combined with their generous tales of creating the picture make this one of the most fun listens I’ve heard!  The disc also contains four deleted scenes (including the original opening sequence), a collection of creature concept drawings, and a storyboard feature that allows you to compare the film to the sketches while you watch.  A terrific package all around!

Summary:

Army of Darkness is what it is…an imaginative and funny special effects extravaganza with enough slapstick humor to keep you from missing the scarier aspects of the previous films.  For true fans of Sam Raimi, these Dead movies represents what he does best:  imagination turning budget limitations into something energetic and highly entertaining.  If you like the movie, then this limited edition director’s cut DVD is a must own.