Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise has been an awkward sort of staple of my cinema upbringing, despite being merely a toddler when Evil Dead 2 was released. My first exposure to the series – likely similar to many others my age – was with Army of Darkness. I distinctly remember the poster art hanging in the window of my local mom and pop video store when I was eight years old and pleading my parents to let me rent it, likening it to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They caved and I found a new friend in Ash. I wouldn’t discover the first two films until high school – they didn’t make it easy with the titling here – but Army of Darkness would always remain the comfortable, worn entry that I’d keep returning to. After all, outside of maybe Death Wish 3 it’s the best third entry in a series ever.
What has always intrigued me most about Army of Darkness is the wealth of alternative versions of the film that have been circulating on various formats and in various conditions over the years. Like most, I was first introduced to it via Universal’s very lean theatrical cut which runs a mere 80 minutes. When DVD became a thing, Anchor Baby put out the “bootleg” version of the much hyped Sam Raimi approved Director’s Cut, with the added scenes looking like sub-par tape footage compared to the clean presentation of what was also included in the theatrical cut. The additions here aren’t minimal either, totaling to a solid fifteen minutes of additional runtime and a slew of altered scenes in the mix as well. The changes run the gamut from mere scene/shot extensions to entirely different dialogue and, especially in the case of the ending, wildly different scenes altogether. Personally, I have an affection for the theatrical cut that comes from watching it constantly throughout my adolescence, but Raimi’s cut is easily the superior and more well-rounded version. That different ending just is what it is.
Scream Factory have included both cuts for this release, but they haven’t stopped there. They’ve also included the television cut (90 minutes) and an international version (88 minutes) to give fans as many options as possible. The international version is pretty perplexing as it isn’t all that different from the director’s cut up until the ending, with some minor trims here and there. It was cut by Dino DeLaurentis for play overseas and splits the difference between the US theatrical and director’s cut runtimes, yet isn’t wildly different from Raimi’s finished product. It does, however, feel less playful in tone at times with at least a few of the trims being at the expense of humorous bits. The television version is exactly what it sounds like, with the violence and language being toned down or completely excised for TV standards. In addition to that, a good deal of the deleted scenes are also included, likely as an attempt to pad out the runtime a bit. It’s easily the most uneven version of the film and is really only worth watching for comparison’s sake. Unless, of course, you’re just really nostalgic for that time you caught it on USA at 2pm on a Saturday in 1995.
Army of Darkness holds up surprisingly well. The imagination on display is hard to argue with and the use of practical effects keeps things from looking dated. I mean, we’re talking stop motion skeletons here. They will always look good. The humor is far more front and center than with any of the other films in the series and it works in its favor. I hadn’t seen this one in at least a couple of years and I was surprised at how fresh it feels, especially after recently watching the first two films and not feeling as enamored by them as I once was. This one may not be the hardcore horror flick that the other two are, but it stands on its own more than most sequels do and it may very well be Raimi’s magnum opus. In its director’s cut version, of course.
As mentioned, Scream Factory have included a whopping four cuts here and have spread them across three discs. The first disc gives us the US theatrical cut and it looks quite good, especially compared to Universal’s previous Blu-ray which wasn’t the best looking disc on the market, to say the last. Shout seem to have fixed most of the wrongs there with the appearance being consistently filmic and colors and blacks looking bold. The second disc offers the director’s cut which fares similarly. The third disc houses the international and television cuts. The international cut is the only version here offered up in a new 4K scan and it shows, looking the best of the bunch. The level of film grain is the most prominent here and everything just looks organic. The television version sure is something to behold. Just pretend you’re watching TV in the 90s and you’re on the right track. The three non-TV versions all sport DTS HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks and they all sound great, especially in the closing battle sequences. The TV version is 2.0 only and, again, is better heard pretending you’re just watching 90s TV.
If four versions of the movie aren’t enough, Scream Factory have loaded up the supplements too. The biggest extra is a new doc titled “Medieval Times: The Making of Army of Darkness” which is a wonderfully exhaustive, 96 minute look at everything having to do with the production, release, and fandom of the movie. It’s filled with archival footage as well as newly conducted interviews and it’s a real joy to watch. The director’s cut gets the only commentary track in the set with Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Ivan Raimi. It’s a rather silly track, with the three participants (though Ivan isn’t on the whole track) mostly joking around and telling anecdotes. The final substantial extra is an almost hour long behind the scenes feature withe KNB showing off all sorts of special effects magic. It’s all archival footage and it’s all rather fascinating. There’s also a bunch of deleted scenes, trailers/TV spots, vintage making of footage, stills galleries, and interviews to dig through. I don’t think we’ll be needing another release of this one.
With Ash Vs. Evil Dead starting up its first season on Starz, now is the perfect time for folks to revisit (or be introduced) to Army of Darkness. It may not pack the visceral punch the the first two films in the series do and some may find the whole ordeal rather silly, but it’s hard to deny the fun that everyone involved is having and it all just… works. Scream Factory have put together an indispensable package for fans that contains four versions of the movie, solid A/V quality and an exhaustive batch of supplements. This is it, folks. Highly recommended.