Army of Darkness 4K UHD Limited Edition Steelbook Review: Long Live the Medieval Dead

Army of Darkness was my personal introduction to the Evil Dead. Because of Universal’s awful marketing at the time, however, I did not know it. I saw skeletons, monsters, an army of monsters? Thirteen-year-old me was totally sold.

When I saw the film initially, however, I didn’t get it. I was expecting darkness and danger. What Army of Darkness supplies is slapstick humor, violence so over the top it’s impossible to take seriously, and a lead man who is part buffoon/part comic book hero. It didn’t do a thing to earn its R rating. In 1993, watching on VHS, I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it.

Every subsequent viewing, bolstered with my unconditional love of the previous films in the franchise, Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, has increased my understanding and appreciation for this absolute gem in the crown of Sam Raimi’s filmmaking career. It was essentially the end of Raimi’s wild man career (with the possible exception of The Quick and The Dead.) He became an excellent Hollywood filmmaker after this, culminating that phase of his career with the Spider-Man trilogy which helped usher in the modern age of superhero filmmaking and were (briefly) some of the highest grossing films of all time.

Before that, his twin cinematic ambitions seemed to be exhausting his cinematographers and beating the hell out of Bruce Campbell, who reprises his role as Ash from the Evil Dead films. His character is actually completely different film to film, and here he’s a braggadocious coward who wants to do anything but the right thing.

At the end of Evil Dead II (recreated here in the opening scene, which parallels Evil Dead II recreating Evil Dead in the first five minutes of its runtime), Ash is thrown back in time. He’s a mess, his severed hand replaced by a chainsaw, and is immediately taken prisoner by Lord Arthur and thrown into a pit with a deadite.

Deadites are the Evil Dead bad guys. In the Evil Dead movies, they were summoned by the Necronomicon. In Army of Darkness, they’re just hanging around, undefeatable monsters. Ash, experienced in Deadite destruction, uses his chainsaw to kill the pit monster. Soon he’s bedding the lovely Lady Sheila and tasked with a quest to recover the Necronomicon so he can defeat the Deadites once and for all, and, more importantly for himself, find a portal back to his own time.

Ash, however, is a constant screw-up. It’s the most established aspect of his character. If there’s a shortcut, he’ll take it, even if it ruins everything he’s been working towards. If there’s three words he needs to remember, he’ll get two, at best.

Through his series of misadventures, he somehow accidentally spawns an evil twin, whom he murders with his shotgun. That’s fine, until his screw-up retrieving the Necronomicon awakens an army of the dead, including his evil twin as the general.

This is the story of Army of Darkness, a movie that’s much less about story than scenes, and effects. In all of the Evil Dead movies, the story was simple. The effect of the camerawork, the compositions, the lighting and action are what the audience takes away. How the heck a woman became a Deadite in the middle of dinner at Lord Arthur’s castle doesn’t matter. That Ash dispatches her by firing his shotgun blind over his shoulder is what counts.

Bruce Campbell’s comic performance is the heart of the film. He’s a fun combination of smart and-stupid: competent at killing deadites, incompetent at nearly everything else. But always confident. Happily, the rest of the cast plays their roles completely straight. Embeth Davidtz’s Lady Sheila is a rather thin role, but she has enough presence to make it feel more complete.

The cinematic touchstone for Army of Darkness is the Ray Harryhausen movies, particularly Jason and the Argonauts, in which Jason fights stop-motion skeletons. In the centerpiece battle of this film, there’s stop-motion skeletons. There are puppet skeletons. There are dudes wearing vaguely skeletony costumes. It is wall-to-wall skeletons hacking, slashing, and being exploded. If one does not have a yen for fighting skeletons, one will not enjoy Army of Darkness.

The movie pays homage to the adventure films of Sam Raimi’s youth, and though Army of Darkness had a studio backing it was not a high budget film. With occasionally dodgy optical effects, sometimes that low budget is apparent on the screen, which ironically this new 4K transfer highlights. Some shots are extremely grainy, and especially in some early sequences there’s visible dirt on the lens. But within the film’s inherent visual limitations, this is as good as it has ever looked. The color, clarity, and detail of the images are well ahead of the already decent previous Blu-ray transfer.

And this release includes four different cuts of the movie: the 81-minute theatrical cut, the 96-minute director’s cut, the 89-minute international cut, and the 94 minute television version. Unfortunately, only the theatrical cut is available in 4K. The Steelbook case has nice new art but is otherwise the same as the standard 4K release.

Army of Darkness has myriad flaws for those who look for them. The hero is a jerk. The other characters are paper thin. The world building is essentially non-existent. But the movie doesn’t care, and that’s part of what makes it so fun. It a comic adventure that wants to show you constantly ridiculous things with childlike glee. It’s a rickety rollercoaster that happily leaps off its own rails.

Army of Darkness has been released by Shout Factory on 4K UHD and Blu-ray. It includes four discs: a 4K disc with the theatrical cut of the film, and 3 Blu-rays with the theatrical and other versions of the film and a vast assortment of extras. It should be noted that all these extras were available on Shout Factory’s previous release.

There are two audio commentaries: one on the theatrical edition with director Sam Raimi, director of photography Bill Pope, and editor Bob Murawski, and one on the director’s cut with Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and co-writer Ivan Raimi. The commentary is the only extra on the 4K disc.

Extras on the theatrical cut Blu-ray include “Medieval Times: The Making of Army of Darkness” (97 min), a feature-length documentary on the making of film; the original ending (5 min); Alternate opening (3 min) with an optional commentary by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell; Deleted Scenes (11 min) with an optional commentary by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell; trailers, TV spots, and video promo.

Disc three with the director’s cut includes the following video extras: On Set Video Footage Compilation (5 min); “Creating the Deadites” Featurette (22 min) a piece with archival footage on the creation of the puppets and costumes; “Behind the Scenes Footage from KNB Effects” (54 min); Vintage “Making Of” Featurette (5 min); Extended Interview Clips (5 min).

Disc four with the international cut includes the following video extras: International Theatrical Trailer (2 min); Still Galleries with Rare Behind the Scenes Photos (29 min); Still Gallery of Props and Rare Photos (4 min); Storyboards (8 min); “The Men Behind the Army” (19 min) a vintage featurette.

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Kent Conrad

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