Color, 1993, 81 / 96 mins.

Directed by Sam Raimi

Starring Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz, Marcus Gilbert, Ian Abercrombie, Richard Grove, Bridget Fonda, Patricia Tallman, Ted Raimi / Produced by Robert G. Tapert / Cinematography by Bill Pope / Music by Joseph Lo Duca and Danny Elfman

Format: DVD - Anchor Bay (MSRP $44.95)

Letterboxed (1.66:1) / Dolby Digital 5.1 / 2.0

Continuing the evolution of the Evil Dead films from pure visceral horror to dizzy genre-bending comic monsterfests, Army of Darkness thrusts that familiar hapless, one-armed hero, Ash (Bruce Campbell), into the same timeslip where viewers last saw him in Evil Dead 2. However, the horror aspects of the series have been twisted in Army into a screwy homage to the likes of Ray Harryhausen, H.P. Lovecraft, Jonathan Swift, and the Three Stooges. While we may never see a fourth installment in the series, the films at least currently stand as a satisfying trilogy with a quasi-epic final installment.

The dim-witted Ash, armed with a shotgun and little else, finds himself in a medieval land where the horrible Deadites terrorize the countryside. After a nasty encounter in a well, Ash agrees to retreive the notorious Necronomicon ex Mortis ("the Book of the Dead") from a desolate burial ground, in exchange for which he will be returned to his own time. Along the way, thanks in part to his own carelessness, Ash winds up fighting miniature versions of himself, splits in two (Manster-style), and even gathers an army to fight hordes of rampaging skeletons.

Held up for years due to legal wranglings with the properties of Dino De Laurentiis, Army of Darkness first emerged in U.S. theaters in a slimmed-down, audience-approved 81 minute edition. However, Raimi fans were still entranced by the results and rushed out to find the legendary extended cut, which soon circulated on the bootleg market. While most versions open and conclude with wraparound segments showing Ash as a contented employee at "S-Mart," the original director's cut featured a much darker, more ironic finale, available on smudgy-looking bootleg tapes and as a supplement on the longer Japanese laserdisc, Captain Supermarket: Evil Dead III. However, a variant expanded edition even turned up on The Sci-Fi Channel with even more alternate footage, including some unique comic bits during the long, infamous windmill sequence. (See Video Watchdog #46 for a full catalog of the various cuts and reshoots.) Thankfully, Anchor Bay performed the seemingly impossible by giving fans the 96 minute director's cut with the original ending, the abbreviated U.S. cut with added comic lines, and several expanded scenes trimmed from the final assembly. Obviously, Raimi's longer original cut is more expansive in scope and more impressive in its achievements than the more familiar edition, which was always quite a blast to begin with. Campbell is at his best, working at the height of his cavalier Brisco County, Jr. persona, and future indie favorite Embeth Davidtz (Fallen, The Gingerbread Man) does a fine job as the damsel in distress, Sheila. Interestingly, both Campbell and Davidtz wind up playing alternate, evil versions of themselves and do quite a convincing job of it. Behind the camera, Raimi shows his usual cinematic virtuosity, cramming bizarre camerawork and startling effects into virtually every scene to craft a slick rollercoaster ride of a film. From Joseph Lo Duca's rousing score to the goofy anachronistic humor, this also serves as a bridge between Raimi's delirious big screen joyrides and his popular TV series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. (However, it has nothing whatsoever to do with For Love of the Game.)

Anchor Bay's anamorphic, THX-approved transfers of both cuts look excellent; derived from the finest surviving material, the director's cut is obviously not quite as pristine all the way through (particularly during the windmill sequence) but, compared to what fans have been watching for the past few years, it's probably as good as it's going to get. The U.S. cut looks astonishing and improves in every respect upon the prior Universal DVD; not surprisingly, the 5.1 sound mix is a sonic delight. The regular surround track for the director's cut is quite serviceable, too, and obviously includes some additional sound effects and music now available in stereo for the first time. The additional deleted scenes are in rough cut form, which is better than nothing. Viewers get the original opening as it was first scripted, two additional exposition scenes, and a much longer prelude to the "tiny Ashes" sequence in the windmill. The plentiful extras include the trailer, a funny half hour featurette (The Men Behind the Army) devoted to the eclectic mixture of special effects techniques used in the film, storyboard comparisons, and a rollicking audio commentary with Campbell and Sam and Ivan Raimi (on the director's cut only). As usual, these men make for good company and provide some handy tips in making a maverick genre film, even when a big studio is involved in the production. They also helpfullly provide information on most of the reinstated footage (including Ash's different retorts after shooting "Bad Ash") and even continue their commentary onto the deleted scenes, a particularly helpful gesture during the windmill intro. Bravo to everyone involved, and while Army may not have been the blockbuster hit Universal hoped for, it's nice to see a film with such a rapidly growing cult following get the treatment it truly deserves. In some respects, this DVD may also be the first step to ensuring another Evil Dead film, now that more viewers will be aware of how this film was supposed to end. Casual horror fans may be tempted to pick up the more affordable single disc edition from Anchor Bay, but the double disc set certainly delivers and should leave the film's fans quite satisfied.

Color, 1982, 85 mins.

Directed by Sam Raimi

Starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York / Produced by Robert Tapert / Cinematography by Tim Philo / Music by Joseph Lo Duca

Format: DVD - Elite Entertainment / Anchor Bay (MSRP $44.98)

Full Frame / Dolby Digital 5.1 / 4.0

A lot of horror publications and fans have started a trend of dismissing Sam Raimi's first film, The Evil Dead, as an amateurish rough draft of his later Three Stooges-inspired sequel, Evil Dead 2, but frankly the two films have little to do with each other aside from plot similarities. Evil Dead is a pure, gutwrenching horror experience, an unrelenting roller coaster ride, peppered with laughs at its outrageousness but definitely not a comedy. Some of the finest seat-jumping moments ever put on film are here, not to mention enough gore to stand up respectably next to later blood-drenched epics like Dead Alive and Re-Animator. On top of that, this is one great-looking movie which uses its paltry budget to spin out an eye-popping series of beautiful, startling images accompanied by a great, disorienting soundtrack. A modern classic among classics that just gets better with age.

Five college buddies drive out to the middle of Tennessee to stay in a remote cabin and uncover a reel to reel tape recording which invokes an evil spirit. One by one, the not particularly swift humans are possessed by the malevolent force and do gruesome things involving pencils and knives. The one survivor, Ash (Bruce Campbell), is tormented, abused, and doused with more red gushing fluid than any other horror hero in history, while Raimi's restless camera zooms, swoops, and glides in a series of virtuoso scenes which render the "plot" virtually nonexistent. Simply put, without this film, there would be Coen Brothers and, most likely, no Hong Kong fantasy films, and its influence continues to shine today.

The Evil Dead first appeared on video in a muddy, lifeless VHS edition from HBO Video and a sharp, colorful Japanese laserdisc. After years on moratorium, Elite Entertainment licensed the film and performed a new transfer under Raimi's supervision. The CLV laserdisc, CAV special edition laserdisc, and DVD special edition all contain the same transfer; it looks fine, with good detail, and definitely improves over the HBO version. Furthermore, the Dolby Digital 5.1 remix on the laser and DVD is a houseshaker, delivering Joseph Lo Duca's shrill, nerve jangling score far more clearly than any other edition. The special editiions also feature a commentary track by Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, with Bruce Campbell doing his own solo track. The commentary is lively and interesting, though it's basically a retread of material covered on Elite's superlative Evil Dead 2 special edition. The DVD and CAV version also contain the theatrical trailer, a still photo gallery, and an amusing 18 minutes of rough takes of the "evil dead" in action. Considering the steep price for the extras, non-Deadheads may not find the investment worth it; in fact, considering the extreme hype built up for this release and the far more extensive job done on other titles, the Elite version still feels a little skimpy.

On the surface, the Anchor Bay version may seem like a no-frills edition for folks who only want the movie at a lower price, and since this DVD hit the streets (with five different packaging artwork options) long before the Elite DVD, a lot of impatient fans decided to snag it anyway. However, the Anchor Bay DVD is definitely worth keeping; the transfer is much better than Elite's, with vivid colors and gorgeous, deep shadows and textures throughout; the opening shot across the lake has a beautiful, glassy sheen missing entirely from Elite's version, and of course, the blood flows much redder than ever before. In short, if you want to watch the movie itself, stick to the Anchor Bay, but the Elite version has some nice extras and the 5.1 remix, while the Anchor Bay is simply in 4.0 surround. Check your wallet and decide which option is right for you, though both editions are quite welcome additions for any self-respecting horror video library.

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