It's no secret that genre fans generally have a strong distate for the mixing of horror and comedy. Films like 'Scream,' 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,' 'Return of the Living Dead,' and the recent rash of PG-13-rated spook-fests have all come under heavy fire from the horror community for watering down the genre for mainstream tastes to the point where hardcore, balls-to-the-wall terror is an endangered species. But oddly, while Sam Raimi's 'Evil Dead' films would seem to represent everything that these fans despise, somehow it remains a beloved franchise.
To be sure, the first 'Evil Dead' in 1981 was no joke. But by the time 1987's 'Evil Dead 2' rolled around, the series was already a total parody of itself, an approach taken to almost absurd extremes with 1992's 'Army of Darkness.' All three films feature the character of Ash (Bruce Campbell), the lone survivor of a demonic attack on a group of friends in an isolated cabin in the woods. As told in 'Evil Dead,' Ash and his buddies mistakenly unearth "The Book of the Dead," which invokes some very ill-tempered, oozy monstrosities hellbent on human destruction. Though 'Evil Dead 2' was essentially a comedic remake of the first film, 'Army of Darkness' spins a new tale, as Ash is plunked down in medieval times, and must continue to do battle with The Book of the Dead if he hopes to save mankind and return back to present day.
In all reality, of course, the plot is beside the point of the 'Evil Dead' films. In this film in particular, Raimi seems less interested in telling a coherent story than he is in staging a series of slapstick setpieces that are no more frightening than a carnival funhouse ride. And he found the perfect collaborator in Campbell, who with the 'Dead' films has proven himself to be one of the most accomplished -- and underrated -- physical comedians in movies today. Campbell flails about as chainsaws whirl, zombies cackle and Raimi stages camera moves so intricate and outlandish that by the time we get a point-of-view shot of an eyeball flying into a victim's mouth, it all seems commonplace.
But truth be told -- and I know this is sacrilege to say -- as accomplished and audacious as Raimi and Campbell have been with the 'Evil Dead' films, there seems to be not one iota of personal feeling invested. It seems Raimi cares little about anything outside of pummeling Ash with all manner of camera tricks. The story in 'Army of Darkness' doesn't really exist as such, the human dimension is nil, and the film's damsel-in-distress (Embeth Daviditz, trying the best she can) is pure window dressing.
In the end, I'm not sure there's ever been a series of film as visually inspired and visceral as 'Evil Dead' that mean so little. Rather than playing effectively as horror films, they seem more like the modern equivalent of a Charlie Chaplin or Three Stooges comedy, only without the humanity. I know this may cause me to lose my honorary membership in the horror movie fanclub, but after trying over and over again to "get it," the 'Evil Dead' films continue to leave me feeling absolutely nothing at all.
(Note that this HD DVD/DVD combo release of 'Army of Darkness' features the 81-minute, theatrical cut version of the film, not the 96-minute expanded version that has long been available on standard-def DVD.)
Presented on a HD-15/DVD-5 double-sided combo disc, the transfer on this next-gen debut of 'Army of Darkness' is a hit or miss affair. Though it is certainly nice to see the film in full 1080p/VC-1 video, the source material is inconsistent, and time has certainly not done the film's pre-CGI special effects any favors.
To be sure, there's no major print damage (such as rips, tears or excessive dropouts), but dirt is noticeable (particularly in shots involving optical effects, which are numerous) and grain is rampant. Darker scenes fare the worst, with the image often looking flat and fuzzy. Colors also suffer from a dated appearance, but the transfer appears to have been pumped up to compensate, with hues oversaturated and smeary at times. At least fleshtones are more or less accurate, although some of the more stylized segments have a reddish tint (especially the film's present-day bookend segments, which are pretty dreadful).
There are some plusses, however. Daylight scenes fare the best, with Ash's arrival at the medieval castle boasting a rather detailed image and a nice sense of depth. The vivid colors also work better here, and don't look quite as artificial. Still, this transfer is all over the place -- the aged source material combined with the film's limited budget, an abundance of darkly-lit scenes, and extensive opticals makes for one of the weakest HD DVD releases I've seen from Universal. Considering the material, I'll give this one a few extra charity points, but 'Army of Darkness' could really use a from-the-ground-up, full-on remastering.
'Army of Darkness' gets the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround/1.5mbps treatment on HD DVD, and it is a pretty nice soundtrack. Granted, the film's sound design is what you'd expect from a mid-budgeted genre film from 1992. Surround use is sporadic and fairly obvious, and envelopment inconsistent.
'Army of Darkness' sports a surprising amount of dialogue for a horror film.. Though some ADR is obvious, dialogue is always clear and well-balanced in the mix. Surround use is limited to the score throughout most of the film, except for a random discrete effect here and there, such as a galloping horse or a shotgun blast. The rears only really come alive during the climactic fortress battle (the 'Evil Dead' version of Helm's Deep), which contains some nice split surround activity, although it's nothing compared to a film like 'Terminator 3.' Otherwise, dynamic range is solid, boasting fairly deep low bass and reltively natural and spacious mid-range. Still, despite the Dolby Digital-Plus upgrade, the mix sounds dated, and a quick flip of the disc found little comparable upgrade over the standard-def Dolby Digital track.
Seeing as 'Army of Darkness' has been released on DVD, oh, 1,237 times now, it is a bit surprising Universal couldn't scrounge up better set of extras for its next-gen debut. While previous DVD editions have included an alternate ending, deleted scenes, audio commentary, storyboards, etc., this combo release gets only a theatrical trailer, and -- even worse -- it's only included on the DVD side of the disc. C'mon, folks! Ash deserves better than this.
By the way, let me take this opportunity to also chastise Universal for their unwavering dedication to producing the worst HD DVD menus ever. Actually, they are not even menus at all -- just the same tired old start-up animation, complete with identi-kit Photoshop template and cheesy muzak. Am I wrong to assume that a next-gen format like HD DVD should be the ultimate home theater experience -- including the menus? Where are the cool graphics? The zippy animation? The kick-ass music? As Ash would say, "Gimme some sugar, baby!"
'Army of Darkness' is arguably the least effective of the three 'Evil Dead' films, and it's certainly the most jokey. But if you're a fan (and you know who you are), you gotta have the whole trilogy no matter what. Unfortunately, this HD DVD release didn't thrill me much. The transfer looked a bit chintzy, and the only extra is a theatrical trailer on the DVD side of the disc. Given the lack of any appreciable upgrade, you'd be better off sticking with your current DVD, at least until Universal remasters this one and adds some real supplements.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.