“Army Of Darkness” is the third and thus far final chapter in the misadventures of Ash, his chainsaw and 1973 Oldsmobile, who return in a new 2-disc set, assembling material from an original 2-disc limited tin, released by Anchor Bay back in 1998, while director Sam Raimi was making "For Love Of The Game," with Kevin Costner. Both the U.S. theatrical cut (reduced by Raimi at the behest of Universal for pacing, with a more un-gloomy ending co-starring Bridget Fonda and an unbilled Angela Featherstone) and the original director's cut (with its original 'bummer' ending') come in a gatefold/sleeve package, plus new liner notes from Bruce Campbell, a flyer for the new "Fistful of Boomstick" PlayStation 2 video game, and "Win Dinner with Bruce Campbell" sweepstakes entry form.
Disc 1 presents the U.S. cut, with anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) and full frame versions, and an aggressive Dolby 5.1 Surround mix (though the old 2.0, also included, is still pretty robust, with solid bass frequencies). Disc 2 offers the longer International cut, with a good 2.0 mix, in widescreen only.
The real explorative and archeological thread of this set is the lively commentary track between Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi, and token contributions by co-writer Ivan Raimi, who joins the pair around the hour mark. When you have best friends since high school watching themselves and their work with Three Stooges sensibilities, there's plenty of laughs, but it's also surprising that director Raimi and Campbell still maintain the highest respect for each other as pros in their fields. It's also interesting to note how Campbell, having played Ash (and forever linked to a character he describes as "70% Idiot") states 'this is what Ash would do,' rather than 'what my character would do' - proof positive why the Idiot retains a loyal fan base (and spawned a brief comic series by Dark Horse). He's real, he's pretty groovy, and once in a while does the right thing by saving other people's skins.
Both guys are also massive film nuts - the finale involving an army of skeletons is a deliberate tribute to Ray Harryhausen, and some references go back to the kind of films routine to television during the 60s and 70s. There's immense praise for the crew, the cast, the special effects, and the changes/differences between both versions, but really the most thought provoking aspects concern the routine physical torture these lunatics inflicted upon each other. Sam pelting raw 'taters at Bruce's head, dumping dirt on his face, or telling his effects crew to 'hit him harder.' "Just throw some dirt in his eye and hit him with a 2 by 4," and he'll be all right, says one of the special effects technicians - advice from Sam that was also heavily inflicted on Ted Raimi (who has four roles in the U.S. version and suffers each time).
The effects crew also get their deserved credit in "The Men Behind The Army," the featurette on Disc 1 narrated by Campbell, which edits together material from on set video footage, and video material from the effects tests (with Raimi and producer Bob Tapert wearing blindfolds). Past and more contemporary interviews are intercut with film and vintage video footage of the effects supervisors, and it becomes pretty clear how intense the 100-day shoot was for everyone.
Raimi's Rule is to keep costs low so he can shoot the stuff he really wants (and needs), and Disc 2 includes four deleted scenes, including an alternate opening (2:57); a battle between Ash and Duke Henry the Red, that precedes the opening march in chains and stocks (2:00); a longer version of the windmill scene with several long, complex takes (6:14); and Ash riding (badly) a horse to convince Duke Henry he's next on Evil's platter unless he brings his legions to the castle, with cameo by a buck-toothed Bob Tapert (2:52). Each scene comes with full-length commentary from star and director, and the material largely comes from video dupes from a well-worn workprint.
The original ending is also presented on Disc 1, and has a sharper look than its form inside the complete Director's Cut. Visually the American version looks better - the source materials have more detail, require less noise reduction, and the colours are more intense - whereas the Director's Cut is muted, with some active compression during the longer skeleton battles in the final act, and a softer picture to smoothen some of the harshness seen in the original ending on Disc 1. (Years ago I watched a PAL VHS rental tape, and there was a similarly noticeable difference in grain and colour accuracy - the Director's Cut should be a generation closer to the negatives, but the American cut must have benefited from some superior source material in the end, and a boost from THX mastering.)
Disc 2 also includes a great storyboard feature, which displays a corresponding black & white storyboard in the lower right corner for most scenes, and a still gallery of twenty creature concept drawings. Actor and Director Bios (with film credits up to 1998) appear on Disc 1.
Campbell's liner notes for the new booklet mix a few quotes from fan letters with deadpan delivery of cast and crew maiming, humiliations, and Tippi Hedren's hungry lions - a nice capper for the Boomstick Edition.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan