Shadow Of the Hawk, Now With More Nightwing (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Of course, ideally every movie we're interested in will have an loaded, 2-disc blu-ray special edition. But we don't live in that world. In our world, some pretty cool movies are only available on MOD (Made On Demand... official releases put out on invariably single-layer burned DVD-R discs). But hey, at least we have that! After all, plenty of stuff has never been released on any format at all. And so today's cool MOD is Shadow Of the Hawk, a highly entertaining made-for-television American Indian-themed horror film from 1976. It originally aired on ABC [or not, see the comments!], and is being bought to us now on disc by Sony and Columbia Pictures.

Update 7/9/15 - 10/27/18: We can forget all about MOD DVD-Rs now; it's out on blu!  And it even comes paired with the 70's vampire bat thriller Nightwing as a double-feature.  But can Mill Creek deliver the quality we've come to expect from the major and cult labels?
Shadow stars Jan Michael Vincent as a half-Indian; and if you can wrap your suspension of disbelief around that, you'll have no problem with the ghost and witch doctor stuff coming up. He lives in the city, but his medicine man grandfather (Chief Dan George) leaves his reservation to come find him, and just in time, because Vincent is getting violent visitations from an evil ghost in a white mask. Apparently an evil sorceress is using her powers to wipe out the two of them and all of their remaining people, and George is too weak to fight her on his own. So somehow a freelance reporter lady gets caught up in all of this, and the three of them set off on a road trip back to their village. Vincent has to learn to both accept and master his ancestral powers before the witch becomes too strong.
If you're looking for authentic lore that respects real Native American history and even teaches you a thing or two about another culture, forget it. This just feels like the writers wrote every spooky or wild Indian-themed supernatural concept they could come up with on note-cards, spilled them onto a table, and that was their script. Chief Dan George is the only true Native American involved in this film, but that's okay. This movie isn't trying to educate, just entertain, and that it does. There are genuinely effective ghost moments and campy magic attacks. There's a really impressive effect where a car crashes into an invisible wall, and a pretty fake looking snake that bursts into flames. Jan Michael Vincent wrestles a bear in this movie! Someone turns into a wolf (of course), a black ghost car chases our heroes (which tribe had those in their legends again?), and there's an evil snake dance ritual with lesbians making out... Yeah, this movie does have that made-for-TV feel at times, and that also restricts the amount of sex and blood they can play with, but if you can't find something to enjoy in this picture, you ain't lookin'!
Sony/ Columbia 2011 MOD DVD-R top; Mill Creek 2018 blu bottom.
The made-for-TV look is reduced considerably thanks to the fact that this film has been remastered in widescreen and looks great even on the DVD. It's a bit fuzzy and soft, but you're going to get that with the compressed MODs. Shadow was shot on 35mm, and for the first time ever (including, I'm sure, its original broadcast), looks the part. It's nice and anamorphic, with no interlacing issues or anything like that. The picture's in a much nicer state better than I ever expected to see it. They even slightly letterboxed it to 1.85, rather than leaving it at 1.78. Somebody involved cared. And the Dolby 2.0 audio is pretty clear and robust, too.

But things get even better this October with the new blu.  For those skeptical of Mill Creek, I'm happy to start out by reporting that this is a pressed, dual-layered disc and the audio is lossless (LPCM).  Of course, it's the same exact 1.85:1 master being used here, but that's just fine as it seems to be a genuinely high quality Sony scan, and it makes a genuine difference getting it in HD.  Instead of compression artifacts, we see real film grain.  And yes, small detail lost in the SD transfer are restored on the blu.  You might be worried about squeezing two films onto one disc, but again it's dual-layered, and there are no features (disappointing but expected) weighing it down.  So in the end, it's just a little over three hours on a 50 GB disc, which is better than plenty of single movie blus.
So like I said, and as is usually the case (though not always!) with MOD releases, there are no special features included with this film, not even a trailer.  And the same goes for the blu.  A trailer does exist - it was featured on one of Synapse's 42nd St. Forever compilations - but you don't get anything here.  At least Mill Creek's blu has a menu screen, which I guess is technically a step forward. And that's disappointing, because I'm sure there are some interesting stories to go along with this movie, from shooting all this wild stuff out on location to selling ABC on a Native American-themed horror film in the first place. And if you look Shadow up on the imdb, they list a second, uncredited director - I'd love to know what the deal is there.  Another label would've surely given us something, plus probably subtitles which are also MIA on both versions, but you can't argue with Mill Creek's pricing (less than half of what Sony wanted for their burned DVD!), especially since it comes with a whole, second feature.
Nightwing is a good choice for the double-bill, because both films have a lot in common.  It's a late 70s PG horror, which also used to only be available as a Sony DVD-R.  But more than that, it's another film about Native Americans dealing with mystical dark forces rooted loosely in their folklore.  And yes, we've got another white man in the lead role as the son of a powerful shaman, this time not even trying to play it off as "half Indian."  Nick Mancuso, star of the NBC series Stingray, is supposedly a full-blooded Native sheriff living on a reservation, which is also populated by a couple other white actors in the lead roles and authentic Native Americans in the older and supporting roles.  So they do kind of feel like sister movies.
And this one has a lot of strong points to draw you in.  Henry Mancini gives it a first class, stylish score, and the cast is rather interesting, with notables like David Warner and Modern Romance's Kathryn Harrold.  The acting is quite strong all around and they're delivering fairly respectable material, as the script is based on a novel by Martin Cruz Smith.  The locations and special effects are often quite good, though there are some very dated and even messy for the time composites thrown in the mix, too.  Really, the only major drawback is that it's so damn boring.  This is a movie I saw as a kid at least a dozen times on TV.  Because it's PG, they could play it in the afternoon.  And every time I'd revisit it, I'd think there have to be more bat attacks than I'd remembered.  But nope.  There's really just one midway through the film that really delivers the goods, and then the heroes deal with the bat horde at the end.  Otherwise, it's just an endless stream of exposition.
You've got two stories, basically, that wind up dovetailing at the end.  Mancuso's the reservation's sheriff who's shaman father, uncle or whatever has decided to end the world by casting one last spell.  And this spell is either just superstition or the cause of a rash of mysterious vampire bat attacks (most of which we don't see).  He battles with a big business owner on the reservation who wants to hush it all up so he can bring in some big business deals, a la the mayor in Jaws.  Then, on the other hand, you've got David Warner as a cross between Richard Dreyfuss' character in Jaws and Donald Pleasance's in Halloween.  He's devoted his life to hunting and killing vampire bats ("I kill them because they're the quintessence of evil!"), and followed them to this community.  So, basically, Warner represents the scientific explanation, and Mancuso represents the spiritual, with Harrold kinda floating in the middle.  Hope you find this talk fascinating, because that's what you get in lieu of bat action.  But then again, I have to say, the brief bat moments they have made a pretty big impression on me as a kid that were just as I remembered them with this recent rewatch as an adult.  The thrills are effective, there's just so damned few of them, and the movie isn't that short.
Mill Creek 2018 blu-ray.
Once again, it's another great scan, very filmic.  Grain is natural and crisp in HD, and it's a trip seeing this in widescreen (slightly matted to 1.85:1) after having grown up with terrible fullscreen television broadcasts.  The cinematography's a little on the flat side, but the landscapes definitely benefit from the proper composition.  Even the dark night skies look great.  No blocks, the colors look natural and authentic.  The audio is another lossless LPCM stereo track, and again there are no subtitles or features of any kind.  You just pick the movie you want to watch on the menu screen and off you go.
This is definitely the version to own for both films.  Of course, that's obvious given this is each film's debut in HD.  But this is more than just a bare minimum incremental upgrade, this is a surprisingly high quality release, to a downright surprising degree for a budget disc.  Certainly some "frills" would have been nice, like subtitles and special features.  We can only imagine what the Scream Factory treatment would've looked like here.  But if you're in it for "just the movie," this is a pleasant surprise.

Finally, Fulci's City Of the Living Dead (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparisons)

Having covered so many of Lucio Fulci's great 80s horror classics, City Of the Living Dead's absence has probably stood out like a bit of a sore thumb.  Well, I'd been planning on doing it, but then, in the beginning of February last year, Code Red announced a new edition with a fresh 2k scan of the OCN.  Given the troubled state of the previous CotLD blus (more on that below), I decided to wait.  Eventually, it was announced that Scorpion would be handling it instead of Code Red, and then radio silence.  Meanwhile, Arrow announced a fresh 4k scan from the OCN.  And, well, here it is October 2018, and I don't know what's happening with Code Red/ Scorpion, but they're gonna have a hard time topping this!
City Of the Living Dead, a.k.a. The Gates Of Hell, is either the first or second in Fulci's loose trilogy of end of the world, undead horror.  City and The Beyond are a definite pair, but then it's more of a looser fit to try and tack on Zombie, House By the Cemetery, or maybe even Manhattan Baby.  But certainly, as with any of those others, Fulci's assembled his A-Team here: writer, Dardano Sacchetti, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, composer Fabio Frizzi, effects by Gino de Rossi and Cathriona MacColl in the lead.  And he's assembled a pretty great cast, including Christopher George, Giovanni Lombardo Radice, Janet Agren and Michele Soavi.  There was no way this wasn't going to be somewhere in his upper echelon.
I'm also partial to the horror free for all style of story being told here.  You've already got Sacchetti's love for blending genres mixed with a healthy dose of Lovecraft's undeniable influence.  And yet it's still got a little more thematic unity to it than The Beyond, where each scene could practically be from a different movie.  Here, anything can still happen - dead people appearing and disappearing at will, bleeding walls, an air raid of maggots - but it all sort of feels like it fits within the premise.  There are certainly... flaws in the characterizations.  MacColl is alternatively dogmatically determined to prevent the apocalypse she saw in her visions or willing to forget the whole thing and go get a coffee instead.  Bob's tryst with his self-inflating sex doll is completely out of place.  But coherence isn't really a highly regarded commodity in 80s Italian horror in the first place, and combined with the utterly mad plot-line, it's hard to define anything as out of place or ill-fitting here.  Anything can happen when the gates of Hell are open.
Now, City of the Living Dead is hardly debuting on disc here. It was first released in 1998 by a cool cult label called EC Entertainment.  Then Anchor Bay gave it a wider release in 2000, which was later repressed by Blue Underground in 2007.  In 2010, Arrow and Blue Underground released blu-ray editions for the UK and US markets, respectively.  I wound up getting the BU blu because it had marginally better picture quality, but I still copped the DVD version (in fact a 2-disc set) of the Arrow disc for all the unique special features.  But despite having the superior transfer of the two, BU's disc was still plagued with scanner noise that a lot of Italian films had baked into their scans around that period.  So I've been anxiously awaiting this new, 4k scan from Arrow's re-release this October.  Is it finally the City of the Living Dead we've all been waiting for?
1) 1998 EC DVD, 2) 2000 AB DVD, 3) 2007 BU DVD,
4) 2010 Arrow DVD, 5) 2010 BU BD, 6) 2018 Arrow BD.
So EC's a pretty collectible little label, and I've read that some of their DVDs were actually better quality than many later reissues.  Well, that's not the case here.  Their Deluxe Collector's Edition is non-anamorphic, interlaced and a generally pixelated affair, slightly mis-framed at 1.75:1.  The Anchor Bay DVD may not be pretty, but it corrected all of that: anamorphic, non-interlaced, 1.84:1 and more filmic.  And the BU DVD is the exact same transfer, no differences.  Pretty straight-forward so far.

Then the fine folks at BU (and Arrow) come back with their blu, finessing the framing to a perfect 1.85:1, clearing up the image and bringing us into the world of HD.  Unfortunately, they've got that scanner noise.  Now, I don't have Arrow's 2010 blu, just their DVD, but my understanding is that Arrow did some additional tampering with the image in an attempt to undo the noise (certainly their DVD has a weirdly smoothed look to it), and BU left it alone, hence the latter being the preferable option.  But of course, neither one is too hot, which brings us to Arrow's new addition.
2010 BU BD left; 2018 Arrow BD right.
Now, this movie was always a pretty rough looking feature, so fans hoping for a wealth of new, fine detail from this 4k scan might initially be a little disappointed.  It's still framed at 1.85:1, but restores all the original film grain and thankfully, yes, is free of the noise.  If you're not clear on what scanner noise is, or how to spot it, check out this enlargement.  See how all the grain looks very blocky and pixelated?  That's not actually grain, but noise on top of the image.  It's artificial detail, nothing to do with what was actually being photographed.  See how it makes all the lines (of his face, the bookcase behind him, etc) all jagged and oversharpened?  Arrow's blu may actually look a bit softer by comparison, but that's the actual, natural image.  And since the noise is random, not part of the core image like film grain is, it looks even worse in motion, like you're watching the film through a jittery window screen.  So Arrow's new blu may first appear a little underwhelming, but it's a very welcome upgrade.

Another sweet thing about this new Arrow release is that it includes both the Italian and English audio tracks.  All the previous editions only had the English.  EC had the mono with optional English and Dutch subs, while AB and BU (2007) had stereo and 5.1 mixes, but no subs.  Same goes for the old Arrow, except their blu also had a 7.1 mix in DTS-HD.  BU's blu also has that 7.1, plus the 5.1 and mono, plus English, French and Spanish subs.  Now, the  new Arrow has the English 5.1, stereo and mono, all in DTS-HD, plus the Italian mono in DTS-HD, with two optional English subtitles tracks (one for the Italian and one to go with the English audio).
More great news in the special features department.  In short, new Arrow has by far the best special features department.  Their new interviews are longer, better edited and in higher quality video than any of the previous editions.  Plus, they have the old audio commentaries, which are okay, but completely redundant if you watch the interviews, which are better paced.  So the old Arrow, the BU blu, and the new Arrow blu all talk to a bunch of the same people, and they all tell the same anecdotes the same way every time.  So, while I understand (believe me, I do!) the collector's impulse to say I need all these discs because they all have unique extras, you truly honestly don't.  Specifically, here's what the new Arrow has:

*The old audio commentary with Catriona MacColl and journalist Jay Slater. I know he's a bit infamous and had one of his commentaries pulled from a Shriek Show disc and all, but he's perfectly charming here.
*The old audio commentary with Giovanni Lombardo Radice and writer Calum Waddell
*On-camera interview with Dardano Sacchetti, who's surprisingly negative towards the film
*On-camera interview with Catriona MacColl
*On-camera interview with cameraman Roberto Forges Davanzati
*On-camera new interview with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng
*On-camera interview with Sergio Salvati
*On-camera interview with Giovanni Lombardo Radice (again, with these improved interviews, Arrow could've tossed the old commentaries, but I appreciate them erring on the side of inclusion)
*On-camera interview with Gino De Rossi
*On-camera interview with Venantino and Luca Venantini, played the boy and his father (yes, they're also father and son in real life)
*On-camera interview with Fabio Frizzi
*On-camera interview with Carlo De Mejo (this one's from the old Arrow release, and [correction: 10/25/18] has an annoying editing style which is difficult to watch but apparently couldn't be helped due to the actor's condition at the time of recording.)
*On-camera interview with expert Stephen Thrower, who starts out repeating some pretty basic info, but gets pretty interesting as he gets deeper into things.  I wish he'd gone even deeper into how this film is an anti-fascist piece from Fulci, because other aspects, like the cops abusing the bohemians in NY and the fact that everyone is being punished for being Salem witch burners really play into that message, too.  But that's not a criticism, because Thrower has a lot of great stuff to say, which just inspired me to think about it and add my two cents here.
*On-camera interview with Andy Nyman, director of the recent film Ghost Stories
*A video essay by Kat Ellinger (who did a better job on Mondo Macabro's Who Can Kill a Child?, but here feels a bit lost) about Fulci's input in the zombie genre, which spends a lot of time just listing names and titles of classic zombie films, before eventually coming around to making a point
*Perhaps this disc's biggest gem: behind-the-scenes 8mm footage of this film's USA shoots with audio commentary by Davanzati, who shot it all
*Alternate Gates of Hell opening credits
*Two trailers, a TV spot and a couple radio spots
*Four image galleries
...And, this set comes packaged in a nice hard slipbox with reversible artwork for the inner case.  Also inside is a double-sided poster, six lobby cards and a 60-page booklet by Travis Crawford and Roberto Curti, plus Arrow's usual card for another film in their catalog (I got Don't Torture a Duckling).

So, the Anchor Bay and old BU discs are barebones, with just a trailer and slideshow.  You can forget them anyway.  The EC DVD actually has a unique extra: MacColl and David Warbeck speaking at Eurofest '96.  A portion of this actually wound up on Grindhouse's Beyond blu-ray, but this EC version includes about six or seven additional minutes of them on stage.  Small potatoes, but like I said, I understand the collector's impulse.  😉

Blue Underground had some good stuff, it's just basically all been rendered redundant.  On camera interviews with MacColl and Radice perfectly mirror their other interviews and commentaries, and their half hour 'making of' carefully goes over each of the film's infamous set pieces, which again are all covered as well or better on Arrow's new blu.  Their "Memories of the Maestro" featurette is more unique, interviewing various cast and crew about their memories of Fulci, but it's all 100% taken from Paura vol. 1, as in the exact same footage; so if you have that either by itself or as packaged with 88's blu of Zombie 3, you've already got that content.

You might be a little more tempted to hang onto the 2010 Arrow blu (or DVD set).  Again some of it, including the commentaries and Carlo De Mejo interview, have been ported over.  But there's a lot that hasn't.  Most of it, though, is again older interviews with the same people saying the same things in lower quality.  This includes on-camera interviews with Radice and MacColll, of course, plus a shorter talk with Sacchetti and a brief introduction to the film by De Mejo.  But it has a couple unique features, including an interview with Fulci's daughter, Antonella, and one with Luigi Cozzi which feels like they just threw it on there because they had recorded it a while ago and had no better release to stick it on.  Most compelling is probably a silly featurette called Fulci in the house, which is more of an overview of Fulci's career and pretty disposable except it interviews a few interesting people like Joe Dante and Lloyd Kaufman.  It also includes a booklet by Wadell, a poster, lobby cards, one of Arrow's old window sleeves and reversible artwork.
I know this release may not be an exciting double-dip for fans who've A) bought it multiple times already over the years and B) were expecting more of a revelation in the PQ, but I really recommend replacing any edition(s) you have of this film with Arrow's new blu.  And if you're worried about all the old special features not ported over here, don't be.  Just chuck 'em out, except maybe the old Arrow.  None of it's good enough to make this disc a must-have, but there are some unique pieces of content you might want on that one, especially if you already have the disc and it's just a question of hanging onto it rather than tracking it down in 2018.  But seriously, don't underestimate Arrow's new edition.  Fixed transfer, both language tracks, and the best and most comprehensive special features this film's ever seen by far.

Bad Ronald As You've Never Seen Him Before (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I've been planning to tackle the central and most infamous in the rather demented trilogy of psychological horror films of the underrated young actor Scott Jacoby for a while now.  But when Warner Archives announced their intention to reissue the film on blu, I decided to wait.  And boy am I glad I did, because this new version, released just in time for the Halloween film, opens up a whole new chapter in Bad Ronald's life.
For those who don't know, which is surely most of the film-going world, the trilogy starts with Rivals and ends with The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.  Of course, these aren't Jacoby's only forays into the horror genre - he's pretty good in the To Die For movies - but these three are joined together by a common theme of taboo-twisting murder.  They'd actually be more aptly described as dark cult films rather than horror.  And what makes Bad Ronald all the more infamous is that it was filmed and released as a made for network TV movie of the week.  What a weird thing to throw in front of mainstream viewers, but hey, it was the 70s; filmmakers were bold back then.
Bad Ronald's actually based on a book, of the same title, written by Jack Vance, which is even darker.  It tells the story of a boy who accidentally (purposefully in the novel) kills a young neighborhood girl, so his mother keeps him hidden when the police come for him.  She builds a secret room for him so he can live at home without anyone finding out, and it's just the two of them for years until one day she goes out and never comes home again.  So he lives alone, inventing a fantasy world he calls Atranta, and hiding from reality in a home everyone comes to believe is abandoned.  Until one day the property is sold and a new family moves in, replete with three young daughters, none of whom have any idea that they're surrounded by concealed doorways, tunnels, peep holes and a very lonely, homicidal occupant.
If you're looking for high production values, thrilling set pieces or glossy gore, this isn't the film for you.  There are at least as many horror aficionados baffled by the appeal of this film as enamored with it.  For one thing, this is an old TV movie, which means no R-rated sequences or bad language and a boxy, fullscreen aesthetic.  And as great as Dabney Coleman always is, he and much of the rest of the supporting cast feel out of place here, like they've accidentally wandered off their sitcom set for the day.  But on the other hand, casting couldn't get much more perfect than Jacoby and Kim Hunter as his mother.  And the girls do have a bit of classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre victim vibe to them.  Just know that this isn't about being suspenseful and scary so much as creepy and unsettling.

By the way, apparently this film was remade about twenty years later in France under the title MĂ©chant Garçon.  As far as I know, that film's never even been translated into English; but I'd sure love to see it some day.
Anyway, unsurprisingly, this film was unavailable on home video for a long time.  It was the just the kind of neglected, off-beat flick fans traded memories and VHS bootlegs of on news boards and conventions.  So it was a very welcome surprise when Warner Archives included it in their series of MOD DVDs in 2009.  It was completely no frills, of course (just look at their zero effort DVD menu, pictured right!); but just to have an official copy was a major win for fans.  But now, presumably in recognition of Bad Ronald's immortal cult status, Warners have taken another stab at it, this time in HD, and oh man, they really got it right!
2009 US Warner Bros DVD top; 2018 US Warner Bros blu-ray bottom.
Warner's DVD was clearly taken from an old tape master; though admittedly, it's not like it would've looked much better when it first aired in '74.  But clearly, for the blu, they were able to locate some original film elements and give them an entirely fresh scan.  Where to even begin?  The DVD is dreadfully interlaced.  We're not even talking intermittent frames like most interlaced DVDs we come across... every single frame is interlaced.  Thankfully, that's completely fixed.  And the drained, sapped colors have been fully restored and brought back to full vibrancy.  The weird aspect ratio of 1.28:1 has been corrected, too, to 1.33:1, adding picture to the sides and especially the previously cramped bottom, which had been giving the DVD an odd, misframed look to it.  There's still some headroom on the blu, suggesting perhaps that the filmmakers were keeping the possibility of a widescreen transfer open, but now we've finally got a correct 1.33:1.  Film grain is soft and hard to discern, but it's a real HD image, and compared to what we had before, practically a whole new movie.
The DVD's audio was surprisingly clear given the picture, but the blu still improves things by restoring the original mono tracks in lossless 2.0 DTS-HD.  Neither edition has any special features at all (there wouldn't have even been a theatrical trailer, after all), but you can still see the extra care put into this release.  I mean, they actually bothered to make a menu this time, and chapter stops are thoughtfully placed at key scenes and commercial break fade-outs rather than arbitrary ten minute increments.  Even better, they've created English SDH subtitles, another feature the DVD sorely lacked.
I wasn't expecting much from this release... I figured I'd be getting the same old video transfer just without the SD compression.  And I only bothered because crazy little film has such cut out its only little niche in my heart.  So I was delighted to pop it in and discover Warners had done this total restoration job on it.  So if you had similar thoughts, like why bother replacing a barebones DVD with a barebones blu-ray, well, now you see why.  This one gets a huge DVDExotica stamp of approval!

The Definitive Evil Dead 1 and 2 (Laserdisc/ DVD/ Blu-ray/ UHD Comparison)

Well, I mentioned I wanted to tackle the first two Evil Dead movies when I took a look at a ton of Army of Darkness DVDs and blus, and today's the day. We're not going to tackle quite as many obsolete older editions this time around, but we're going to look at the definitive editions for both titles and a several older ones to give an overview. I've actually owned plenty more Evil Dead I & II DVDs back in the day, but I've sold them off at different times. But this piece should still highlight pretty much all the releases worth caring about today.

I shouldn't have to tell you what the Evil Dead movies are. Sam Raimi's original was a fun, scrappy low budget horror film about demonic possession that became a surprise hit due to its imagination and some innovative filmmaking techniques. The sequel, sometimes subtitled Dead By Dawn, is practically a remake with the original team now backed with a more sizable Dino De Laurentiis budget and effects by Mark Shostrom and the KNB guys before they were KNB. They take the opportunity to innovate more, get crazier, even sillier, and take things to more outlandish, epic proportions. Personally, it's my favorite in the trilogy, although all three manage to be different peoples' favorites for their own, legitimate reasons. Do you prefer the more straight horror film of the original, or the far out fantasy of the third? They're all pretty great in their own right, so let's not waste anymore time and the best available versions of the first two Evil Dead flicks.

Update 7/11/15 - 10/15/18: If we're going to talk about the definitive Evil Dead experience, we can't leave out its top level format release.  Yes, Lions Gate just put the original Evil Dead out on 4K Ultra HD, so of course I'm gonna talk about it.
The original Evil Dead has had an unusually complicated history on DVD. Anchor Bay released it first as a bare bones, full screen (arguably the film's correct OAR) release in 1998, not too long after Elite released it the same way on laserdisc. Then Elite re-released their laserdisc as a special edition in 1999 with two commentaries and some behind-the-scenes stuff. And they also issued that special edition on DVD. Then Anchor Bay took the wheel again in 2002, releasing the 20th Anniversary edition, which had the Elite extras, more and introduced the world to widescreen 1.85:1 version. This widescreen version is a matted down version of the fullscreen version (i.e. it doesn't give us more picture on the sides, just crops the tops and bottoms), but was supervised and approved by Raimi.
So that's why I said the full-screen version is "arguably" the correct OAR. You could make a case for the widescreen one, too, since Raimi made it and prefers it, saying that's how it should've always been shown (and would have been matted for theaters). And it's hard to say which version looks better, either, as it seems to depend on the shot - some look better matted, some look better composed open. It's a debate that's been going on since the 90s, and if you want to start it up again, all you have to do is visit any forum and post an opinion or ask a question about it. It will never be definitively won. And it's led to the unconventional tendency for companies now to release it in both ratios at once. So if you have a strong preference for one version or the other, make sure you're getting what you want; but conveniently, it's cheap and easy to get both in the same package.

There was also a bit of business where Raimi made a few "corrections" to the film, fixing black mattes that didn't totally blend in with the background and erasing producer Rob Tapert who was accidentally visible in the background of one shot. For the most part, only the older, unmatted versions seem to have the pre-fix versions; but the changes aren't exactly as offensive as CGIing Jar Jar Binks into scenes or something. These are little fixes, not creative changes; so I think you'd have to be a real stickler to be bothered enough to only want to a version without them.

So there have been more subsequent releases, perhaps most notably the very dramatically packaged Book of the Dead version, which housed the DVD in an awesome, rubbery mock-up of the Necronomicon featured in the film (Evil Dead 2 also came in one, that also made a screaming noise if you pressed a hidden button on it). Oh, and Anchor Bay also released a lunch box edition, which is just what it sounds like. But I found I was able to let go of all my past DVDs (and laserdisc) thanks to two releases, which add up to a pretty definitive package, including best looking transfers of both versions, wide- and full-screen, and all of the many, many extras. Specifically: Anchor Bay's 2010 blu-ray, and Anchor Bay UK's 2003 Evil Dead Trilogy boxed set.

And in 2018, it makes its UHD debut in a 4k/ 1080p combo pack from Lions Gate.  As is common with these combo packs, the blu-ray half of the pack is the same old blu-ray from the previous release, in this case Anchor Bay's 2010 blu.  Same bonus trailers on start-up, same menu, it even opens with the AB logo.  It's the exact same disc.  But Lions Gate was good enough to come up with new label for it to match the rest of their artwork, which these packs often don't bother with.
Anchor Bay UK's wide DVD first, their fullscreen DVD second,
Anchor Bay's full screen blu (fullscreen) third, their blu (wide) fourth;
Lions Gate's full screen blu fifth; their widescreen blu sixth; and their UHD seventh.
Anchor Bay often would only include the widescreen version in their releases, but the Trilogy box set happily has both. Of course, that's fairly academic now, as their 2010 blu includes both transfers and blows them and all previous editions out of the water. So we won't even ask why the two DVDs seem to have differing transfers not only in the framing, but detail and color timing. It's all been greatly and decidedly improved upon. I mean, look at that random video noise along the top.

Oh alright. Actually, I do know why the full-screen transfer is softer and different. It's actually the pre-corrected version, with Rob Tapert visible, etc. See him there on the right? So if you're a purist, that's another reason to snag the Trilogy set.

But onto new business now.  And to start with, Lions Gate has made the somewhat controversial decision to only include the fullscreen transfer on their 4k disc. It's 1.33:1, just like all the other fullscreen transfers (technically the DVD's 1.32, but it becomes 1.33 when you crop away that excess video noise that isn't part of the picture).  Both the widescreens have the same AR, too: 1.85:1, but you can see there were serious adjustments made within that frame.  And that's kinda the case here, too.  You can see the DVD is more zoomed in than the other three fullscreen transfers.  But between the UHD and the blus, the biggest difference is really the colors, which are more nuanced and less contrasty now on the UHD.  Otherwise, given its 16mm roots, detail, grain etc looks pretty unchanged.  Of course, the UHD does benefit from the increased resolution technically... when you zoom in far enough, detail that starts to break down into pixelation on the 1080 is still smooth and round on the 4k.  I'm not sure you'd see it in motion even on a big ol' 82" TV.  The biggest benefit is really the increased brightness and contrast range.

Audi-wise, The DVD had a 5.1 mix, plus a stereo mix and a French dub that was on the widescreen version only.  And no subtitles.  The blu-ray has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix, plus the French dub, and English and Spanish subs.  The UHD has the same 5.1 TrueHD track, replaces the French dub with a Spanish one, and adds a third set of subtitles (making the always welcome distinction between standard English and SDH).

So it's really two areas that complicate matters beyond it being a simple case of DVD > BD > UHD, and necessitates multiple editions for serious fans. One is the widescreen transfer.  If you want that, you have to forgo the new 4k UHD and stick with one of the blus.  And the second area, which is even more convoluted, is the extras.

See, there's actually two versions of the blu-ray. The limited edition and the non-limited. The limited edition is a single disc release that only includes an audio commentary (and some bonus trailers for other AB releases) for an extra. Interestingly, it's a new one, by Raimi, Tapert and Campbell. The previous commentaries had Raimi and Tapert on one and Campbell on the other. This one replaces that, probably mainly so Anchor Bay wouldn't have to keep licensing the commentaries from Elite. So already that's one reason to hang onto the older DVDs: the blu only has the new commentary, the Trilogy set has the two older ones.

Now, the only way to tell the limited edition and non-limited edition blu-rays apart, at least by their front covers, is the green stripe running along the top. The non-limited edition has the same cover art, just minus that stripe. And it has the same UPC number, so things get real confusing. The limited edition is theoretically long sold out, but I've found that almost no online sellers know enough to differentiate between the two versions (same UPC and all), so you have to be very careful ordering online if you're trying to secure a particular one. But that means, to your advantage, sellers are often unwittingly letting the limited edition go for the very cheap price of the non-limited edition, so you can snag it super cheap with a little bit of luck and smarts.

But it's worth the trouble, because the bonus disc includes some really great stuff, many of which was brand new for this release. It includes a the original 53 minute making-of, a 60(!) minute feature on deleted scenes, a 29 minute featurette called The Ladies of the Evil Dead Meet Bruce Campbell, a 32 minute reunion panel, and four featurettes called Discovering the Evil Dead, Unconventional, At the Drive-In and a really short one entitled Book of the Dead: The Other Pages. There's also some brief make-up tests, four TV spots and the trailer. Holy cow, that's the special edition fans have been wanting since the 90s! Unfortunately, the bonus disc is a DVD, not a blu... it would have been nice to get all these new extras in HD. But they're just extras, so it's not that crucial, and the content is great enough as it is.

Meanwhile, the Trilogy has a couple of those extras, including the Discovering the Evil Dead featurette the trailer and the TV spots. But, besides the two commentaries, it has more of the older extras not carried over to the blu, including a 26 minute documentary Bruce Campbell directed himself called Fanalysis.  It also has the same behind the scenes and outtake footage that dates back to the laserdisc. Oh, and there are also little easter eggs of a make-up test and footage from an Evil Dead screening, plus an 8-page booklet.
But that's still not all. The Trilogy also has some exclusive extras, some of which are pretty dodgy, but still worth noting at least. The best of the bonus disc extras is the vintage episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which interviews Raimi back in the late 80s. But then things get weird, with a collection of extras hosted by a rather irritating lady who sits in a tree [pictured above], with titles like Bruce Campbell: Geek or God? Rather than featuring anyone involved with the making of the film, they're a collection of interviews with mostly British journalists, including the awfully controversial Allan Bryce. Most of this stuff is pretty dry, and it doesn't help that it's mostly shot in low video quality; although some of these guys come off better than others. But nobody tells you much you won't already have known going in. The most interesting segment is a short on how the film was marketed in the UK, featuring interviews with the guys who drew the UK poster art, since they at least have a modicum of first-hand involvement. But this stuff, I'd say, should be reserved for the serious fans who really want to see everything. Otherwise it's very skippable. There's even a very cheap rock music video "inspired" by the Evil Dead, which was performed by one of the experts interviewed previously.

Still, though, the Trilogy box is a nice cheap way to get Fanalysis and the Incredibly Strange Film Show episode into your collection if you otherwise just have the blus. And the other odds and ends are at least better to have than not.

And the new UHD combo-pack?  Prepare to be disappointed.  Again, the blu is the same 2010 blu Anchor Bay released, so it has no extras but the newer commentary.  And the UHD?  Same deal; just that one commentary.  Nothing else included, not even the trailer.  Surely they wouldn't've had to license that from AB?  Well, it does come in a slipcover.
Now, Evil Dead 2 has a pretty similar story, except Elite only issued their version on laser, and left all the DVDs to Anchor Bay. In this case, I hung onto mine, because not only did I get the limited edition "blood red" laserdisc, where the disc itself is colored red (definitely something you don't see), but as you can see in the photo, I've had mine personally signed by Bruce Campbell. So it's a pretty neat collectors' item, and as a bonus, we can throw it into the comparisons.

There have been fewer issues of Evil Dead 2 in general, and we don't have the dual fullscreen/ widescreen thing going on (although Anchor Bay did once include an open matter version as a bonus on one of their old discs, possibly just out of habit). Elite released their laserdisc in 1998 with a commentary by Raimi, Campbell, Greg Nicotero and Scott Spiegel, plus a 30-minute making of and the trailer. Anchor Bay released it as a bare-bones non-anamorphic DVD in 1998 and then spruced it up as an anamorphic special edition with the laserdisc extras in 2000. There were a couple more releases - in a tin, a THX version, and the book of the dead version - but nothing more was ever really added to the mix. The disc in the trilogy is pretty much the same as all post 1998 discs: anamorphic, with the same extras from the laserdisc ported over.

But there is one complication in that Evil Dead 2 later saw two, quite different blu-ray releases. The first came from Anchor Bay in 2007, essentially just bringing their old DVD into the high definition market. And then a newer 25th Anniversary Edition from Lions Gate in 2011, which surprisingly kicked Anchor Bay's disc in the teeth. It had an all new transfer, the old extras once again carried over, plus a whole bunch of new stuff, finally giving this film the definitive special edition it deserves. Let's take a look.
Elite's laserdisc on top; Anchor Bay UK's DVD 2nd;
Anchor Bay's blu-ray third and Lions Gate's blu on bottom.
Ick. Look at Anchor Bay's blu-ray. I mean, sure, it's an upgrade from the old 1.80:1 laserdisc, and maybe even the 1.84:1 DVD. But it's looks like the compression noise of the DVD wasn't cleaned up so much as DNR'd away. At least it's finally exactly 1.85:1, but the image looks so smooth and washed out, with weird sharpening around the edges. The closer you look, the worse it gets. Actually, with that terrible edge enhancement, I think I do prefer the DVD. But then, wow, look at Lions Gate's transfer (also 1.85:1). They must've taken a whole new scan; it's so much more detailed and cleaner. It's also a little less green, which is nice. Yaknow, Lions Gate gets a lot of flack (which they deserve) for sitting on a ton of great catalog titles (at least pre-Vestron), but when they come through on a title, they really come through.

Audio-wise, the laserdisc just had a basic mono track and no subs, while the DVD just gave us a 5.1 mix, plus German, Italian and Spanish dubs and a host of subtitles, including English.  The AB blu actually gives us two 5.1 mixes: LPCM and a lossy Dolby Digital, and strips away all the foreign subtitles, just leaving the English.  Lions Gate just gives us the one DTS-HD 5.1 mix, plus English and Spanish subtitles.

Extras-wise, the Anchor Bay blu did come up with a little something extra. In addition to the stalwart laserdisc extras, they added a new featurette called Behind the Screams. It's just a 17 minute collection of photos narrated by Tom Sullivan, but it's kinda neat, and at least gives us a little more Evil Dead 2 content.

But then Lions Gate swoops in. They bring in all the laserdisc stuff: the commentary, the making of, and the trailer. They pick up Behind the Screams, too, so completists you don't have to worry about getting the Anchor Bay blu just for that. But then they come in with a treasure trove of new stuff. Most notably, they have a full-length (98 minutes), seven part documentary on Evil Dead 2 called Swallowed Souls, which is pretty comprehensive. They could have released just that doc by itself and I would have bought it. And then just to fill in any remaining gaps, they have a another 30 minute behind-the-scenes featurette called Cabin Fever, and a cool little 8 minute thing on the film's locations. Plus there are four stills galleries and several bonus trailers. ...And the blu was so cheap, too; it was like a budget release except really a top shelf, first class special edition.
It's really awesome how good the final blu-rays came out for both these films, and with surprising terrific new extras for both. In the age of "do we really need another Evil Dead disc," the UHD's a bit of a disappointment on its own terms.  But hey, it's a legit upgrade in PQ if you're a UHD-compliant kinda guy, at least if you already prefer the fullscreen version.  It's certainly my go-to version from now on.  Then that and the bonus disc from the 2010 2-disc set makes for the complete, ideal package.  It's a bit of a pain to find that limited edition of Evil Dead 1, though, if you missed it. Otherwise, the current editions of both films are A+ definitive releases, and surprisingly cheap! And if you still want more after those, get that UK set. It's got all kinds of weird odds and ends.