QUICK PSA BEFORE WE BEGIN THE AUTOPSY:
88 Films is currently running a new INDIEGOGO "ITALIAN COLLECTION RESTORATION PROJECT" CAMPAIGN, with the explicit intent to create new HD masters for Joe D'amato's ABSURD (funded), Michele Massimo Tarantini's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (funded), Lucio Fulci's AENIGMA and Joe D'amato's BEYOND THE DARKNESS.
Regardless of what I have to say about the following Blu-ray release, if you care about any of these films, take a look at the campaign and consider contributing. I plan to myself, and if you legitimately want to see more vintage Italian exploitation films released on Blu-ray, you probably should too.
The day has come, friends - I've finally gotten my copy of the 88 Films Blu-ray of Andrea Bianchi's BURIAL GROUND/La Notti Del Terrore - a month late due to a forwarding address apparently having been expired, but hey, who's counting!
For those who don't know, 88 Films secured the rights during, and offered a restoration as a bonus stretch goal to their Zombie Holocaust remaster campaign through Indie Go Go. They were quiet on the subject for a little while, and the reasons behind it became clear when they decided to release a random sampling of A/B/C comparisons of "tests" they were doing with the available materials. You can see them HERE ON FACEBOOK, if that's your jam; the short version was they were left four options, each a little more pleasant than the last.
* Media Blasters' effectively useless HDCAM master, which is such a mess I've written extensively on it - to summarize, massive chroma noise from a poor scan, frames missing at literally every single cut resulting in a notably shorter runtime, and outtakes have randomly been inserted back into the film incorrectly - and that's on top of it having been delayed for nearly a year! (In short, this was the Eurohorror release so shockingly bad that Media Blasters never even bothered to do another one.)
* The only known surviving English language 35mm "Grindhouse Print" which - while more or less complete - looks just as blown out, faded and filthy as you'd expect. We'll talk about that later, rest assured...
* A 16mm Internegative - presumably the same film source that all DVD masters in the last 20 years have been made from, which is badly out of focus.
* The original 16mm camera negative, which - while the very best material available - evidently required a ton of work to restore every individual cut of the original film to its proper place.
Now, I have a theory, as imperfect as it all is; Media Blasters' transfer claimed to be from the "Original Negative", as does 88 Films' remaster. 88 Films even went as far as to provide some context for the fact that the negative they were offered involved "Undercuts" - in other words, the original 16mm A/B rolls where the editor marked the end of the shot by marking the first frame he didn't want with a big "X" scratched into the print itself... but, before we get into the nitty gritty of the transfers themselves, I can say (with one dubious exception) that every single frame is here.
Which means that either the Media Blasters transfer was made from some other film source entirely - maybe a 16mm reversal-negative with warped splices? - or else they really did go back to the same negatives, and were so shockingly sloppy re-creating the finished negative that they managed to lose frames completely at random because whatever film lab did the work was literally just that amazingly terrible.
None of it really adds up either way, and I've reached out to 88 Films for clarification, but they're taking their time in getting back to me. Without wanting to throw either party under the bus, I'll leave the details and explanations given by their respective parties as they are for now, and will happily update this if anyone's willing to come to light with more details.
So! Confusion and potential behind the scenes drama aside - how is the presentation?
THE GRINDHOUSE TRANSFER:
Much like the uncut version of Just Before Dawn that Code Red released a few years ago, this is a gloriously nasty source print that's been given absolutely minimal preservation efforts; for this transfer each and every scratch, scuff, stain, pop and blob of dirt has been retained in its untouched form.
How does one even qualify a transfer like this, I wonder? While I've seen some truly impressive transfers derived from 35mm release prints, this has gone out of its way to not correct any color grading mishaps, to not process out any of the tinny hiss - to call it "raw" would be an understatement, and considering what a cheap little slice of exploitation this particular title is, I would imagine that anyone who legitimately has an affinity for it - particularly anyone who was lucky enough to own an original VHS copy before the various DVD releases, or even see an equally-grotesque 35mm transfer at a revival showing (both of which I myself am guilty of) - won't feel their black, shriveled hearts grow three sizes just spending a few minutes wallowing in this unfiltered stretch of nostalgia.
From a technical standpoint... I really have no complaints. The 15.76 Mb/s bitrate is adequate enough to keep the fuzzy grain structure from looking like AVC soup, and the very rough-and-tumble nature of the whole makes the usual expected problems sort of blend into the constant grimy insanity of the content itself.
The Grindhouse Version ain't pretty. It's exactly as it should be. It's kind of ironic that despite being an ass-ugly source print, there's really no technical complaint to be had.
THE NEGATIVE RESTORATION:
THE ORIGINAL(?) ELEMENTS
THE ORIGINAL(?) ELEMENTS
Here's where it gets a little more complex... but, the good news is that I can emphatically say that the title has never, and may never, look better than it does right now. Whatever quibbles and misgivings I have for the transfer as a whole are absolutely drowned out by the fact that, in the pantheon of low-budget and schlocky Italian horror films to have been brought to Blu-ray, this is far from the worst. It's not perfect, which is a shame, but what can I say? If the $35 I paid as part of the Indie GoGo campaign led to this, I'll live with it.
First of all, the restored version - one oddity I'll explain later aside - appears to be complete. The Media Blasters' release before it lost frames at each individual cut, an issue that is mysteriously not an issue on this virtually-complete presentation. This alone is worthy of praise, considering another Italian zombie trash classic - Hell of the Living Dead - has suffered the same fate in High Definition as the previous Burial Ground master before it.
There's little in the way of notable debris, scratches or damage in general to complain about - there's minor scuffs and dust that hasn't been completely scrubbed away, though it's never to the point of distraction. The original 1.66 framing of the Super-16 negative is preserved in full. The English titles have been sourced from what look like 35mm archival elements, and while I would have liked to see the Italian titles, even just as an extra, I have no complaint over "Burial Ground" being the on-screen title rather than "La Notti Del Terrore".
What 88 Films promises is a 2K scan of the "Original Italian 16mm Negative" has a slightly muted, drab look when compared to other releases I'm familiar with - no contrast boosting here, that's for damn sure! - but daylight scenes have a fairly natural, golden hue and the juicy gore on display is a healthy crimson, with the poorly lit fleshtones tending towards a natural - if slightly sickly - hue. Black levels are quite solid, and overall the restores presentation's clarity and definition is dramatically better than the fuzzy, uneven blobs of high-contrast film grain hovering on top of the Grindhouse Transfer.
The English audio has been transferred in its original mono at 24-bits, as has the original Italian audio. They both sound fairly clear without any obvious hiss, flutter or other analog distortions, though it's obvious the English track has been given a pass of digital noise reduction, while the Italian track is more prone to clearer highs and slightly more distinct separation between music and dialogue - though it tends to hiss and crackle a bit more as a result. The slightly more "raw" Italian track sounds slightly more appealing, and I don't think any of these actors spoke a word of English on set anyway - but neither is really a disappointment.
THE NEGATIVE RESTORATION:
THE DIGITAL TRANSFER
But is what we have here actually good? I tend to think it's ultimately on the upper-end of the transfers Blue Underground and Arrow Video were releasing early on, before it became en-vogue for them to the scans themselves from scratch; there's noise floating on top of a soft and somewhat smudgy image, a minor-to-moderate level of DVNR that comes and goes (but is especially heavy during the opening zombie attack), and it has that unfortunate, tell-tale artifact of fast-moving objects like swinging weapons having sharp, defined grain while the rest of the image looks somewhat smoothed over.
Perhaps the best comparison I can make is the 2K remaster of Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2... that is, the LVR/Blue Underground remaster, not the superior Arrow Video transfer sold as Zombie Flesh Eaters. If you were fine with that, you'll probably love this. If, like me, you found the Blue Underground release of that lacking... well, you're not exactly in for a treat.
To get a clearer idea of what I'm talking about, open both the "Grindhouse" and "Restored" sceenshots 7 and 11 in different tabs. Notice how "off" the grain looks on moving faces? And notice how despite the numerous other problems on the Grindhouse version, the grain looks... y'know, normal?
[Kentai Films Protip: When you have an especially noisy scan, don't use temporal DVNR! The result always warps during fast motion, and with old CRT scanners the issue is less the presence of noise itself, and more that it seems to exist outside of the underying celluloid image. A far better method is to gently apply a spherical blur until the noise loses its "sharp" look and blends back into the film image proper. No, it's not replacement for a scan with better quality optics, but helps you avoid... whatever it is we should call what we're looking at today. No chroma smearing, no irregular grain patterns - just subtle a softness no one would ever suspect without a direct comparison.]
Do keep in mind that - while I stand by by BU Zombie comparison on all technical merits - the budget and artistic intent behind this film is... well, it was minimal, to put it bluntly. Comparing Lucio Fulci's camerawork, light staging, editing and artistic direction to Andrea Bianchi is like comparing Baz Luhrmann to Christopher Nolan. The 16mm negative stock, terrible on-set lighting, and frantically moving whip-pans all lean me toward wanting to forgive 88 Films' clearly well-intentioned transfer, but... I've got to be honest here. It's just not that good. It pains me saying that, too, but it's just not very good at all.
My opinion was a lot more positive the day the disc arrived, when I could wallow and revel in a stable, watchable HD transfer of archival materials, but the more time I spent looking over different scenes with different intensities of grain management and faded, sickly color that leaves skin an odd, almost gray mass of nothing, the less enthused I became with it. It's never anywhere near as miserable as the 2011 Blu-ray, and it's still a substantial step-up from any SD presentation, but one need only compare the two transfers present on this very disc to know that something just isn't right on what should, in every way imaginable, be the superior presentation.
Had this come out through Shout Factory or NSM Records, pretty much anywhere else that didn't have the fanfare surrounding the restoration itself? I'd just shrug, say "Well, it's better than a bunch of other shitty Euro Horror discs on the market." As someone who paid to see both this and Zombi Holocaust restored... I'm honestly not sure how I feel. Disappointed, maybe, but even that's giving these flaws a little more attention than they probably deserve. I'd bet money this was carried out on the same Cintel hardware LVR has had chugging along for a decade, and it's unfortunate that no matter how hard the staff of any lab might try, they can't magically make garbage hardware they spent a quarter-million dollars on magically "good" - instead they listen to complaints, and adjust their internall processes accordingly, even if the ultimate end result is "add noise reduction so clients don't complain about video noise". It's panning water, not plugging the leak, but that's the situation we tend to find ourselves in...
But high personal standards aside, let's face it - Burial Ground getting a mulligan at all was a goddamn miracle, and if this is as good as it's gonna' get... well, I don't have to praise it to the heavens, but I can say that I've seen, and own, far worse. I'm happy I have this release. I don't mind that I paid $35 to fund it. I just hope this isn't seen as the high watermark when 88 Films themselves have released better looking transfers from other licencors, as they've proven they're capable of much more when their HD tape masters start from a better place than this.
ANY NEW BONUS FEATURES,
OR UNEXPECTED ADDITIONS?
Ported from the Media Blasters release are the films' trailer under the title NIGHTS OF TERROR - not only is it poorly upscaled, but it appears to be a PAL-to-NTSC conversion, deinterlaced, and upscaled to 1080i 29.97. Brilliant.
There's also 10 minutes or so of Deleted Scenes presented as-discovered, without sound, which run the gamut of being amusing to erotic to kind of dull, as is often the case. Frustratingly, the Media Blasters incorrectly re-inserted a few of these outtakes at around 00:25:41 on the 88 Films Restored Version. Footage that was supposed to be included in the film proper is still included in the Deleted Scenes reel, but the outtakes that are presented as part of the feature on the Media Blasters Blu-ray - including some additional exploding lightbulbs and a longer scene of two lovers flirting and kissing by the fountain - are nowhere to be found. A minor loss, but a slightly frustrating one all the same.
While the initial print-run comes with an "O-Sleeve" style slipcase, all releases also come with a booklet featuring new writing by Calum Waddell (who also moderates the commentary). Finally, the package includes a collectible postcard featuring the original Italian poster art, as well as a two-sided cover with both classic American and Italian designs. All of this has a sort of bleeding, super-saturated look to it, but there was clearly some effort put into the design, and as a fan of the oft-insane posters for vintage trash films the attention to providing multiple options is deeply appreciated.
*Fun Fact: The interview is interspersed with what looks like the super-noisy footage from the Media Blasters BD.
IS THERE ANY FOOTAGE MISSING?
This is an interesting case. In short, the version on display per the Negative Restoration appears to be the exact same version released on every DVD going back to the Japan Shock release:
At around 00:42:45, James slams the shutters closed after tossing the lifeless body of the maid to the zombies below. In the Restored transfer, he begins to turn towards the camera, and there's a jump-cut to the bloody hands of zombies picking at the corpse below. The music has a jump cut as well, though with the weird, grinding soundtrack over this film it's a little more difficult to tell than normal.
This shot as it appears on the "Restored" version.
Why yes, that does appear to be print damage on the side of the frame.
And yet, the same old footage known to be MIA from the 16mm IP is - once again - trimmed from the 88 Films transfer. Is this master really from the original camera negative, or perhaps a 16mm back-up negative used in place of the unusable OCN the licensors are now treating as one if the same? If not, what the hell did Media Blasters use for their 2011 masters? Don't misunderstand the tin-foil, I want to trust everyone involved here, but as the similar confusion over exactly what materials were used between both Blue Underground and Arrow Video's competing 2K restorations of Zombi 2 have established, either one side is lying... or both are being lied to.
If 88 Films wants to clarify any of this, I'd love to know and will happily update the write-up. I'm not angry, as the scene was (to be fair) a largely inessential reaction shot and it's included on the disc in one form or another. I'm just... confused. And I don't like being confused.
IS IT WORTH THE UPGRADE?
All that said, I still plan on contributing a wad of cash to the current Italian Collection Restoration Project. I'm not blown away buy the results here, but I'd still rather see Aenigma and Buio Omega brought up to this standard than to languish in the inferior presentations we currently have at our disposal. It's all a matter of degrees at this point, and even at its worst, Burial Ground commits the cardinal sin of being no-better than average.
I guess if that's the best future I can hope for, I'm fine with it. We live in a time where Michal Mann approved Blu-ray transfers have SD inserts, because at this point sales on physical media are so weak and "old" B-movies do so poorly that nobody fucking cares - not even guys like me. If you need further proof, take a look at the Indiegogo Campaign and realize that despite over 20,000 pounds having been raised, that's still less than 500 backers in total.
Five years ago, when I was adamant that we could - that we should do better, there was still reason to have hope. These days, if a release isn't appalling... that's pretty much yer' lot going forward. If "Average For An Italian Exploitation Film" quality is all we have a chance for, I'd rather take it than not at this point.
Just do me a favor and keep including those chewed-up Grindhouse Prints, won't you? If I can't have a proper looking "perfect" restoration at least let me torture my monitor and headphones with the ugliest, most organic presentation possible as an alternative!