Sunday, April 12, 2009

Waxing and Waning over Anchor Bay's Blu-Ray

Let it be said that I try my damndest not to have an irrational bias against any particular distributor. It does me no favors to decide "hey, cult movie purveyor "A", you've pissed me off so I'll never buy your products in the future" when not only could they get titles I'm very interested in, but could even manage to release it with little to no fuckupery. Every studio in the business - Blue Underground, Severin, ADV, Tartan, Lionsgate, Geneon, Unearthed, Grindhouse, FUNimation, Image, Media Blasters, Synapse, you name it - has managed to cock up a disc or two in some way, sometimes only once in a while, sometimes on a regular basis. It always pisses me off, I'm butthurt for a week or two, and then sigh, deciding one way or another if said cockup is still worth my money. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

One such example staring me in the face is the recent restoration of FOUR FLIES ON GRAY VELVET, a gorgeous new transfer coupled with some badly pitched PAL sourced audio. (Way to go on your first release, Mya Communications!) Eventually, I'm sure I'll buy it, but I'll piss and cry and moan all the way there, forced either to listen to tinny, growling and poorly encoded English audio, or watch it in Italian with no subtitles. (And my Italian? "Bappity boopah?") Hilariously, the actual PAL bootleg that the English dub was sourced from doesn't have this problem, and I'm already wondering if splicing the two transfers together would yield the 'perfect' results that the legitimate distributors simply weren't able to come up with...

And yet, Four Flies isn't even my gripe for the day. I'm just trying to use it as a great example of a title that:

A) I still want despite its' obvious and easily correctable flaws.

B) I don't already own a legitimate copy of.

C) I don't really have any better options.

As if to bring all of these points to the forefront is Anchor Bay, who - like a drunken slut who only later regretted that she fucked the entire football team on the hood of her dad's car - got exactly the unpleasant reputation they deserved. Don't get me wrong, they've released some really impressive DVDs over the last decade... but they've released some real stinkers, too. The Army of Darkness Director's Cut has always been sourced from a VHS tape, Cut and Run managed to bungle up the pre-existing English audio, they released the theatrical cut of Manhunt in its' proper aspect ratio but poorly cropped a shitty master of the Director's Cut, they fucked up the gorgeous Masters of Horror covers half way through the first season, have released multiple LD era masters upscaled as "remastered"... I'm sure I could go on, but you get the idea. Sometimes they get it just right, others they don't even come close. Just the luck of the draw, it seems.

This is no more true than when they decided to release their very first Blu-ray in late 2007. The lineup included George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, John Carpenter's Halloween, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, and a 4 disc set collecting the first season of Masters of Horror. They clearly put their best foot forward, offering some of the most legendary titles in their collection... though mysteriously, The Evil Dead disappeared sometime between the planning stages and the first wave of AB titles.

As long time friends of the Kentai Blog likely remember, I had some words to say on their EVIL DEAD II release. They weren't nice, but neither was the Blu-ray, despite the overwhelmingly positive response from 99% of critics who - for reasons unknown - don't seem to realize that the best way to judge a transfer is to compare it to the prior release, just to get a better grasp of how this remaster is noteworthy. In fact, the "Divimax" HD remaster actually has less fine detail than their THX approved DVD thanks to plenty of over zealous grain removal, and the color palette looks like a pile of glowing crap due to boosted gamma levels. It may literally be the only time where a genuine HD transfer is completely outclassed by its' DVD counterpart, which... I guess, in its' own way, is actually kind of impressive.

This smeared, pore-free and fuzzed-out look that DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) adds to faces has been dubbed "waxy" by critics of the process, and I can show you exactly what I'm talking about thanks to the magic of internet screencaps:

Director Sam Raimi always secretly wanted Evil Dead II to be animated, and thus hand-painted over Bruce Campbell with pastels frame-by-frame for the new Blu-ray transfer!

What's especially sad is that the one transfer I KNOW Anchor Bay got right - HALLOWEEN - actually looks quite nice, and yet every single asshole on the planet will always hate the transfer. The reasoning isn't because the HD transfer was scrubbed for grain or cropped or anything like that... the trouble is that when Anchor Bay did their own HD transfer in 2003, they did the work on their own, in stark contrast to their 1999 transfer in which they got the original director of photography Dean Cudney to oversee the transfer. In the process, Cudney tweaked the color values, pushing blues during the desolate night shots of the second half and bringing an amber glow to the earlier outdoor scenes. Fans of the film - who had only had crappy VHS and LD transfers prior - saw this as a revalation, and surely marks exactly how Halloween not only was meant to look, but always looked, and always should look.

There's just one problem. No prior video transfer - or film print, for that matter - of Halloween had the color values of the THX transfer until Cudney tweaked it during the 1999 remaster. That's not to say that the blues and yellows look bad, they actually compliment the film quite nicely... but it's no more an accurate representation of the original look of the film than the 5.1 surround track that Carpenter made for the occasion. Simply put, while I won't say the THX transfer was bad, that doesn't mean it looks the way the camera negative, and thus every known print of the film does, either. If you need proof, watch the included TV spots and theatrical trailers on the DVD, or pick up an old VHS copy for a buck on eBay.

Anchor Bay does their own transfer, and this time represents the film exactly as it was, with natural vivid summer colors in the daylight scenes, and cold - but not neon - blue lighting during nightfall. The Divimax transfer is (for once) pretty impressive, and unlike poor Bruce, Jamie Lee Curtis got to get her grain on.

I'll be damned. I have nothing unpleasant to say.

The MASTERS OF HORROR: SEASON 1 Blu-rays were never "remastered" because they were shot on 1080i High Definition video. So, let's move on.

We're left with the Divimax treatment of George Romero's seminal zombie horror films, Dawn and Day of the Dead. DAWN OF THE DEAD I won't buy for the simple reason that the DVD "Ultimate Edition" includes the vintage making-of, Document of the Dead, the semi-official The Cannes Festival is WHEN?! OH SHI- Romero rough cut (aka "The Extended Cut"), and finally, Dario Argento's shorter, more action packed Zombi. The Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray has none of these things, so it's out by default. That Blu-ray may be AWESOME! for all I know, but if the DVD has over 4 hours of alternate cuts of the film, and a feature length documentary... well, sorry buddy, but fuck y'all. I'm sticking with the DVD.

So... that leaves us with DAY OF THE DEAD. How's the old girl look on Blu-ray?

Well, that's... not so bad.

Still, where's the film grain? And the high frequency detail? Where the white girls at?!

Damn it Anchor Bay, I want to see zombified eyelashes and the cracks in the latex appliances! Especially considering how fantastic releases of vaguely similar low-budget 1980s horror films look, including Friday the 13th and Dead and Buried, this shot just doesn't fill me with confidence that Anchor Bay didn't smear their print into plasticine goo using grain-eating DNR, just like Evil Dead II, and considering how hit-and-miss Anchor Bay's own Divimax line of HD restored DVDs are I'm not sure that Dawn will look much better.

I guess it still looks worlds better than A Nightmare on Elm Street though... good god, those faces look like they're made of clay!

Maybe I've just grabbed a poor point of reference...

This, my friends, is the poster boy for the "Wax Museum" school of film restoration.

No natural grain, no fine detail, no "3D pop" as the kids say. You can argue that a low-budget horror film shot in 1985 for about 3.5 million dollars is never going to look like The Matrix or King Kong or whatever, but that doesn't mean it should be free of film grain or anything resembling fine detail either. 35mm should still be substantially sharper than this, and even if the shot was out of focus there would still be a fine layer of grain on top of that sharpness. The quality here would be more than acceptable for a PAL DVD or whatever, but Day of the Dead could surely look notably better than all this.

Well, at least it doesn't look nearly as bad as Evil Dead II-

OH GOD, WHY DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD?!

I know, it's from the end of the opening titles, so it's been overly-processed to deal with the heavier grain that optically printing credits brings to the print, but still... just look at that smeared bullshit. It's like they liberally applied a coating of KY Jelly to the print before making the transfer. There's just zero excuse for it to look this bad, even if it were shot on 16mm!

While this may not be the worst transfer kicking around on Blu-ray - that would go to Gulliver's Travels, hands down - it's clear that Day of the Dead is anything but reference material. This is quite disappointing, particularly since I already own this film on DVD, leaving me with even less incentive to "upgrade". The final nail in the skull to be had is the fact that the DVD includes a booklet of liner notes, a spiffy fold-out digipack, and the original shooting script as a DVD-ROM extra, all of which are absent from the High Def debut. More and more, upgrading is looking like a bitter pull to stick up my butt hole.

But wait! To make up for the lack of script, the Blu-ray release does include a subtitle-fact-track, and more importantly, the original audio mix. Thanks to Anchor Bay having cribbed their audio from the Japanese TV version of the film, there are several alternate audio substitutions on the surround remix (detailed very nicely HERE). The Blu-ray contains the original mono track, with all cursing and properly-pitched audio intact. Also worth noting is that, unlike Evil Dead II, the Day of the Dead DVD is no masterpiece... in fact, it's sourced from the exact same HD transfer, so it has all of the above problems on top of being only 480p with a lower bitrate. So while the above caps are pretty disgraceful, it's not as if the copy I do own is any better.

Anchor Bay has left me in a tight spot here. The Blu-ray seems equal in the extras department (all things considered), and marginally better on the audio/video side. On the one hand, Anchor Bay has produced a fairly nasty looking transfer here, and it's hard to want to give people money and encourage them to continue pumping out mediocre work. On the other, I selfishly want to own the best looking, sounding, and fully featured versions of every title I even half-like, and by definition, this is it baby. The fact that Amazon.com has it for about $15.50 shipped makes even these easy to spot flaws seem less important, somehow. Ah, how a cheap price tag can make anything seem more tolerable than it really is...

Not that supporting Anchor Bay and encouraging them to do anything is seemingly a major issue: after releasing their initial 4 horror films and the Masters of Horror season 1 in October of 2007, Anchor Bay more or less disappeared from the Blu-ray scene entirely, waiting about a year and a half to come back with HELLRAISER (which supposedly looks pretty damn good)... and, so far, no Blu-ray titles beyond that have been announced. Wither they'll treat Blu-ray like a redheaded stepchild from now on is anyone's guess, but looking at that last Day of the Dead shot, I figure they have nowhere to go from here but up.

So, will I buy it? Should I? I'm not convinced on either mark. Still, not buying zombie movies in HD means studios aren't encouraged to release more zombie movies in HD. And if I never see Fulci's ZOMBI 3 on Blu-ray with shoddy VHS sourced flying-zombie-head footage, well, that'd just be a downer...

Tune in next week while I try to decide if a fan-fucking-tastic 1080p transfer > no original mono mix! (Or, maybe, I'll finish a DVD instead. Who knows.)

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