Monday, August 29, 2011

Burial Grounded - The Splices of Terror

As friend of the site Kevin noted in his review at WTF-Film, the Shriek Show Blu-ray of Andrea Bianchi's super sleazy and charmingly budget-conscious thrill ride BURIAL GROUND/LA NOTTI DEL TERRORE was roughly a minute and 44 seconds shorter than the NTSC DVD release. Ordinarily this would either mean a chop-fest or perhaps a PAL framerate standards conversion, but having had a chance to look the disc over, I think the truth is far more bizarre than either of those seemingly reasonable explanations.

Now there's a few cuts, to be sure, but as Kevin's review pointed out there's only two substantial  sequences missing (totaling roughly 11 seconds), while there's at least 27 seconds of brand new footage never before seen on any English dubbed version of the film - to say nothing of a 3 second scene missing from all prior DVD releases, but presented in full on earlier VHS prints of the film. There was a mystery at hand and so, swapping out my usual bitchin' fedora for a more appropriate deerstalker cap, I got my hands on the damnable HD thing and decided to investigate.

The English titles appear identical to those on the prior DVDs, and apart from the brief bit of zombie gore and the happy couple sucking face in the garden before the arrival of the living dead, nothing else of note appears to be missing though it's possible we've both missed something - we're not robots. (Well, at least I'm not - Kevin's status as a potential android is entirely his own business.) Curious. Despite the video not having a proper pulldown flag the audio is properly pitched to 23.98fps, and when played on any competent BD player you'll get "1080p24" playback, so PAL speedup isn't an issue... odd. Where in the Bloody Pit of Lovecraftian Shenanigans did 2 minutes worth of runtime just up and fucking disappear to?!

The answer is as simple as it is mind-boggling, and before I even try to explain it, I'm going to post a sample... this scene occurs at 0:14:16 on the Blu-ray, and 0:14:23 on the DVD:

I've used the above example because of the round window behind the zombie - it makes it very easy to see that there are "extra" frames on the DVD, or rather that the Blu-ray transfer is missing these particular frames. With film running at 24 frames per second, that means this "cut" is exactly 1/8th of a second. Normally a couple missing frames between prints is common problem, and nothing to get too fussed about, but in this one sanity defying example, that's actually the answer to the sixty-four thousand dollar question...

This is probably the craziest thing I've ever had to type on this blog yet, but Media Blasters and whoever they had in charge of making their transfers has seemingly cut just a couple frames each time it cut from one shot to the next. Now when I say "every time" I'm not exaggerating, like there's 10 examples I could find if I sat down for an hour and tried:

I literally mean. Every. Single. Fucking. TIME.

I have never seen this done before, and mark my words I'll never see it done again, ever. You know why? BECAUSE IT'S COMPLETELY INSANE!!

As some of you may know, the word "cut!" wasn't just lingo used on the set of a film; it's also a technical term describing a single take from a single camera. It was called a 'cut' by editors because they would literally take a pair of scissors or a razor blade and cut the specific frames they wanted from the raw take. Each "cut" was then affixed to the next by the negative cutter, who used either sticky tape or cement to stick each 'cut' together and form the finished negative. You've probably seen splices at your local theater in the form of a black line that suddenly cuts across the middle of the screen followed by a quick jump in the film - if a portion of the print becomes warped or tattered, it won't run through the projector, and the person in the booth will have to cut that section out and add a new splice to the print to keep things running smoothly. And you probably thought all they did up there was smoke pot and read old Playboys!

That's a splice - the big, ugly white line at the top.
(Also notice all the gross discoloration below it.)

Typically, a splice on the negative would be made at the very top of the "next" shot, close to in-between the individual frames of the actual movie. That'd make them very difficult to detect, since most films are matted in the projector cutting off the outermost edges of the print anyway. The problem is that film splices often don't last forever. Depending on the adhesives and methods used to create the splice, the frames can become warped or damaged over time, creating discoloration and tearing the print! This is yet another reason you have to treat the original camera negatives carefully; those splices may be just brittle enough to tear, but not so brittle that the splice goes, at which point you start shredding irreplaceable frames of the actual negative! This is a big part of why, until very recently, film labs would always make a new print to restore and scan for home video rather than risk running the actual camera negative through the telecine process; making a high-quality contact print was less strenuous on the film splices, and as such there was less chance of destroying the negative permanently.

Sometimes the number of frames is literally one or two, sometimes it's five or six. Sometimes the cuts eat the last frame of the prior scene, but at they always cut into the next shot. So, why is Burial Ground literally missing over 2 minutes of random frames, and only at the splices at that? My only guess is that the splices had gone "bad" in some way, and this left the film lab with one of two choices: Either fix each and every splice digitally, or cut the goddamn things out and hope nobody would notice. The trouble is when you start randomly deleting frames, the audio doesn't sync up so well anymore, so then they may have trimmed a few more frames here and there to try and keep the already somewhat poor English dubbing just close enough to "properly synced" that nobody would notice the difference. The film certainly appears to have been shot in Italian and been post-dubbed in English anyway - there's never been a version where the dubbing looked remotely convincing, is what I'm saying. It seems every effort was made to push the dialog and sound effects around at every cut and quiet moment the film can spare, so for better or worse the missing frames haven't notably affected the already sloppy sound sync.

Now typically when the Italian negative is longer and there's "new" footage to be had, the label will simply default to the Italian dub track and then sync the English version up as best they can around the restored material. It's clear now why Media Blasters didn't do this; the Italian audio wouldn't have fit this print to start with because of the frames missing literally everywhere you turn!

Honestly, I don't even want to nickel and dime Media Blasters over a couple instances of 2 or 3 frames missing here and there. It's a pain in the ass, and virtually every label does it from time to time... it's just one of those "things" we have to accept happens and try to ignore it. Rest assured that if this bullshit were occasional and ammounted to five or ten seconds, hey, c'est la viva babe, grumble once or twice that you're OCD enough to notice and then move on. But I've never, ever seen a film restoration that literally removed frames from each and every scene without trying to somehow replace them, and frankly it reeks of corner cutting on an almost legendary scale. If this happened once or twice, or maybe five or six times, I wouldn't care. That's spare change, at most. When the runtime is affected by MINUTES, not frames or even seconds, that's when we seriously need to look into what the fuck is going on in Rome and demand someone get a clue.

Obviously, I can't say how bad those dodgy splices were, or even know if Media Blasters really understood this rather bizarre issue, or if the film lab* made the decision without consulting them.  Whatever the facts may be, it's still incredibly frustrating to think that SOMEONE thought process was a good idea. Like I've said, I've never seen it done before now, and I can't imagine it ever happening again because it's retarded. You don't cut two goddamn minutes from a film just to avoid fixing it, no matter how trivial 2 frames here and 4 frames there may seem in the long run. It's not right, and shows as much a lack of respect for the material as it does outright incompetence in handling it. No I get it, Burial Ground isn't really "The Citizen Kane Of..." anything, but that's no excuse to completely change the pacing, just because you're too lazy or too cheap to do it properly. Every film is an artifact, a time capsule to the era, and while I understand that not everything can get a million dollar 4k restoration, the least you can do is reassemble the fucking thing at the right length, in the right aspect ratio, and without any new problems to speak of. If you can't, pass on the title and go work on something you do know how to fix.

(* ...but it was totally LVR. I know, MB didn't explicitly say that on the disc credits, but the overly noisy, extremely dark, and funky smeared print damage forms an almost disappointingly perfect bookend with ZOMBI HOLOCAUST. Honestly, that transfer is such a mess I decided NOT to post the review. It's such a miserable transfer from the ground up that I almost felt like I was making fun of a handicapped kid or something...)

The English dub on display is exactly the same one used for the slightly different English language prints, and as such, when we get an extended second or so of the chandelier exploding (0:16:09) it just uses music from the next scene of the film. You literally watch the chandelier continue to explode and it doesn't make a sound. It's eerie, and not in any way that the film should be. For fuck's sake, you guys couldn't have just re-used the sound effects of the bulbs shattering from four seconds ago!?

I also need to talk about the "missing" shot in the Blu-ray or the zombie emerging from the planter (0:25:51). The good news is that it is included... the bad news is it's as an outtake, which is pretty fucking weak no matter how I look at it. Kevin's theory that it was removed during the restoration so that the English dub would sync up after the new bit of footage at the start of the scene with the lovers walking by the fountain wouldn't surprise me one bit. I'll say again, if they had simply transferred the entire negative instead of dropping frames literally everywhere they could have simply used the Italian audio to fill in the gaps, and then re-inserted the shot of the zombie emerging from the planter without issue. And by "re-insert" I mean "leave it the fuck alone", since I refuse to believe the negative just has 8 random frames and then jump-cuts... it doesn't make any goddamn sense. It LOOKS like a clumsy cut, and while there are a couple jarring continuity flaws due to sloppy film editing, this is the sort of crumby stuff that looks like some naughty post-house employee was throwing their hands up in the air and saying "THERE, your dub matches now - happy?"

Also, with the above information finally in place, I can only assume that the close-up of the zombie being shot missing at 0:24:16 is the result of so many frames around the splices having been lost that the shot was simply lost in the shuffle; the two shots of the zombie and his bullet wound combined only ran 17 frames, so if they lost several frames from each, the sequence probably became an incomprehensible blip that looked like a mistake instead of an inspired moment of slightly-pre-MTV rapid fire film editing.

As to wither or not the actual negative was used, I actually have little doubt that what we're seeing is either the OCN, or a new IP made straight from it. If this were made from an IP that was vaulted 30 years ago, all of the film splices would be printed onto the reels themselves and we wouldn't have the missing frames like we do to start with - ironically, that means if MB had used an older print we probably wouldn't be missing any previously seen footage! (Though we probably wouldn't have the two extensions mentioned earlier, either.)

There is one thing I can't really explain, though. The following image was brightened in photoshop, to make showing the problem easier, but was otherwise untouched:

There's what I can only describe as a grid of static, vertical lines appearing in the dark scenes - they may be easier to see if you turn the brightness/gamma up, assuming of course your set is somewhere close to properly calibrated. There's vertical artifacting on the DVD, as well, but I always assumed that was the result of using a Time Base Corrector in the analog chain or something. So what the heck are we seeing here? I honestly don't have any clue... and also yes, that ridiculous chroma noise really is there.

So, missing footage, loopy dubbing and lost frames aside... how is the disc? Pretty ghastly, if you ask me. It's slightly less horrifying in motion than stills can properly express, if for no other reason that the heavy chroma noise that saturates each and every frame doesn't have any cringe-inducing DVNR artifacts, which is more than I can say for Zombie Holocaust. That noise is neither film-like nor attractive, and considering that prior DVDs made from prints that were probably generations removed from whatever film source we're seeing now, I flatly refuse to believe that the image is even close to properly representing the quality of the analog film source. I'm not certain if the film was shot on 16mm or 35mm, but the image on display is an embarrassment in any case.

 As I said the moment I saw screen shots, THIS IS NOT FILM GRAIN:

Lossless, just so you can fully appreciate the fugly.

This buzzing, rainbow-like chroma noise swarms over everything, but it's especially gruesome on the color red. While stills will always show off noise slightly more defined than a constantly moving image, make no mistake that Burial Ground is drowning in this crap, and it's impossible to ignore. Even if the release was complete, this transfer is heinous, and the distractingly 'colorful' noise might be even more frustrating than my prior "This Isn't Fucking Grain" demo title, The Stendhal Syndrome, which - while perhaps similar in volume when it comes to nasty signal junk - at least had the decency to produce noise only in the luma channel!

Make no mistake, Burial Ground will never look like The Sound of Music. Focus and lighting were never ideal for this fast and cheap production, and while it's impossible to be certain, the 1.66:1 ratio could well imply that it was shot on Super16 - I honestly don't know, and with a transfer looking this bad it's hard to even guess what the original format was. But assuming this is as good as the film could look is preposterous, when even Media Blasters and LVR managed to out-class the hell out of this overall transfer with Beyond the Darkness. Sure that disc had big problems, but at least it looked like film, not... whatever the hell this crap is.

Strangely enough, there is ONE scene that doesn't have the overbearing video noise that haunts the rest of the transfer. At the very beginning of the film the professor leaves the mansion and walks to the dig site, in what appears to be a day-for-night sequence running from about 0:01:47 to 0:02:31. Frustratingly, the slow, syrupy noise that remains suggests that this sequence has been with with DVNR - could it be that Zombie Holocaust was given a scrubbing to avoid a similar appearance? Hmmm...

I'm not entirely sure why they'd apply DVNR to only one scene, much less a scene that appears to be a digital re-creation of an optical effect rather than a "genuine" optical... but whatever. The compromised grain structure is unfortunate, to say nothing of the (intentional) lack of color in the sequence itself, but I'd still argue this is just a little less painful to look at than the other 82 minutes of the feature on Blu-ray.

The transfer may be a slight upgrade from the multitude of crumby VHS and mediocre DVD releases out there, but man is it still pitiful. The English audio sounds fine, for what that's worth. The outtakes are actually pretty cool, even if they aren't the most exciting deleted scenes in film history. The film is missing snippets from start to finish, and two sequences that were available on very prior home video release are either shuffled off to the extras without good reason, or are missing entirely. I can't in good faith suggest that this release is even slightly good, but it presents just enough of an upgrade over the equally shit DVD that I'd be hard pressed to blame anyone who eventually clamps their dirty mits around it. Hell, I did and I almost knew what I was getting myself into...

So, there's your missing footage. Congratulations Media Blasters, just when I think you've managed to screw something up in the worst way possible, you manage to find NEW ways to screw up that I didn't even know was humanly possible. I hope that their most recent titles, Devil Dog, was a sign of better things to come, but we'll just have to wait and see with these guys...


Anthony1138 said...

Wow. If MB put as much time into improving their HD transfers as they do screwing them up, they might be able to get out some half way decent Blu-Rays.

David Mackenzie said...

That's actually probably more common than you think.

David Mackenzie said...

That is a fucking disaster. I would send that back and tell them to redo it on a machine that wasn't falling to bits.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Anthony: What's really frustrating is that everyone tends to share masters, since these films are considered low-tier properties by the Italians as much as by the guys who license them. If this comes out in Germany or Japan or France or whatever, I fully expect it to be the same initial Telecine, maybe with some filtering to remove more dirt and the video noise if we're lucky.

David: Is removing 2 minutes worth of shot transitions really more common than I think? A few seconds are all in good fun, but after 60, I tend to think something has gone horribly wrong.

For what it's worth, neither BEYOND THE DARKNESS or ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST had this issue. But maybe the negatives were in better shape, who knows?

Kevin P. said...

I've updated my article on this disc with a brief summation of the problem, a link back here, and a more blatant warning about the release being cut - I have also sent the word out on my site's Twitter and Facebook. Nice work!

Kentai 拳態 said...

Kevin: Much obliged, sir! :D

I probably would have skipped this outing entirely had you not mentioned snippets of new footage, and the mystery of the missing 2 minutes was just too bizarre to ignore for long.

David Mackenzie said...

2 minutes worth is a bit excessive - but a frame here and there doesn't seem too uncommon.

P. Ryberg Larsen said...

Great work, man!
I really appreciate you taking the time to sort mess like this out.

Anonymous said...

fuck media blaster ( shriek show) they did screw up with their bluray of beyond the darkness also and i got their flesheaters(bill hizman) that have audio problem and now this burial ground bluray, i just hope they go out of buisnness.

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