Saturday, October 29, 2011

Night of the Intruder

So, just a heads-up for the people who care about this sort of thing (and a big thanks to Christopher for alerting me to one of them):

This is way cooler than it really ought to be.

FRIGHT NIGHT is going to be available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment, with pre-orders starting on November 13th and shipping December 13th as something of a timely X-Mas present to all fans of quality, modern horror. The release will be strictly limited to 3,000 units and sell for $29.95, plus shipping.

I'm strangely satisfied to see that one of the men behind the Twilight Time company has issued the following statement on their Facebook:

Folks, for those of you waiting for the Sony Blu Ray let me just re-affirm something to you folks - Sony had ZERO interest in releasing this film on any other format, including Blu Ray.

They specifically said there was no market for this film, or not one that was big enough for them to warrant a Blu Ray release, and now with the recent remake flopping I wouldn't be expecting them to re-release their own Blu Ray down the road packed with special features to coincide with the box office bomb remake.

So, there you have it.  Sony simply isn't interested in the scraps that a successful 25 year old cult film will bring them on Blu-ray, and licensing "niche" titles out to smaller labels is, indeed, the future. I'll pre-order the damned thing as soon as it's available, and while I have no doubt that we'll see the same transfer in Germany or the United Kingdom or wherever through a third party in slightly higher quantities, it's good to see that someone cares enough about this film to pry it from Sony's cold, unfeeling claws.

By far the best promotional art the film's ever had.
Well, except for maybe the Another World Entertainment cover...

On a slightly different (but all too related) note, Synapse Films will be selling an "exclusive" version of Scott Spiegel's gruesome slasher movie INTRUDER direct through the Synapse Films website. The short of it is that you get a bonus DVD-R including the rarely seen feature length workprint, burned and individually numbered by hand. It's also selling for $29.95, but to their credit Synapse will ship it for free by December 13th, the official release date.

Keep in mind that the Blu-ray/DVD combo set itself isn't limited and all of the extended KNB gore scenes are included as "deleted scenes", so even if you decide to roll the dice and save fifteen bucks through Amazon or Deep Discount you'll have the most notorious footage to drool over. The only "exclusive" part is having the entire film as a work in progress on a third disc... but damnit, that's so ridiculous that I've already put in my pre-order with Don and pals.

I wouldn't blame anyone who just wants to get the title for less than MSRP, but offering an exclusive, limited edition goodie - much less one that neat - was about all I needed to hear. My pre-order's in, and I'm sure a review of the Blu-ray will follow.

The Kiss of the Queen's Blade

I guess I spend more than my fair share of time talking about Media Blasters in a negative light. It's not out of some vindictive, sadistic pleasure I get out of stomping on John Sirabella and company's hopes and dreams... they honestly just release a large number of products that kinda suck, and it so happens that a large number of those sucky titles are movies I want. So it comes as a pleasant change of pace when I can say that QUEEN'S BLADE 2: THE EVIL EYE/クイーンズブレイド 玉座を継ぐ者 is about as perfect a release of the 12 episode jigglefest as we could ask for. Not to say this is entirely a shock, as their presentation for the first season - Queen's Blade: The Exiled Virgin - was similarly top notch.

Wither or not Queen's Blade is "good" is almost a moot point. The show was based on a series of Tee 'n' Ay filled RPG sourcebooks - picture it like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, except when you roll your twelve sided die, you're treated to pictures of hot psuedo-anime girls getting stripped down to their skivvies instead of a boring chart listing how much damage a goblin scout does with his +1 poison dagger. This absurd concept became an ongoing actual anime series in 2009, and used a staff of highly trained pornographers - including La Blue Girl and Twin Angels character designer Rin-Sin, and Front Innocent and Yakin Byoutou San director Kinji YOSHIMOTO - to craft a show that's so goddamn close to porn it's almost as if he inevitable steamy lesbian couplings were cut at the last minute. (And I swear, some of the left-over setup remains.)

I'm sure most people who are still waiting for the next Cowboy Bebop or Trigun to blow their minds will write it off as unwatchable pandering garbage... and that's true, in some ways. It's a totally goofy, self aware kind of fun that prioritizes nosebleed inducing fanservice over common sense, and gives absolutely zero fucks of how over the top it gets in the process. It isn't really a satire of Japan's culture of over the top objectification and sexualization - or if it is, it's damned subtle - but it does it so shamelessly that it's going to leave you either utterly repulsed or giggling like a three year old who just saw dog poo on the side of the road. With fetish minded gags like Merona being made of living transparent slime, Echidna literally wearing a live snake as a thong, and Cattleya using her ridonculous bewbs as a travel-friendly pillow, it's whole heartedly embracing these bone-headed fantasies rather than poking holes in them... and come to think of it, what's so wrong with that? Can't we just enjoy the retarded tropes of post-Frazetta/Vallejo/Rojo "Fantasy" being about buxom half-naked women fighting giant monsters - or each other - for little sensible reason cranked up to 11 and change? I'll be damned if I won't enjoy an attractive, charming, and often legitimately funny show just because it's catering to my boner instead of my brainstem.

Media Blasters' Anime Works imprint, technically speaking, released this SKU back in July. Unfortunately they only sent a limited number of copies to specialty anime retailers like RightStuf and Robert's Anime Corner Store, and only started farming copies out to Amazon in the last week or two. I know because I've had the fucking thing on "pre-order" since August. Mind you, this isn't the first time we've seen Media Blasters "leak" a title to a few retailers and then do a full release a couple months later, having - ironically enough - given Amazon the first season of Queen's Blade before they shipped copies to RightStuf. Why is this happening? Is Media Blasters only printing 500 copies at a time and then ordering more with the returns they get from the initial pre-orders? I honestly don't have any better guess, but in any case, it's out now:

Completely Random shots from Episode 8.

All 12 episodes are presented in 1080p at an average bitrate of a whopping 35 Mb/s (AVC), with lossless DTS-HD MA (16-bit) stereo in Japanese with English subtitles, as well as an English dub with accompanying slates.  The mini-OVAs are subtitled only (which is fine by me!), and for one reason or another the original TV spot is a 1080i upscale, likely because it was created at 480i anyway. Honestly, if the video files were copied from the Japanese encodes, I wouldn't be shocked - but that's far from a complaint. Anime consumers back in Japan who regularly pay fifty bucks an episode get pretty OCD about the presentation of their insanely expensive habit, and if that means the US release costing about fifty bucks at Best Buy and RightStuf for the entire series looks just as good, I consider that a win/win.

The show is packaged in a pretty standard 2-disc Blu-ray case, though the "B" logo at the top is sculpted but not painted. Strange... can't think of any other discs I own with a non-painted format logo. I also hope you really dig that cover, because both discs are silk-screened with the same art. This is a show that easily has DOZENS of cheesecake pin-up shots to pick from, and we get the exact same mash-up three times in a row? Weak, but oh well. If that's the biggest complaint I can dig up, this release is worth every penny MB's asking.

Will you like Queen's Blade, friends? I dunno... but it's pretty easy to figure it out. Just ask yourself how you feel about the accompanying line of stripable, anatomically correct 6" action figures - which, honestly, I've bought far too many of as it is. Are you cringing, or laughing at the angel girl with an alternate face covered in 'spilled milk'? Decide wither the show itself is worth fourty bucks shipped based on that gut feeling alone, and odds are you'll not be too disappointed one way or the other.

For what it's worth, the show has just been renewed for a third season after the OVA's clearly successful 6 episode run. No word on wither or not Media Blasters will be pursuing either of these, but I can't imagine the magical combination of fantasy duels and half-naked ladies has been a slouch in the sales department.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Less Than 9000?!

 Pictured: Kentai before at least 3 cups of coffee.

Are you a closet Dragon Ball fan who lost your shit over the widescreen remaster back in '06? Disappointed that the new Blu-ray release won't have the original Japanese credits or next episode previews? Oh come on, I know you're out there somewhere!

Fun little question for you: Did you get all 7 of your Dragon Boxes? You'd better hope you did, because FUNimation has officially cut our asses off, according to an overly curious member of the DaizenshuuEX forum:

The Dragon Ball Z boxes were all limited edition box sets, and they will not have a second run. They have been discontinued and the stock that each store caries is limited.

Clever way to make the Blu-ray release look all the more appealing, no? I'm going to grab the last few myself ASAP, since they're clearly not going to get any cheaper now...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Am Going To Eat You! (Part 2)

(Unearthing The Blue Underground Blu-ray)

As I've been exploring for a couple months now, I've come to the conclusion that the reason I'm consistently disappointed with the quality of Blue Underground's transfers comes down to the process being used long before Bill Lustig and his companions ever actually get the materials. Whilst Blue Underground's film lab of choice - LVR Video and Post - is clearly (and sadly) not the worst film lab out there in Rome, it does all have an uncomfortably uniform "look" to their HD transfers. It's a difficult phenomenon to describe, but the best I can do is to say that there's a layer of thick, coarse grit on top of the image that doesn't have very much to do with the actual grain structure on the 35mm stock it's supposed to be capturing. I no longer assume that they're trying to generate artificial grain, it's just... kind of there, once the scan is made.

For reference, here's a few snapshots from prior efforts, all of which show a similar layer of coarse "grain" to varying degrees, in the order in which the films themselves were created:

 DJANGO (1966)






All stolen, with compliments, from our friends at Land of Whimsy.

One thing to remember is that two of these films (The Stendhal Syndrome and Django) were shot using standard spherical photography, while the other four were shot using two-perf Techniscope. The Techniscope films should have more visible grain, not less, and there's a massive difference in the "fuzziness" of the underlying image between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O' Nine Tails, despite the two having literally been produced in the same year, using the exact photographic process, and both being taken from the negative - either by way of a direct scan or the creation of a brand new IP. So why does the grain structure and "smudginess" of these two films look so dramatically different from one another? And while I expect anything shot on 35mm to have some level of grain, I'm hard pressed to think of any American sourced transfer that... well, that just LOOK the way these titles do.

There's been quite a bit of back-and-fourth between myself, a few fellow enthusiasts and even a professional or two about what's going on in Rome, and the best theory to date is that the film scanners being used for these releases - professional CRT scanners from the last decade that cost a small fortune, and aren't exactly easy or cheap to replace - are the root cause of it. The only way to "fix" the noise generated by the CRT's flying spot scanner is to use noise reduction, which'll not only remove the video noise but smear away anything resembling fine detail the scanner might have captured as well! It's something of a zero sum game, trying to fix video noise on an HD master: Either you keep it warts and all, or you start smearing it into oblivion and lose so many of the advantages that scanning in High Definition brought to the party to start with. And for a perfect example of why Noise Reduction is a bad thing, let's turn to another LVR soured transfer, this one released by Media Blasters:


There's a reason I thought this one was a goddamn upscale... 

I'll admit that, when sitting about 6 feet away from a 46 inch TV - I imagine a distance and screen size most "sane" people are comfortable with - the noise many of the affected Blue Underground titles  isn't overly irritating. It just looks like super heavy grain to the untrained eye, but it sticks out like a sore thumb sitting less than three feet away from the 23" PC monitor I do  most of my more up-close and personal viewing on. I say this because I sometimes forget that most people aren't damn near pressing their nose up against the screen and going back, frame by frame, to figure out why a brief section has ghosting or if that blip passing by was a scratch repair artifact or exactly what set of standard levels the master was corrected to: That's reserved for the OCD fanboys, the professionals, the completely insane... and of course yours truly, who likes to think he's just a bit of all of the above.

With all of that in mind, there have been a number of largely positive reviews for the transfer from various horror-centric and even more general home video sites, who all laud Zombie as a rousing success, and the best it's ever looked. There's certainly some truth to this, and if you tend to think I'm overly critical on these sorts of issues, you'll probably agree with the majority here... but if you agree with them, I'm not sure why you've read this far to begin with. If you HAVE made it this far anyway, congratulations! From now on, you're in the Kentai Super Secret Review Club! Now then, if you'll just mail your $15 annual entrance fees to... *ahem* There I go again. Track, off of it. Focus, Kentai, focus...

So let's just cut out the bullshit and get to some screenshots, yes? These were captured via Media Player Classic (using FFDShow as a decoder) initially as PNG with zero additional filters in the chain, and then recompressed to JPG using Photoshop CS3 at "12" (best quality) - as is my typical method. In short, what you see here is nigh identical to what's on the disc:

In a single word, the transfer strikes me as "inconsistent". The video noise I've discussed at length is absolutely present - but mostly just in brighter areas of the screen or during pan shots, particularly the sun-baked exterior scenes in New York Harbor and on the beaches of San Salvador. Somehow, it's almost completely absent on darker sequences, or can only be found clinging to the edges of moving objects. Isn't that all very curious?

Pictured: Celluloid Insanity

As you can see, there's a heavy coating of grain/noise/whatever you want to call it in the sky... and yet, once you get down to the surface of the water, there's none. Not a scrap of grain anywhere in the ocean! How is this possible?

In this shot, we can see that the "grain" on the assistant's lab coat is anything but natural celluloid - and more importantly, whilst the bright white areas of the screen are practically swimming in noise, the flesh tones are positively smeared. Essentially any object that approaches true white becomes a haze of fine, sharp noise, and the inverse is true: The darker any scene gets, the less noise it has, and the more smoothed over the results tend to be!

The fourth shot in the above example really shows off how inconsistent the transfer is even in the same frame- the flames are crisp and properly resolved, noisy or not, while the zombie they're clinging to appears blurred and smoothed over. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of photography knows that normal exposure behavior means the darker areas will be more grainy - not the other way around! And it's not as if an object being out of focus means it should suddenly lack grain completely.

That second cap is from the scene in which the heroes make arrangements to go to Matool - it has some of the most obvious smearing in the film I can remember, and may as well be the red flag showing off that digital tools were used to combat the heavy video noise of the initial transfer. If you don't see the frames blending and blurring together from 18:10 to 19:53 on the Blu-ray, consider yourself lucky; when the camera stops moving towards the end of the long shot in the airport, you can literally see the grain freeze on the walls in the background. Another scene with heavy DVNR is the legendary "Walking Flowerpot" sequence from 1:06:47 to 1:13:38 - it's not as obvious in stills as it is in motion, though, and sometimes the noise itself is still present, but it has a sluggish, stilted quality to it... again, temporal oddities like grain manipulation is much easier to see in motion, so while these caps are exactly what make up the affected scenes, they can't be considered the whole story.

I'm damned positive that what we're seeing is the result of some heavy-handed noise reduction on top of the expected CRT noise, and while one can argue that this is preferable to the entire transfer swimming in a thick haze of analog video noise, the results are so visibly inconsistent that it gets positively distracting. Having used my fair share of noise reduction algorithms on strictly analog video - material that desperately needed it, I know that you can carefully tailor which frequencies are affected by the filter, and that when most algorithms are asked to produce a "sharp" final result, that high frequency noise - those smaller bits that often cling to edges and in brighter areas of the luma channel - are left more or less intact. Meanwhile the low frequency noise - those bigger, often ugly chunks that would otherwise inhabit the shadows - have been smoothed away into oblivion. They've only put a digital bandage on a festering analog wound - it's obscuring the problem, sure, but it's not actually FIXING anything.

Do you know where we've seen this before? The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, a title I'd long thought may be the single worst looking title in Blue Underground's catalog, and up until Media Blasters squatted down and gave us the unprecedented one-two punch of Zombie Holocaust and Burial Ground, it ranked as perhaps the single worst looking Italian horror film on Blu-ray on the market. The filmic texture and fine detail that the Zombie negative possesses is still lost to the ages, and in its place is an inconsistent, oddly indistinct image with just lingering traces of that analog  static dancing in certain frequencies that were less liberally filtered. People raving about the transfer leave me scratching my head on this one, particularly when one need only to look at The New York Ripper or The Bird With The Crystal Plumage to see that LVR is clearly capable of sharp, detailed, and relatively film-like transfers. They're certainly not perfect, but I honestly think they're still preferable to this:

That said, the DVNR in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was some of the worst I can remember seeing on a transfer that wasn't minted in the first half of the last decade; it makes that poor film look like it was shot on silly putty through a layer of drying sludge, with just a dusting of heavy grain on brighter areas, particularly the sky. The grain reduction used on Zombie, while certainly unfortunate, is substantially higher quality stuff that's allowed faint traces of grain to peek through during motion on various  frequencies, and resulted in somewhat less obvious smearing and a decent, if not impressive, level of underlying detail. It seemingly hasn't produced any of those shockingly awful temporal artifacts found on Phenomena, either, so while frustrating, it's important to realize how much worse the results easily could have been. After the truly heinous application seen on Manchester Morgue and Zombie Holocaust, this transfer is at least a step in the right direction.

Some reviews have theorized that this "softness" is inherent to the film itself, but I call bullshit on any Techniscope 35mm negative being soft and grainless. Techniscope was a two-perf 2.35:1 native format, and is very similar in terms of real-world resolution to Super 35. Now then, was SE7EN ever grainless? What about Top Gun, or Reservoir Dogs, or Terminator 2: Judgment Day? Before the advent of the Digital Intermediate, they would do all sorts of things via optical printing just to keep the grain at a manageable level, and nowadays they can smooth everything away with digital noise reduction, but any film using a two-perf process in the scope ratio should be notably grainier than anything shot using a four-perf anamorphic method. Granted, some of that grain was just a side-effect of the blow-up process when converting the two-perf negative to a four-perf release print, a step no longer necessary on Blu-ray, but that doesn't somehow make Techniscope a magical grainless process. This fact is actually a big part of why I assumed that the excessive level of noise present on earlier Blue Underground transfers like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and City of the Living Dead might have been an accurate representation of the film negatives... it's not until we had more samples to compare - particularly Django and The Stendhal Syndrome - that we had reason to suspect that something was rotten in Rome.

With all of that said, I can't fault Blue Underground's transfer when it comes to color grading. Produced under the watchful eye of Zombie's director of photography Sergio Salvati, corpses shamble out of rock solid blacks, the sun baked beaches and sweltering jungles of Matool look gorgeously lush and picturesque in their own... decaying way, and the warm flesh of the living looks vibrant and natural up until its chewed off like so much delicious jerky. Anchor Bay's old LD master was an ugly mess and the Blue Underground/Shriek Show DVD, while a pretty massive step up, is almost glowing with oversatured yellows and greens compared to this new HD transfer. While I have my issues with the transfer as a whole, the color timing blows a number of other Italian releases out of the shark infested water, and I have little doubt that as far as Salvati's concerned, this is Zombie as it was always meant to be seen. (Mind you, I doubt Salvati would have been against this having been scanned on better hardware...)

Another aspect Blue Underground is quite proud of is the dirt and scratch removal. Not only did they list out the man-hours LVR put in, but they employed a second American film lab to use the high-tech Flame system, which digitally tracks the motion of the original camerawork and then removes scratches and warping by averaging out the interpolated data between the "actual" frames... or at least that's sure what the "Making a Beautiful Zombie" featurette they threw up on YouTube made it look like. The scene they showed the process on was the iconic shark attack, and while there's still obvious traces of the damage to the negative, it's nowhere near as blatant as it likely once was. While not as stunningly pristine as Alien 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street or even less warmly accepted titles like Return of the Living Dead and The Thing, there's actually little to complain about; apart from some thin horizontal lines on a handful of shots or the occasional spec you'll probably miss if you blink, Zombie absolutely looks like a pristine print, and I have little reason to second guess their talk of using the actual original camera negative this time around.

It's really too bad they didn't just have LVR make a new 2-perf 35mm IP, and let Fotokem do the whole transfer from the ground up from there... ah, well.

As far as the technical aspects of the disc go, the feature sits on a BD50 that just barely steps a toe into dual-layered territory at 25.4 gigs. If I didn't know any better I'd think they did it just to discourage people from burning 1:1 copies on a cheap BD-R versus an overpriced BD-R DL. The video bitrate clocks in at an adequate 23 Mb/s, and while it's not a scale tipping bitrate like some of their earliest efforts, I'll give the devil his due and note that whatever encoder Blue Underground is using performs circles around Arrow Video's treatment of the same material, even when BU uses a substantially lower bitrate - and as such, the resuls are predictably fine here. There are some minor compression artifacts on what overly complex scenes have retained more noise - such as when the fatass zombie goes "splash" into the harbor - but overall it's nothing to get fussed about, and I imagine most people will never even notice them. Also, the bonus disc barely clocks in at 23.6 gigs - that's right, they could have easily shuffled everything onto a single disc and saved money in the process if they'd just dropped some extraneous content (say, longer menu loops or lossy 5.1 mixes?), but instead chose to pad the "Deluxe" aspect of the release out as much as possible and make it a two-disc set. It stinks of a skeezy marketing technique, making the buyer think they're getting more bang for their buck, but hey, whatever. It allows BU to release a cheaper "Standard" edition down the line if they so choose, and I guess this means navigating all of the new features will be less of a pain in the ass, so while slightly pointless and a bit misleading, it's far from the worst thing BU could have done with it. Still, under the circumstances, why not max the bitrate of the film out? They're letting that second layer essentially go to waste!

The disc includes both a new 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless tracks (16-bit rather than 24-bit) as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 downmixes, plus original mono tracks in both English and Italian - and yes, all new English subtitles are included for those who want to see the Italian dub. Anchor Bay's DVD release was infamous for its 5.1 surround track working in a number of freshly recorded foley effects for gunfire and explosions, and while I no longer have that wretched disc on hand to compare, I think it's safe to say that all sound elements present in the new lossless master are from (or at least very similar to) original Zombie elements. While I don't have a proper surround setup at the moment, I can say that on my preferred pair of cans - a pair of Sony "studio monitor" headphones - the 5.1 mix sounds more dynamic and robust than the 256kp original mix. Dialog, screams, jungle drums and gunfire are, for the most part, front and center, but some clever use of distortion for ambient sound has been used, and Fabio Frizzi's  score is presented with proper stereo separation and sounds fantastic. I applaud Blue Underground for including the original mono mix, but the 7.1 HD remix is a largely respectful track that I can't see all but the most ardent purists turning their noses up at.

As I'm sure I've mentioned a hundred times now, Italian films were typically recorded with limited or sometimes zero sync-sound up until the early 1980s, and as such actors would speak whatever they were comfortable with on set, since they'd just get dubbed over later on anyway. Ian McCulloch and Tisa Farrow both clearly spoke English on set, but the lovely eyed Olga Karlatos syncs up pretty much perfectly on the Italian dub. Under the circumstances I think of the English dub as the "original" language for the film, but it's pretty cool that Blue Underground have included the Italian version all the same. Subtitles in English (for the Italian version), English HoH, French, Spanish, Portugese, German, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai are included... it should almost go without saying that the disc is region free, and I'm betting that Blue Underground is hoping to make a mint on a very wide and quite impatient international audience.

While Media Blasters may have initially beat Blue Underground to the punch, the new Blu-ray contains a coffin full of bonus features, including over 100 minutes of brand new interviews. Yes, there are High Definition interviews with virtually everyone involved in the film - stars, stuntmen, producers, costume designers - you fucking name it, odds are they probably have ten minutes on a couch. Highlights (for me, anyway) include composer Fabio Frizzi, special effects guru Gianetti de Rossi, uncredited co-writer Dardano Sacchetti - whom it's worth noting Fulci had a falling out with in later years and as such has little reason to recite hazy, gold-tinged memories of the man as so often happens as soon as someone kicks the bucket. Hell, the charmingly gluttonous dark fantasy director Guiellermo Del Toro gets an interview too,  and he didn't have but fuck all to do with Zombie! Tisa Farrow is still mysteriously MIA, but she hasn't made anything of note (or at all?) after Joe D'amato's Anthropophagous, released just a year after Zombie, so I can only assume that Mia's little sister is quite comfortable with being retired. Perhaps the only notable face missing from "Building a Better Zombie" is Dakar, the Matool native who warns the scientists they're meddling in things they don't understand, so... yeah. Dakar fans will be heartbroken, but I can't imagine there's any anecdote of worth found in Building a Better Zombie that's not included in the new pile of bonus features, so dig in without fear of having lost anything overly important from that old Shriek Show 25th Anniversary Edition.

We're not quite done yet, though: The original "International" trailer and a recreation of the US trailer are included in HD, TV spots (SD), radio ads, a new 10 minute animated marketing stills gallery set to Frizzi's score - also in HD, and even that crusty old Ian McCulloch LD commentary are included on disc one. All of this might as well be the 'archival' suppliments we've for over ten years, but it's nice to not have to keep an older DVD for them.

The films opening credits appear to be sourced from a 35mm source, but the title is a new one - the title is simply "ZOMBIE", but uses the font of the Italian title "ZOMBI 2". I can only guess they used the Italian title as a base and basically turned the 'B' into an 'E'. The two discs come housed in a standard (ie: thankfully not a fucking "Eco-Case" that'll eat your cover) double BD case with a thin, but suitably grim embossed cardboard slipcover. The animated menus are pretty cool, I suppose, so the overall presentation is a slick and respectful one.

Zombie's Blu-ray debut is very frustrating for me. It's certainly a release that's been poured over with a fine tooth comb, and given a truly impressive stable of bonus features to keep any gut-munchers busy for hours. Unlike so many "old" titles from niche labels, this has been given a lot of thought and care, and at face value, that $40 MSRP almost seems justified... but that new 2K transfer just isn't up to snuff. Blue Underground arguably did everything they could with it, but the analog noise killed whatever hope Zombie had for being a reference transfer right from the start, and slathering it in temporal digital Vaseline only makes it worse in the end. The final result has had some glowing reviews elsewhere and will doubtlessly please a great number of gorehounds who will call Blue Underground's "eye popping perfection" more than good enough... it's kind of a shame I'm not among them.

Unfortunately, I also realize that Zombie is the sort of film we get exactly one chance on. Nobody, and I mean nobody is going to bother making a new HD Telecine now that one already exists. You like Zombie? You want to own it in HD? Then let's not mince words or waste time; order the Blue Underground Blu-ray before the price goes up. No, it's not the ideal, perfect transfer I was hoping for and that Lustig was promising... but it's not getting to get any better, either. Not for a long time, and quite possibly not ever. Arrow may pop up next year with different bonus features or something, but the transfer will be the same goddamn thing, or maybe worse. If you want to enjoy Zombie in the best looking and best sounding release it's bound to get this decade, take a deep breath, and just get it over with. I honestly can't imagine anyone who's read this far doesn't want to own as close to an archival, "Final Edition" version of the film as we're ever likely to get. So do yourself a favor, whip out that credit card, and order it from Deep Discount or Amazon or wherever you can find it for under twenty-five bucks.

But even having seen caps and more or less knowing I was walking into a transfer I wouldn't be 100% satisfied with, I pre-ordered and held my ground. You know why? Not because it's the disc of the year - but just because it's ZOMBIE. And Zombie is, all things considered, pretty goddamn awesome...

Blue Underground's best efforts have been rendered muddled and unimpressive by questionable equipment coupled with a ham-fisted attempt to smear away those problems in post, but the final results - flawed though they might be - is perfectly watchable, and a dramatic improvement over recent transfers for Zombie Holocaust and Burial Ground, for whatever that might be worth. It pains me to suggest people compromise on "perfection", instead of giving all of your money to any number of totally competent releases you've probably been putting off for the last year or two. We're all guilty of skipping movies we know we need for one reason or another, and if you just want a quality transfer of a late 70s/early 80s horror film before the big day on Sunday, there are much more impressive options than this, and they'll probably only cost you half as much. Halloween 2, Cujo, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine,The Fly, Basketcase, The Funhouse, Last House On The Left, and I Spit on Your Grave are but a small sample of high quality HD releases of vintage horror films I DON'T have any real excuse to pick apart at length.

For fuck's sake, even Troll 2 - yes, THAT motherfucking Troll 2 - looks like an actual 35mm print without any DVNR or video noise issues. What sort of world do we live in when Troll 2 looks better than Zombie!?

TROLL 2 (1990) seriously. Go fuck yourself, Troll 2.

Could Zombie have looked better on Blu-ray? Absolutely. But if this really is the final word on the film that made Fulci an eye-gouging superstar, it's a compromise I'm more or less willing to make. It looks okay, I guess, and in the scheme of things this is still largely one of the better looking Italian cult films available in High Definition... painful as that is to write. But it's hardly the "skull rotting perfection" Blue Underground have boldly claimed on the cover. The only thing that would have made Zombie perfect would have been for Blue Underground to switch to a film lab using up to date CCD scanner.  Maybe the licensor stipulated that LVR would do the work, I really don't know... and if that's the case, then nobody could have ever made Zombie look much better.

Blue Underground have really outdone themselves on the packaging, bonus features and attention to detail in preserving ZOMBIE for the 21st century... too bad the transfer's all over the place. As Adam Tyner's DVDTalk review (which was kind enough to give me plenty of traffic on the whole "noise" situation) illustrates, the transfer is, while far from perfect, a dramatic step up from the 2004 Blue Underground DVD... so, there's not much else to say, is there. Blue Underground's already gotten my money, and wither or not they get yours should have as much to do with how you feel about the film as you do about the above screenshots.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Am Going To Eat You! (Part 1)

A Mondo Tees Limited Edition One Sheet,
already selling for inflated prices on eBay...

(Before The Beyond And Back Again)

I feel that Zombi 2 is an authentic zombie film. I wanted to send them back to their origins. That is why we shot the film in Santa Domingo. My inspiration came from Jacques Tourneur, not George Romero. - Lucio Fulci

Lucio Fulci's eye-popping, shark-fighting, New York invading epic ZOMBI 2 was originally conceived by producers as the semi-official sequel to Georgeo A. Romero's watermark horror film Dawn of the Dead, a film released as "ZOMBIE: Dawn of the Dead" through most of the non-English speaking world. Having already earned some level of infamy for the grotesque dream sequences in A Lizard in a Woman's Skin - special effects so convincing for the time he had to reproduce them in court to prove they weren't really torturing dogs! - Fulci tackled the inevitable Spaghetti knockoff, but violently rejected the slightly preposterous musings of contemporary Dario Argento in how Romero, his partner in cinematic crime, "created the zombie" by dragging it kicking and screaming back to its Haitian roots, fusing the contemporary Italian love affairs with electronic scores, gratuitous nudity, and gross-out violence all amidst the uniquely Gothic Paradise upon which the horror unfolds. As the film unspools to solve the mystery of why the dead won't stay that way, reality slowly grinds to a halt until only inconceivable horror shambles forth. Gripping in the final reel like the inevitable embrace of the Grim Reaper himself, Zombi 2 closes around the viewer until all hope is lost, shattered, and eaten fresh from the crushed bones of the ungreatful living.

The plot is simple, as far as these things go; a seemingly abandoned boat washes up into New York Harbor which, investigators quickly find, actually contains the ravenous and seemingly rotten corpse. The boat belongs to a man who's gone missing on the tropical island of Matool, and after being questioned by the police, his New Yorker daughter (Tisa Farrow) and a no-bullshit investigative reporter (Ian McCulloch) decide to find the old man and find out what the hell just happened. They head off to the mysterious island with a Al Cliver and Auretta Gay, but meet a frustrated scientist (Richard Johnson) and his equally frustrated wife (Olga Karlatos) who knows that the shit is edging ever closer to the fan...

Easily one of his most accessible features today, and perhaps the perennial fan favorite next to The Beyond - another film in which the vengeful dead exact bloody vengeance upon the living - Lucio Fulci's Dawn of the Dead psueso-sequel was released in the United States through the Jerry Gross Organization in 1980, without an MPAA rating, under the title that's now embedded into my subconscious: ZOMBIE, and was sold with the bold tagline "we are going to eat you!", and even gave patrons free barf-bags so they could blow chunks without leaving their seat. Now, isn't that thoughtful? In the UK the film was known as "Zombie Flesh Eaters", and was actually banned nearly thirty years ago as part of that whole Video Nasties... thing. That's all a fascinating subject unto itself, but perhaps we'll cover that another day.

Lucio Fulci had a long career as a director stretching back to the late 1950s, though his earliest films are all but forgotten outside the realms of academia. Certainly his grim Spaghetti Westerns have earned their fans, but Fulci - for better or worse - just wasn't someone who could stay out of trouble. Controversy aside, A Lizard in a Woman's Skin was followed by the first Fulci picture to get a lot of attention back in Italy, in Don't Torture a Duckling - a thriller who's demented killer's identity was, for reasons that should be obvious to this day, deeply troubling to an Italian audience at the time. For the next few years he tried a little bit of everything - more westerns, a pair of White Fang adaptations(!), and even a Dracula movie nobody seems to give a damn about... weird. After the risky financial dud that was Duckling, Fulci would tread familiar territory up until 1979, when he broke new ground with international audiences everywhere via that grand universal language of "watching zombies seriously fuck some shit up".

Zombie represents an almost distinct cutoff in Lucio Fulci's career as a director of horror films, in which the need to embrace the increasingly abstract overtook his work. There were inklings of this change in the director's philosophy towards narrative in the breakdown of the altogether familiar giallo modus-operandi in The Psychic, released a year or two before this film, but while a change from Fulci's earlier films, this fusion of the blatantly supernatural with the mundanely mysterious wasn't entirely new ground. Even if we ignore Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy beginning with Suspiria in 1977, there was still Francesco Barilli's The Perfume of the Lady in Black in 1974, a film that combined the tortured past of Mimsy Farmer's icy heroine with a less than subtle flavor of Romsemary's Baby... but I'm getting off track now, clearly.

Japanese program book, under the title "Sanguelia" (Bloody).
Perhaps it was used to make the film's title sound more like "Suspiria"?

While it's doubtful that anyone who's seen the masterful suspense of features like The New York Ripper or Don't Torture A Duckling would ever argue that Fulci was a talentless hack, most of the films that followed Zombie - among them City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, Conquest, and The Manhattan Baby - became more nonsensical and free form, narratively speaking, oft bordering on the surreal but never going so far out of the realms of basic narrative that it was totally clear wither Fulci is deliberately breaking down the walls of conventional cinema, or if he simply no longer gave a shit and realized audiences would flock to see City of the Living Dead to see Giovanni Lamberto Radice get a drill-press through his skull regardless of how little sense his story arc made. Fulci himself was later quoted saying "[T]hey used to call my art shit. Now, they call my shit art!", suggesting at least some level of self-awareness that his later films were a bit less high-brow than the westerns and thrillers that gained him more commercial than critical acclaim. Fulci left this mortal coil in March of 1996, literally just a scant year or two before many of his most legendary films would be revived for the world to see on DVD, and as such never had a proper chance to set the record straight via newly produced interviews, as so many of his cinematic contemporaries were.

Whatever the case may be - art, shit, it's all commercial entertainment in the end, isn't it? - Zombie represents a middle ground between Fulci's hyper-realistic gialli pictures and his surrealistic zombie films, with one of my favorite moments showing the clear divine between the two; the film's cryptic, violent opening scene is presented much in the style of his earlier films, a cold, scientific sequence of deep shadows and grizzled, raw humanity. When the scene is replayed in the films second act via flashback, it's presented as a romanticized and even dreamlike scene of heroic sacrifice and profound loss - something the film's pre-credit sequence eschewed entirely! How could Fulci possibly present the scene in two such dramatically different styles? I know the man can no longer tell us himself, but it certainly tells me two things: One, that Dr. Mernard is a liar, and that the REAL truth is something he'll take with him to his shallow grave. Two, that the universe Zombie inhabits will no longer be bound by triviality of "realism".

Perhaps a less forgiving critic can certainly argue that this level of horror fantasy vs grim reality was breached violently when we watched a zombie duel with a shark, a sequence so glorious that Windows used it as a piece of slightly tactless, but perhaps not undeserved marketing for their operating system:

C'mon, Apple! Strike back with some Demons 2 footage!
But the film's idiosyncrasies with reality go so much further than that. Time literally stops when the "Walking Flower Pot" of the film's almost legendary poster, and the hapless victim can only stare in horror as the ancient corpse of a centuries-buried Conquistador slowly sits up, worms dangling from its empty eye socket, and then lunges for her beating throat. Certainly that old chestnut "people acting goddamn stupid" is a common crutch in horror films, since if people acted smart in the face of danger they'd cease to die in splattery ways and the audience would never feel especially worried about the cast (and thus, if only vicariously, about themselves), but she literally stares, unable to move, as this now iconic visage of Italian horror slowly forms out of the ground to drag her back down with him. She doesn't scream, she doesn't run... all she can do is watch as her life unwravels between the teeth of a black magic fueled monster, a mystified spectator to her own demise. Is this merely weak direction? Or is Fulci tapping into that deep rotted horror of our nightmares, being presented with abject terror and being totally devoid of a way to stop it? Particularly when factoring in how gradually unhinged the presented hyper-reality of A Lizard in a Woman's Skin becomes, in which increasingly sexual and bloody dreams become an integral part of the story itself, I tend to side with the theory that it's more of the latter.

Now that's not to say that Fulci wasn't just capable of producing unmitigated shit with "dream logic" being a weak defense. I realize, despite all of the love I may have for it, that Fulci's inevitable retread in Zombi 3 has absolutely nothing positive to recommend aside from its never ending string of shocking absurdity, starting with a kid's head exploding for no specified reason in a failed pseudo-scientific experiment and ending in a zombified DJ holding down his day job - but Zombie was Fulci firing on all cylinders, and while I can appreciate that some people will never cotton to its over the top charms, the film has so much more lurking under the rotting hood than so many similarly themed Romero knock-offs that it's a shame people will mostly remember it as "that movie where a zombie and a shark fight for some reason".

Every word is absolutely true.

It's not as profound as Dawn of the Dead, clearly, but it's perhaps just as entertaining, far more stylish, and drags the viewer headlong into territory Romero has mostly ignored for the modern, Western world: the notion that the viewer is a lone man in a wild, dark world that neither wants nor needs him, and will consume him if he doesn't get back to where he belongs. I'm not quite as convinced as Jamie Russell in his impressively researched Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema that Fulci's film is a somewhat symbolic study of White Guilt and the lingering resentment of Haiti's colonization, but will readily admit the arguments he makes for the film presenting a world in which the "heroic" white foreigner (ie: the European/American viewer) tread into territory stained with blood via the actions of white conquerors, only to get their comeuppance at the hands of the "Black Magic" raised living dead is much more profound than anything I could come up with. Again, I'm not certain that's what was on director Fulci's or screen writer Darando Sacchetti's mind at the time, but it's a damned fascinating way to read the film, and would recommend anyone who legitimately likes the film to give the chapter focusing on Fulci a read.

Released on VHS in the early 80s by Wizard Video, the format many current fans in North America first saw the film on, the unrated print was (essentially) uncut - but rendered nearly unwatchable by reframing the Techniscope 2.35:1 film into a "standard" 4:3 pan-scan version. Prior to the advent of DVD, your best bet for a high quality presentation was to get the Japanese laserdisc for the better part of a hundred dollars. Zombie first appeared on DVD in 1998, in a less than inspirational non-anamorphic port of the Roan Group's, for the time, respectable Laserdisc. As is so often the case, this disc has aged very poorly, and having owned it I can tell you it was a pile of mediocre ass. In 2003, Media Blasters (mostly) Italian horror label Shriek Show announced that they had picked up the rights to Zombie and were preparing an Anniversary Edition... which was pretty odd, since Blue Underground had re-released the Anchor Bay DVD verbatim the year before, and presumably still had the rights to the film!

Exactly how and why this happened remains anyone's guess outside of the companies themselves, but in the end Blue Underground released a single-disc edition in July of 2004, with Media Blasters releasing a two-disc edition a month later. BU's release was about ten bucks cheaper and had a superior progressive encode plus some great cheesy DVD menus, but Media Blasters struck back with deluxe packaging and a second disc containing a feature-length documentary called "Building a Better Zombie", focused on the making of the film in which virtually everyone involved in the creation of the film (barring those who had already passed on) was given a chance to say their piece on it. Valid complaints were leveled against Shriek Show's documentary being occasionally repetitive - not to mention a little amateur in execution, but there was no denying that - for the time, at least - it was the exhaustive Zombie companion piece.

Mmm, shiny cardboard...

In 2011, Blue Underground has perhaps the single largest catalog of High Definition Italian cult/horror films available, and the crowning jewel of their lineup for the year is unquestionably the one-two Fulci punch of Zombie and House by the Cemetery, both released on the 24th of October, and just in time for Halloween. Blue Underground was quite proud of the time and effort put into their restoration of what's easily Fulci's most accessible and popular feature, but I grew wary the moment I saw the sign for LVR Video and Post, the same film lab responsible for each and every one of their Italian features on Blu-ray, good and bad alike. This time the film has been restored at 2K resolution by a combination of LVR and Fotokem - clearly Blue Underground has spared no expense on this release, and while they continue to announce familiar titles for their High Definition review stretching into 2011, I still feel that I have every reason to call this their "Last Hoorah for Euro Horror". I mean, best of luck and all that, but I think we both know you'll move at least three times as many copies of Zombie as you will Night Train Murders.

So, how'd all that turn out...?

We'll talk about the Blu-ray itself!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Vampire Strips Again

Awesome! Kino Video have officially announced the acquisitions of the Redemption catalog of Jean Rollin films, which include plans to release titles on remastered DVD and Blu-ray in 2012. The first run of titles include The Nude Vampire, The Shiver of the Vampires, The Iron Rose, Lips of Blood, and my personal favorite, Fascination. Tim Lucas will be providing brand new bonus material, and that charmingly sadistic bastard's been teasing us with some relatively encouraging looking HD screenshots for weeks now.

There's some obvious Rollin titles missing from this announcement, but I have little doubt that Kino is getting these in a package deal, and will do more should the market bear what they've already got on their plate. To be honest, I thought Rollin's first film, Rape of the Vampire, was goddamn awful and could live if we don't see that on Blu-ray for a while yet. But I'm surprisingly saddened to not see The Living Dead Girl among them. The film has many flaws, but it's final reel is such a tour-de-force of visceral bloodshed and melancholy loneliness that it was Rollin breaking down that poetry so near and dear to him into its most basic components, bludgeoning the viewer with the themes of solidarity and of needing to destroy to truly live that it comes full circle with his, at times, almost infuriatingly symbolic earliest films.

Jean Rollin is a difficult figure to discuss because his works are so inertly polarizing: Either you'll love them or you'll hate them, and there's absolutely nothing anyone else can say to convince you one way or the other. They aren't really pointless nudie pictures and they aren't really unsettling horror movies, but more a measured and totally whimsical reflection of both. Poetry as narrative, if that makes any sense. Rollin clearly believed in his work, no matter how absurd it all tended to be, and while he was far less relevant today than he was in the 1970s the world is still a slightly less interesting place without him.

I wouldn't ever fault someone for walking away from The Iron Rose and calling it a pointless, pretentious pile of nothing, but at the very least I'll give Rollin credit for crafting a gorgeous, fantastic looking dreamscape out of little more than an actual cemetery and an old train. Rollin was, if nothing else, an impressive artist and I'm thrilled at the chance to admire his art in 1080p from a label who will likely give these features the respect and care they rightfully deserve.

Let's just hope that sales are a bit better for Kino than they were for Encore Entertainment, who released a slew of impressive - if, at times, artificially padded - 3 disc special edition DVDs, then trimmed them down to 2 disc editions in simpler packaging for a few dollars less, only to can the Redemption line altogether after the 8th feature.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cracking The Burial Ground Wide Open

It's Not Who You Think It Is...

 A correction/clarification worth noting: user "Telecine" has stated that s/he works for LVR Video & Post, the Italian film lab responsible for all of Blue Underground's HD masters of Italian genre films, which in turn are being used world-wide.

Anyway, while I'm still hoping for more info regarding the funky DVNR on Torso or the coarse 'grain' on literally all of their titles, s/he pointed out that LVR had absolutely nothing to do with either Arrow Video's THE BEYOND or Shriek Show's BURIAL GROUND. I had assumed they did the latter specifically because they had done Media Blasters' two prior Euro-Horror transfers, there were a number of basic similarities in the general appearance of the work, and not having a film lab listed I hazarded what I felt was an educated guess.

Turns out I guessed wrong, and I feel kind of bad about that. I wouldn't want anyone to be implicated for a garish High Definition turd like Burial Ground if they weren't responsible for it! Of course the implication we're left with is that there's yet another lab in Italy that produces even worse results than LVR, and that's an utterly horrifying thought.

We'll see if much else comes of it, but I don't think there's a lot they can say or do to change how I feel about their transfers: The root of the problem lies in their Cintel hardware, and there's nothing they can do to "fix" that short of buying a new Telecine. The DSX they have now probably cost them up to (and including) a cool million dollars US, and good CCD scanners are no cheaper, so asking them to swap it out for something a bit nicer is probably a pipe-dream.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Censorship Centipede

Centipedes? Made from MY anus?

After the initial BBFC classification refusal essentially banning the film outright in the UK, both distributors and censors have compromised and released THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II (FULL SEQUENCE) with 2 minutes and 37 seconds worth of cuts. Considering just how iffy the Britsish censors get around sexualized violence I can't say I'm surprised, but of course curiosity means that all of the good bits the film might have are now spoiled as all hell. I'll spare you, suffice to say that you really shouldn't bother reading anything about the film on the internet unless you're prepared to hear what it's got to offer. And trust me, it's got so much more to offer than the initial "This is why we banned it..." statement from the BBFC ever let on.

What's more troubling is the fact that IFC's limited theatrical release this month was also cut. To be fair, this isn't entirely news: The Aussie teaser even said outright that the film was "Cut in America", but now IFC have stated in no uncertain terms that the scene involving barbed wire was the culprit, specifically adding that Tom Six "has made a concession" for the US release.

The really weird part in all of this? The Aussie release is still the only country to confirm that it'll be released uncut! Yeah, Australia: The country that won't let adults legally play Mortal Kombat, is letting Full Sequence go through without a single frame cut. Go fucking figure, eh?

Tom Six is now promising a third film that'll make Full Sequence look "like a Disney movie". I'm still not convinced that "Part 2" will light my world on fire, but I have to admit, that's a promise I find hard to take lightly. Funny that I'm so excited about the sequels on this after I found the first film to be a competent and unique, but largely underwhelming experiment...

I'm not convinced that Johnen Vasquez didn't design this one...

In semi-related news, Britfags have also refused classification for the extremely unpleasant looking film The Bunny Game, which looks to be what the shot on video exploitation film Scrapbook always wanted to be but failed. The trailer is repulsive in a way that precious few films seem to be, so I'll be keeping my eye out for this one.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Blue Undead Running Through My Head

...I fucking hate being right all the time.

Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (Zombi 2, 1979)

Lucio Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (Quella Villa Accanto al Cimitero, 1981)

The fine folks over at Rock! Shock! Pop! have more comprehensive reviews HERE and HERE. If I'm not mistaken they rank as the first online reviews with accompanying screenshots, so Ian gets potentially more traffic for both being speedy and taking lotsa pretty peek-a-tures. These rank as some of the worst images in their respective sets, so go look at more if you want a slightly more complete idea of how these titles look from start to finish.

Sadly, the above two images tell me everything I needed to know: It really doesn't matter how much money you throw at a title, LVR's dated Cintel DSX setup is simply incapable of creating an accurate, high quality film scan that doesn't prioritize video noise over legitimate detail.

What's worse is I'm still keeping my pre-orders for these films... sorry, bitter principles, but we're talking about Zombie and House by the Cemetery. These could look as bad as Zombie Holocaust or Burial Ground and I'd probably still pony up for the privilege, but thankfully they appear substantially better than either of those unfortunate transfers. From the looks of it though, neither is quite as good as The New York Ripper or The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the two titles I'd rank as the best we've seen outside of Alien 2 (Midnight Legacy) and Tenebrae (Wild Side).

It's a crying shame that the "best" looking Fulci BD is bound to be the one title BU wouldn't spring for a dual-layered disc on...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Free Speech, Tentacles and Newborn Pr0n...

Sorry guys, no review today. Just a personal editorial I have to get off my chest with news of A Serbian Film being released in these United States shorn of nearly two minutes of "controversial" content.

Let us begin with why the film was only released censored. This is fucking AMERICA, isn't it? Land of the free, forged under the First Amendment, and a country where the MPAA film ratings board is completely optional, right? Unlike those pansy Brits and those upside-down Aussies or those stuck-up Iranians or whatever, we can pretty much say, publish, and yes, do whatever the fuck we want up in this bitch without the need for some government official to look it up and down cross-ways and then slap an arbitrary rating on it... it's a pretty sweet gig, particularly if - like me - you're probably looking at shit like this all day:

Pictured Above: FREEDOM!
Her anus symbolizes the right to bear arms... I think.

So with all this fucking freedom at our disposal, it seems a little weird that we still have this ass-backwards thing called "Obscenity". In legal terms, the phrase almost always equates to material of a "salacious or morbid" nature, and the idea with creating obscenity laws was to put a damper on all of that freedom I was just talking about.

Y'see friends, virtually any material - be it photos, films, drawn images, or even just plain text - that a court rules as obscene is no longer defended by the First Amendment, and therefore can be barred from access to the general public. 20th Century America has had a long history in deciding what is and isn't obscene, in particular sexually explicit passages in novels like The Life and Misadventures of Fanny Hill and The Tropic of Cancer. The first mainstream pornographic film, Deep Throat, has a long and complicated history of the people behind it being charged with "Conspiring to Distribute Obscene Material", and while many of the convictions against guys like Harry Reems were eventually overturned, it literally took several years and a mind-numbingly epic legal war in which Reems especially was used as a lightning rod for public hate for that to happen. We wouldn't even have Ron Jeremy to make fun of today if it weren't for these cases, and so I can only thank Reems, even if he traded in his professional dicking for a life full of AA meetings and real estate. No, seriously.

Basically, for material to be proven obscene you have to fail the "Miller Test", defined in the case against a mail-order pornography peddler in the early 1970s.  It asks wither the so-called "average person" in the "contemporary community" the case is being held in would find it obscenely upsetting, wither it specifically describes or displays "explicit" sexual content, and wither or not the work - taken as a whole - possesses any identifiable "value" towards the arts, literature, science or politics. At face value it doesn't sound bad, right? So long as you aren't peddling midget donkey-shit porn, you should be in the clear, right? For a painfully broad example, Michaelangelo's David might well have his uncut schlong hangin' all out and in your face, but that's fucking ART, and thus would be classified as "erotica", which is considered a different classification altogether - it's explicit in that it has a dingle, but it's not offensive to society at large to the point where access should be denied. That's completely different from the grotesque Japanese dick-girl tentacle fuck scribbles I've posted above... right?

Above: Erotica, NOT Obscenity. (Legally speaking.)

Well... exactly what is and isn't considered "obscene" per the Miller Test was left, perhaps intentionally, quite vague. The jury isn't literally asked to assume that they find the material purient (ie: grossly sexual) personally, but rather if they think a theoretical average person in their community would. How the fuck could you even measure that sort of thing? Do you walk up to a hundred people on the street, flash some hardcore porn, and then ask them if they think it's normal or not?

Another factor is that of the lack of a definition toward the "community" itself - is that the whole country, just your state, or just the goddamn cul-de-sac where the poor sap was arrested? Typically the 'community' is interpreted as whatever state and/or county the charges were drawn up in, but that seems dicey when the material may or may not have been acquired from elsewhere - most smut is bought through mail order these days, and actually there's been porn available by delivery for well over a hundred years now. When the material in question is being uploaded to a website that's literally available to anyone with normal internet access, what "community" would that sensibly consist of? Do you go to 4chan and ask /b/ if it's obscene?

Even dicier is wither or not the work in question has any merit. Can grotesque porn have scientific value, period? I'd hope so, but I honestly have no idea. Political? Dude, do you realize how much Sarah Palin porn there is on the internet? (Assuming Bayonetta porn counts toward the total...) Well, "purient" or not that all falls under the umbrella of Political Satire. At least that's what Larry Flint says, and I tend to trust a pornographer who's dead from the waist down on these matters.

"Literary" and "Artistic" is where it all goes to shit, sadly, because those are matters of personal opinion. Quick! Name a film that's "art". You're probably thinking Citizen Kane, or Sleeping Beauty, The Godfather, Casablanca, Metropolis, or some other stuffy bullshit that you were forced to watch your first year of college. Now, what about a film like White Chicks? Scary Movie 2? Spooky Buds? They're undeniably torturous piles of shit you should keep as far away from your soul at all times, but that doesn't inherently mean they lack any value whatsoever. There were screenwriters, set designers, assistant directors and everyone else involved from the ground on up through the test audiences who created these films to fill a perceived void in the marketplace for them. All Hollywood movies are commercial art, and while not all art is good that doesn't mean it doesn't have the right to exist and express itself freely. Even garbage has dedicated craftsmen behind it, and while I'd certainly not want to have to convince a jury that something like Blood Feast has anything resembling literary and/or artistic value behind it, that doesn't inherently mean that it doesn't possess some raison d'etre that goes beyond the basics one looks for in most "art" - like, you know, competency and common sense. Thankfully, violence is always safe in this country, so Blood Feast and its' admittedly trashy ilk isn't really the problem... but we'll loop back to that shortly, I promise.

Pictured: Art... I guess.

With all this in mind, are pornographers not artists? Does it not take skill to perform on cue when your anus is burning from the non-water based lube, and is the technical prowess of properly lighting a silicone enhanced tit really much different from lighting a dialog scene of a major motion picture? I'll grant that the standards are certainly much lower, but that doesn't mean the artistic integrity is completely non-existent. This is nowhere more apparent, in my eyes anyway, than the realm of 2D art in which underground professionals are paid - often per commission - to produce erotic art of an intensely personal and unique nature. Wither you think - let's say, Dmitrys' work - is little more than pathetic material for closet homosexuals to pleasure themselves to, his understanding of anatomy, color theory and staging puts plenty of artists working in the realms of "legitimate" commercial art to shame!

Don't believe me? Let's compare one of Dmitry's pieces to that of 90s stalwart comic artist Rob Liefield:

Good Porn.

Bad... Everything.

To the six person jury who found Jesus A. Castillo, a man who was tried and found guilty of obscenity for daring to sell a grown man a copy of Toshio MAEDA's Demon Beast Invasion manga, I ask this: Who the fuck are any of you to say that any man who created a piece of degenerate spank material is also incapable of producing "art" in the process? Much less when two separate expert witnesses agree that there's artistic and cultural merit in the work, only for their testimony to be completely ignored in their use of the Miller Test because FUCK THOSE ASSHOLES!, apparently?

This ridiculous, unfortunate outcome was for a man who sold comics and other assorted geeky sundries for a living, and was reportedly targeted by a local police officer in tandem with a new bill to tax the sale of magazines and similar publications. He was a fucking scape goat for local politics, and in the end he was put through two years of legal hell for selling a cartoon to an adult that was properly marked as being material for adults only. He only had one charge dropped (for Legend of the Overfiend, no less!) because the CBLDF threatened to expose exactly why the local authorities were taking such an interest in anime smut, but in the end the conviction for Demon Beast Resurrection stuck, and he was found guilty by a jury despite the fact that the defense found expert witnesses to testify towards the title's which, as I understand it, the jury has to accept as true without the defense finding their own experts to argue against it. They asked for an appeal based in part on this very fact, and were eventually denied. See? The System works... just, not for this guy.

It pains me ever so slightly that the UROTSUKIDOJI charge wasn't the one that stuck.
I mean I feel awful either way, this is no joke, but come on... Urotsukidoji deserved it more.

Can anyone on the street with high school education which included basic art classes create it? Can someone with no formal training pick up a guitar and play a song? Can someone who has no concept of color theory paint with oil based media? Can any of these "average persons" in this theoretical community put their pencil to paper or point a camera out their window and come up with the same exact material that's become so goddamn controversial?

No? Then it's fucking art, and I refuse to hear any arguments otherwise. This is probably the second most upsetting part of the whole thing - this underlying concept that by default, pornography, horror films, video games and pop music isn't 'art' in its own right. That it's some lower form of primitive, worthless experimentation that neither a cultural, political, or even - gasp! - artistic impact on the whole of the society that created is, as if only a miniscule sampling of "real art" is worthy of that status.

Look, I may want to shove fucking chopsticks into my ear drums every time I hear I Gotta Feeling, but that doesn't mean it's not a valid part of the bullshit culture it was cultivated in... does that make sense? The fact that I don't LIKE something doesn't mean it should be made unavailable, it just means I don't have to fucking listen to it... and thank fuck for that. Freedom is a powerful thing, and you are free to ignore the shit out of whatever is is you don't have a boner for. Don't get me wrong, you can still certainly argue wither or not it's good art. There's a huge difference between a Picasso painting and a street gang's ornate tag on a subway car, but that doesn't mean both don't have some inert value.

To flatly say that anything you can't just scribble in five seconds, or point a camera at and wind up with by default doesn't take the creative and professional impulses of an artist is a bullshit trap created by pretentious assholes who decided that their concept of what makes art "good" needed differentiating from what the common man considered "good". Look, I'm not saying that fucking Caligula is "better" than The Godfather, but I am saying that in the end they're both works of commercial art, and both deserve some basic level of respect by dint of the process they went through to even exist. Coppola's doubtlessly a better artist than Brass, but so fucking what? Short of it breaking blatant laws - you know, those fucking snuff movies and child porn videos we'll never associate ourselves with - it simply doesn't deserve to be kept away from the general public just because it's offensive. Almost as if to prove my exact point, the following quote was made in June by Justice Scalia based on a Supreme Court decision not to further regulate the sale of "M" rated video games to minors, in a decision that decided such a ruling would be unconstitutional:  “Disgust is not a valid basis for restricting expression.”

Amen, sister... It's really too bad she has to be a bitch about it and keep talking about how this is specifically in regards to depictions of violence - not sexuality.

One of many titles in the Chris Handley case.

Obscenity laws protect no-one because obscene material, by and large, is material one has to seek out to begin with... or literally stumble across by accident. When Christopher Handley was arrested and eventually plead guilty for owning a stack of imported pornographic comics, he wasn't even selling them! He was getting a package of goodies shipped over from Japan, the box broke in transit, and postal workers were aghast over the contents. They sent them to the police, the man's home was raided, and the PROTECT act - a recent law with no minimum sentencing for obscene material - was used (some have argued erroneously!) to get a plea bargain out of a man who otherwise could be facing a lifetime in jail for comic books. He wasn't a sexual predator or a menace to his community, he was just an art collector with eclectic tastes who hit a brick-house of bad luck. I'm still disappointed he didn't fight for his rights, but when you factor in that each and every panel of "obscene" material could be a separate charge, it's hard to blame the poor schmuck for buckling under pressure and figuring that six months in the joint was better than the potential of... life. Horrifying thought, isn't it? Living out your days in a state prison over drawings?

I bring up the above examples not only because I'm all too familiar with them, but because these are clearly examples of fantasy being prosecuted in the United States - and successfully, at that. They're drawings, exaggerated and stylized two-dimensional pieces of hand-drawn artwork that clearly involve no "real" images of sexuality and pose no obvious threat to anyone, and yet according to a stuck-up jury or a sadistic plea-bargain, they are illegal in the Land of the Free.

This all becomes exceptionally relevant when we talk about the two minutes missing from A Serbian Film, a film that - while also a work of deranged fantasy - involves realistic prosthetics and digitally manipulated images to put actors who are minors in the same scenes as graphic depictions of rape and child abuse. Forgive me for spoiling a movie I've talked at length about in the past - I'll gray out the relevant bits so you have to highlight them to read it- but simply put, the film involved one scene of a man forcing his penis into a (realistic) rubber newborn baby, and another lengthy scene in which a grown man forces his penis into the anus of a pre-school aged boy, whom we briefly see graphically bleeding out his rectum during said coitus. Despite any frontal nudity in these sequences being obscured, and the fact these scenes are meant to demonize (NOT glorify) these actions, if a fucking Science-Fantasy manga like Demon Beast Invasion can be found guilty of lacking artistic and social merit despite expert opinion to the contrary, I don't know what "That Gross European Kiddy-Porn Horror Movie" has to differentiate it when at least half of the critics who have seen it are more than willing to write it off as pretentious, shock value driven cinematic garbage.

Also sodomy, skull crushing, skull fucking, waxing poetic about goat sperm...

Right from the start, I was wary of Invincible Pictures having purchased the US rights to A Serbian Film and then saying they intended to submit it to the MPAA. There was exactly one devil-may-care US distributor I could have imagined taking the rights to it and releasing it uncut in an expensive and extremely limited edition, but sadly that's not what came to pass. Right from the start Invincible Pictures realized they had a monster on their hands, and they went about exploring every avenue they could think of to not lose the money they had put into purchasing the film that blew their minds at a festival premier... unfortunately for us, they took heed of the examples above of innocent, normal folks who happen to like "extreme" entertainment getting fucked by the American legal system, and decided to play it safe. Let's not forget that it's the distribution of obscene material that's a legal matter, and as the publishers of this feature film they are just as likely to get reamed in the process as either a shop selling it for them, or just some poor schmuck who just wants a copy sitting on his shelf.

A Serbian Film has entered a certain no-man's land in its frank and vile depictions of child abuse, and that's exactly why Invincible Pictures purchased the US rights in the first place - because it defined anything resembling safe, expected cinematic convention. Naturally, once they learned why even independent exploitation movies don't simulate this sort of thing they promptly pussied out. If it were on the same level as something recognizable released with little to no controversy - Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the August Underground videos, or even Aftermath - they would have released the film uncut, I'd have bought it, told you all to do it, and then warned you not to touch it until you were dead sure your very soul couldn't get any more jaded. But the material in this film, at least the way it's presented, is bold new territory that makes even projects like Mysterious Skin and Anatomy of Hell cringe in shock.

With the above information fresh in your mind, you guys tell me. What should Invincible Pictures have done? Should they have passed on the rights, and let whatever meager profits a cut version of this impressive and confrontational work of cinematic terrorism might create go to another distributor who would have done the same thing? Should they have released it uncensored and merely prayed that it wouldn't run afoul of this country's insanely vague and unfairly stacked Obscenity laws? Should they have walked away from the film entirely? There's countless "potentially" obscene films available in these United States that have slipped under the radar without any issue, so it's entirely possible that A Serbian Film would have coasted in the fringe of the home video market, just as films like Aftermath and August Underground have before... but if you were a part of a company that just realized you had a title that could get you jail time if some court arbitrarily decides you're guilty of selling "obscene" material, what would you do? Put your balls on the line and say "Fuck you, I'll go into debt for 20 years on legal fees and fight it to the bone?" Or would you take the plea bargain that promises just a year's worth of jail time? Perhaps you'd bow out, say you're no longer interested in selling the film. Would you get your license back? Could you sell it to a second distro and cut some of your losses, knowing they'd have the same troubles with it you do?

I'm not saying Invincible Pictures was right or wrong in their decision - it's really not my call to make. I obviously don't like that they compromised the local release of what might be the most controversial and confrontational film of the decade, but I like the reason they felt they had to even less. Obscenity laws are bullshit, and I'm still praying that someone outside the usual rung of pornographers have the balls to stand up against it someday... but man, I doubt I'll envy whoever it is that has to stand up in court and say that they don't feel they should have to go to jail for selling, or even just owning, "a movie that shows a baby getting fucked to death".

We'll now return to Kentai's usual video-related musings, already in progress.