For better or worse, the High Definition Blu-ray debut Peter Jackson's final Kiwi splat-stick epic, DEAD ALIVE/BRAINDEAD is exactly what I expected from Lionsgate. The disc retails for twenty bucks, but can be had for about half that if you're not as stupid as the title's implications. The only extra to be found is an upscaled American trailer, which sadly is nowhere near as great as the original Braindead ad.
Perhaps most importantly, it's still the 97 minute "Unrated" US cut bearing the title Dead Alive, which is roughly 6 minutes shorter than the original cut that literally every other region in the world saw on both their theatrical and home video release - barring any local censor cuts, of course... Germany, I'm looking at you. Discussion over how Jackson personally trimmed the film for its US release has been brought up, but not having any firm source on this I'm inclined to shrug it off as urban legend until proven otherwise. Even if this was Jackson's Directors Cut, I think the original version was the better of the two... so it's really too bad the uncut version is still only available as barely watchable letterboxed PAL DVDs the world over.
If after knowing all of this you're still interested in watching the "slightly" abridged version of Jackson's best early film, this is probably all you really need to know:
It's a transfer struck from whatever film materials Wingnut Films gave to Trimark nearly 20 years ago (I'm guessing an Internegative?), and has clearly received little in the way of dirt cleanup and print stabilization. The print is also seems excessively grainy for a 35mm production from a man who clearly knows what he's doing behind the camera. It's cropped to 16:9/1.78:1, despite every non-US release having been framed at the negative's 1.66:1. For all intents and purposes it's a higher resolution presentation of the old VidMark R1 DVD, right down to the cover art now that I think of it!
To be fair, it is a bitchin' cover...
If you've ever seen the HDTV broadcast from 2007, it's basically that except encoded progressive and without a faux-5.1 track. The transfer is middling, neither great nor terrible, though at least there's no severe issues with digital noise reduction, edge sharpening, emulsion scratches or anything else of that nature. It's a perfectly stable presentation of what can accurately be described as an archival 35mm source, is surely comparable to an actual release print and it's certainly never looked better... it just doesn't look especially good, either.
That said, the level of film quality seems to vary wildly, even from shot to shot. While broadly speaking the entire scene where Uncle Les fends off zombies in the garden and the toolshed looks as rough as most of the picture, the close-ups of him pulling Father McGruder's teeth out looks comparatively polished - crisp and almost completely free of harsh grain. The shots of the Vera puppet do much the same, looking considerably less noisy and blown out, as is the scene in which out hero tranquilizes his mother and the nurse in the basement. I'm not certain at a glance if this is the result of Jackson having used worse film stock for certain scenes than others, or if this is the result of these scenes in particular having some digital tweaking (perhaps it's a little bit of both?). For the time being anyway, I'm going to chalk this one up to the materials themselves with the warning that the film looks inconsistent, with considerably more of it looking somewhat worse than it does better.
With that in mind I have no doubt that the film could (and perhaps should) look better than it does here, but Jackson has threatened to go back and restore his original three films on more than one occasion and so far has yet to touch any of them. Until further notice, this is likely as good as it's going to get.
The film weighs in with an average bitrate of 20 Mb/s, which is a bit too low to accurately reproduce the coarse grain structure without temporal smoothing, but there's so goddamn much of it and the camera is so busy moving that it's difficult to actually pick out any errant compression artifacts in motion. As is so often the case anyway, heavy grain looks notably better in motion than it does in stills, so while you can get a good grasp of what to expect from the disc proper from them you'll probably do less wincing with the actual release playing at 24 frames a second. Audio is the film's original English stereo, presented as lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 at 24-bit depth. I'd say the release sounds considerably better than it looks, and can't imagine anyone could find a valid complaint other than "it sounds like a 20 year old Kiwi splatter film". Apparently both English and Spanish subtitles are included, should you want them.
Having suffered through the uncut but almost unwatchably poor Laser Paradise 4:3 DVD from Germany for nearly a decade now, I know how all too well how bad the film can look, and this is certainly a several steps up from that vomit-inducing VCD quality release. The new Blu-ray is probably worth the $11-12 that Amazon seems to be hawking it for, but honestly not a penny more - it's every bit a catalog title kicked out the door, but at least the price is relatively fair for the level of work that clearly went into it. Were this transfer the uncut "Braindead" print - even in the less than optimal state this one was in - its ranking would likely skyrocket this up to being the pre-Halloween release to own this year, but alas, all we get is Dead Alive looking every bit its age. If you love the film as much as I do the HD presentation is enough of an upgrade to warrant a few bucks, but that's largely because the uncut DVDs are so piss-poor to begin with.