A BEAUTIFUL ZOMBIE?
(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:
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)
THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (1970)
CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980)
THE NEW YORK RIPPER (1982)
THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996)
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:
ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1980)
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)
...no seriously. Go fuck yourself, Troll 2.
...no 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.