Friday, October 05, 2012

Dark Days of the Living Dead: Twilight Time's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Blu-ray Dissected

Last year I wrote that Twilight Time's limited edition Blu-ray of FRIGHT NIGHT was a perfectly competent release; perhaps the result wasn't so fantastic that it justified the $35 shipped price tag it sold for, but there was nothing to complain about. It set a certain level of expectations for the still fledgling label, itself an experimental spin-off from soundtrack CD specialist Screen Archives Entertainment, offering an exclusive distribution on a number of titles that labels like Fox and Sony had officially given zero fucks about. Admittedly there's been a few "genre" titles in the mix ever since - The Mysterious Island and The Time Machine were both given limited releases (and have since sold out), while Enemy Mine was even put up the same day as the title we're going to talk about in just a few minutes - but as time passes, THE TWILIGHT TIME CATALOG continues to be a seemingly eclectic mix of "second-tier classics" and even contemporary features like Steel Magnolias and As Good As It Gets. Under the circumstances, the inclusion of 80s horror and sci-fi films seems a bit unusual... unless, of course, you take the high road and consider the fact that good horror, fantasy and science fiction films are just as valid a genre as musicals, westerns and historical epics. It's a stretch for a lot of people, I know, but I'm glad Twilight Time has taken the boutique model and shown that they'll try damn near anything once, if they think it's worth the time of day.

Do you want a movie Twilight Time licensed? The audio and video will be whatever HD materials the licensor has already made, you'll get the isolated score and trailers, a short booklet - maybe some commentaries if you're a good boy, and it'll cost $35 shipped (more for some earlier releases). It's Twilight Time or goddamn nothing for these films on Blu-ray, and under the circumstances, I was happy to spend the money - sure, I'd rather spend $8 on and get virtually the same disc with uglier packaging, but if Sony doesn't think that these films are worth the cost to press the disc, I'll happily take my business elsewhere. The more we focus on studio politics and price points, the less movies we actually get on Blu-ray, and as far as I'm concerned that's the only goal we, as fans, should even have...

So it was without hesitation that I pre-ordered my copy of Tom Savini and George Romero's 1990 version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Savini himself admits that he didn't fight very hard to get what he wanted out of the film, largely due to him going through a messy divorce at the time, and both critically and financially, the film seems to have struck a "Who Cares?" cord. Retrospect has been kinder to the film than perhaps audiences were over 20 years ago, and having skipped the film for years now in favor of George Romero's original, I was excited to give it a try for the first time on BD. I know buying a film sight-unseen is a dangerous game, but I wanted to show Twilight Time that their choice in focusing on slightly aged horror films was a positive one, and so I happily put in my order, unworried that we'd get anything but a decent release similar to the HD broadcasts that have been kicking around for the last two or three years.

How naive I've grown...

I can't claim to be a long-time fan of the Savini film the way I can of Romero's original "Dead" trilogy, but there's plenty of people who watched the film on every format it's been released - VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, HDTV, and even 35mm revival showings in the last few years. Simply put, the film has always looked a certain way, and this Blu-ray deviates from that look dramatically, particularly the first 20 minutes leading up to the shot of Ben turning the lights on inside of the house. After a solid three minutes, the image gradually shifts from looking neutral to a dark, hazy blue, a particular shade that's almost exclusively reserved for day-for-night photography. This is odd, particularly when you factor in that the commentary (on the Blu-ray, no less!) has Tom Savini himself mentioning that while the script called for a cloudy, miserable day to open the film's first act, the weather was gorgeous when they got to Pennsylvania, but that he realized watching the rotting and half-undressed corpses shambling around in beach weather actually carried a creepy charm unlike any he'd ever seen before.

This is a problem isn't merely the fact that it's "different", but it's objectively wrong in the context of the film's narrative! When Barbara runs towards the farm house, the birds are chirping, Ben drives up in his truck with the lights off, highlights remain solarized... it's plain that it's the middle of a bright, sunny day, regardless of the dark haze over the image. To put this into context, when Barbara makes a break for freedom towards the end of the film, she walks through a forest of crickets and spring peepers - ambient sounds that tell the viewer, in no uncertain terms, that they're dealing with a scene that takes place at night. Had the 5.1 surround mix replaced the sounds of birds chirping with crickets, maybe this change would have been a bit more convincing?

Oh wait, Because of the compromise made on location, Tom Savini and editor Tom Dubensky came up with a cool little montage 19 minutes in to the film, showing the setting sun, black clouds rolling in, and the moon rising... in other words, we now see the sun set about 10 minutes after the film has already gone dark on the Blu-ray. Honestly, talking about these changes don't do them proper justice... why don't I show them to you, using a 720p HDTV rip as a control subject?


Personally, I wish they'd have just left it as-is. That first reel is a rough goddamn ride to sit through. After the first 20 minutes, highlights remain a dull gray-blue and there's still an unusually cold push, but as this footage was primarily shot at night and in the dark (or, more often, indoors emulating nightfall) the effect seems much less awkward. It's still there, as you can plainly see by Tony Todd's light blue torch and the purple skinned zombie, but with nothing to actually compare it to, I think you gradually just get used to it. I can't stress enough that the first and last five minutes or so of the disc look gorgeous, slightly dull contrast or not, and had the transfer consistently looked like the opening shot of Patricia Tallman and Bill Mosley climbing out of their car, this could have been a spectacular looking release from start to finish.

When this controversy broke, fans everywhere demanded blood, and Twilight Time - after initial denial that the disc looked anything like the screenshots posted - went back to Sony and got confirmation that the BD was sourced from a 2010 HD master approved by Director of Photography Frank Prinzi. Shortly before that confirmation, Tom Savini watched the disc and called the picture quality "fantastic" via Facebook. In other words, if it pisses you off... that's too goddamn bad, because everyone in the film-making foodchain is perfectly happy with the results, revisionist or not. Twilight Time, for all the drama they endured over an admittedly bone-headed change to the film, still took the high road and offered anyone dissatisfied with the transfer a chance to return their copies, open or not, for a full refund. Much to their credit, they've made a waiting list of fans who were asking if there would be any potential left-overs, and they're limiting them to 1 per customer, and refusing anyone who already bought one right from the start.

Not that anyone with a brain would actually do that; the film has been selling on Amazon and eBay for upwards of twice the retail price ever since it was announced as "Sold Out!", and only a handful of copies have actually been returned to Twilight Time in the wake of this whole backlash.

For what it's worth, respected film restoration guru ROBERT HARRIS and head of Synapse Films DON MAY Jr. have voiced their support of the transfer. And, yes, to the disc's credit, color timing aside it's... perfectly fine. Grain levels fluctuate on specific shots in a way that makes me think some relatively minor digital manipulation is going on, but print damage is virtually non-existent, resolution is a marked improvement over any other release outside of -  and perhaps including? - a 35mm print, and the framing seems less cramped than the HDTV print, which has been cropped particularly hard on the left side. Sony Pictures always does a perfectly competent job with their "B-tier" catalog titles, not giving them the same love as Taxi Driver or Lawrence of Arabia, clearly, but they're still making new scans and giving them a proper once over for archival purposes. Honestly, the fact that this was a new 2010 master with DP approval means they were trying to do the right thing... it just so happens that the DP in question made some horrible decisions in the film lab.

And yet, somehow... I don't think I really give a shit anymore. This is easily on par with Dario Argento's atomic HD remaster SUSPIRIA, Francis Ford Coppola's crushed to hell DRACULA, and the grotesquely asinine color timing William Friedkin was experimenting with up until, and including, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but with all due respect, two of these were visually stunning pieces of celluloid eye candy, and the third was an a needless explosion of creator weirdness that was so over the top, the always lucid and brutally independent director put together a behind-the-scenes featurette showing his very sanity crumbling. These are some  pretty goddamn important films- well, okay, maybe not Dracula as much as the other two - but even Dracula, for all its' post-modern posturing and Reeveism, is still an indisputable work of unique visual finesse. These films should have come to Blu-ray looking perfect with absolutely no margin for error, and yet we got handed a hot mess in every case.

To put this into perspective, we've all spent over a week discussing, arguing, and moaning about the fucking 1990 remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The one with even less gore and a happy ending and the skill and production values of the average Hallmark movie. Don't get me wrong, it's an okay little reboot mostly meant to tie in with the Romero/Savini works that followed and, finally, get George some gottamn cheddar for having been the guy who made Night of the Goddamn Living Dead. Also, Patricia Tallman in a 12 year old boy's haircut toting a shotgun? Unf, I'll take that over Judith O'Dea being a wimpering sack of vintage vagina-related uselessness any day. But's it's just sort of dull, isn't it? Yeah yeah, I get that it has kind of a cool feminist twist, some amusing redneck gags as an afterthought and a couple of chilling ghoul designs, but when all is said and done, it's not a seminal film in the same league as George Romero's 1968 original, and I was actually disappointed by how restrained and dull the inevitable carnage in the 1990 version was. The fact that I don't think the film is especially great, however, does NOT invalidate its place as a work of the cinematic landscape worthy of preservation and respect... it just means my energy to complain about it has waned over the last seven days.

The two people tasked with that very duty, Prinzi and Savini, both say they think it looks fine. What the hell are we to do? We can't even boycott the goddamn thing if we want to because it's already sold out! History lost this battle before it even began, and about all we can do is suck it up and sigh at the absurdity of it all. Oh yeah, before I forget, some "camera shutter click" sound effects are missing from the end credits. Whoop-dee fuckin' doo. Considering the color timing issue it's sort of like complaining that there's a dead fly in your Extra Fancy Dog Shit Mousse.

And by the by, everyone upset that they paid a "premium price" really needs to chill the fuck out. That Japanese tape up there, the best copy of the film going about twenty years ago? Using today's exchange rate it'd cost just shy of $200. If you'd paid THAT much and gotten this transfer, yeah, I'd be pissed with fury to spare. As it stands, you'll break even if you don't like it, and can only profit if you decide some stranger on eBay will dislike it even less. Problem, fucking, solved.

As for me, I ordered this and also the Columbia DVD. Remember that documentary with the missing footage? Yeah, I figured that was worth six bucks. I'd say y'all reading this should probably do the same, but it's too late for anything else. Well, unless you'd rather buy it through VUDU and watch the properly color timed version in HD on your PS3 and PC and whatever else can handle it... and uh, did I mention bringing in the DVD gets you a coupon to get the $12 Vudu version for $5? Can't say I'm willing to spend even more money just to own a low-bitrate HD download to compliment two physical copies, but it's worth a thought for anyone who missed the boat and is more willing to pay for a decent HD master than steal a crumby one.


Kriztoffer Swank said...

Having never seen the film before, I was pleased enough by the Blu-ray. I agree with Don May that the new timing adds a creepy feeling to the film. Stuff like birds chirping and headlights being off doesn't bother me much. I've had birds chirp around here at dusk and have driven through dusk with the lights off by accident, because I didn't need them to see.

Also not being familiar with the shutter sounds at the end, I didn't feel like anything was missing. I actually liked the music playing with the various photos being shown, and I guess having shutter sounds would've made that less cool of an experience for me. No way of knowing for sure, though.

Maybe I'll do the VUDU thingy. Question is: what's the difference between HDX and HD? Both are the same price.

Balun's Ghost said...

Have you ever noticed that everyone coming out in support of this new transfer always begins their post with "having never seen the film before..." I suppose it's great that Twilight Time has introduced a new audience to the film simply by overpricing it and making it an unnecessary limited edition but, for the film's longtime fans, this is a major disappointment. Thank God for HD streaming services and BD-R.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

So I guess Don May and Tom Savini never saw the film before.

Gurotaku said...

Savini is also on record saying that he prefers the MPAA-censored version of the film nowadays so his opinions are clearly... debatable.

Balun's Ghost said...

Tom Savini will say anything so long as he's being paid. Don May Jr. said he liked the Twilight Time disc but also thinks you should have a copy of the original.

I see the Blu-Ray forum has now resorted to censorship, deleting posts and banning users in the NOTLD90 thread to protect their free swag from Twilight Time. How sad is that?

Kentai 拳態 said...

BALUN'S GHOST:(Awesome handle, by the way!) The review racket is pretty goddamn ridiculous. I've spoken with an independent who had to provide multiple copies of his movie to the staff, who then refused to post a review when they saw that Bill Hunt put up his review a day before. Didn't matter that they got free shit or that DVDActive's review didn't have screenshots or that makes their money on Amazon kickbacks... nope, they were so disgusted that he'd send screeners to TWO major review sites that they refused to post anything. Goddamn asshats.

As for Tom Savini, the guy's a genius, but he also thinks THE PROWLER was the best slasher movie he ever worked on. I love the guy's make-up work and I've heard that he's a cool person, but I think he and I will disagree on a lot of little things. In any case, the radio interview linked to in this very post is less than a month old and features Savini saying he'd wish the film's deleted gore could be restored someday, so he might just be incapable of making up his mind in general. Doesn't make him a shill, just makes him a little crazy.

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