Monday, December 24, 2012

I'm Dreaming Of A White Zombie

Never before has the word "threesome" had such ugly undertones.

Since it's deemed good enough for literally every Criterion Collection Blu-ray review ever posted in the last five years, I'm just going to throw subtlety out the window and quote the booklet liner notes, word for word, detailing what they've done:

"Zombie Flesh Eaters has been exclusively* by Arrow for this release, with all work personally overseen by Restoration Supervisor James White at Deluxe Soho, London.
The film was sourced from the original Techniscope 2-perf 35mm negative made available by Variety Communications, Italy. The pictures was scanned at 2K resolution and fully graded on a Nicoda Film Master at Deluxe Soho, London. Restoration work was completed in 1080Psf HD resolution using a combination of software tools and techniques. Thousands of instances of dirt, scratches and debris were carefully removed frame by frame. Damaged or missing frames were repaired, and density and stability issues were significantly improved. Throughout the process, care was taken to ensure that the film's original details and grain structure remained unaffected by digital processing. Although every effort has been made to present Zombie Flesh Eaters at the highest quality possible, some minor picture issues remain, in keeping with the condition of the original materials.

Both the original English and Italian mono soundtracks were restored, with audio issues such as bumps, clicks or dropouts removed or repaired. Audio sync to picture remains noticeably loose at times, in keeping with the nature of the film's production.

Lastly, working from the original 2-perf negative has allowed for access to the entire exposed image area of the film, so we have chosen to retain as much of the original frame are possible for this restoration."

Restoration supervisor: James White.
Audio mastering: Gary Sanders/Deluxe 142."

*"Exclusively [...] by Arrow for this release." That's word-for-word how it appears in the booklet. Nope, I don't know what the word was supposed to be. Restored? Remastered? Pimped The Fuck Out? Your guess is as good as mine.

AV Forum has an exclusive INTERVIEW WITH MR. WHITE (starting about 30 minutes in), which covers many of the ins and outs experienced while working on what's, easily, one of the most iconic and beloved Euro Horror titles for over thirty years. I'd suggest giving it a look, even if you have no interest in purchasing the title again - it's just really neat to hear about what sort of work and research has to go into a project like this, and refreshing to hear it from the point of view of a "cult title" that doesn't have the director giving an hour of his opinions on the subject - this is the treatment that the second tier Hollywood titles get, the stuff that isn't Lawrence of Arabia and Taxi Driver and Ben Hur, and it's nice to hear how the rest of them actually get treated, and why, and exactly what limitations can affect the final product.

When I wrote my own review about Blue Underground's Blu-ray release about a year ago, I was of the seemingly unpopular opinion that it looked heavily manipulated by digital wizardry, robbing it on anything resembling a natural and film-like appearance. I conceded that it was likely going to be the best Zombi 2 would look for some time to come, and until today, I've stood my ground on everything I said. But times change. People change. And as surprised as I am to say it, yes, even video labels can change - dramatically, if what I'm about to say is any indication.

Not only has Arrow Video one-upped my expectations by doing a brand new transfer, literally starting over from square one, but... well, in an odd way, the very studio I've heaped a fair pile of shit upon has actually vindicated my complaints, if only retroactively. Arrow Video has (so far, at least) been the only international licensor to have commissioned new masters for PHENOMENA, THE BEYOND, and DEMONS/DEMONS 2, all of which are, sadly, varying levels of "meh", and all for completely different reasons. [Keep in mind that I'm strictly talking about HD masters that Arrow Video themselves commissioned - this isn't about them recycling crumby materials provided by international licensors, like Dawn of the Dead, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lady Snowblood or whatever.] This could be a turning point for Arrow Video, and it didn't come without a fight, I can tell you that: If all of the bile and fury I and a handful of other less-than-subtle critics have spewed out over their middling prior efforts is what got us the transfer of Zombi 2 we'll be discussing today, than I suppose it wasn't effort truly wasted, since Arrow's transfer work has largely been given a pass by critics and consumers up until now, with both sides shrugging at Arrow's compromised efforts with the general consensus of "It's a lot better than the DVD, and it's all we're going to get anyway. Either buy it, or shut up already."

Now, here's where things get... weird. Blue Underground credits the rights to "ZOMBIE" as belong to J.G.O. Management, which I have little doubt is short for the Jerry Gross Organization, an independent American distributor that held the rights to a number of infamous exploitation films from the early 80s including this, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and BOOGEYMAN. Blue Underground also claims that they restored the original camera negative at LVR Video and Post in Rome, and even posted A VIDEO SHOWCASING WHAT THEY DID. Now, what's confusing is that Arrow Video bought the rights from Variety Entertainment, who claim to now be the world-wide rights holder for Zombi 2, and the sole owner of said original negative. When Mr. White spoke to Variety Film and asked about the previous HD restoration done in 2011, their reply was, give or take, "Blue Underwho? Sorry, never heard of them."

Back when BETA could have been in there,
just waiting to ruin your Saturday night.

Having thought this one through, I have a theory that's surprisingly gracious towards all parties - though I must stress that this is only a theory. Y'see, up until the mid 1980s or so, it wasn't uncommon for an American licensor to register international copyrights on titles they licensed from another country, which means a few decades later a third party might go to the international vendor, get the materials ready... and then find a Cease and Desist from whoever it was who had the American rights back in 1980 and was smart enough to keep track of his paperwork. Strange, frustrating issues happen all the time due to a single title having passed through multiple hands in the years long before international licensing was considered something to keep tabs on - just ask any hardcore MACROSS fan to hear what an absolute worst case scenario can be! - and it could be that the Jerry Gross Organization not only maintains dominion over the North American market all these years later, but that they do it under the auspice of Variety Entertainment. In other words, what if Variety Film did give clearance to do a new HD scan of the original negative... but the contracts were to Jerry Gross, not Blue Underground?

If all of this sounds a little convoluted, let's not forget that back in 2004, Media Blasters announced that they would be releasing a remastered and uncut 25th Anniversary Edition of ZOMBI 2... only for Blue Underground to also announce that they, too, were releasing a remastered version of ZOMBIE... and both of them did just that! The hell, you say? Well, the most reasonable answer as to how that could have even happened would be that Media Blasters bought the rights from Variety Film while, in a wholly unrelated coincidence, Blue Underground was licensing the title from J.G.O. Management at the exact same time. In the end both parties settled on a gentlemen's agreement to do their own releases as if the other simply didn't exist, probably confusing the shit out of retailers in the process, and this fact perhaps explains why Media Blasters released the film as "Zombi 2" while Blue Underground kept the more familiar "Zombie".

In the hopes of not confusing anything or anyone more than need be, from here on out I'll refer to the Blue Underground restoration (and subsequent Region A Blu-ray) as "ZOMBIE". Arrow Video's work, and more importantly their Region B Blu-ray, will be "ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS". We good? That makes sense, right?

I'll just call this one "Mmmm, steelbook..."

What's fascinating is that Blue Underground's ZOMBIE and Arrow Video's ZOMBIE FLESH EATER are, according to both the labels themselves at any rate, the same exact process: Both transfers were supposedly scanned from the original two-perf Techniscope 35mm original camera negative, creating a brand new 2K Digital Intermediate video file for extensive scratch repair and color correction. The results, however, couldn't stand to be more different on playback, and while I'll give Bill Lustig and his companions in restoration their due credit, it's impossible to ignore that - on many, many levels - the Arrow Video master is a dramatic step up from the previous HD incarnation, and could be the definitive version of ZOMBI 2 moving forward.

My biggest complaint against Blue Underground's film transfers in general wasn't with BU so much as it was with LVR, the film lab that seems to have done the majority - though certainly not all - of the Telecine work for a great many Euro Horror centric labels, including Media Blasters and Arrow Video, among others. The root of LVR's problems seem to be a less than optimal quality film scanner - a Cintel DSX based workflow which, make no mistake, is a hell of an expensive beast to replace. Even used the hardware seen in BU's tech demo video would cost closer to a million dollars US than I'd care to think about, and as much as I myself don't understand why anyone would work with CRT technology when much more naturalistic results can be had for similar costs, the sad fact of the matter is... well, some people like the analog noise that ancient misaligned vacuum-tube technology provides!

Some Hollywood directors even request that certain hardware be used in the preservation of their works, citing a certain "look" that more precise hardware just can't produce, recalling the mistaken arguments that film always looks better on 35mm versus projected digitally, or that music sounds better when played on a scratchy piece of vinyl versus played directly from a digital recording. I understand why people feel this way - part of it's nostalgia, of course, and part of it's the fact that some of that media was made with the natural generational loss of their analog mediums already accounted for -but at the end of the day, my overwhelming experience tells me that Cintel hardware produces a typically noisy, often harsh, and always diffuse look that doesn't look anything like 35mm film.

BU's ZOMBIE was sadly no exception; some scenes are absolutely awash with harsh digital noise that in no way looks like 35mm film grain, 2-perf or no, but the majority of the transfer was smoothed over with temporal DVNR, causing waxy skin tones, noisy edges, and occasional scenes that defy logic where one area of the screen is covered in noise and another isn't due to the frequencies being interpreted differently! I wrote at length about HOW I FELT ABOUT IT, and short version is "it's a hot mess". Blue Underground reportedly worked with the film's DP, Sergio Salvati, to come up with the final color grade, and prided themselves on the man-hours and digital trickery they used to remove the various scratches and stains inert to the film's history, and while I felt there was ample room for improvement, I was left with little choice but to admit that Blue Underground's Special Edition Blu-ray was, by far, the best release of this film the world had ever seen.

I was working on a full-blown A/B image comparison between the two of them, buuuuut.... CAPS-A-HOLIC already beat me to it. They've done a great job of highlighting just how shockingly different these two discs are, and for the most part, I feel any comparison I could throw together would have little to add. (Besides, I blew my energy wad on Ninja Scroll earlier in the week.) If you just want pictures, you can bow out here. If you're legitimately curious about what I think, groovy, let's continue:

Doesn't this just clear up, like, all of that
"Dawn of the Dead 2" confusion instantly?

Having spent time with both transfers, A/Bing the shit out of them, I think I can confidently say that not only is this the Arrow Video release of ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS by far the best release of Fulci's living dead feature to date, but that it's probably the best the film could look in 1080p. That's not to say there aren't some minor flaws, or that they've done a Taxi Driver level 4K restoration, but they've clearly spent both the time and money to treat this film right, and did so in a way that still shows just enough of its low-budget seams that I have no complaints about the way any of it's been handled. Grain is surprisingly light during the outdoor scenes bathed in natural daylight, but my guess is any "smoothing" is strictly the reality of encoding the already fine grain of a camera negative at typical Blu-ray bitrates (which are in the ballpark of 35 Mb/s!); the dark scenes are just as gritty and textured as I'd expected, and there's absolutely nothing in the way of obvious temporal smearing or edge-sharpening artifacts. There's also an increase in image information on all four sides of the frame, though it's typically minor and I wouldn't go as far as saying that the BU framing is ever compromised for it.

Small scratches, hairs, bits of dirt and minor instances of flickering do pop up on the 2012 restoration, but none of it's overly distracting or worthy of that much complaints; Arrow Video have preserved ZOMBI 2 in perhaps the most naturalistic way possible, and the light damage that remains should be familiar to anyone who's seen the film on any format, including the 2011 2K restoration. In short, the disc looks wonderfully film-like and any digital processing applied was done with great care not to upset the integrity of the celluloid elements used. Detail is more than adequate, though being a typically low-budgeted Italian production it used two-perf Techniscope method, and as such has only about half the resolution of an anamorphic 35mm feature shot using a 4-perf method, or slightly less resolution than Super35. This isn't The Dark Knight Rises, that's for certain, but it looks fantastic for a film of both its budget and vintage, and establishes how good the immense wealth of European horror films of the 1970s and 80s could look, if they were given a second chance in High Definition.

I'm also a little confused by something; there's plenty of minor instances of black scratches and bits of dust on the print, despite the fact that most damage to a negative print will appear as white on telecine, not black. (Black damage comes from Positive prints, or, such is how I've always understood it.) James White said that he was given the original negative, and I'm not about to call him a liar, but... I am confused. I'd love to ask Mr. White a dozen questions about this restoration, but this is the only one that's sticking in my craw, not because I think it invalidates what Arrow Video has promised, but because I'm at a loss as to why they exist in the first place. Ah well.

I will grant ZOMBIE this over its British counterpart; the US transfer has a  "cleaner" look, with less instances of physical debris or chemical staining than its UK counterpart. One of the most interesting comparisons between the two is the now legendary underwater shark attack scene, in which BU sent their Digital Intermediate to Fotokem film labs to have the yellow chemical staining fixed using the FLAME animation software. Keep in mind that the stains are still there on the BU master, they've just been toned down quite dramatically, and this one sequence may be the only scene where Blue Underground has done a better job than Arrow Video. That said, even this scene has issues with scanner noise and some wonky purplish tones that aren't an issue on the naturally blue footage of the UK master, so to call that singular stretch a victory between the two is pretty faint praise indeed...

Who the hell made this?
And more importantly, why?

One thing I did speak highly of on BU's ZOMBIE Blu-ray was the Director of Photography Approved color grading, which gave the film a dark, warm look that all previous DVD releases lacked. At the time, what I said was absolutely true; PREVIOUS DVD RELEASES all looked like varying degrees of crap, with boosted color saturation and a regularly yellow/orange cast to skin tones that never looked natural. The BU master had a substantially more stable look to the whole thing, though flesh tones looked pretty damn red, and as seems typical for Sergio Salvati approved transfers, blacks were crushed to create an inky black atmosphere that may or may not have existed on any actual 35mm prints. I hesitate to say that there's anything wrong with the BU color timing, rather I'll suggest that there's a "look" that was an improvement on every previous version of the film and leave it at that.

Arrow's ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS, however, has a brighter, less saturated, and generally less extreme look to the color grading. Naturalistic is a good word to describe the approach here, and while I've seen plenty of forum posts and casual reviews wondering aloud if the new release is "Too Bright", I've come to think that it's the ZOMBIE release that was simply TOO DARK! There's VERY LITTLE in the way of clipped highlights or washed out skin tones to suggest that Arrow boosted the contrast, and while the shadows are noticeably brighter on the UK release, there's also plenty of shadow detail present that becomes a black fuzz on the DP approved US master. The oft-orange colored faces on the BU release are a much more neutral, believable hue this time around, and while the grotesque gore set-pieces by Gianetti de Rossi lack the crimson "punch" found on the US transfer, I have little doubt that what we're seeing on Arrow's release is what was captured to the camera negative, without any odious fiddling to speak of. I can understand people wanting a Lucio Fulci movie about the living dead to be as

Blue Underground, as is their usual shtick, made a 7.1 DTS-HD Lossless production out of ZOMBIE, and I won't lie, it sounds pretty decent - even if I can't understand why anyone would need 8 discreet channels for any film, much less goddamn Zombi 2. Arrow Video has given viewers only original mono mixes for ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS, but they've given them a once over in terms of hiss and pop removal, and unlike the US release the original mono mixes are presented as uncompressed PCM rather than lossy Dolby Digital. BU gets the gold star for their over the top surround sound shenanigans, but I have no complaint against the Arrow Video release for giving us the original mixes in the best shape it's ever been. Oh yes, both include English and Italian audio with optional English subtitles, though only BU included HoH subtitles for the English dubbed version. For the record, most of the leads spoke English on set anyway (with Al Cliver and Aurietta Gay being the only obvious Italian speakers), but it's always nice to have both so you can be sure with these old post-dubbed Italian productions.

There is, however, one major caveat I must point out on the ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS BD: The three alternate 35mm sourced titles seamlessly branched into the film, while an awesome inclusion, have resulted in about 5 or 6 seconds of the film going missing after the title sequence! (And before anyone asks, no, the footage isn't MIA due to sloppy seamless branching; it's simply not on the disc.) On the Blue Underground Zombie BD, you see a shot of New York Harbor and the boat gradually slides in from stage-left until it fills the camera. On the Arrow Video disc, the boat is already in frame, and it quickly cuts to the next shot - those not familiar with the film would probably never notice, but considering how easy it should have been to present this film complete... well, it's just the last sort of foul-up I expected to see with a presentation that otherwise is such an impressive piece of work. You don't lose any dialog or music, and I'm convinced this was an authoring glitch rather than an error on the initial restoration end, but it's... really, really frustrating to have to put this big ol' asterisk next to an otherwise flawless presentation.

And for those who still have the Anchor Bay DVD (or maybe the Wizard Video Big Box), the titles for the US Version are slightly different, looking pretty much identical to the credits on the Blue Underground HD master. I can only assume that the English credits featured on both 2K masters were taken from a 35mm source Italy prepared for export in the late 70s, while the more familiar "US" credits were created by the Jerry Gross Organization, probably to make his local copyright known. Can't say I still have a copy to compare anymore, so perhaps someone with a bit more nostalgia for incomplete, crumby looking home video releases can fill those details in.

That's better.
...wait, is it?

I'm going to leave off here, having said my piece. In short, Arrow Video have done a fantastic job bringing ZOMBI 2 to Blu-ray, and other than the brief gaffe following the credits, I have nothing to complain about. Bonus features are plentiful, the two alternate "Limited Edition" packages are all handsome in their own right, and the transfer is immaculate, easily the best the film has ever looked, and likely the best it ever will on any format, even 35mm.

This'll be the last post I make before Christmas - pretty sure Hanukkah's already passed us by (sorry Jew friends!), and with all due respect to Ramadon, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and basically everything else happening along this time of the year... I, honestly don't know when your holidays happen, or even know what they're about except in the most broad-strokes manner possible. It's nothing personal, I just have a hard enough time keeping tabs on how Christmas is actually an awesome Pagan holiday the Germans co-opted to be about dressing small Catholic boys like racist caricatures and threatening naughty children with murderous rape-demons, which has since become a time to get shitfaced on fattening bourbon and watch crumby stop-motion cartoons. In any case, I hope everyone reading has an ideal holiday to share with whomever and whatever they love most, be it family and songs, booze and pornography, or just a stack of video games beneath your single stolen evergreen branch you're pretty sure nobody caught you jacking through the fence. The fact that any of you are here reading all of this crap means a lot to me, and well... I'd like the best for you. Staying home from work for an extra day to watch Killer Joe and drink a warm, fresh mug of Sweesish Glogg with the wife is exactly what I wanted for Christmas, and it's nice to see I can get it this year.

If anything, this whole post has been my present to Arrow Video; a warm, sincere, purchased-based review that tells them to keep this level of dedication and attention to detail, because they've finally proven that their transfers can match their insane packaging and otherwise stellar presentations. They've done a bunch of dumb, mediocre crap in the past, but if this can be our future together... hey, I can let bygones be bygones and throw my support behind everything they do, so long as they're keeping the bar high and not just showering the love and affection to one or two titles a year.

In fact, they're already asking their regular fanbase if they'd consider supporting a Kickstarter project for a "riskier" title than ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS to ensure the same quality, without the very real possibility of taking a loss on the project. I bought Zombi 2 because I felt that it was showing my support for a label that had taken a verbal beating had finally learned their lesson, and I felt it was the only decent thing to do. The notion of a licensor literally begging their public for a down-payment on a title is a ballsy one, but if that's the only way to get another release on par with Zombi 2 and it's a title I legitimately want on Blu-ray, I'd chip a few bucks in on principle and buy a copy when it's done. That's right friends, I'm actually advocating that we, as a community of cult film fans with a respect to the preservation to the medium, give Arrow Video our own money before they do any work, based solely on how blown away by their presentation of a movie I've bought several times in the last decade has been. Just do us both a favor and don't make us look like assholes by announcing that you need 30,000 pounds for a new scan of... I dunno, Brian Yuzna's FAUST or something equally terrible.

That's how big a deal their ZOMBIE FLESH-EATERS Blu-ray is to me. With any luck, they'll be sure to send out a handful of early review copies to dedicated fans to check them front to back before replication, just make sure no footage winds up left on the authoring house floor by mistake next time. (Hey, if Universal can do it for the Hitchcock box set...)

Happy Holidays to everyone, and if you feel the need to buy yourself something nice with all those card checks you're piling up under your pillows, this Blu-ray absolutely worthy of consideration. And Happy Holidays to Arrow Video, for the most unlikely but satisfying gift from Kentai to Myself. Good timing, guys!


Kriztoffer Swank said...

Seeing the direct comparison on caps-a-holic certainly whets my appetite even more. The only thing is I kinda wish we could have the supposedly DP-approved color timing of the BU release. Can't have everything perfect, I suppose...but better fidelity is a plus.

By the way, while looking at their caps, I noticed what a shitfest Scream Factory's They Live BD. I only heard good things so only expected good, but seeing these caps with my own eyes...sheesh. The Italian disc looks much better. Once I'm region-free, I'm importing that bad boy. Couldn't care less about lossless audio or extras if the main feature looks like chewed-up dog dick.

Kentai 拳態 said...

I don't have the Scream Factory release myself yet, but yeah, by all appearances THEY LIVE has the patented Universal Vaseline-O-Vision "look" that affects the majority of their back catalog titles. Wish I could say I was surprised, but Universal has a crumby reputation for a reason. If blockbusters like JURASSIC PARK and SCARFACE can't get HD masters minted after 2004, odds are this was never even on their radar.

My guess is the Italian release is based on the same raw 2K scan of a 35mm IP. Neither are ideal, but the Italian release certainly has a less processed image that looks more like "film" and not like... whatever the hell that smeared DVNRed smeg is supposed to be.

A shame the Italian release only has a DVD quality Dolby Stereo track for the English audio and nothing in the way of bonus features. I'll surely pick up the Scream Factory disc eventually, but man, it won't be for the stellar video quality...

X-human said...

There's really nothing to debate, Arrow should get a professional blow job from the fan community for this release. Rarely is such a complete package presented and it speaks more about the fan community then the release itself when you read people sticking with Blue Underground.

It's a shame that Arrow dropped a few seconds there in the opening*, because there are some people who actually seem pissed about that. It's kinda like Midnight Video's complaints about a few frames missing from a shot that aren't gore or censorship related but still call a DVD "cut" and sell their 10th generation bootleg as "uncut." Good grief. I can live with a few seconds of a boat missing if it means a more film like presentation overall.

We'll have another chance to see how Arrow compares this time with Kino once Black Sunday is released. Again we have a transfer with some issues that was written off as "the best it can look" and with Arrow offering alternate cuts of Black Sunday there's a good chance at a fresh transfer. I'm very curious to see it now. What's even more curious is that Kino will release White Zombie with and without a restoration around the same time. Are they too having a change of heart now?

(*) Which I believe you made a type-o of as "and other than the brief gaffe following the end credits" which should be "opening credits" unless there's a closing credits gaffe I'm unaware of.

Kentai 拳態 said...

X-HUMAN: Whoops, looks like I meant to say something along the lines of "the gaffe at the end of the credits", but I've since reworded it to be less confusing (for everyone, myself included). The switch to the END CREDITS is seamless branching as well, but seems to have worked without any issues.

As for what to expect from BLACK SUNDAY, I wouldn't get your hopes up just yet: The presence of Roll 15b as a separate "Deleted Scene" suggests that Arrow Video didn't do a fresh scan of the OCN - though the presence of the vintage AIP version is an intriguing one. Are they going to re-create the AIP cut digitally using Medusa's materials and some digital wizardry, or did they find a 50 year old film print and go from there? I've got a hunch, but...

Still, I suspect that the gray highlights and crushed shadows on Kino's HD debut was something introduced during Blu-ray production, not inert to the materials themselves. The color balances on all of the Jean Rollin features have been based on the same HD Masters as the old Encore DVD sets, yet the colors have been "different" - sometimes dramatically so! - on Kino's efforts... I have rather mixed feelings about all of that, but that's another tale for another day, I'm afraid.