Saturday, September 07, 2013

Masters of the Dead

Now somehow featuring zombies vs alligators?! SOLD!

So by the time you read this, most of the pre-ordered copies of Scream Factory's new DAY OF THE DEAD release will likely be in-route to their new homes. From the start I was skeptical of their promise of a "New 35mm Film Transfer", since... well, for one thing I'm a paranoid twat, and the last time I remember someone promising me 'New HD Masters' and 'Straight From Film' was Media Blasters (on ICHI THE KILLER and BERSERK REMASTERED respectively), and by now, we all know how well that turned out.

I don't have the Scream Factory disc yet, and the comparisons we've seen thus far have been pretty minimal... to whit, I'm going to repost the most interesting A/B shot that's surfaced yet. These were taken by Tyler Foster, who has since posted his full review on DVD TALK for the disc in question, though these caps were actually made as part of a larger discussion on the forum between him, myself, and several other Romero fanboys:



Let's not mince words here: Shout Factory's 2013 Collector's Edition destroys both the Anchor Bay BD from 2007, and the similarly unimpressive Arrow Video UK import [pictured] from 2010. Also, the only audio mix is the "original" uncensored English Stereo mix in PCM - no 5.1 surround sound here, but as Anchor Bay's 2004 revamp included several censored lines from the TV master, most long term Dead fans could care less.

I also have little doubt that if you have a raging Day of the Dead boner that only a newly produced 85 minute retrospective can possibly soothe, that's probably worth the price tag on Shout Factory's new fancy-pants Collector's Edition alone. The older (by which I mean "busier") I get, the less stoked I am to hear Tom Savini re-tell the same old stories he's told before in various horror rags and video interviews through the 90s, but hey, if that's still something that gets your blood boiling, I won't fault you for it. Arrow Video produced "The Many Days of the Dead" already filling the void for a feature length retrospective, but by all counts the new Red Shirt Pictures' The World's End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead is likely every bit its equal, and now in HD to boot.

Based on everything early reviews have had to say - keep in mind, I don't have the disc on hand, and this is all from second hand images and related commentary - this appears to be a pretty decent upgrade and clearly a worthy double-dip for anyone who wants to get their totally dour apocalypse on.

That said, the improvements aren't as show-stopping as I had hoped they would be. Anyone expecting a dramatic improvement like Wild Side's new scan of Dario Argento's TENEBRAE or Arrow Video's jaw-dropping restoration on ZOMBI 2, or even the slightly less cultish beauty of THE TERMINATOR - or even ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, if you wanna get all classy about it. In every instance I can remember, a "New Scan" has always been assumed to be a positive thing specifically because the older HD master wasn't all that great, and the new scan is being presented as the means to create a better presentation. All of these have a shock and awe in added resolution and clarity that, with all due respect, the Scream Factory release just does not seem to possess.

To be fair, the color correction alone on Scream Factory's new release is worthy of praise... but the fact is the 9 year old "Divimax" master could have looked dramatically different had they boosted the contrast to the breaking point, as Shout Factory has seen fit to do for their release. Case in point:

Oh, snap! Kentai's playing with Photoshop again...

It's not quite an exact match to the Scream Factory disc, no - but for a 5 minute experiment, it does the job. It's worth noting that the Scream Factory remaster has pushed the contrast hard - using the above example as a template, I'd say they stretched the contrast by a good 25%, which has turned every miner's cap lamp and shiny button into a glowing white orb of hellfire from which no highlight detail will ever escape. Yes, overall it's an improvement, but the harsh clipping on reflections suggests that the nature of these changes have far more to do with the digital domain than the prints used, and that's... odd, to say the least.

Of course, the Scream Factory presentation also has both increased grain and film damage not present on the old Anchor Bay/Arrow master, which should suggest a new scan, right? It can, and I'll freely admit may, but... well, a dirty little thought occurred to me; it's not uncommon for studios to make various back up masters with less levels of clean-up, mostly so they can go back and fix certain shots if the automated grain-removal and scratch-removal process geeks the hell out. What if the "New Scan" we're seeing is actually just the raw, unmolested HD scan Anchor Bay organized back in 2004 with the added boon of some heavy-handed color correction?

That would, if nothing else, explain why the new, super grainy transfer doesn't appear to have any actual increase in resolution; call me crazy, but when I go back and fourth between the Arrow Video and Scream Factory transfers I'm reminded of the difference between the older HD DVD transfer of Carpenter's THE THING and the much-ballyhooed Blu-ray transfer, which was literally the exact same master but with some automatic digital scratch repair (DSR) filters thrown-on as an afterthought. Everyone complained about the "Grain Removal" artifacts without even fully understanding what they were looking at; clearly the difference in grain levels are a bit more pronounced on Day of the Dead, but the actual result of a similarly sharp, high resolution image with muted grain and less in the way of analog film damage is quite similar.

More frustratingly I've asked Cliff MacMillan - or "cmac", on the forum - if he could share any info on the Day of the Dead master. When it was made, what elements were used, literally anything at all. So far, he's not said a damned word. Keep in mind that when accusations of PHANTASM II being an SD upscale were brought up, he was quick to defend that as untrue... then again, he also claimed that the BRUCEE LEE: THE LEGACY box set was taken from HD masters, and stuck with that story even - as of just this week - Shout Factory claims that "More Changes" are coming to the controversial and now indefinitely delayed release, so it's difficult to gauge just how seriously we should take any material claims at this point.

I'm also, for the record, convinced that GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN, ALICE COOPER - another Shout Factory title - was an upscale, but nobody noticed because A) It was a fly-on-the-wall 16mm "Band Movie" that was always destined to look like blurry ass no matter what resolution it was scanned at, and B) It's friggin' Alice Cooper, The Band: The Movie from 1974. Hell, we have better odds of seeing Alice Cooper's goofy Italian-Howling-knock-off Monster Dog getting a theatrical re-release than this cheesy slice of nonsense getting a new master, HD or otherwise...

Put this on a properly mastered Blu-ray, and I'll pay the label in handjobs.

Back to Day of the Dead: Are we looking at a new HD scan, or a dramatic re-working of the "old" Divimax materials? I'm honestly not sure either way, and with that in mind I'm erring on the side of caution, and assuming that Shout Factory really did do a new scan... even if part of me still isn't convinced. Regardless, it's easy enough for a master from any period to not look as good as it probably should, and as there's nothing about the screenshots kicking around - most notably the wide selection in Ian Jane's REVIEW AT ROCK! SHOCK! POP! that sticks out as any sort of "smoking gun", I'm just going to play it safe and take Scream Factory's word as truth. For now.

I certainly have questions about why this release looks only kind of good instead of really good, I can't provide any more answers without a bone being tossed my way. Based solely on the images and commentary various pre-release criticism has left us with this is probably still worth purchasing for Romerophiles, just don't go in expecting any miracles.

I've actually been mulling over why the release might look the way it does, and in the process I've tried to reconcile how different films from roughly the same period and budget (by which I mean "80s" and "low") tend to look. It's well established that the early 1980s ushered in an age of fast-speed film stock as the norm for most Hollywood productions, which means that noisier, grainier images are basically to be expected. That said, films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Street Trash and The Terminator all look like they were shot yesterday, while Evil Dead II, Night of the Creeps and Hardware all look substantially grittier, darker and generally a bit nasty around the edges... perhaps not so unlike the Shout Factory release of Day of the Dead. What separates these former three titles from the last three, if not budget and cinematic stylings? Are we seeing the difference between the original negative and a master positive? Perhaps just the difference between real-time 1080p scans versus the more expensive, but higher quality 2K scans? Without knowing more info that are held solely by the film labs themselves, I'm afraid all we can do is guess...

That said, there is one thing I know for certainty, and... to be honest, it has me just a bit more excited.

Happinet Japan has just announced a 35th Anniversary Edition of Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, which is set to include all three "official" cuts of the movie - the legendary 1979 American Theatrical cut, the 1978 Dario Argento produced European cut (aka "ZOMBIE"), and the 139 minute Cannes cut, which Japan released as the "Director's Cut" and everywhere else calls the "Extended Cut", since Romero claims the US theatrical version is his favorite version of the film. Happinet has also promised a "New 2013 HD Master", and with the Extended Cut having never found its way onto Blu-ray before, I tend to trust that there's some truth to this claim.

The 35th Anniversay Edition box set - which includes all three versions in the shiny package above - is on pre-order for 13,500 yen (about $136.25 currently). On the other hand, if all you want is one particular cut, you can get each version as a separate disc for 4,700 yen ($47.44) each. All films include the original English dialog in both 5.1 and mono, plus various Japanese dub and subtitle options that won't be of much use to the average non-Nipponese viewer. I'm a little disappointed there's been no mention of the original Japanese exclusive opening, which was created by Herald Films and goes something like this:

In the year 19XX...
While it's entirely possible that the upgrade from the ol' Divimax master will once again be only a marginal improvement, at least it'll mop the floor with the only previous HD master for ARGENTO'S "ZOMBIE" CUT, and with the original 139 minute cut never having gotten a Blu-ray release before, there'll be plenty of reason to celebrate - well, short of these "New HD Masters" being shite upscales or something. Bonus features appear to be limited to a handful of trailers and TV spots, but if you've ever owned either the Anchor Bay Ultimate Edition DVD - or Arrow Video's Blu-ray/DVD box set equivalent and somehow still aren't satisfied... I dunno, man. They make pills for that, I'm sure. The only thing missing here to make this the final release anyone could possibly need is the 155 minute "Final Cut" originally cobbled together for the German video market, and with this release not having bothered, it seems that the decent Extended Mall Hours fanedit is the closest thing to a proper English language "version integrale" we're ever going to see. Ah, well.

I'll keep an eye out for more info on the DAWN OF THE DEAD 35th ANNIVERSARY EDITION, and update you on this is worth the only somewhat high entrance fee.


Anonymous said...

Could SF's "Day of the Dead" blu ray look better? Sure, it could, but it still does not look too bad based on the screencaps. I honestly don't know the source they used for their transfer, but at least the grain level and colors look decent. As far as the "Dawn of the Dead" Japan blu ray is concerned, Happinet is a hit or miss company for me so I'd rather wait and check out reviews first.

Kevin P. said...

Just a heads up that pre-orders for the DAWN set are running at ¥10,400 at Amazon JP right now. Even with their high shipping prices (for DHL express) it's cheaper than I've found elsewhere.