The technical merits of this pricey collection have been discussed, well enough on some important levels, by Kevin Pyrtle of Exploder Button. If you want an honest opinion and a massive host of screenshots, GO TAKE A LOOK. While his opinions and my own differ in some very vital ways, it's a pretty fair snapshot of what to expect; a rougher, more raw, and very filmic presentation compared to the digitally manipulated Anchor Bay and Arrow Video releases from several years back, but with their own unexpected, largely analog-based problems thrown in. I think he's done a fair job covering the most obvious flaws and the many strengths this collection offers over the competition, but - seeing as how he largely lets the screenshots speak for themselves - I think a few big stones may have been left unturned.
I don't currently have access to the "North American Theatrical Cut", and I don't think I need it to judge what the materials are, for reasons we'll get into before all is said and done. This is neither a typical review, nor a sweeping condemnation of the 35th Anniversary Box... this is something more akin to a sympathetic, frustrating autopsy. So let's get our scrubs on, pick up some calipers and get this undead show on the road, yeah?
ZOMBIE: DAWN OF THE DEAD
[Dario Argento's 119 Minute "International Version"]
[Dario Argento's 119 Minute "International Version"]
The "European Version" - which I'll henceforth call the ZOMBIE CUT, for simplicity's sake - looks to be the exact same HD master minted in '07 we've seen released in Italy, France and Austria, which... isn't exactly reason to celebrate. Window-boxed on all sides to 1.85:1 and granted a high-bitrate AVC transfer at 1080p 23.98fps, I'll give the devil his due and say that this transfer looks marginally better in motion than screenshots would suggest; the bizarre layer of vertical artifacting and nasty machine-noise that makes it look like you're watching the whole movie through a screen door is always present, but there's just enough noise pulsating through it that it's slightly less... "icky" until you pause it.
That's not to say it looks good. It doesn't. It just doesn't look quite as bad as COMPARISONS BETWEEN THE OLD FRENCH TRANSFER might leave one to suspect, is all.
The print itself is likely a European Internegative with non-English titles (Italian in origin, if I'm not mistaken) - it's got plenty of scratches, dirt and stains that run through the print like veins through a human being, but these scars - most of them likely baked in during the print's original creation - are never any more distracting than the funky, noisy texture they serve to break up and remind the viewer that, yes indeed, celluloid was involved at one stage or another in the creation of the wonky, video-like presentation you see before you.
Perhaps far more damning than the lousy HD master itself, the first two minutes featuring the opening English credits appear to be sourced from an SD video master, and - as you can imagine - look like a DVD upscaled to 1080p, complete with aliasing and edge-ringing and all those goodies you'd expect from a low-resolution source. Worse yet, the end credits are not only sourced from an SD master, they're still interlaced! Cheese and crackers, guys, why the hell didn't you just leave them in Italian? Once you get over all of that nonsense, the underlying transfer is just, kinda... urgh. It's at least a marginal improvement over any previously released DVD, and looks far less horrifying than any of the poorly-compressed European releases we could compare it to.
You get both a lossless Dolby True HD 5.1 mix, and a 640kb mono track in the film's original English language. Do yourself a favor and don't waste your time with the former; looking at the levels it's clear that all they did was echo the mono mix to the rest of the sound stage, which means at its best you get a weird, front-heavy mono track, and at its worst you have a gnarly sounding mix full of phasing. Hiss is kept to a minimum, though there is occasional fluttering during dialog heavy sequences; anyone familiar with the "Argento Version" on DVD will know exactly what they're getting into. Disappointing they didn't do a new mix using the original stems to get a cleaner sounding mix of Goblin's fantastic score, but I can't say any of this is a shock.
I am, however, quite disappointed to note that the Japanese dub included on this disc is *NOT* the somewhat infamous "Suspiria Cut" that was shown on Japanese TV in 1980, which now casts serious doubt to its inclusion on the ZOMBI: NEW CENTURY COMPLETE DVD-BOX, as well... suddenly them advertising it as a "Newly Recorded Version" of the Thursday Movie Theater Version makes sense, as frustrating as that is to finally understand. For those unfamiliar, Jayson Kennedy did a NICE WRITE-UP on the existence of the rarely-seen Japanese broadcast version, though again, without the full "Suspiria Dub" appearing in DVD quality on YouTube the day after that box set dropped, I no longer believe that it's been released on video, and exists only as a memory - and occasional bootleg VHS recordings - since it aired nearly 35 years ago. I can only imagine that using music cribbed not only from other vintage Italian period soundtracks, but also completely unrelated Progressive Rock tracks in this day and age was a nasty lawsuit waiting to happen, but its loss to the ages is a frustrating one, perhaps no less infuriating than the loss of Manga Entertainment's bizarrely perfect use of YELLO TRACKS IN SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA. The 2010 Japanese dub is a slightly amusing novelty in and of itself, I suppose, but without the alternate soundtrack I lost my interest after a few minutes.
A disappointing HD master is made even less desirable by the inclusion of SD sourced credits, and a total absence of the alternate score. I'm not quite as furious with this transfer as I imagined I would be, but calling it "disappointing" would be something of an understatement. I honestly can't recommend this one to anyone but the most dedicated of Argento completists.
And yet, somehow this is by far the least interesting disc in the set...
DAWN OF THE DEAD: EXTENDED VERSION
[George Romero's Original 139 Minute "Cannes Cut"]
[George Romero's Original 139 Minute "Cannes Cut"]
A quick history lesson: Dawn of the Dead was shot between November of '77 and February of '78. While Dawn of the Dead wasn't released commercially in North America until April of '79, it was first shown in something resembling a completed format at the Cannes Film Market one year earlier in the hopes that they'd entice various international distributors. Dario Argento edited the 119 minute "Zombie" cut of is own accord separate from Argento, and released the film to Italian theaters in December of '78. Meanwhile Romero went back to the drawing board and refined the film as he liked, cutting it down to 127 minutes, which he's stated is his preferred cut. With this in mind, one could classify the 139 minute Cannes Version as Romero's "First Director's Cut", and the 127 minute US Theatrical Version as Romero's "Final Director's Cut".
The 139 Minute Version first surfaced for the general market in the mid-90s, with the two most notable releases being the Elite Collector's Edition Laserdisc marketed as the "Director's Cut", and the Japanese PERFECT COLLECTION box set, which included both - and I quote - "Director's Cut Perfect Version" and "Dario Argento Selected Version". Up until that point only bootleg 16mm prints of the Extended Version had ever surfaced, so seeing a higher quality version was certainly encouraging for fans who'd long loved George Romero's legendary film, and wanted to see what beats - and even entire scenes - wound up on the cutting room floor for the sake of a slimmer, more commercially viable picture. I personally think that plenty of the scenes excised were good, and think that a re-working of the soundtrack would probably create the "Perfect" experience... but hey, at the end of the day it's George Romero's film, and if he says the 127 minute version is the one he's happy with, I'm not going to argue too hard.
[Henceforth, the 127 minute version will be known as the THEATRICAL CUT, and the 139 minute version will be known as the EXTENDED CUT. There's just too much back and fourth on that "Director's Cut" moniker here to keep track of, so this'll help... I think.]
Having asked Don May, who used to run the show at Elite back in the day, I'm sadly no closer to knowing for sure what film elements were used for the Extended Cut. All I know is that producer Robert P. Rubenstein provided D2 masters at the time, and that said materials had been approved by director of photography Michael Gornick - as I've explained elsewhere, the director is rarely invited in to look at a new film master since it's assumed the DP would keep closer tabs on things like stock variances and lighting cues anyway.
This begs the question: What exactly was this "Extended Print"? Was it an Answer Print they vaulted back in '78 as a reference to make the Cannes exhibition prints? If Romero knew this was going to be a glorified work in progress one would assume he'd have made Internegatives of all the raw footage before doing any real editing, which is likely how the "Zombie" print came to be, as well, placing this two generations away from the negative, minimum. Being a second-generational element would help to explain the increased contrast and general lack of stability, though exactly when it was made - and why - will sadly remain a mystery for the time being. The contrast, stability, print damage and so on may not be ideal, but the underlying detail and fidelity of the grain itself is good enough that I'm assuming it's neither one of the 16mm reduction prints private collectors have held onto since the 1980s, nor a well-worn print that ever saw the light of day at Cannes... though George knows, I could always be wrong.
Laserdisc wasn't the only way to see the 139 minute version, of course. In 2004, riding on the wave of interest generated by Zack Snyder's... interesting remake, Anchor Bay released a 4 DVD box set known as DAWN OF THE DEAD: THE ULTIMATE EDITION. It lived up to the name, too, including the 127 minute THEATRICAL CUT, the 119 minute ZOMBIE CUT, the 139 minute EXTENDED CUT - plus a fourth disc dedicated solely to bonus features, including the feature-length 1985 version of 'Document of the Dead' by Roy Frumkes, which has *also* been released in various forms over the years. [I refuse to get into that on the grounds that this post is already too long... and I'm only about half way finished as-is.] Honestly, it's one of the most dedicated and comprehensive collections dedicated to a single film I've ever seen, and if you're a film label and aren't sure if you're treating your film right... well, this should be the standard, plain and simple.
I have only four words: SUCK IT, Criterion Collection!
Anchor Bay actually re-released the Theatrical Cut as a stand-alone disc a few months before the remake hit theaters before the details on their inevitable "Ultimate Edition" were finalized, and released the Zombie Cut a year later as a stand-alone release. Even the exclusive Anchor Bay produced 'The Dead Will Walk' documentary would later appear on the Anchor Bay Blu-ray... but, to date, the only way to get Anchor Bay's release of the 139 minute Extended Version is in that massive box set.
The centerpiece of this collection was Anchor Bay's 2004 remaster, which they promoted as having been restored under their "Divimax" line. Without getting into specifics, that was Anchor Bay's way of saying they'd done a fancy-pants HD remaster and were converting it down to DVD. When it came time to present the Extended Cut, they started with their new 'Divimax' transfer and re-inserted the extra 12 minutes of footage on a scene-by-scene basis. You can actually see the quality of the 'deleted' footage drop with heavier grain, flickering colors, more scratches and a general loss in stability. Here's a few time-codes, should you want to check for yourself:
00:38:58 - 00:39:51 - Francine watches Peter and Roger run down the stairwell, and there's a notably longer scene of the two of them looking over the mall interior from the top floor. It ends when Peter says "Let's check those keys."
00:43:15 - When Roger kills the one zombie that's followed them into the department store, the theatrical version ends with a single gunshot. The extended version shows two shots, and a brief cut-away to the gory aftermath. The extension is less than a second long, but the increase in grain and shift in color are still fairly obvious.
01:00:43 - 01:02:05 - Francine grumps "Nobody care about my vote", leading to an extended dialogue scene between her and Stephen where they weigh the possible dangers of holing up in the mall. It ends with the grim joke "You were the one who wanted to set up house."
01:43:35 - 01:44:40 - The lengthy "shopping spree" was excised completely from the theatrical cut, as the remaining survivors try to ignore the loss of their friends by swiping a large pile of stuff they know they don't want or need, but take anyhow.
Those curious can get a full list of extended sequences on SCHNITTBERICHT, though the comparison uses PAL sources for timecode and the descriptions are in German, so... have fun. I did!
Having compared the Happinet Extended Blu-ray to the Anchor Bay Theatrical Blu-ray, it's clear the prints are completely different - the stability, the color fidelity, the print damage and the framing are simply too different for that to not be the case. I firmly believe that Anchor Bay created a new 35mm Interpositive for their Divimax Master, and used the same "Extended Print" discussed earlier to fill in the gaps for their Extended DVD. However, when you compare just the extended scenes from the Anchor Bay DVD... well, the results are a bit shocking.
The 2004 "Extended Cut" DVD is on the top, the 2013 Blu-ray on the bottom:
Not only are the tight framing, cranked up contrast, print damage and temporal color flickering all exactly the same between the 12 minutes of "Extended" footage on the Anchor Bay DVD and the new 2013 Happinet Blu-ray, but the smoking gun here is the funky, rainbow colored moiré pattern we can see in the first screenshot. It looks like an optically formed gaffe of the film not laying totally flat when the print was struck; it pops up pretty frequently on the 2013 HD master, but never crops up once on the Anchor Bay Divimax transfer. Considering how rife with obvious scratches and dirt the Anchor Bay print was, I find it difficult to believe these were erased manually in the 2004 master, which - in turn - means that this must not only be from a print further down the line, but that the Anchor Bay "Extended Footage" and the 2013 HD master must be from the same exact film materials. In other words this "State of the Art" 2013 High Definition master was created from a film element that was almost surely struck no later than 1996 - a print that was considered so problematic by Anchor Bay a full decade ago that they only used it when they absolutely had to.
While I've yet to see the "American Theatrical" disc from the Japanese box set, Kevin's comparison suggests that the new HD materials for the Theatrical Cut and Extended Cut is identical, and the image quality between the "extra" footage found in the Extended Version and Theatrical Version are totally consistent in terms of image quality on the 139 minute Blu-ray. This leaves me little choice but to assume that the 2013 HD master of the Theatrical Cut was actually made by taking the Extended Cut transfer and trimming it down down to match the Theatrical Cut runtime. That's right, whoever commissioned and organized this print chose not to create a new scan from the original negative, or even go back to the new master print Anchor Bay created in 2004: They used, at best, a second-generation print minted in '96, which easily could have been sitting in a vault for over 15 years by that time and be worse than I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt in terms of analog generational loss.
All of that said, I'm convinced that Happinet Japan have little to no blame for what we're seeing on the finished disc. Producer Rubenstein has given the following interview about the currently in-development DAWN OF THE DEAD 3D project, a boondoggle he's so far spent an estimated, mind boggling $6 Million on, and I'm sure one of the costs built-in to that project was the creation of a new HD Telecine. I have no doubt that a 3D conversion will include some added ambient effects and an increased focus on removing grain and print damage, so what we're seeing on the new Japanese transfer might as well be the "workprint" for the 3D version. You'd think if you were going to do this you'd go back to the original camera negative which would have even less grain and damage to start with, but not being an old school Hollywood producer, perhaps the simple answer involves large gray sacks with dollar signs on them, and is thus way beyond my comprehension.
There's also the question of what shape the OCN is even in these days; Dawn of the Dead was finished in 1979, and Anchor Bay didn't seem to have any major problems creating a new 35mm element a decade ago, but that doesn't tell us everything we need to know. Is the OCN just the 127 minute Theatrical Cut, with the scars of having made duplicates for Dario Argento's version and the Cannes edit baked in at the very core? Is it a collection of poorly-labeled A/B rolls for every version, some sort of nightmare waiting indefinitely to be re-assembled in its proper form by a crack team of Romero fanatics? Has it already rotted away to nothing, and - if Anchor Bay lost their 35mm master print for whatever reason - is this "Extended Print" the only film element left the original owners have access to? This, sadly, isn't information I'm privy to. I'd love to know, since without knowing a sensible reason for why a shoddy-but-longer print would be used for the bulk of this brand new transfer, all I can do is assume the worst behind the producers who decided this ugly mess was "good enough" for the greatest film Richard P. Rubenstein ever produced.
Alright, with the possible exception of Day of the Dead. Maybe Martin? To a lesser degree Creepshow, though I do love me some Creepshow. Yeah, Rubenstein made some good shit happen for a while there. Oh wow, he produced Pet Semetary, too? Love that friggin' movie! But even so, Dawn of the Dead is still the "prestige" title there, no question.
Before I forget to mention it; the last four minutes or so of the 2013 HD master have some frustratingly obvious DNVR. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire film has a subtle layer of grain management, but the scene leading up to the helicopter escape is rife with gnarly, smudged artifacts sure to bother anyone sensitive to temporal processing. (If other processing examples exist, I honestly can't remember them - but suffice to say, my focus has been elsewhere.) While the print damage is consistently a match between the Anchor Bay "Extended" footage and the new Blu-ray, I'll also give the devil his due and point out that the most obvious hairs and scratches have been manually minimized on the new HD master. The problem isn't the size of the damage left over after their restoration work; it's simply the volume. Dawn of the Dead has never been a "clean" film, but it's 2014 for fuck's sake: There's no reason it has to look as bad as the negative the day it was spliced. And yes, as friend of the Kentai Blog, "The Goddamn Zollman" was quick to point out, the black levels are incorrectly set to IRE 7.5 (ie: "PC Levels" instead of "TV Levels"), though as discussed the blown out contrast has less to do with a funky RGB/YUV conversion and more to do with the print itself being problematic. That's why I didn't want to discuss specifics until I had the disc in hand... and man, that turned into a far bigger project than I thought it would.
As infuriating as it is to think that the curators of one of the most celebrated and important genre films of the 20th century would think so little of it that they wouldn't use the best elements available - or not even the second best, as minted a decade ago! - long time fans with a fondness for organic, film-like images will still be more pleased with the results offered here than by Anchor Bay or Arrow Video; despite the print itself being of substantially lower quality, the scan is infinitely more film-like for the most part, even if - in this case - "film-like" includes baked in scratches, dirt, flicker, judder, splice warping, pushed contrast, faded color, and every other defect imaginable from a less-than-idea element being brought to Blu-ray. At least the Happinet import has a healthy bitrate hovering in the mid-30s, and there's no obvious vertical filtering, edge enhancement or ghosting/trailing artifacts outside of the final few minutes that I'm not willing to give the benefit of the doubt are the result of optical and chemical processing, rather than digital tomfoolery.
The discs's new 5.1 mix, however, is a fucking joke. Hey kids at home, want to know how to make a surround mix out of a hiss-filled optical track? Echo the mono mix fucking everywhere. To be fair the Extended Cut has never sounded particularly good, and it's unlikely that all of the individual audio elements still exist, but still squatting and letting a phony surround mix congeal in a tightly coiled pool doesn't do much to excite anyone. As with the Zombie Cut, we get an adequate-but-lossy 640 kb/s Dolby Digital track, which I'd recommend. The Anchor Bay Extended DVD likely had its audio pulled from the same analog source, but their efforts to de-hiss the damn thing left a hollow, digital sounding echo thats not much better in my mind.
Optional Japanese subtitles are included, as are a few original trailers. That's... about it. There's also a Japanese dub, but I haven't bothered to check if the soundtrack for the "Extended" scenes implied that individual ME tracks for these scenes exist, because I've spent so much time trying to figure out everything else about this transfer it never even dawned on me. Sorry, friends, but I'm at that rare point of Romero Saturation: If I don't turn my attention towards something else for a week I'm going to only be able to communicate by biting people in the throat - and believe you me, I've already got HR up my ass for that "Casual Friday" fiasco.
If this is the "New and Improved" master for Dawn of the Dead going forward, I say bide your time and get a substantially cheaper release down the road of whatever cut you most fancy. It's not unthinkable that Shout Factory or Anchor Bay might pop up eventually threatening to out-do the previous Ultimate Edition DVD set, and if they can do it with more bonus material for less cash than the Japanese Anniversary Edition, it might be worth springing for. This may be the best HD master of Dawn of the Dead yet, but it's far from the best master possible, and it sure as hell isn't the master the film deserves.
Rubenstein is sitting on a goddamn gold-mine with this movie if he'd just poke around for the outtakes and footage that's never been released in any of the multiple revisions that've been floating around for 35 years; you want to make a fortune on Dawn of the Dead? Offer up an English version of the 145 minute "Final Cut". Hell, render a CGI mock-up of the original proposed ending. Even that sounds far more appealing than a 3D conversion of a print that's probably older than as I am.