A couple recent releases from the UK based cult film distributor 88 Films have finally come out, and it's compelled me to say a few words about the releases themselves, the label distributing them, and the context they've established in surprisingly clear terms. The how behind it is a little more complex than usual, so let's break it all down...
THE REMASTER CAMPAIGN
I've written a lot about how poorly LVR has handled the vast catalogue of Italian exploitation and thriller films of the 70s and 80s, and how Media Blasters managed to make them even worse, if only out of incompetence rather than malice. All in all it's felt kinda' shitty to be a fan of Italian trash film on Blu-ray, since not only did Arrow Video and Blue Underground mostly pull back once their cache of A-tier Fulci and Argento titles had been finished, but most of the titles we got looked like crap anyway. 88 Films drawing a line in the sand and promising a second-chance for the titles that Media Blasters/Shriek Show had treated less than well was an encouraging first step, and as 88 Films' releases of Full Moon and Troma films are regularly superior to their North American equivalents, I felt satisfied that I could trust them with my $35 for a restored copy of Zombie Holocaust.
Later on, the campaign was updated to include a new stretch goal to restore BURIAL GROUND in the same manner - and that's a garbage film I actually do quite like. Needless to say I did what had to be done, and put in a second pledge.
THE ITALIAN COLLECTION
Sadly, all of that means little to me when the final product looks... well... like THIS. Basically, it looks like every other low-quality CRT scan that LVR has applied noise reduction to in order to get OCD twats, like myself, to shut up about all that ugly scanner noise. Sadly, this isn't at all unexpected, as their earlier release of Antonio Bido's THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW was also a LESS THAN STELLAR. The latter didn't receive any obvious degraining, and if I had to guess I'd lean towards that being due to D'amaot's penchant for shooting on 16mm, which naturally lends itself to a grainier image than a scan of a 35mm stock. That means there's some basic limitations to how good the negative for this D'amato flick will ever look, sure, but for all the bizarre and often easy-to-fix at a production level problems, the Media Blasters BD release of Beyond the Darkness had, at least scanner noise and DNR weren't among them!
The sign of things to come.
Doubtless some of you are thinking, wait a second, if the dated CRT scanner is producing excess noise, shouldn't noise-removal be a good thing? Arguably it can be an improvement, though of course you'll risk sludgy smearing and temporal warping, which I find to be more distracting in motion than even heavy noise (though, admittedly, a "smooth" transfer tends to look better in still frames). The problem is that "removing" the noise generated during a film scan doesn't bring back the detail that was obscured, nor does it produce a consistent, stable image underneath. It's basically swapping analogue static video for digital video vaseline, and I'm a firm believer that farming the film scan to a different lab with better equipment will allow you to avoid both ends of this unfortunate spectrum,
In short, 88 Films - bless their low budget and schlock loving hearts - already know that these masters are crap, and they're dumping them on us regardless. They even talk about how the masters "LOOK GREAT!" on the Face Place, but if you're looking to official social media for an HD transfer's objective worth, you're doing it wrong anyway.
Part of me feels hurt by this; I've never been a big fan of the "It's Okay When We Do It!" mentality, and by specifically raising the bar set by Media Blasters' rather crumby treatment of those two Spaghetti Gut-Munchers, seeing them pump out the exact same crap of their own accord at the very same time is... well, it just shakes whatever confidence I had in them, to be honest. I'm not angry anymore - hell, I'm not even surprised when I see a new Italian cult film in HD and immediately wince at the coarse grid of CRT grit floating on top of a fuzzy, washed-out image. I'm just sad at this point. I and people like me fought for better, and a handful of people in this industry dug their heels in and refused to compromise... so why is this, years later, still somehow the norm?
THE SAD REALITY
Certainly there are plenty more who were waiting to see the results with the intent to grab it for about half that price from Amazon UK - and those cheeky fuckers still get the "limited" slipcover, for what it's worth - but if you can't even convince 300 people to pay MSRP to guarantee a dramatically improved release, that's proof that Blu-ray is only continuing to contract to the point of irrelevancy, even to one of the most dedicated audiences out there; genre fanatics who own multiple copies of the same film because they're never satisfied that the presentation is "perfect enough"... than again, most hardcore horror fans were probably satisfied with a DVD copy or two in their own language and a half-dozen VHS and LD copies cluttering up their closets. I don't want to say that horror in by its very nature a nostalgia driven market, but... well, perhaps that's another discussion entirely. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the niche labels are gone or just empty husks about two years from now, with obvious exceptions being Shout Factory, Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome and studios that own their own content like Troma and Full Moon - though if they'll continue doing BD releases at all with the gradual take-over of streaming in 5 years is anyone's guess these days.
Just as importantly, having worked with a handful of licensors over the last decade, I know how... well, frankly, how shitty some of these outfits can be to work with. You want to license a title for Blu-ray from an Italian film studio? Great! It's entirely possible that they've already made HD masters. Why did they do that? Because they knew the title you wanted was popular and they wanted to have a master on hand. But what if you don't like the film lab, or you thought the work was poor? Well, it's entirely possible that this film lab has a 20+ year history with the guy who runs the film lab, and you'd not only be taking business away from the guy who's storing their negatives, but you're basically pissing on a professional friendship that goes back to a time when the Italian film industry actually made both of them money.
Remember when people flipped out about Fright Night and Enemy Mine being limited to 3,000 copies each? Say what you will about 25 year old horror and science fiction films, but those were mainstream Hollywood titles with surprisingly high scalper-potential. Zombie Holocaust is a real cult film, and it can't even get 300 fucking pre-orders! Those 275 copies just don't pay the goddamn bills, and honestly, while I'm frustrated by the lack of quality coming out of 88 Films, I'm slowly coming to terms with the fact that based on the numbers we ourselves can see, the future of Italian cult films are middling-quality LVR CRT scans, or nothing at all. When I believed the market cared even the slightest bit, I dug my heels in and demanded better... now that we can see how few in number we are, all I can do is pray we get more transfers like the start of Blue Underground's run and less like the newer, digitally processed stuff that only added as many problems as they tried to fix.
Besides. 88 Films assured us all that there are worse film labs in Italy. The thought sends shivers down my spine... and makes me wonder who was responsible for the abomination that was the MB master for Burial Ground, a title I (incorrectly) attributed to them when it first came out. The number of labs left standing in Rome - good and bad alike - shrink with every passing year, and I have to wonder if LVR isn't the bottom of the barrel, good gravy, who is?
Without a copy on hand to poke at, I'm surprised to hear people talking about plenty of scratches and instances of dirt that were untouched, despite Pinewood Studios having reportedly done the restoration work. Whether this is just a little "sparkle" around the edges or a full-blown Grindhouse Experience, I don't yet know, but truth be told I'd much rather have a raw, filthy and damaged presentation than one that's been so digitally manipulated it looks like the prior MEDIA BLASTERS RELEASE. Of course there's nothing preventing it from being scanned properly and having damage removed on a case-by-case basis, but such is the fate of cheap Italian splatter films, I guess...
I may do a longer write-up on Zombie Holocaust at some point, but honestly, my utter lack of enthusiasm for the flick itself leaves that sounding more like a chore than anything. Don't get me wrong, I "get" the love the film has for mashing up three disparate genres at once - undead zombies, mad scientists, and blood thirsty jungle savages - but everything about the film just feels a bit more dull than it ought to. Aside from Donald O'Brien giving a sweaty, over-the-top performance the flick doesn't deserve and one incredible gag in which Ian McCulloch basically liquefies a zombie's head with a boat motor, there's just nothing to recommend here beyond the conceptual novelty. If you really want to experience Zombie Holocaust, watch Deodato's Last Cannibal World back-to-back with Fulci's Zombi 2. Your sense of taste will thank you later.
It's been said that a single line of dialogue disappeared during the restoration. Pity, that, but I don't expect it to be fixed, and if that's the only thing truly wrong with the presentation, I'll live. That said, this is why I wish labels like this would hire actual fans to QC their work; true, everyone can make mistakes - I myself didn't catch the fucked up opening credits for Re-Animator on the German restoration, for example - but if you're willing to give two or three known fine-tooth-comb types advance copies for the chance to throw your hands up in the air and shout "Oh YEAH? Well ZombieFan92 didn't spot anything wrong, so it MUST be a minor issue!" would probably go a long way in satisfying some of those complaints, if only on a conceptual level.
Hardly something worth bitching about now, I know, but I'm always disappointed that the re-cut American version "Doctor Butcher M.D. - Medical Deviate" has never gotten a new modern transfer, Unlike a lot of US edits that simply removed footage or swapped the order of scenes around, Doctor Butcher is TRULY ITS OWN THING, and at this point I'd almost be satisfied with somebody hiding the entire VHS rip on a Blu-ray just to see what the heck it was.
88 Films initially said that they had located the film's original negative and interpositive, as well as a 35mm release print. They did a telecine on the print, though I... don't know why, unless they planned to release a beat-up "Grindhouse Print" on the disc as a bonus. I'd be thrilled, sure, but actual release prints are always multiple generations away from the negative and tend to be in the worst shape of any available elements, so starting from there for a high quality, archival copy was probably a bad idea to start with.
88 Films had their lab made a test scan of the IP, but were quickly left found wanting. They then tried a new scan of the negative... but realized why the Media Blasters BD was such a mess. The entire film was stored on 16mm A/B rolls with undercuts, meaning that the shots were never really edited on 16mm, but blown up to 35mm for editing purposes. Going back to the original negatives reveales plenty of extended footage never meant to be in the film at all, as well as frames marked out with a big scratched-in "X" signifying they didn't need the cut after that point. In short, restoring from the OCN would include re-editing the entire film from scratch! It's certainly doable - hell, I've done it myself from SD materials for certain content - but it's time consuming and expensive, for a project they likely had hoped would be a done-deal.
While Facebook-sized 1600:900 JPGs aren't quite the most ideal 1:1 source one could hope for, they're better than nothing. With that in mind, here's an idea of what 88 Films has to work with:
Original Negative (New Scan)
Original Negative (Media Blasters HD Master)
35mm Release Print
I'm also shocked how poor the IP looks - they're struck straight from the negative, so in theory they have all the positive traits of being a "Generation 1" source without any of the irregularities of the OCN - keep in mind that quite often optical effects like fades or day-for-night shots are applied to the IP itself, rather than the OCN, so scanning straight from the negative may not actually yield the same results as a vintage print of those instructions weren't followed to the letter. Having watched stellar DVD transfers where people are turning on lanterns and trying to get to sleep in the middle of the day, I can assure you it happens more often than it should. If I had to guess, I wouldn't be surprised if the Interpositive was a 35mm blow-up, which alone can lead to problems with focus and clarity. It's the reason that the HD transfers for films like Lustig's Maniac and Bill Hinzman's Flesh Eater looked far wonkier than I expected on their HD debut, and while it's unfortunate to imagine this being as good as those films will ever look, without a proper 16mm negative to source a new transfer from, that's all she wrote.
So what'll become of Burial Ground? At this point, only 88 Films knows for sure, and it's possible they themselves aren't sure anymore. I can confirm that they've reached out to people who know this film like the back of their hand to be sure the bizarre example of hundreds of individual frames missing from the Media Blasters BD won't be repeated, but they did this information before they realized what a mess the original negative was. I know, personally, what I'd like to see them do... but I don't know what impact that would have on their budget, and if they're willing to take a loss on this title to do the "right thing" and hope their next release actually turns a profit to compensate.
This is pretty much why I haven't said a lot about cult-films on Blu-ray in the last year. Between this and Toei Animation being willing to re-upscale one of their major flagship titles of the 90s, it's clear that we lost. The video market only cares as much as they can squeeze a potential remake out of it, or profit off of the lead's recent death, or if they can buy out an entire film catalog for pennies on the dollar to the original owners don't have to have someone on payroll to piece out the "good" titles one by one to a mere three or four potential licensors. The future is looking grim, friends... but, it was nice watching it all burn to nothing with you.
Ah well. Gotta' get dressed and check out a 35mm print of BURIAL GROUND and NIGHTMARE CITY at The Egyptian. Just because I can't have a pristine HD copy doesn't mean I can't watch a filthy, faded, butchered print in the dark with total strangers!