Monday, August 31, 2015

Anime Like It's 1985: VAMPIRE HUNTER D Sentai Filmworks Blu-ray Impressions


We've talked about the 1985 version of VAMPIRE HUNTER D enough over the years, so let's just get down to business.

VIDEO (FILM ELEMENTS AND TRANSFER)

Sentai Filmworks' Blu-ray marks  the first ever HD release of my beloved horror-western, and while details are sparse Sentai promises, and I quote, "this Special Edition has been Digitall Remastered in High Definition from the original materials". If I had to guess I'd assume we're looking at an above-average quality telecine of a vaulted interpositive with some fairly mild digital manipulation, but you know what they say about assuming things; in any case, the materials on display are quite comparable to the Italian PAL DVD release by Yamato Video dating back nearly a decade, and as that's been our "reference" transfer ever since, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Heck, they might even be the same exact 35mm print, as both the Yamato Video and the Sentai Blu-ray start off with a Toho Film Company logo - this is absent from most other prints used for video transfers as the film was originally produced by Epic / Sony Music Entertainment, who released on DVD in Japan circa 2001 to cash-in on the Yoshiaki KAWAJIRI directed psuedosequel Vampire Hunter D: Boodlust, and seemingly sold it to Toho at some point in the next decade and a half or so. This may seem bizarre - and trust me, I know at least one licensor besides Sentai was trying to court this title only to be stopped by one issue or another (we'll get to the most likely one shortly) - but keep in mind the mere fact that Japanese "Production Committees" are a fairly recent phenomena only underscores how little thought went into keeping these assets organized for international release.

First, the good: Before getting into the niggles brief, Vampire Hunter D never has, and likely never will, look any better on home video. I have a feeling that the late director Toyoo ASHIDA would be proud if he could have seen the final form of his labors. Framed properly - if just a bit tighter than most prior releases - at 1.33:1, this new HD master presents the film looking largely consistent with the Italian and Japanese home video versions, though with improved resolution, less print damage, and a wealth of color fidelity never seen in any prior release - not even the matted OVA Films DVD from Germany compares in terms of detail and overall image quality. If you have one of the superior PAL DVD releases, this is still a massive improvement in every way, but if like so many fans you've only seen the American and Japanese DVDs, this may as well be a revelation. The Urban Vision DVD in particular was a noisy black hole of nothing for long stretches in Count Lee's castle and moonlit duels, and finally getting to see what the shit is going on when D gets thrown to the catacombs is reason enough to celebrate.

Color grading is always going to be tricky for this one, due largely to the low-contrast nature of the film itself. I assume because they knew the target market would be rental VHS, the film features several scenes - including the lengthy opening - in which the backdrop is effectively a large, sweeping monochrome plate with partially animated characters peeking out of the shadows. Before you assume I'm just being pretentious, and Christ know I could be when waxing poetic about Ashida, the same clever monochrome minimalism would be improved by Yoshiaki KAWAJIRI's Wicked City a few years later, and the color pallet - mostly stark gray, black and blue - was confirmed by the director himself to be tailored specifically to the known weaknesses of VHS and Laserdisc. Scenes set in daylight were always a bit drab and cold looking on video, and having seen the comparably pumped-up German transfer, I can see why some would find it more appealing that way. But the majority of the film happens at night, and over-exposing those lengthy battle scenes just reveal a large swath of shadows and nothing, which leaves me to believe that the slightly dim color grade shown here is "accurate", even if it makes the film look a bit dull compared to the vibrant excess of similar 80s OVAs.

That said, Vampire Hunter D has always been a little rough around the edges, and this new transfer - glorious as it may be - hasn't changed the fact that the limited budget has always left it looking a bit like a sow's ear. Judder, flicker, staining and animation errors - always a part of the film since the day it was shot - are relatively frequent, as are odd and occasionally twitchy animation errors that fans of newer, all digital titles may be unhappy with. While I have little doubt all of these issues could have been massaged with heavy digital manipulation, I have no complaints; it looks like a low-budget video from 1985 given a modern HD transfer, and goddamn, that's all I've ever wanted. At the very least there are no cue-marks at reel changes, obvious vertical scratches, photochemical staining or similar marks of a print left in anything but proper storage. It's as cheap and raw as it's ever been, but in the best way possible. I don't doubt that a proper pin-registered and stabilized scan of the original 35mm negative may have yielded more stable results, I'm more than pleased with the overall retention of the film's inert limitations.

Sadly, the scene of Count Lee's face being crushed by his own castle - represented by wet paint between 2 animation cels being pulled apart in the camera - is not present. To this day I'm not sure why the Japanese home video master minted in 1985 has this sequence slipped in, but it's a fun, bizarre oddity I'm begrudgingly willing to live without.

VIDEO (PROCESSING AND ENCODING)

The less stellar news, however, is that the transfer looks to have been digitally processed to some degree. Having seen abominations released by Disney and Q-TEC I'm not going to bitch and moan too hard about this one, but there's an odd level of... let's call it textural inconsistency? Oranges, yellows and greens have a fine layer of soft, relatively natural looking grain, while blues and grays have a very broad, almost defocused layer of noise, and red... well, red is basically fucking grainless. Film stocks play an important role in each color having a certain texture, I know, but a total lack of visible celluloid structure on D's cloak? Bullshit. That's some grain management going on, and there's nothing anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

That said, it's at least an attempt at grain management, not removal. In hindsight, the inconsistent but largely still semi-present grain structure isn't too different from the DVNR applied to the "Miyazaki Collection" release of Nausicaa. keeping in mind that, as a full frame 1.33:1 transfer, Vampire Hunter D would actually have about 30% more resolution (and thus less grain) than a 1.85:1 transfer from the same stock. I'd say the level of grain is comparable to other marginally processed 1.33:1 transfers like Ninja Scroll or Rurouni Kenshin Tsuioku-Hen/Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, but as both of those transfers had notably less in the way of flickering, splices, film judder and other production mishaps, the 'grainless' look just sort of blends into the otherwise polished presentation. D's rough edges and occasionally ugly, flat key frames make the smoother, less textured appearance stand out just a bit more by comparison: Vampire Hunter D has always been a rough looking film in its own charming way, and removing the texture, while hardly a deal breaker, doesn't really help its aesthetic in any way, either.

I don't use numbers to summarize complex opinions - it, sadly, undermines actual reading and critical thought. In summation the transfer is above average but not exceptional, unto itself, but an essential and much needed upgrade for a film with a long and rather dour history up until this point, especially in North America.

AUDIO (JAPANESE)

First off, this is perhaps the most pleasant surprise: The Japanese track is, by far, the best audio presentation the film has ever had. Not only that, but I suspect it's the first ever genuine presentation of the Japanese Dolby stereo mix promised on the original Japanese advertisements, but - for one reason or another - were always presented as weak and muddy sounding track. I don't have the R2 Japan DVD handy, but as far as I could tell the track was dual-mono with an above-average level of flutter and other analogue distortions, rather than a genuine stereo track. For the example that convinced me I wasn't crazy, listen to D enter the front door from the left side of the sound-stage at 00:54:22. It's not the most dynamic stereo track in the history of animation, but it's by far the best sounding presentation of this particular film I've found... and trust me, I've looked.

Just to confirm I'm not insane, another easy to spot example is during the end credits of TM Network's "Your Song" - at 01:18:06, the music skips back and fourth between the left and right ear before settling back in the center for the Engrish line 'Why do you go forward, why do I go backward?' a few seconds later. If, like me, you're just enough of a possibly gay 80s pop fan to have actually listened to TM Network recreationally, you'll know this is exactly how the song is "supposed" to sound.

Why has every other release? If I had to guess it's because stereo audio wasn't quite common in theaters until the late-1980s in the United States, with Japan trailing somewhat behind until the advent of cheaper digital decoders in the late 90s. It's common place for Japanese films made before the DVD era to have a finished mono mix placed on the master prints themselves as optical tracks. Optical audio, sadly, is a bit trash from an archival standpoint with limited fidelity by nature, with original magnetic tape being the preferred materials where available. The German and Italian DVD transfers both credit their Japanese mix as "original mono", so it's not much of a stretch to assume that they sourced their Japanese audio from the sound-on-film present on whatever archival print was used for their respective transfers. Even the original North American Laserdisc specifies "Stereo English" and "Mono Japanese", for what it's worth.

Newly translated English subtitles are included, and at a glance appear to be a marked improvement over Urban Vision's generally serviceable translation from 2000. I've only spot-checked a few scenes, but so far, it's A-OK. Wonder how close it got to that custom track I prepped shortly after the first novel got translated...

The German DVD went out of its way to include a new 5.1 remix, but being sourced from the same crumby mono materials as everything else, it was more of a mono track that echoes slightly louder in the right side from time to time and has a wildly out-of-whack LFE mix that makes even standard dialogue thump like a friggin' DMX album. I applaud them for trying, I guess, but with them only able to echo the mono mix there's actually more directionality in the proper stereo mix on this new Blu-ray.

AUDIO (ENGLISH)

It's a rare day indeed when a 30 year old Japanese dub has higher fidelity than a brand new English localization, but what is this Blu-ray if not a short trip to crazy town? Sadly, the Streamline dub is nowhere to be found, and in its place is a newly produced dub courtesy of Sentai Filmworks. I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't be shocked if the exclusion of the Streamline dub was, itself, at the request of Toho; having tried to deal with the paranoid legal branches of film licensors, I can say without hesitation you'd be shocked at what you'll be told you can't include, no matter how little sense it makes.

To put all of this into perspective, Streamline Pictures was sold off to Orion Home Entertainment. Orion Pictures was bought out by MGM. Streamline Pictures themselves only owned temporary distribution rights to the Japanese films they purchased; the dubs produced by them are considered ancillary works, and in more or less any court case would go back to whomever owns the international rights to the film. I know for a fact that archival film and audio materials for the various Streamline titles were auctioned off from closed film lots after MGM's bankruptcy in 2010, meaning that at this point, about all MGM really owns are the logos for Streamline Pictures...

Unfortunately, when you try to explain this to a Japanese corporation they see "MGM owns the company that dubbed the film", and they don't want to even risk MGM noticing them. This is a crying shame, but as Toho has had more or less the same reaction to the AIP produced Godzilla dubs - to say nothing of the Roger Corman produced "Godzilla 1985" - and is the reason why the "classic" dubs have more or less disappeared from the market from the 1990s onward.  This doesn't explain why the bonus features have gone missing, of course, but I'd assume that Epic/Sony Records didn't bother to keep close tabs on this before being folded into CBS/Sony Music Entertainment in the late 80s.

Amusingly enough, the premix materials they based this on were made in mono, with all of those exciting directional cues I've never heard before on the English track becoming a dull and central thump that turns the TM Network song into an indistinct, echoing mess; this explains why the music is so low and muddy compared to the Japanese track, too. The quality of the English voices themselves are fine, but I... will refrain from commenting on the dub much beyond that. I finally understand how old school Kaiju fans felt about having "new" dubs of their childhood shat out by Toho, and while I agree that both are ultimately rather silly, and arguing that one is ultimately inferior to the other feels a bit like spitting in the wind... it's also somehow very, very unpleasant to sit through the new dub. If you want an opinion on the Sentai dub, ask someone without 20 years of familiarity and nostalgia with the Streamline version, 'cause my bitch ass is biased as it's going to get. What I can tell you is the Texan accents are laid on thick, Rei sounds like a poor man's Ralph Fiennes wearing David Bowie as a suit, Larmica's voice is shrill and cringe-inducing to a Japanese-emulating perfection, and Witchie's laugh is even more out of sync with her animation than I'd imagined possible. If you guys can sit through this thing in its entirety, you're stronger than I am.

To be fair, the translation of the Streamline localization was always a heinous mess, but at least everyone involved had the good sense to play it as a somewhat hammy Hammer Films inspired melodrama; the new dub appears to try and emulate the Japanese voices to an almost painful fault, lacking any of the nuance and humor in the Streamline translation, which seemingly realized you can only take a boomerang chucking mutant David Bowie running himself through to mortally wound a combination of Marvel's Blade and The Man With No Name so seriously before it all starts to fall apart. The original Japanese version has its own sense of humor, muted as it may be by comparison. Say what you will about Carl Macek's lack of respect for the original Japanese language; at least the man produced dubs that felt natural for the material it was given. And hey, the new Sentai dub actually uses the word "Dhampir", so that's more than the 'official' Bloodlust English dub managed.

BLU-RAY TECHNICAL PRESENTATION

Sentai's new Blu-ray comes on a BD-25, with the main feature clocking in at 14.5 gigs with an average bitrate of just under 20,000 kb/s. Both audio tracks are presented as DTS-HD Master Audio stereo at 24-bit sample rates. Due to the use of mild DVNR I honestly doubt cranking the video bitrate would have made a worth-while difference; you can make out some mild blocking during high-motion shots, but with much of the grain having already been smoothed over to a soft dither, the compression artifacts are more or less negligible. The whole thing is packaged in a standard semi-transparent blue case with familiar Amano YOSHITAKA key art, and a somewhat updated version of the original Japanese logo.

Also of note, the entire Japanese credits sequence has been left intact, with English credits added at the end. Kudos to Sentai for that being their standard operating procedure for features, minor as it may seem. The Streamline version included English credits over the final scene of D riding off into the sunset, which was always so long and oddly silent that I'm surprised the Japanese version didn't do the same; then again I'm suspicious that the original script called for a 60 minute film and the production was later requested to stretch itself out to a feature length, which would explain the lengthy, silent scenes of D riding to, and from his mission.in an otherwise quite aggressively paced film after the intentionally methodical opening.

Aside from Sentai propaganda, the sole bonus feature present is an HD presentation of the original Japanese trailer. It's worth watching just to see numerous alternate cuts that were changed for the final film, and the hissing soundtrack and odd blue cast to the whole thing are a cheeky reminder as to how much better the film looks to any prior incarnation. Sadly, the 10 minute making-of from the Japanese laserdisc - which was included on the Urban Vision DVD - is nowhere to be found. This is a surprisingly decent piece for what's basically just an EPK, interviewing the original actors (and editing inappropriate footage to the conversation), and letting the director give his philosophy on how to approach what was, at the time, an entirely new format.

I hardly expected it, but the only other noteworthy bonus feature is the fascinating Jonathan Clements commentary track from the Manga UK DVD. Pity none of those made the leap, but everything else on the Urban Vision DVD was propoganda for the upcoming Bloodlust film, so the "special edition" status of the 2000 DVD was a bit more of an exaggeration than I'm sure they'd like to let on in retrospect.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While it took a damn long time to get here, I think I'm finally satisfied enough with a Japanese language presentation of VAMPIRE HUNTER D that I can move on with my life. The lack of the Streamline dub and Making-Of featurette from the Japanese Laserdisc is a frustration pair of omissions, but what can you do?

Fans of the film shouldn't think twice; pay the damn $25 and move on with your life. It's probably never going to get better than this.

HEY! WHY ISN'T THIS A FULL COMPARISON?!

Because Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain comes out in 15 minutes. If I ever post again, expect it to be long after I've completed the game... and "completed" can mean a lot of things in this context, even before you get to rankings. Yes, I know just a little too much, and yet not enough to spoil the fun. Maybe I'll revisit this in a month or two, we'll see just how upset I am over the revelation that Punished Snake kills Dumbledore.

For what it's worth, I've seen the caps of VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOOSLUST and I'm convinced this - much like GHOST IN THE SHELL and THE END OF EVANGELION - is very much a victim of its own original production methods. Soft, weak contrast and grainy as shit? Sounds like a 90 minute AVID to 35mm-out project to me! Justin Sevakis has noted that he actually tried to done down some of the washed-out and grubby look, which means the only way this film would look dramatically better is if someone gave it a proper shot-by-shot color grading, which it's clear the Japanese side wasn't willing to do. To be frank, I can hardly blame Discotek for not hiring some crazy asshole to fix a disc that was already knee-capped by not being allowed to include the Japanese audio. This fucking movie will never catch a break.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

88 and Out: Zombi Holocaust, Burial Ground and Anthropophagous

I'm still here, friends. Just because I'm "busy" and have a "life" doesn't mean you can ever fully escape my rambling stupidity!

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


As most of you likely know, I contributed to an Indie Go Go campaign wherein 88 Films wanted crowd-fund a restoration of ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST from the original camera negative. As most of you who know me are aware, I don't actually like Zombie Holocaust much - but up until that point, the best release we'd gotten was the Media Blasters Blu-ray, which was rife with grotesque scratch repair artifacts, muddled color grading that made the film look like it was shot completely in the dark, and  super-funky CRT scanner noise masking legitimate detail, courtesy of the somewhat infamous Roman film lab LVR Video and Post. They've been responsible for most of the HD transfers released by Blue Underground and Arrow Video before the latter's dramatic turn-around in 2013, and the former... basically vanishing for a year and a half, presumably while Bill Lustig looked at the market conditions and decided to take a hiatus from trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

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


It's thus with incredibly mixed feelings that I decided, despite loving the film to its cheap, stupid core, that I decided not to pre-order ANTHROPOPHAGOUS: THE BEAST for the seemingly fair price of £19.99. It's worth pointing out that this title was not part of the remaster initiative, which is why I was hesitant to throw a little more than $31 down before I knew what I was getting into. While short on directly-related bonus features the 88 Films release does include 42nd Street Memories, a feature-length documentary about the beloved "grindhouse" run of 1970s exploitation double-features, and pre-orders are set to include a slipcase and postcards, which is a decent enough bonus. And anyone who pre-ordered straight from the 88 Films website - the only store currently offering it - got the above slipcase, replicating the old UK "Video Nasty" cover about as closely as humanly possible.

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


The reality, of course, is that they don't bother, because, well... nobody cares. Even if you look at the successful Indie Go Go campaign, less than 300 people actually contributed to make this new master happen, and quite a few of them paid dramatically more than the $31.25 or so asking price on principle. Less than 300 people cared enough to throw money at 88 Films to do two new transfers of iconic splatter trash-films, and I can tell you from personal experience that both I, and a friend of mine, contributed to this project solely on principle, not because we actually liked the film!

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?



ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST


While I'm still waiting for the fuzzy-helmed clowns at Royal Fail to get me my goddamn package, screenshots of the 88 Films restoration of Zombie Holocaust are, at least, ENCOURAGING. Keep in mind that like Lucio Fulci' City of the Living Dead, this was for some inexplicable reason shot on Techniscope two-perf at a hard-matted 1.85 ratio, which means the OCN is effectively a 35mm camera using a 16mm frame's worth of resolution. Sounds pointless, I know, but if it's good enough for Lucio goddamn Fulci, I guess it's good enough for Mario Girolami, too.

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.



BURIAL GROUND


Where things get a little more confusing is the situation with Andrea Bianchi's BURIAL GROUND/La Notti del Terrore. Unlike Zombie Holocaust I actually do like this cinematic turd, and I was furious with what a mess Media Blasters' prior attempt to restore the film for Blu-ray turned out to be.

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:

Interpositive Print 

Original Negative (New Scan) 

Original Negative (Media Blasters HD Master) 

35mm Release Print

None of them are "pretty", aesthetically speaking, but at the very least this vindicates my prior theory that the massive amounts of chroma noise on the MB Blu-ray was the result of a telecine device either not being designed for, or properly set up for, 16mm OCN content. The world of telecine and scanner hardware is vast, infinite to an outsider like myself, but at the same time it's not so impossible that I can't spot bullshit when I see it. I'd keep harping on Media Blasters utter lack of care and foresight into their own catalog, but with them not even having held an announcement panel at Anime Expo this year, I'd feel a bit like putting the spurs to a horse that's been rotting for weeks now.

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!