Midnight Factory's 6-disc Blu-ray/UHD-HD collection for DAWN OF THE DEAD is an extremely frustrating package, all in all. On the one hand it's simply the best presentation of the film that's ever existed... on the other, it's a huge mess in its' own right, and if you're waiting for clarification on if it's worth the asking price, it really does depend on what you've expected out of it.
THE EXTENDED AND THEATRICAL CUTS OF
GEORGE A. ROMERO'S "DAWN OF THE DEAD"
Mind you, the entire 6-disc Midnight Factory box set under scrutiny here costs about the same price as just the Extended Edition Japanese Blu-ray, so if you're clever enough with a BD-ROM to bypass the forced subtitles it may well be worth it to go for all the way. On the other hand, if you only want the Extended Cut and could care about the European Cut, that release doesn't have forced Italian subtitles. So invest accordingly.
Plenty more photos available at High-Def Ninja.
(And yes, they all have the same stupid disk art.)
The Italian language booklet (seemingly containing a new essay, and interviews with Dario Argento and George Romero) covers the 4K UHD, and the Post Cards - kept in a small, sealed plastic bag, just the way I like it - flop somewhere around in the middle, which means you'll be attacked by them every time you open the case. It's kind of a shit-show to be honest, and none of this is helped by the fact that the case itself is chunky and only likes to close when it seems to want to close when it feels like it. Not gonna' lie, I've had worse, but this may be the most cumbersome piece of "Deluxe" packaging since that equally ridiculous fat-case for Dust Devil on DVD nearly a decade ago.
The only real upside is the fact that - much like Arrow Video's old "Special Edition" Slipcases! - the case has a total of 4 poster art pieces you can swap around as you like - the iconic American, Italian, Spanish and Pre-Release posters are all given a full panel. The art itself is decent quality, amazing historical stuff, and... kind of pointless, considering you don't have a window to show any of it off from. Goddamn, Midnight Factory, get your shit together on this thing! Instead it's wrapped in a thin, glossy cardboard slip the International Post loves to ding up as much as humanly possible - but it's that weird Refen themed art, so, fuck it, I can't convince myself to be as upset as I was at the less-serious damage on my copy of the Anchor Bay Ultimate Edition.
If you're a packaging fetishist and you're more patient than I am, I say wait until the inevitable German port of the same content in a Mediabook, or 3D Steelbook, or a Leather Bound Zombie Skin Edition - pretty much anything would be less excruciating to deal with than this goddamn thing. I don't ask for much from a box set, just functionality, and somehow this has come up just short enough to annoy the crap out of me.
But we all know I'm ripping these to my hard drive to fuss with them anyway - and may have gotten so sick of waiting I grabbed a Nautical Freelance Copy to start this review. Moot point, but hey, full disclosures and all that...
THE BONUS DISCS
As expected, while the bonus features with Tom Savini and Nicolas Winding Refen feature English audio and Italian subtitles, the rest of the interviews with Dario Argento, Claudio Simonetti, the LVR restoration crew, and the archival interviews with Alfredo Cuomo and Claudio Argento are in Italian with no translation. If you're surprised by this, you probably haven't imported many Italian DVDs.
Archival interviews and trailers are all SD PAL, and as such will likely not play on most North American displays. Not much to see here unless you speak Italiano, which - considering the countless hours of bonus material already available in English - is really no skin off my nose. I was hoping the Restoration featurette would show some cool before/after samples, but unless you really want to see a graded vs ungraded shot, that's as good as it's going to get.
The Open Matte transfer is arguably the HD highlight of this collection, and is - for all intents and purposes - identical to the 1.85:1 transfer aside from having all that sweet, sweet headroom. It's a little bizarre knowing that the 1.85:1 area on the center-right of the scan has been cleaned of dirt and scratches while the rest of the transfer hasn't, but as the 35mm Master Positive has been kept in relatively good shape over the last nearly-40-years, there isn't a whole lot to complain about that can't be equally leveled at the "Final" 1.85:1 master.
Arrow Video's variant of the "Divimax HD Master".
DISCUSSING THE PREVIOUS MASTERS
AND BLU-RAY RELEASES OF DAWN OF THE DEAD
Before we talk about the new master - the good, the bad, and everything in between - it's worth noting why this was such a big deal. This is hardly the first time Dawn of the Dead has been given a new, high-resolution transfer, but it's never quite gotten the attention and care it so desperately asked for...
In 2004, Anchor Bay restored the American Theatrical cut of the film to what was - at the time, certainly - one of the most impressive presentations of a 70s horror film outside of the big studio wheelhouse. Scenes were corrected on a shot-by-shot basis to get consistent, rock-solid black levels and somewhat neutral skin tones, despite highlights often having a too warm (and sometimes blatantly brown) cast. Sadly, as this was still the era of DVD where heavy film grain led to terrible, clumpy compression, heavy DVNR that led to blatant ghosting and edge-filtering to prevent the whole film from looking "soft" as a result led to an unnatural, digitally processed look that's hard to look past. Going forward, this will be known as the "Divimax Master".
Perhaps only adding to the confusion were reports that the Arrow Video Blu-ray - which also included the two "Alternate" cuts on PAL DVD - was regularly cited as being 'higher quality' than the Anchor Bay transfer. This is certainly a matter of taste, but the biggest difference between the two was that Anchor Bay later applied an additional pass of scratch-removal tools, which did their job (somewhat) but also caused the usual high-frequency detail loss that comes with the territory. The master itself is exactly the same otherwise, and sadly, most of the damage was done during the initial creation of the master over a decade ago.
The Extended Edition of Dawn of the Dead was first released on Blu-ray by Happinet Japan in 2013. I suspect the Happinet transfer is actually the restoration that served as the foundation for Dawn of the Dead 3D, a conversion project that was first announced as in production all the way back in 2007! That would, at the very least, explain why the new transfer is so distractedly bright... hmm... either way, this will be the "Extended Master" when comparisons are unavoidable.
The Happinet release also included a "New Master" for the shorter American Theatrical cut - in reality it was the same exact scan as the Extended master re-cut to the soundtrack of the George A. Romero approved 1979 Theatrical Cut, since the former was effectively just an unpolished, longer cut of the latter anyway. As such I'll refer to the 2013 Theatrical Master and the 2013 Extended Remaster as if they were one and the same, because... well, they are.
Since we're being slightly pedantic anyway, I'll point out that while Elite erroneously released the 'Extended' version on Laserdisc in the 90s as the "Director's Cut", Romero has since clarified that he willingly trimmed the extra 7 minutes or so of footage and that he considered the 127 minute "Theatrical Cut" his personal prefered version of the film. Romero seemingly had no direct involvement in the creation of the 118 minute "ZOMBIE" cut released in most of Europe.
Presumably Alfredo Cuomo and Claudio Argento hold the master positive that makes up "ZOMBIE", the Dario Argento approved 118 minute version that serves as the leaner, meaner, less satyrical answer to Romero's more pensive and playful take on the zombie apocalypse. I like Zombie just fine - I'm not convinced it's the "best" version of the film, no, but I'm also convinced that each version has their own strengths, and Zombie is no different - though for better or worse, the elements appear to be no better or worse than the 35mm CRI that's seemingly served as the basis for every new home video transfer of the film dating back to the mid-90s.
Foot Note: Anchor Bay possibly created a new 35mm print in the late 90s, but the inclusion of "extra" scenes on their initial video releases - which were later removed for the 25th Anniversary Edition DVD - suggest they either have been cleaning that old girl up for decades, or perhaps struck a low-contrast print from the same vintage CRI. The connecting thread is the moire whorl patterns that aren't present on the ZOMBIE elements, and thus can't be on the camera negative. Take a look at Danny's Dawn of the Dead Collector's Blog for some fascinating info on this seemingly rock-solid theory.
ZOMBIE: DAWN OF THE DEAD IN 4K -
COLOR, CONTRAST, AND CONUNDRUMS
First the good news: The promise of an all new, high quality 4K scan of the "Zombie" Master Positive print have been delivered exactly as promised - by which I mean it's not an upscale or anything like that. The Japanese "4K Remaster" of The Crow has proven that this isn't always the case on overpriced imports.
It's clear that efforts have been made to maintain the overall integrity of the element at a scan level, from the correctly centered 1.85:1 aspect ratio to the carefully regulated highlights and a level of consistency between shots for things like fluorescent lighting and time of day that no print of Dawn of the Dead prior has ever seen. In many ways it may indeed the best, most natural looking version of the film ever released... but that doesn't mean it's a particularly attractive presentation on its' own. Romero's principle of substance over style means the original lighting and focus on the film was never particularly great to start with, and anyone expecting Dawn of the Dead to be a crisp, glowing film for the 21st century is probably not someone particularly familiar with the film to begin with. It's always been an underexposed, inconsistent, grimy looking little movie and while there's a few problems with the presentation, it's clear the overall project did everything it could to preserve the occasionally underwhelming world George Romero and DP Michael Gornick created.
When I first looked over the 4K European Remastered 1.85 disc, my heart sank a little. Shadows were an indistinct gray, flesh tones had a dull, washed-out look compared to every prior print worth mentioning, and while the appearance of visible on-set lighting was no longer a big, hot colored blob of light, I found myself struggling to call what we have an "improvement" - from any raw, aesthetic standpoints, at least. I suspected that there was an incorrect gamut conversion at first: Outside of the optical titles none of the unexposed areas of the print are ever "black", and while the new 4K sourced BD looks perfectly serviceable during well lit exteriors, the vast majority of the while film looks very... pale, to put it kindly.
It wasn't until I looked the whole thing over with a histogram that it started to make sense - even if I find myself frustrated with the result. While the Extended HD Master released in 2013 seemingly favored midtones over highlights or shadow details - getting a consistently vibrant, natural looking color pallet at the cost of virtually every lamp and light fixture being blown out into a glowing vortex. In short, the Extended HD Master pushed the exposure to increase contrast, and with it find some sensible looking midtones at the cost of making very bright scenes way too bright, and very dark scenes a little on the thin side. There was a little clipping on things like the mall lighting in the 2004 Divimax transfer as well, but nothing outside the margins of error (or good taste).
By comparison, the new 4K transfer seems to have preserved the highlights perfectly, with the brightest scenes consistently topping out at IRE 100, just as they should, with the muddled midtones and weak black levels the natural result of leaving things as they are. The result - while technically sound and perfectly respectful to the source material... still strikes me as very underwhelming, from any aesthetic point of view at least. The cool cats at CAPS-A-HOLIC have made many of the things I'd otherwise write completely irrelevant (huzzah!), but all the same, their comparisons can be a bit limited and may not always tell the full story, as might be the case here, so I've included a bunch of purty pictures for your personal pleasure.
I've tried to get a wide variety of examples so that anyone on the fence about taking the plunge can make the right call.
But so what if Kentai thinks the movie doesn't "look" attractive - low contrast is good, right? It brings out more detail than a high contrast transfer which will only crush shadows and boost highlights! This is actually all a good thing and he's just being grumpy because it doesn't look the way he wants it to... honestly, I was worried that was the case for about a week, but something just didn't feel right, and I think I've finally put my finger on it. See, going lower-contrast will usually yield more shadow detail, that hasn't been the case here. The shadows on the 4K Remaster are oddly vague and murky, and actually have even less information hiding in the shadows than either of the competing HD masters. I was expecting a hundred shades of gray, but there's no shades to speak of - just the same damn off-gray!
To give you a quick, simple example of how completely different all three masters are - and to give an excuse to use the scene where Tom Savini calls Ken Foree "Chocolate Man" - here's a quick frame-match between all 3 major Blu-ray releases. Obviously, how close to calibrated your monitor is will have a huge impact, but you can at least see the big issue for yourselves.
European 4K (Top) - Extended HD (Middle) - Divimax HD (Bottom)
As you can see, both the Divimax and Extended masters show what I'm assuming to be a round smoke detector and a sprinkler to the right of the grate... but the European 4K remaster has only the vaguest hint of the former, and no visible instance of the latter at all! The shadows are simply a murky haze of nothing, and seeing the "actual" black 1.85 matte bars against it only makes the weaknesses around shadow detail within the new transfer that much easier to spot.
That said, the blue cast on the European transfer is one of those "intentional" changes that works - another example is the dark blue shot of the mall exterior, which plays off previous shots of the dark night sky, playing their arrival up as the true "Dawn" in the film's title. It's not in the original, but it's a clever enough touch I'll happily take it. It's little things like this that show me that far too much time and effort was put into this new transfer for the issue to simply be that the people working with the master didn't know what they were doing: Even if it's only in a small way, the work making Dawn of the Dead consistent from shot to shot and scene to scene elevates the film into a more cohesive, structured whole than it ever has been, and it's given me a newfound respect for how much care and effort can go into work I still may not, ultimately, be all that happy with.
Only adding further fuel to my personal speculation fire is the Open-matte transfer, shows countless instances of small black debris on the print registering as "true black", while completely unexposed areas of the original film are the same milky gray color as the finished 1.85:1 transfer. I can't say anyone treating only optically printed debris as "true black" (because no light passes through them) is wrong, since that's what a 35mm print looks like on projection, too... and yet, even in that context, these seem to vary between "looks pretty normal" to "what the heck am I even looking at"?
Some of these instances - such as Peter and Roger emerging from the doorway - look... fairly okay, I guess? The screen is an almost consistent fade to optical-black (ie: "this is as dark as the prior element is getting on this print"), and I can believe that's how the scan is 'supposed' to look... but then again, the shot of Roger fighting a zombie in the truck cab is just gnarly and washed out, far as I'm concerned. Compare it to a similar (not frame accurate) example from the Divimax HD master - or even the Extended HD master! - and despair at how flat and sad it all looks:
Divimax HD (Top) - Extended HD (Bottom)
So... Is the grading just poor, or is there more at play than meets the eye?
In the end, I can only guess that the different 35mm elements themselves are the limiting factor here, and the new color grade only reveals those weaknesses. After all, the prior HD master was struck from the same 35mm elements and the results were VERY SIMILAR as far as contrast and shadow detail goes - but when you factor in how piss-poor so many other elements of the previous masters were, it was easy enough to chalk those up to the mastering process rather than the elements themselves. If that's the case - if the black levels on the low contrast 35mm IP elements simply don't exist - I can't blindly call the transfer poor. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and as disappointing as the black levels are here, I feel that far too much care has been spent elsewhere for this to have been anything but a known compromise.
I will say - if my hunch is anywhere close to correct - that I would have handled it a bit differently... but that's the beauty of being an arm-chair critic, isn't it?
GRAIN STRUCTURE AND THE
Most of the video compression algorithms we use to this day - MPEG-1, MPEG-2, AVC, and now HEVC - are based around the notion that a sequence of frames have commonality that can be exploited and replicated between frames with minimal changes. These smaller segments compressed together are called Group Of Pictures - or a "GOP". While I sure didn't vote for them to be the defacto standard to Make Video Quality Great Again, the way their trickle-down compression works goes something like this:
I-Frames have the least level of compression, and are thus easiest to decode. They're also the largest frames in the GOP as a result. I-frame only videos are typically used for broadcasting and editing purposes for these very reasons, but have to have a dramatically higher bitrate to match quality with "Long GOP" compression as a result.
P-Frames reference the previous frames in the GOP, sequentially, until the next I-Frame is hit. These are smaller, but are slower to decode since they're ultimately referencing previous macroblocks. They're handy enough, and easier to read for certain applications without playback funkiness (ie: Media Servers), but if you're going down this road you may as well go all the way in.
B-Frames are even smaller at similar quality levels, but they work by pulling blocks from the frames both ahead and behind, making them an absolute beast to play back on weaker hardware, and more or less impossible to get to function outside of standard forward playback without hitches.
A typical MPEG-2 GOP may look something like "IBBBPBBBPBBB", at which point another I-Frame gets punched in and the pattern repeats. AVC is a bit more flexible in that it can have GOP sizes from 1 to 250 frames without playback taking a hit, but smaller GOP sizes lead to higher quality, and as a way to avoid decoding issues Blu-ray specifically demands a 24-frame max GOP for standard progressive content.
Still with me after all that nerd shit? Cool! So, what happens when your bitrate is adequate and your I-Frames look great, but your B-Frames and P-Frames aren't encoded to the same standard - either because you did a one-pass encode that doesn't properly allocate the bits where they need to go, or because your multipass algorithms are straight up crap? It means that some frames are nice and crisp and sharp and look like your high quality master, and then the next several frames - while perhaps not terrible - are substantially softer, more diffused, and uneven looking compared to the I-Frames. In other words, the good frames "pulse" in and out, while the bulk of the transfer is the fuzzier, blotchier B/P-Frames that aren't anywhere near to the same standard.
In properly encoded two-pass content, the difference in overall clarity between an I-Frame and a B/P-Frame should be undetectable, but that sure as shit isn't the case here. Here's a pair of frames from the same seconds which perfectly illustrates the problem:
You see the huge gap in the quality of the grain structure? This, my friends, is what poor temporal compression looks like; not single instances of compression creeping up on a specific frame, but regular intervals of the source video being preserved and then smoothed over or turning blotchy, and then the crisp, accurate texture is back again before you can even blink. It's an abstract kind of Hell, to be sure, but as someone who's job requires assessing visual quality on a wide range of source materials, this is the kind of shit I just can't unsee. It's possible the more sane among you will see the artifact, shrug, and then move on with your day... but if so, you're not one to care what I have to say about compression to begin with, are ya'?
The above screenshots are from the "Restoration" themed featurette, and are slightly worse than the main feature - but as what we're talking about is a temporal effect, and thus impossible to show properly in stills, I'm using a more-obvious-than-normal instance to give you the idea of what to look for in the main transfers. Sadly, both the 4K Remastered 1.85 OAR and the 4K Remastered 1.33 Open-Matte transfer have this issue - don't have the hardware to watch the 4K UHD disc yet, so no comment on that one.
The encoding - fascinating as the reason behind it might be - just isn't particuarly good. I've seen far worse on releases that were highly reviewed, so I imagine this'll annoy those who are already prone to snort and shake their heads at the quality of "grain structure", and that most others will be perfectly happy that they see any grain at all - much less plenty of it on brightly lit footage. The transfer may be far from ideal, but compared to the smeared, waxy texture of the 2004 Divimax HD master, it's still a pretty dramatic step forward for a film that's never been able to catch a break on Blu-ray.
THE DISCS ARE TRUE 24FPS,
NOT THE USUAL 23.98FPS
Fuck it. Moving on.
Both the 1.85:1 and Open-Matte presentations feature an English 5.1 remix and the original mono mix encoded as lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Sadly, they also feature forced subtitles... assuming you aren't using an HTPC and some AACS cracking software. Hint-hint.
The English 5.1 remix - which sounds more or less identical to the Dolby True HD 5.1 mix on the Japanese BD - is about as goofy as you'd expect; sound effects are too loud as dialog is too quiet, foley echoes and trails when it clearly shouldn't, and the concept of directionality is optional, at best. The high end cuts out suddenly, and there's some odd humming in certain scenes with a lot of ambient noises which, I can only guess, is a residual artifact of the hiss removal DNR. It manages to be simultaneously bass heavy and tinny, and the fact that I had to turn my player volume all the way up to comfortably hear the dialog is nothing short of terrifying.
In short, like every 5.1 English remix of Dawn of the Dead, it sucks... and you've either made peace with it, or you'll go with the original mix. As you'd imagine, I went with the latter.
The original mono track sounds... dated, like it was pulled from a finished 35mm optical track (and likely was!), but under the circumstances I've no real complaints with the overall fidelity or volume of the mix. Unlike the Japanese release, the mono track seems to remain consistently in sync with the image and is presented as lossless. Like the visual presentation, it's not stunning, but once you know what you're getting into there's not much to complain about either.
The saddest part? Listen to the restored Italian 5.1 track for all of 15 seconds. It's fucking amazing - clear, nuanced, pans like it should, the whole nine. Listening to the English 5.1 track leaves me wondering why anyone bothers to waste time remixing 70s low-budget movies, but listening to the Italian track - in short, morbidly curious bursts - makes me wonder what could be if Rubenstein ever goes digging in the vaults and Dawn of the Dead is given the proper remix it deserves.
IS IT WORTH BUYING?
Unless you absolutely need the 4K UHD-BD and the Open-Matte transfer, I'd say hold off for now and see what the rest of the world starts doing with the same materials. It can always be worse, sure - but at least it might be more English friendly or region free in the process!