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Blu vs. Blu: Night of the Living Dead

A couple of notes before starting. Firstly, this is strictly to be a comparison of the two most readily available Blu-ray editions for George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead – a film that’s been scaring the hell out of me since I was in grade school. For those interested in my thoughts on the film itself, this article should do the trick.

Second, I had hoped to cover the domestic Forgotten Films Blu-ray release of the film as well, but the $17+shipping asking price at Amazon is just too rich for my blood given a company with zero reputation and a product that is almost destined to fall below my standards (even for a low budget horror nearly 45 years old). If anyone out there has a copy they wouldn’t mind lending out for a few days I’d be happy to include coverage of it here. Otherwise I’ll post about it when I get around to it, but given the money I already have tied up in pre-orders that’s not likely to be anytime soon. UPDATE: I have reviewed the Forgotten Films Blu-ray here. That gray market release has copied the transfer from the Optimum release, trimmed the film (!) for dubious purposes, and presents with no extras other than a worthless slideshow of screenshots from the film itself. Skip it.

Third, this article may become a bit more involved than my usual Blu-ray coverage, and to prevent any confusion as to which edition I’m discussing the discs will be referred to, in bold, by the name of the company that released them: Network and Optimum for the two Blu-rays, and with reference to past DVD editions, Dimension (40th Anniversary Edition) and Elite (Millennium Edition).

Now, onto the details of the two discs to be reviewed:

Optimum Home Entertainment
UK / BD-25 / 01:35:52
video: 1080p / 4:3 / black and white
audio: English / DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono
no subtitles / Region B-locked
supplement: One for the Fire documentary
available for purchase through Amazon UK
Network
UK / BD-25 / 01:35:12
video: 1080p / 4:3 / black and white
audio: English / 16-bit LPCM 2.0 Mono
no subtitles / All Region Compatible
supplemnt: Original Trailer (HD)
available for purchase through Amazon UK

 

First things first – let’s talk about sources. The Optimum Blu-ray of Night of the Living Dead is sourced from the very same high definition master that was struck for Dimension‘s 40th Anniversary Edition DVD in 2008 (the Elite Millennium Edition DVD, by contrast, was authored from the SD master that company had originally prepared for Laserdisc and VHS issue in the 1990s). The 2008 master is sourced from the original 35mm negatives, as was the earlier Elite master. The 2008 master used by Optimum has also been sourced for Blu-ray releases in Japan, France, Spain and elsewhere.

The Network Blu-ray, by contrast, is sourced from a new proprietary HD master struck from a 35mm theatrical release print, and features a super-imposed credit for Movielab (one of the producers of prints for the film’s initial theatrical runs) in the opening titles. No other disc that I’m aware of is sourced from Network‘s master. Interestingly, though both the Optimum and Network editions are framed at the proper 1.33:1, the latter offers substantially more information on all sides of the frame in comparison to the former. This appears to be a result of zooming of the Dimension master at the transfer level (that company’s DVD is framed in the same manner), and is not indicative of manipulation on Optimum‘s part.

For those familiar with the Dimension DVD’s precise presentation (tight framing aside), the Optimum Blu-ray offers much the same, only with the expected uptick in clarity and detail. Textures are quite impressive, from the wood grain in the comparison above to the thread patterns of clothes and furniture to the subtle details of human flesh (un-dead and otherwise). Damage is at low levels throughout, though the minor scratches and speckling of the source elements are more readily noticeable in this HD iteration. Contrast is at healthy levels throughout, with a nice array of gray tones, with only a bit of posterization here and there to distract. A fine grain is in evidence throughout, and soundly rendered by the Mpeg-4 AVC video encode (at an average bitrate of 20.6 Mbps). The image maintains its filmic quality even on close inspection (zooming in 3-4x) with negligible encoding artifacts. Most importantly, Optimum‘s presentation is fully uncut, running just under 96 minutes with no missing footage (save for the final shot, but more on that in a moment).

Network‘s presentation is another beast all together, but I’m not totally averse to it. I grew up watching Night of the Living Dead from copies sourced from the same blown-out Movielab-produced theatrical elements as are utilized here, so the presentation tickles the nostalgic corners of my brain in the best of ways. This applies especially to the film’s unsettling closing credits sequence, which is rendered here just as it was theatrically (with the unfortunate omission of the final “The End” closing card). In all three of the other editions referenced here, and all of the other editions sourced from those same transfers, the zoomed-in still of a lit torch fades to black, before either cutting or fading to the final shot of the bonfire. The Dimension transfer gets things particularly wrong on this front, fading into this final shot a second or more later than it should. The Network transfer preserves the theatrical ending, with the screen flaring white as the torch still is “lit” and cutting to the shot of the bonfire lighting.

  

Still, one can’t let nostalgia get in the way of objectivity, and with the exception of the closing editing and the correct framing Network‘s presentation is, by virtue of its source alone, the inferior of Optimum‘s. Detail and textures remain at higher levels than SD can muster, but are mitigated by the blown-out contrast of the Movielab source print. The shadows are frightfully intense, and light areas of the frame can really blaze – fine detail is frequently lost to both. To be fair, this is exactly as I recall these theatrical prints looking, but for consumers of modern HD transfers, which typically harvest from the OCN, interpositive, or internegative, this appearance may come as quite a shock. Damage is considerable, from dust, dirt, and speckling to prominent vertical scratching (both black and white, meaning that at least some of this was printed right in). There is even some persistent emulsion bubbling towards the top center of the frame, further evidence of just how much care (not much) was taken by Movielab in minting the print to begin with.

This biggest issue with Network‘s presentation, however, is the amount of footage that’s missing (a little more than half a minute). Some of it amounts to a few frames lost to splices here and there, as at the end of the opening “An Image Ten Production” credit, though more substantial losses are also evident (a long shot of the truck driving through the zombie horde is cut quite short), particularly around the reel changes (as is the case with the late-film dialogue scene concerning Barbara’s crashed car, which is missing several lines). These Movielab prints have always been splicy, and I’d wager that most if not all of the ones that still exist are now incomplete, but it wouldn’t have been that much trouble to restore the more substantial losses from alternative sources. Indeed, I suspect Network may well have compounded the issue by removing some of the more excessively damaged frames outright – there’s not a reel change marker or splice to be seen, but the footage associated with them also appears to be gone.

Grain is at low levels, either by virtue of the multi-generation source or mitigation efforts on the part of Network, but the end result didn’t appear overly waxy or digital to these eyes (as is often the case with their HD masters of The Prisoner television series). Unfortunately the Mpeg-4 AVC video encode is of lesser stuff than Optimum‘s, and while the bitrate is only slightly lower (19.6 Mbps on average) artifacting is much more noticeable. It’s not to the point that it ever really distracted from my viewings, but it is there, and the larger you screen the disc the more obvious it will be.

Note: The screenshot comparison for this article is rather big, so I’ve opted to move it to the end of the text instead of its usual place here.

With regards to audio, the Optimum release is mastered from the better source and, as should be expected, sounds quite good in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic English. Dialogue has always been pretty flat throughout this film, a limitation of the original production, but the looped library music has some nice punch at times. Network‘s edition sounds better than I expected in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic English, but is hindered by the limitations of both the production and the multi-generational source print. The loop score can still sound strong at times, but the track is thinner overall, and the pop and crackle expected of old theatrical prints can be heard at times. That said, the phasing issues that have plagued past Network audio restorations (Things to Come, The Prisoner) are blessedly absent. Neither disc offers subtitles, SDH or otherwise.

Neither release offers much of anything on the supplemental front either. Die-hard Night of the Living Dead fans no doubt already own the feature-length One For the Fire documentary, which was produced for the Dimension DVD in 2008 and amounts to the whole of the Optimum supplemental package. Network eschews anything substantial, but does offer a fresh 1080p transfer of the very rough, very high contrast theatrical trailer for the film. Network may win over on the packaging front, with an awesome original cover design and a style-consistent chapter listing on the interior side of the insert, but Optimum earn props for sticking by the excellent original poster work (They Won’t Stay Dead!). In terms of price each is quite affordable, with the the cost of import to the US (through Amazon UK) running roughly $15 for the Optimum Blu-ray and a slightly lower $13 for the more rustic Network, standard shipping included, at the time of this writing.

In the end I suspect it’s regional playback limitations that will decide for most of you – the Optimum is locked to Region B, while the Network is all-region compatible. For the rest I present the screenshot comparison below. For my part, I bought both, and am happy with each on their own merits. Anything beyond that is up to your personal preferences.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Optimum Home Entertainment Blu-ray | Network Blu-ray

Select the appropriate cover below to purchase the respective edition:

 

5 thoughts on “Blu vs. Blu: Night of the Living Dead

  1. I have the Japanese BD and i think it`s the best one, despite the cropping. It uses the Optimum transfer, but much higher bitrate, film size and more extras (One for the fire Documentary in 1080i). As you can see below, from the scan i did using BDinfo. It has an an average of 38 in bitrate and the highest is 47.

    Disc Title: NOTLD
    Disc Size: 49 087 309 548 bytes
    Protection: AACS
    BD-Java: No
    Playlist: 00003.MPLS
    Size: 31 190 814 720 bytes
    Length: 1:36:27.781
    Total Bitrate: 43,11 Mbps
    Video: MPEG-4 AVC Video / 38000 kbps / 1080p / 23,976 fps / 16:9 / High Profile 4.1
    Audio: English / LPCM Audio / 2.0 / 48 kHz / 1536 kbps / 16-bit
    Audio: English / Dolby Digital Audio / 2.0 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
    Audio: English / Dolby Digital Audio / 2.0 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps

  2. Yeah, had heard of the Japanese BD. Would pick it up, but the Optimum encode is solid enough in practice and I already own all the extras that are on it (though One for the Fire in HD would certainly be nice). The price is also excessive for my budget at the moment, though that’s nothing new for Japanese releases.

  3. Good article Kevin…glad to see NOTLD getting some well-deserved reviews on blu-ray.

    I do hope you are able to get a copy of the Forgotten Films edition of this film on blu because I think it looks spectacular. I’m picky when it comes to established brands and I was very skeptical of the Forgotten Films release, but the print itself was fantastic.

    For me, the only reason I can’t watch the FF release is due to some missing seconds in at least one scene where Barbara and Ben are talking-there is missing dialogue as well as a cut where one moment Barbara has her jacket on, the next second it’s off (in the film we see her remove it).

    I don’t think the missing moments in the FF release add up to the amount missing in the Network release, but because I’ve seen this film SO many times and ‘know’ the dialogue and it’s too bothersome to watch with any version with missing dialogue. Otherwise, the Forgotten Films release would be my absolute favorite print.

    If they would fix the missing seconds, I’d gladly re-buy it (I sold the one I had bought because the missing seconds and dialogue were too much of a distraction). But the picture quality was very, very good. Wish I still had my copy to send to you.

    I’d say for someone not as familiar with the film or who wouldn’t be put off my a few missing seconds of dialogue, the FF version is the way to go.

  4. I just ordered the Happinet Japanese release of NOTLD from Amazon (Japan) for 16.00 US dollars. The kicker is the international delivery charges giving me a grand total of 38 dollars and change. I was disappointed to hear that the Optimum version from which the Happinet is sourced played around with theatrical ending, especially when I was convinced I had ordered the “complete” film . Oh well, maybe one day the forces that be will get it exactly as it should be. I’ll have to live with the Happinet release which seems at least it will be pretty good. PS, I don’t think the “One For The Fire” featurette is in HD.

  5. I picked up the Happinet as well as part of a much larger order for about the price you mentioned. It’s a fine disc, obviously compatible with US systems, and has the supplemental punch the Optimum version lacks. The quality of transfer is spot on with the Optimum, though the encode is a bit stronger at the technical end. It’s probably the best bet for anyone in the US looking for a good official release of the film on Blu-ray, but as you said, the shipping charges are high. I don’t generally mind, as I tend to order from them in bulk and having my stuff in 2-3 days is awesome, but if you’re just picking up one thing at a time it can be a right nightmare.

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