Blu Notes: Night of the Living Dead ’90

It’s been 22 years since Tom Savini’s official remake (scripted by Romero himself) of the landmark 1968 horror Night of the Living Dead first reached theater screens, more than long enough for a certain nostalgia to build up around it. I must admit to having not much liked the film upon first seeing it, but in the years since I’ve developed a respect and even an affinity for it. As such I was eager to revisit Savini’s Night as film, but such a kerfuffle has erupted with regards to its Blu-ray presentation from Twilight Time that it’s utterly distracted from that process. So in lieu of a film review (one will follow later, I promise) here are my observations on the release itself.

To state the obvious, this presentation of Night of the Living Dead is significantly different, aesthetically, from any that has been made available before. There is typically no shortage of praise to be found in these pages for Sony’s archive restoration department, but their approach here certainly raises questions. Given Sony’s usual approach (either to work directly with someone involved with the production to develop the film’s aesthetic on video, or to go by past knowledge – release prints, etc.) it’s difficult to imagine the changes here passing muster without the approval of someone involved in the original production, though just who that might have been remains unknown (edit to add: The source is evidently a 2010 HD master minted with the involvement of DP Frank Prinzi. Thanks, internet!). What is known is that Tom Savini has now given his approval to the Blu-ray’s new look, making the answers to what’s “right” or “wrong” with Night of the Living Dead‘s appearance rather more ambiguous.

Now for the changes. The first major alteration to how the film has appeared begins almost as soon as the film does. The first twenty minutes of the film, straight daytime sequences in all past editions, now shift from daylight to day-for-night (or twilight, more specifically) over the course of Barbara’s opening flight from the cemetery and the early events at the farmhouse. Colors cool, contrast flattens, and darkness pervades. It’s a dramatic difference in comparison to past editions, and one I can’t say that I’m really enamored with. The problem here is that the shift just doesn’t work within the previously existing language of the film, which is veritably screaming daytime (the ambient soundtrack, full of chirping birds, is a good example) even as the new timing tells us otherwise. Minor details unnoticed before, like Ben arriving with his truck lights off, now pose problems for the new continuity, and what of the film’s montage noting the changeover from day to night? It’s still here, of course, calling into question the whole rationale of artificially clarifying a point the film already makes.

While those first 20 minutes mark the most significant diversion from the past, the rest of the film has been treated as well. The whole appearance has been flattened, from the contrast to the color, leaving the majority of the picture with a darkened and dulled, almost antique appearance. While I don’t find the overall effect objectionable within the context of the film I do find the dimness of the white levels a bit of a distraction. Areas of the image that should be hot (flood lights, a basement lamp, muzzle flashes, even the film’s one big explosion) are unnaturally cold and grey, as though the image were being projected with a defective bulb. The same (or at least a similar) effect has been applied to the daylight sequence that closes the film, lending it a similar quality to “flashed” pictures like Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Aside from the alterations Sony’s transfer appears sound, presenting with a very healthy level of detail and a consistent, refined layer of film grain that only rarely descends into noisiness. The image appears free of the usual brand of digital tampering, with no evidence of edge enhancement or adverse noise reduction, though the new color filtering has resulted in some unpalatable posterization effects at times (see the zombie’s face and surrounding sky in the sample below). Twilight Time have given Sony’s contentious HD master a healthy technical backing – the video is encoded Mpeg-4 AVC at a reasonable average bitrate of 26.8 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue.

The audio will prove another sticking point for many. Sony, typically quite astute in their mastering of surround remixes, obviously weren’t paying quite as much attention here, and at least one key sound effect – the shutter click heard over the closing credits montage – is absent from the mix entirely (I can’t vouch for any other missing bits as I’m just not that familiar with the film). Otherwise the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track sounds quite good, with Paul McCollough’s electronic score (also available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) given substantially more room to breath than in more compressed past editions. Per the usual for Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed titles, optional English SDH subtitles are included. The release arrives with a Tom Savini audio commentary (ported over from the older DVD) as well as the original theatrical trailer in HD, and Julie Kirgo contributes another fine booklet of liner notes.

Twilight Time went out of their comfort zone in responding to fan requests and releasing Night of the Living Dead ’90 on Blu-ray, and while it’s a shame that the release hasn’t matched expectations the outrage that’s developed against it has been a little… well… outrageous. The label is doing their part in accepting returns from the unsatisfied customers, and otherwise there’s always the bloated resell market (this limited edition was out of print before it was even released, and is already fetching lofty prices from third party scalpers). I consider it fortunate that Night‘s sellout status has alleviated some of the pressure on me for a yea or nay recommendation. Personally speaking, I can live with the disc even as much as I don’t care for some of the changes – I’ve been relying on a decades-old VHS up until now and my pack-rat home media sensibilities mean it’s always there if I need it. Those looking to purchase are encouraged to know what they’re getting into1, particularly at the current going rates. Director Tom Savini has approved of it and I may be fine with it as well, but it’s ultimately up to your personal preferences, and mileage will vary.

1 I realize this wasn’t an option for most, as the title sold out before reviews were even possible. This is the assumed risk of limited edition collecting – either buy early, with the possibility of being disappointed by the eventual result, or wait for coverage and risk paying out the nose.

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

Night of the Living Dead was reviewed from a screener graciously provided to this site by Twilight Time.

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:

 

Island of the Living Dead

Year: 2006  Runtime: 94′  Director: Bruno Mattei
Writer: Antonio Tentori   Cinematography: Luigi Ciccarese   Music: Bruno Mattei, Daniele Campelli
Cast: Yvette Yzon, Gaetano Russo, Ydalia Suarez, Jim Gaines, Alvin Anson

After accidentally depositing the treasure they were trying to take from the bottom of the sea deeper on it, a hapless yet heavily armed gang of treasure hunters lead by a certain Captain Kirk (Gaetano Russo) gets into even more trouble. While piloting their ship through a thick fog, our heroes (cough) collide with rocks where there shouldn’t be any, and will have to do a few repairs before they can get anywhere else again.

Fortunately there’s an uncharted island nearby where the crew will try to scavenge provisions and do a bit of treasure hunting while one lone idiot stays behind to do the repairs. Little do they expect that the island has been populated by the undead for a long time now. Soon enough, our heroes by default find themselves under attack. Oh, and the treasure hunters’ boat explodes when repair guy pushes its self destruct button once he is attacked and surrounded by zombies.

At first, our now well and truly stranded heroes have only minor problems surviving the attentions of the zombies who may have been running around since the 17th century but still look pretty good for their age. Later on, scriptwriter Antonio Tentori decides that normal zombies are boring, and so the undead start getting pretty darn talkative, trying to drive the characters to kill each other by playing dumb mind games. Or something. From your standard zombies we then go to skeleton monks, hallucinations, a curse, and what might be vampires, too. How will designated final girl Sharon (Yvette Yzon) survive?

After a pause of half a decade, Italian movie god Bruno Mattei resumed his work of blowing minds and keeping under budget with the beginning of the 21st century, shooting as many movies until his death in 2007 as the direct to DVD market would allow. Even though late period Mattei isn’t quite as mind-blowingly crazy as he was when he was still working with Claudio Fragasso, Island of the Living Dead (shot in the Philippines like in the good old times of AIP) has much to recommend it, at least to an audience consciously seeking out Bruno Mattei films; in short, people like me.

Instead of ripping off plot, structure and dialogue of his movie wholesale from a single, artistically slightly more successful source – that technique will have to wait for the sequel – this ripe effort sees Mattei stealing bits and pieces from other movies in a way that could be construed as homages by an alien unsure of how homages work. Apart from a translation of the early graveyard scene from Night of the Living Dead into scenery-chewerish and dumb, there are scenes and set-ups lifted from Zombi and really everything else with a zombie in it, as well as the Demoni movies. John Carpenter’s The Fog is the source for the backstory to the whole undead invasion, with the little difference that Carpenter’s curse makes a certain degree of sense where Mattei’s doesn’t. Instead of making sense, Island‘s curse produces a tinted sea-to-land battle that I suspect to be stolen from a much older feature.

  
  
  

In his many years of experience as a director of crap, Mattei has mastered some impressive techniques. I especially admire the anti-dynamic editing that seems to be designed to create a structure for the film that consciously destroys tension. Zombie attacks are intercut with hot Latin reading action, and scenes of “characterisation” are broken up by shots of zombies crawling around somewhere else for no good reason whatsoever, as if the whole affair had been directed by a highly distractible child.

The film’s action scenes are nearly as great as the editing, seeing as they are clearly staged to suggest that most of the characters have the ability to teleport (which fits in nicely with the film’s utterly random day and night cycle that suggests that the whole film takes place over either one day or five, possibly just four – it’s difficult to say when day and night are this random). Alas, the characters are always teleporting towards the zombies instead of away from them, but usually only get killed once they’ve decided to sacrifice themselves for their friends in situations that don’t afford this kind of suicide at all. But hey, somehow the ridiculous action movie one-liners need to get on screen, right? (It CAN be done). It’s pretty awesome, really.

Equally awesome and/or awe-inspiring is the collective inability of the cast to emote even in the slightest like normal humans beings do. Dialogue is mangled as if the speakers were trying to fight off a man in a gorilla suit, and scenery is not chewed, but head-butted until it stops moving. I especially approve of the effort of Ydalia Suarez who plays Victoria. Never has she met a line she does not want to shout in an overenthusiastic fashion. Look Ma, she’s in a real movie now!

As if all this wasn’t enough to kill the few brain cells that survived my encounters with other Mattei films,Island is filled to the brim with compellingly idiotic details. Early on, there’s a random martial arts versus zombie scene that doesn’t end well for the martial artist because he decides to sacrifice himself for no good reason while kicking one single zombie in the crotch. This is followed by scenes featuring zombie conquistadors wearing plastic conquistador helmets as probably found by the production team in a souvenir shop, zombies that take naps and growl into the camera, characters willing to drink wine from an open cup that must have been standing around openly for a few centuries, that boat self-destruct button, an eye patch-wearing head rotating inside of a treasure chest, really religious undead skeleton monks, the all-important Lovecraft shout-outs, a zombie flamenco dancer, and music that often sounds as if somebody were just playing musical cues from other films (even Star Wars for a few seconds) on a cheap synthesizer, which is exactly what’s happening.

Island of the Living Dead truly is everything one could hope for in a movie directed by Bruno Mattei: it’s dumb, it’s inept, it’s utterly shameless, it makes no sense at all – it’s like a bad photocopy of a crassly commercial movie that is just too stupid to actually know how commercial movies work and nearly becomes experimental filmmaking through sheer wrong-headedness. In any case, Mattei’s film is entertaining in a crazy way Italian movies have seldom been in the last decades. It might be great for all the wrong reasons, but as Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham say: if loving a Mattei movie is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Dead Alive

a.k.a. Braindead   Year: 1992  Company: Wingnut Films   Runtime: 97′
Director: Peter Jackson   Writers: Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Music: Peter Dasent   Cast: Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stuart Devenie, Jed Brophy, Stephen Papps, Murray Keane, Glenis Levestam, Lewis Rowe
Disc company: Lionsgate   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish   Disc: BD25 (Region A)   Release Date: 10/04/2011
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

Before he found himself tooling around Middle Earth in the most expensive and protracted LARP session in history, writer and director Peter Jackson was cutting his cinematic teeth on genre-bending exploiters the likes of which the world had never seen.  It may be difficult for some to grasp that the man behind The Fellowship of the Ring was also responsible for the demented The Muppets take-off Meet the Feebles and the drive-through alien insanity of Bad Taste, but there are just as many of us who became Jackson fans strictly because of his unhinged past works.  After working with tiny budgets in the latter part of the previous decade Jackson’s company Wingnut Films finally came into some substantial financing in the early ’90s, and the immediate result was the director’s first film to receive any real worldwide exposure – the gloriously outrageous gross-out masterpiece Dead Alive (or Braindead to all of you lucky enough to have the film in its original title).

Written by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh and their sometimes collaborator Stephen Sinclair, Dead Alive follows the budding relationship of reclusive mother’s boy Lionel and the lovely Pequita – a romance pre-ordained by a stack of tarot cards and Pequita’s creepy grandmother.  Standing in the way of any hope of happiness for the young lovers is Lionel’s mother, an insufferable nag who’s not quite herself these days.  After an unfortunate run-in with a vicious and purportedly cursed Sumatran Rat-Monkey at the city zoo, mum devolves into a putrescent sack of homicidal idiocy that Lionel deals with as best he can.  Veterinary tranquilizers do the job for a while, but unexpected encounters with punks, nurses and the local clergy soon find Lionel stuck with a basement-full of troublesome stiffs, and the arrival of estate-hungry uncle Les and his gaggle of hard partying cohorts only makes things worse.  As the situation spirals further and further out of control Lionel and Pequita are forced into drastic action to save both themselves and their fated romance…

If there’s one thing that leaps out at me every time I sit down to revisit Dead Alive, it’s how obvious it is that Jackson and his co-conspirators love film – Dead Alive is the sort of production that really wears its inspirations on its sleeve.  The film begins on King Kong‘s Skull Island, far west of Sumatra, with an asshole explorer running afoul of superstitious natives in his quest for a rare beast – the bothersome Sumtran Rat-Monkey – which is brought to life, naturally, through stop-motion animation.  Back in Wellington, Lionel hearkens to Anthony Perkin’s portrayal of immortal screen Psycho Norman Bates, albeit with a potential for heroism taking the place of homicidal mania, while Jackson and company hint at secrets in his past with flashes of Deliverance-style hand-out-of-the-water illusions.  Once Lionel’s mum is infected the film treats audiences to a veritable parade of zombie genre homage, referencing everything from the Dead works of Romero to Raimi’s more slapstick take on the material – Jackson and effects man Richard Taylor take particular relish in the “total bodily dismemberment” of the latter.  There are broader references as well, like the famed cemetery-bound kung fu battle between some zombie punks and the inimitable Father MacGruder (“I kick ass for the Lord!”), and one bit for the real nerds among us – a brief glimpse of a poster for Johnny Weismuller in Jungle Moon Men that foreshadows Lionel’s final act of macho heroism, swinging to safety by belt as he and his beloved share a kiss.

More than just paying lip service to their inspirations, Jackson and crew were also clearly enamored with the very act of making film.  Dead Alive often feels a though it were handled by a hyper-active grade-schooler who’d finally been given the opportunity to figure out his latest toy.  The camerawork, care of photographer Murray Milne (Meet the Feebles), is brimming with vitality, with the camera swishing or panning or craning in any number of directions and as often as was possible.  The compositions themselves are just as variably vivid, from the diffused soft-palette exteriors of fantasy Wellington circa 1957 to the eccentric neon-hued, comic-inspired interiors of the more horrific later segments.  Perhaps the greatest example of the enthusiasm of the men behind Dead Alive can be found in the breadth of technical effects exemplified throughout – more than just the eccentric splatter that comes to dominate the film, Jackson toys with conventional and large-scale puppetry, suit-mation, and even a bit of clever miniature work to expand his retro Universe.  Carefully photographed miniatures of a vintage Wellington no longer extant, complete with cable cars decorated in period-appropriate advertisements (and at least one building baring the Wingnut company name), merge perfectly with the modern location photography.  The temptation now seems to be to go overboard in creating a sense of location, with loads of CGI overproduction and perhaps a bit of gimmicky 3D immersion.  Dead Alive‘s old-hat techniques manage the feat without drawing too much attention to themselves, and are all the more satisfying for it.


The house where evil dwells…

All of that is good and well, but with a hyperbolic blurb like “The goriest fright film of all time” flaunted across the top of the box art it’s impossible to discuss Dead Alive without also discussing the excesses that have made it (in)famous.  While I might contest the “fright film” designation (this is comedy born of horror rather than any kind of horror outright) the rest of the statement is hard to argue with.  Dead Alive dishes out its visceral delights in such quantity that adjectives fail it – this may well be the bloodiest show on Earth.  While early gags are geared towards gross-out giggles – mention “pudding” in the context of this film and most anyone who’s seen it will give you a laughing, half-shuddering reaction – Dead Alive quickly transitions towards one-upping itself with its own over-the-topness.  This is, after all, a film famous for a scene in which a priest with a taste for the martial arts unceremoniously rips the limbs from his zombie opponent and beats him with them, and that’s just a start.

Those attempting to find logic or reason in Dead Alive‘s zombie hordes are out of luck as any sense there was to the thing quickly falls victim to the all-important gag.  It’s a welcome change in a subgenre that enjoys strangling itself in rules and regulations – “aim for the brain” doesn’t seem such a helpful piece of advice when the critter creeping your way has a lawn gnome for a head!  While some of the violence is undeniably rooted in genre conventions, as in the case of a neck-bite or two, the vast majority aims for hitherto unseen levels of absurdity.  Jackson’s creativity flourishes here in a ways that it just hasn’t in his more recent work, and its these demonstrations of his imagination unchecked that attracted so much of us to his filmmaking in the first place.  Faces and scalps are ripped whole from screaming skulls while men devoured up to their waists kick bloodied skeleton legs – one victim is so mangled that he comes back from the grave looking more than a little like a brachiosaurus.  In perhaps the classic attack of the film a young woman has her face ripped literally in two by a fiendish infant who then uses her corpse as a sort of full-body puppet!

If the zombie violence itself is extreme then that perpetrated against them is even more so, with heads and whole bodies exploding blood and nameless pulp about Lionel’s respectable Victorian abode.  One poor chap, having been cut in two, is reduced to using his legs for stilts while his whole set of internal organs, which have been granted their own bizarre life, are left to chase people about on their own!  Lionel eventually decides that he’s had enough of all that nonsense and takes matters into his own hands.  With most of the zombies gathered in the foyer, Lionel enters with a lawnmower draped over his neck and shoulders with a bit of rope.  “Party’s over!” he announces, and so begins the single most epic scene of wanton bodily destruction in the history of film.  Here the effects are thrilling in their efficacy, with assorted limbs, faces, and torsos butchered by the rumbling blade of the mower and spewed out in a stream of vivid red glop.  Never missing an opportunity for another gag, the film allows Lionel to reach the other end of the room safe and satisfied, only to look back and realize that he’s only mowed down one row of zombies and that there’s a whole horde of them left behind.  Mowing down the dead is evidently every bit as tedious and time consuming as mowing the lawn, and as Lionel turns to finish the job Peter Dasent’s synthesizer accompaniment swells into something melodious and balletic.  This is grand guignol as it might have been directed by Vincent Minnelli, and in its own way it’s every bit as genius as any of those other revered moments in cinema.

On their own gore and gags do not a terrific film make, and Dead Alive earns audience sympathies by packaging its more eccentric material within an old fashioned love story that’s actually quite touching and sweet.  In this way Dead Alive plays as the sort of pitch-perfect escapism only film can provide, offering up a happy ending that never feels trite or condescending.  We want Lionel and Pequita to be together, not because some goofy cards told us it would happen but because our investment in the characters makes us think it should.  In the end Dead Alive may be the most hopeful horror picture ever made – if these two can fend off the forces of darkness amassing against them then surely there’s a little hope for us all.  Just be sure to keep your lawnmower handy, as you never know when you might need it.


Grrrrrrrrr…

Dead Alive creeps, leaps, and splats onto Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate who, to be perfectly fair, have dropped the ball on a couple of key points.  Firstly, the cut of the film included is the slightly abbreviated 97 minute version (allegedly preferred by Jackson, though I could find no primary source for this – help!) that premiered at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival.  I’m not especially bothered by this – it’s the version that I have become most familiar with over the years – but the opportunity to include both the longer 104 minute version and this unrated 97 minute cut, preferably as seamlessly branched viewing options, was sorely missed.  Secondly, Dead Alive‘s high definition home video debut is woefully lacking in supplemental heft.  All that is included is the original American trailer in upconverted HD, and an interminable slate of Lionsgate previews that starts the disc.  A special edition this isn’t, though at least the packaging (a slight update of that for the Trimark DVD from over a decade ago) is honest enough not to lead consumers into thinking otherwise.

With no uncut version  and effectively no supplemental content to distract from it, the presentation of the 97 minute feature is very much front and center, and while I wasn’t expecting much by virtue of the low pricetag I found myself reasonably impressed, if with some reservations.  My apologies in advance for the paltry DVD comparison in this review – I no longer own the Trimark DVD and was forced to scrounge around online for the grand total of two uncompressed .png captures sourced below.  I’ve included two captures from the horrifically encoded Laser Paradise ‘Blood Edition’ for posterity, so that a more precise comparison can be made with regards to the film’s proper framing.

Lionsgate present Dead Alive under its American export title by way of a gritty 1080p transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 – slightly cropped from the intended 1.66:1.  Compared to the DVD editions this new transfer adds, substantially at times, to the left and right of the frame, as well as to the top and bottom in comparison to the 1.85:1-cropped Trimark DVD.  A marginal amount of headroom is lost compared to the 1.66:1 “Blood Edition”, but not to the extent that it proves catastrophic to the framing, and while I’d have preferred a more open presentation the Blu-ray does offer a reasonable middle ground compared to what has been available before.  While the 1080p transfer can appear quite weak at times, overly grainy and softly focused with a subtle color palette and plenty of pox marks, I don’t think there’s much here that can’t be explained away by the source materials themselves.  The soft and grainy qualities of the image appear for the most part to be a product of the original photography, which is often done with wide-angle lenses and heavy diffusion filtering – this is not something that’s ever going to export a terrific amount of clarity and detail.  There are exceptions to the the norm here, with some effects takes appearing quite clear, apparently having been shot through different lenses and possibly on entirely different stock.


Case in point – the grain in this effects close-up is still visible, but much less pronounced. The darker areas of the frame seem especially crisp and clear compared to other samples from the film.

Then there is the frequent damage, which offers viewers a persistent parade of minor speckles and larger blemishes that seem excessive for even this modestly budgeted production, which is less than 20 years old as of this writing.  While there are black bits of dirt and dust to contend with the majority of the damage appears printed right into the materials themselves, showing as white flecks of varying sizes, including the odd white printed hair.  It’s all frame-specific, but the quantity was a bit surprising, and those sensitive to such things should note that Lionsgate have obviously attempted no restoration.  Color and contrast will likely also fall below most’s expectations.  With the exception of the over-the-top conclusion, with its wealth of vibrant reds, colors can appear quite flat, and while I suspect that much of this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers (looking to create a sort of soft fantasy version of 1957 Wellington) the flatness has been compounded by the transfer’s low level of contrast.  Black levels are quite weak for the most part, with plenty of grain (and a bit of noise as well) lurking behind every shadow.  A bit of tweaking could easily have resolved this situation, resulting in an image that looked just that much more healthy and robust.

Technically the disc is only middling, occupying  around 17 Gb of a single layer BD-25 with the AVC-encoded feature sporting an average video bitrate of just 19.6 Mbps.  I was hard pressed to find any fatal encoding flaws, but the image still doesn’t hold up as well in close examination as I’d like.  All said, I’m not really that put off by any of the above – in motion I’d say Dead Alive looks pretty decent, particularly in the final twenty minutes or so.  While I believe Lionsgate could have improved a bit, either by sourcing from the original negative or by tweaking the transfer they had, I’m hard-pressed to think they could have improved upon it drastically. For the $13 it presently demands I’d say this looks good enough, and substantially more accurate to the source materials than some other recently lauded presentations (I’m looking at you Zombie and House By the Cemetery).

HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool.  Screenshots from the German Laser Paradise “Blood Edition” DVD were captured in .png format in VLC, upconverted to 1920×1080 (black bars were added to the left and right to fill the frame, and the original 4:3 letterboxing removed – note that the original letterboxing is very imprecise, with warping along the top and bottom of the frame, and that thin amounts of black information were left in some areas to prevent the loss of image information in others) in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%.  The two Trimark DVD comparison shots were found online in their original uncompressed .png, then upconverted and compressed at the same settings as the “Blood Edition” DVD (excluding the de-letterboxing and addition of black bars).
Blood Edition 4:3 letterboxed PAL DVD | 16:9 1.85:1 Trimark NTSC DVD | Lionsgate Blu-ray

More Blu-ray Screenshots

Gore!

In the absence of any appreciable funding having been thrown at this disc’s production, at least I don’t have an underwhelming 5.1 bump to contend with in the audio department.  What the disc does offer is the film’s original stereo recording, soundly related in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0.  The icky sound effects, which are every bit as delightfully sickening as the visuals, shine, as does Peter Dasent’s (Meet the Feebles) alternately cheesy and inspired synthesizer score.  There’s a bit of depth and even some appreciable stereo separation to be had, and Lionsgate manage to one-up many of their competitors by complimenting the track with three sets of subtitles – English, English SDH, and Spanish.

So there you have it – Dead Alive in its slightly shorter American cut (at least it’s not the bastardized 85 minute R-rated version) on Blu-ray in a somewhat uninspired but relatively source accurate presentation with strong lossless audio and no supplements beyond the theatrical trailer.  Were the asking price more than that of a modest lunch out I might have been more compelled to complain, but as things are I find myself reasonably pleased.  Yeah it could have been better, but the DVDs can’t touch it and I know damned well it could have been much, much worse (Near Dark anyone?).  For fans this is tough not to recommend, weaknesses and all.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Very Good –  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Poor
Harrumphs: No supplemental weight whatever, and a transfer that likely could have been improved upon a bit in more capable, or loving, hands.
Packaging: Standard-size Blu-ray Eco case.

Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror

a.k.a. Le Notti del Terrore / The Nights of Terror / Zombie III / Burial Ground
Year: 1981   Company: Esteban Cinematografica   Runtime: 84′
Director: Andrea Bianci   Writers: Piero Regnoli   Cinematography: Gianfranco Maioletti
Music: Elsio Mancuso, Berto Pisano   Cast: Karin Well, Gianluigi Chrizzi, Simone Mattioli, Antonella Antinori,
Roberto Caporeli, Peter Bark, Claudio Zucchet, Anna Valente, Raimondo Barbieri, Mariangela Girodano
Disc company: Media Blasters / Shriek Show   Video: 1080p 1.66:1    Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: 
None   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 08/23/2011
Order this disc now from Amazon.com

An assortment of upper class nincompoops head to a majestic, isolated villa for a bit of rest and recreation, unaware that the resident mad archaeologist has uncovered the terrible secret of awakening the ancient Etruscan dead.  Not long after the guests arrive the dead begin to rise, stalking our witless heroes with slow, sloooow determination and devouring them one by one.

Director Andrea Bianchi  heads up this dreadful zombie shocker from 1981, a derivative cross between Fulci’s Zombi 2 and Ossorio’s The Blind Dead series (substitute dead Etruscans for dead Templars) with a perverse dollop of sexploitation thrown in for good measure.  Bianchi appears to have been working with even less resources than normal for this feature, but he’s in rare sleazy form all the same.  Mostly known for erotic thrillers (MalabimbaStrip Nude for your Killer) and outright porn, the director loads Burial Ground to tipping point with crude sex and bottom dollar gore, not to mention a bit of his signature strangeness.

Penned by frequent Bianchi collaborator Piero Regnoli, Burial Ground‘s narrative encompasses about a cocktail napkin worth of dramatic material.  Yuppies descend upon a villa, screw around, and are eaten one-by-one by an unstoppable horde of the undead.  There’s plenty of running back and forth (especially in the latter third of the film) and even the pretense of backstory (a mad archaeologist, a deadly secret, a “profecy” of dubious relation to anything), but not much that could honestly be called plot.  This is exploitation in the purest sense of the word, with a handful of obnoxious but innocent idiots meeting a series of gruesome and undeserved demises strictly so that the producers can turn a buck.  It’s commercial trash in the poorest of possible taste, but whatever it lacks in altruistic motivations is more than made up for by an abundance of weirdness, camp, and cheap bloody thrills.

As for the latter, they’re mostly appropriated from past successes.  Fulci’s Zombi 2 is copied outright, right down to effects man Gino De Rossi’s (City of the Living Dead) designs for the maggot-and-worm ridden Etruscans.  The effect here is achieved with masks that appear to have been made of everything from rubber to clay to papier-mâché, and is pretty dreadful.  In an effort to create a skeletal appearance some performers’ features – noses, eyes, lips – are coated in black paint, an ineffectual method that’s obvious even in the poorest of copies of the film.  The actions of the zombies are likewise recycled for the most part, from hands popping out of the ground to harass a pair of young lovers to an adaptation of Zombi 2‘s infamous splinter sequence, here with shattered glass substituted.

  
  
  

There is still some originality in Burial Ground‘s dusty bones, however, and some of the kill scenes are quite novel.  My personal favorite has a man intruding upon the meditations of a table-full of monks, only to discover (too late of course) that he’s wandered into a monastery of the living dead.  After gorging themselves on our leading man the monks toddle off in a heads-bowed single-file procession – all that’s missing is a Gregorian chant!  Earlier in the film a maid is stalked, ninja style, by an especially clever zombie, who lunges from behind a planter and traps her on an upper-floor shutter with a well placed hand-thrown nail!  The poor maid is then beset by a gaggle of hungry dead, who gruesomely decapitate her with a scythe and take to munching on her disembodied head.

Burial Ground‘s gore isn’t as imaginative or well-produced as that in contemporary Fulci and Argento efforts, but if you’re one who prefers quantity over quality then there is a lot of it here for you to enjoy.  The usual tricks are employed – rubbery prosthetics, blood pumps and sacs full of slaughterhouse garbage.  Bianchi and photographer Gianfranco Maioletti (Cosmos: War of the Planets) ogle over their bottom barrel handiwork in lingering and unfocused close-ups, ensuring that the viewers are treated to heaping eyefuls of sloshing viscera and vivid red stage blood as often as can be afforded.  There is even a bit of style to be had here, with many of the gore scenes accentuated with inserts of Peckinpah-inspired slow motion violence (gunshots, skull crushing, even a zombie lit on fire).

Though undeniably gross, none of it could be called scary – Bianchi doesn’t have the patience (or perhaps the talent) to evoke any fear, suspense, or dread.  There is some notable creep factor, however, all to do with an off-the-wall narrative diversion about a doting mother and the incestuous intentions of her son Michael.  For reasons that likely have more to do with the legality of involving children in such situations than any foresight on the part of the producers, Michael is played not by a child but by middle-aged dwarf Peter Bark.  The results are far more unsettling than any of the more obvious horrors, as a man who’s supposed to be a boy cuddles up to and attempts to molest the beautiful Mariangela Giordano (Malabimba, Satan’s Baby Doll).  The subplot comes full circle in Burial Ground‘s most infamous scene – one that has been described at length elsewhere, but that I’ll not spoil here.

Burial Ground clocks in at a reasonable 85 minutes and gets to the gory bits early and often, with a some nudity and a lot of awful dubbed dialogue (far below the norm for these things, but featuring plenty of familiar Italian splatter voice actors) to amuse audiences in between.  Technically this is pretty wretched stuff, unattractively lit and awkwardly photographed with lots of handheld work, but it certainly has camp appeal and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.  Those looking for a pointless and sleazy diversion could certainly do worse.

  
  
  

There’s actually quite a lot to discuss with regards to this Media Blasters / Shriek Show blu-ray edition of Burial Ground, and despite the obvious issues of transfer quality that discussion isn’t to be all bad.  As such I’ll not bore you with the typical disc introductions.

Firstly, rumors have abounded that past DVD editions of Burial Ground, be they from Japan Shock, AWE or Media Blasters, have all been cut by approximately four seconds – four seconds that have been reputed to contain additional gore.  As reported by Cinezilla and proven by this Youtube video of the missing footage, culled from a long-OOP and uncut Japanese VHS edition, all of the violent material is present and accounted for in the DVD editions.  What is missing from them is roughly half of a shot in which the mustachioed Simone Mattioli turns his head in horror after shuttering a window.  I’m pleased to report that this new Blu-ray edition does not appear to be sourced from the same elements as the DVD editions, and that the additional 4 seconds of Mattioli face-time are present and accounted for.  Yay.

As expected, there is a disparity in running time between the two Media Blasters presentations, but counter to expectations it does not run in the direction one might think.  The DVD edition runs for 1 hour 25 minutes and 8 seconds, while the HD edition runs a brisker 1 hour 23 minutes and 24 seconds – a difference of 1 minute and 44 seconds.  The immediate assumption is that the HD edition is missing footage.  Well it is, but there appears to be more to it than that.  At second glance the new Blu-ray edition of Burial Ground appears to be transferred from a different cut of the film than the DVD.  Let’s have a look at some of the missing footage first:

At 00:25:50 in the Blu-ray edition the scene cuts from the first image below to the next during the scene in which a zombie emerges from a planter:

 

What’s missing between these two points are roughly 10 seconds of footage, here sourced from the Media Blasters DVD – a connecting shot of the planter moving and two shots of the two actors getting hot with one another, as well as the first portion of the second shot listed above:

 
 

But here’s the weird bit:  The Blu-ray edition also features 27 seconds of footage at the beginning of this scene that is not present on the DVD.

In this case the DVD cuts between these two shots:

 

Whereas the Blu-ray adds this between them, an additional 27 second shot in which the two lovers arrive at the fountain and start kissing:

 

So, make of this what you will.  To my eyes this doesn’t so much look like a cut film, as a differently cut film.  The audio for the two sequences is cut from the same dub track, with each cut featuring the same dialogue and sound effects playing over the very different footage.  Why?  I don’t know.

Even earlier in the film, during the exploding chandelier sequence, the Blu-ray also adds the following two brief shots in addition to those already present on the DVD:

 

Though similar shots as above do appear in the DVD, the two above are unique to the Blu-ray.  Harder to take for those gorehounds among you may be the exclusion of the following two lightning-quick cuts from the Blu-ray edition of the film:

 

The two cuts, missing from the scene in which Peter Bark’s stepfather fires upon and is devoured by zombies, amount to approximately 1 second of running time, but by the strictest of measures it certainly suggests that gore that is present on the DVD is not present on the Blu-ray.  (Note: I have since run through each and every gore scene shot for shot, comparing the Blu-ray and DVD, and have found no other missing footage.  Whatever makes up the rest of the 1 minute and 44 second difference here, it’s not gore.)  After discovering these anomalies I am if anything more confused as two what’s going on with the source here than I was after I noted the disparity in running times.

It’ll take a shot for shot comparison between the two editions to tell just what all the differences are between them, and I’ve got no time for that at the moment.  The above at least proves that the Blu-ray edition of Burial Ground features a different cut, and is missing some footage even though it adds other, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking about purchasing.

Addendum 08/30/2011: After some discussion with kentaifilms, we seem to have discovered the root cause of the 1:44 of missing footage on this Blu-ray.  I’ve given him the glory of writing an article on the matter, as I’m sick of talking about this one, but the problem amounts to this:  At seemingly every opportunity, either MB or the post house that transferred the film originally have removed anywhere from a single to a handful of frames from just before or just after the physical cuts that hold the footage of this film together.  With a minute and 44 seconds missing that means that roughly 2500 previously available frames of footage are now gone, for reasons I’ll not even guess at (Kentai suggests a pitiful attempt to cover bad splices, and that makes as much sense as anything I can come up with).  Bottom line: This release is CUT, and in as bizarre a fashion as I’ve ever seen.  Keep that in mind if you’re debating purchasing.

And now, what everyone has been waiting for – how does the image compare to that of the older Media Blasters DVD edition?  Note that DVD snapshots appear before their Blu-ray counterparts, and have been upscaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison.

Presumably the work of the much-maligned LVR Post in Rome (there is no on-disc credit given for the transfer this go around) (according to LVR they are NOT responsible for this transfer) the new 1080p transfer of Burial Ground is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, opening the image considerably at the top and slightly to the right while losing slight amounts of information at the left and bottom.  Overall the framing appears quite comfortable, and allows more headroom than the 1.85:1 DVD image.  Colors appear relatively consistent across the two releases for the most part, with the HD transfer boosting saturation and losing the overly green tinge of the DVD in some sequences.  Contrast is notably boosted in comparison to the DVD, to excess in many cases, and shadow detail is practically non-existent in the inky blacks.  Subjectively I find the color palette and contrast of the HD transfer preferable to that of the DVD, but neither aspect is in any way indicative of what the format is capable of.

Detail tightens up noticeably, but definitely not to the extent that it should.  Burial Ground has issues with focus throughout, limiting the degree of detail available at the source level, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the image could have been better resolved than it is here.  There are hints of finer detail lurking beneath the surface in comparison sets four and five, but the clarity of the image is constantly compromised by an ever present and at times downright tumultuous layer of ugly digital noise.  Most HD transfers of Italian exploitation efforts, from City of the Living Dead to Zombi Holocaust, have all presented with noise issues to one degree or other, but this is by far the worst I’ve seen from them.  As evidenced by the sixth and seventh set of comparison captures, if the noise were much thicker there’d be serious trouble with discerning that there was any image beneath it at all!  It’s impossible to identify any natural film texture here, though it’s surely lurking in the image somewhere, and that’s a damned shame.  In purely technical terms the AVC encode is strong, averaging in at a sky-high 37.5 Mbps, but it’s a pity all that that bitrate potential had to be wasted on this.  The only artifacts appear embedded in the HD master itself, and are limited to frame-specific blips in which the noise becomes smeary and fails to resolve.

The opening and closing credits make for an interesting aside.  Sourced form different film elements and evidently telecined separately from the rest of the film, they lose the overbearing noisiness showcased elsewhere in the transfer and possess a more naturally film-like quality.  Sure the image is soft and the colors less than ideal, but I’d argue that this footage still looks better than the rest of the transfer.  Pity.

Much more so than the problematic video, the audio for Burial Ground receives a substantial boost courtesy of a DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track at around 1.5 Mbps.  The older DVD sounds quite muffled and flat throughout, but the track cleans up very nicely here.  The meandering synth score that permeates so much of the film is granted newfound depth, and made much more of an impression on me in this viewing than on any prior.  Dialogue sounds typical of the post-dub recording of the time, but is much clearer and more dynamic than before.  I didn’t note much in the way of background noise, and the track sounds remarkably clean for a bottom dollar mix of its vintage.  I must admit to being pleasantly surprised in this regard, and the heightened audio fidelity helped take at least a bit of the edge off the disappointing visuals.

Supplements for the most part duplicate those previously presented on the Media Blasters DVD, and include interviews with producer Gabriele Crisanti and actress Mariangela Giordano (SD, 20 minutes), an original trailer in SD and an gallery of advertising and video art (SD, 6 minutes).  The most exciting thing about the disc is a new supplement, a 9-minute collection of outtakes from the film in 1080p HD.  Presented at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with only appropriated soundtrack cues as accompaniment (the unused footage was never post-dubbed), the visual quality of the outtakes is consistent with that of the film – saturated, noisy, and lacking in fine detail.  In this case I won’t complain.  The additional minutes comprise a handful of dialogue bits excised from the beginning of the film, a bit of unused sex footage featuring Karin Well (!), more creepy Peter Bark, several shots of zombies wandering about and a snippet of unused gore.

 
 

I’m not of the opinion that Burial Ground‘s high definition debut is a total disaster, but after seeing what Media Blasters / Shriek Show are really capable of courtesy of Devil Dog – The Hound of Hell it’s a shame this didn’t turn out better.  The upgrade in video quality is too problematic to be substantial, but the improvements to the audio presentation and the inclusion of previously unseen outtake material make the package much more attractive than it would otherwise have ben.  Plenty of retailers are selling this one on the cheap, and those keen on the film may want to give it a shot.

in conclusion
Film: Awful trashy fun    Video: Fair +    Audio: Very Good +   Supplements: Good +
Harrumphs: 
No subtitles,  and the video transfer is positively riddled with noise
Packaging:
 Standard Blu-ray case.
Recommendation: Cheap and unoriginal to its rotten little core, but fun all the same for those in the mood for a garrishly violent slice of Euro-cult mayhem. The visuals only receive a minor (and problematic) boost here, and the film appears to be some kind of alternate cut as well.  But the excellent audio and inclusion of interesting outtake material may well make this Blu-ray worth the price of upgrading.

Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master

a.k.a. Zombie vs. Ninja / Zombie Rivals / Zombie Rival / Zombie Rival – The Super Master
Year:
1988   Company: IFD Films and Arts Limited   Runtime: 88′
Director: Godfrey Ho   Writers: AAV Creative Center, Godfrey Ho    Cinematography: Raymond Chang
Music: Stephen Tsang   Cast: Pierre Kirby, Dewey Bosworth, Thomas Hartham, Patrick Frzebar, Elton Chong,
Mike Wong-Lung, Jin Nu-Ri, Guk Ching-Woon, Kim Wuk, Cheung Chit, Kim Wong-Cheol, Park Wan-Su
Order the OOP VHS edition from Amazon.com

First things first – I’ve absolutely no idea what this little nugget of white-ninja mayhem is supposed to be called, and a quick Google search reveals that it has no fewer than five titles in English alone!  Even the IFD Films and Arts-produced English trailer appears confused, showing one title while the narrator reads another.  It seems pertinent to note that none of the five titles I found are terribly accurate, from the relatively straight-forward Zombie vs. Ninja on up.  As such I’ll be referring to the film by my favorite of the five, which also happens to be the most convoluted and nonsensical: Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master.

Never let it be said that Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho couldn’t come up with a good title (or five) when pressed for them.  Good films, however, seem to have been another matter entirely…

Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master follows squarely in the footsteps of other Lai and Ho spectacles, and presents viewers with a more or less passable import feature that’s been cut to match a new story (in this case one written by the dubbing company!) and framed with all-new Ho-directed material starring an all-white cast.  In this case the results are particularly dubious but no less enjoyable for the trouble, with ‘stars’ Pierre Kirby and Dewey Bosworth (of Thunder of Gigantic Serpent fame) looking well out of place in their shiny off-the-shelf fighting regalia and matching ninja head bands.  Remember kids, real ninjas wear head gear that says ninja.

"I think his name is Duncan... something..."

At its heart Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master is actually a fanciful South Korean martial arts comedy from 1983, The Undertaker From Sohwa Province, a film that unfortunately appears unavailable in its original condition (VHS and DVD releases under the title Gravedigger are reportedly sourced from the ZRTSNM edit, and lose the hilarious white-guys but retain the awful English dialogue track that refers to them).  The story for Undertaker follows a predictable arc, with an impetuous youngster witnessing the deaths of his parents at the hands of kung-fu baddies, then hooking up with a secret martial arts master so that he might learn the tricks of the trade and seek glorious kung-fu vengeance.

Though the story of The Undertaker From Sohwa Province will sound broadly familiar, the difference is really in the details.  The requisite kung-fu master is the eponymous undertaker, a scabby buck-toothed parody who raises the dead just for kicks and relishes nothing more than tormenting his young underling Ethan (that’s IFD Film and Arts’ name for him, not mine – he’s played affably by South Korean genre star Elton Chong).  Through the undertaker’s bizarre tactics Ethan somehow learns a fighting style that looks like the martial arts equivalent of dancing the robot.  If that’s what digging holes and carrying around coffins full of rocks all day can net you, then count me in!  It is in this source film that the only supernatural elements of Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master are found, as the undertaker’s underling does practice combat with a variety of living corpses.  Peripheral characters also display unnatural abilities, as in the case of a female baddie who seems capable of disappearing at will.

There’s a lot of legitimate bemusement to be had with Undertaker‘s light-hearted material, which features Ethan sledding through a wintry forest on a coffin among other things.  The same cannot be said of the frequently profane post-dubbing applied by Lai associate ADDA Audio and Visual limited (who helped Joseph Lai bring knock-off pan-Asian animations like Raiders of Galaxy to English audiences), which is heaps of fun for all the wrong reasons.  I can’t imagine that there were more than a handful of personnel working the voice side of Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master, but they get away with a range of improbable characterizations, from the shrill, squeaky undertaker to the arch and dramatic father of his pupil.  Adding to the hilarity are the highly inappropriate English names forced upon the characters – in addition to Ethan there are Bobby, Bert, Ira, Mason, Duncan and so on.

  
  
  

The competent (if incompetently presented) Undertaker is interrupted early and often by the new white-centric dramatics of Godfrey Ho.  The writing for these sequences fairs about as well as for the other dubbed material, often beginning mid-conversation (“…so that’s the plan”) and continuing on into dull and ambiguous pontificating about stolen gold and positions of power.  All of it would be quite drab and forgettable were it not being performed with such earnest by middle-aged white men running around the woods in cheap Halloween costumes.  Ho attempts, if only lazily, to intersect his new story with that of the appropriated footage, but the results are awful at best, with Pierre Kirby and Dewey Bosworth speaking to characters obviously in other locations entirely.

When it comes to action Ho is a bit better equipped, even if the results are less than stellar.  Ho coaxes Kirby, Bosworth, and a larger cast of unrecognizable Caucasians into a slew of lightning-paced action sequences that have katanas clashing and men leaping about with maddening frequency.  It reminded fondly of the psychotic action direction seen in the Turkish exploitation of old, trampolines and all, and I wasn’t bothered in the least when Kirby was replaced mid-shot by a foot-shorter stunt double in an awful floppy wig.

Truth be told, I was at a complete loss for what to say about Zombie Rival – The Super Ninja Master until just this point, and now I think I’ve said more than enough.  There’s no arguing that it’s an immensely stupid, terrible film, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoyed every minute of it.  Between this and the indescribable Robo Vampire I feel I’m quickly becoming one of the Ho faithful, and open to whatever dreadful implications that might imply.  Your mileage may vary, but if you only see one “bad white actors pretending to be ninjas” film this year it may as well be this one.

This review needed more Pierre Kirby. I make no apologies.

in conclusion
Film: Yeah, about that…
Final Thoughts: This is another martial arts pastiche of remarkable stupidity, but with Godfrey Ho involved we should expect nothing less.  I loved it, but may not be of sound mind.

Zombi Holocaust

a.k.a.: Zombie Holocaust, Dr. Butcher M.D.
Year: 1980  Company: Flora Film, Fulvia Film, Gico Cinematografica   Runtime: 84′
Director: Marino Girolami   Writers: Fabrizio De Angelis, Romano Scandariato, Marino Girolami
Cinematography: Fausto Zuccoli   Music: Nico Fidenco  Cast: Ian McCulloch, Alexandra Delli Colli,
Sherry Buchanan, Peter O’Neal, Donald O’Brien, Dakar, Walter Patriarca, Linda Furnis, Roberto Resta
Disc company: Media Blasters / Shriek Show   Video: 1080p 1.78:1    Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD50 (Region A)   Release Date: 06/28/2011   Product link: Amazon.com

Let me put this as simply and directly as I know how – Zombi Holocaust is a stupid, stupid film.  This is not opinion, but incontrovertible truth.  It may also be the quintessential example of the cannibalistic tendencies of the Italian genre film movement of the ’70s and ’80s, in which past successes were imitated and emulated as early and as often as possible.  Zombi Holocaust is one of the more shamelessly commercial of the lot, a transparent re-working of Fulci’s 1979 opus Zombi 2 and Deodato’s grotesque masterpiece Cannibal Holocaust, which saw release less than two months before this film in 1980.

Though its chief inspirations are two of the undisputed classics of Euro-shock cinema, it should come as no surprise that Zombi Holocaust is rarely anything more than cheap and silly.  The story, credited to director Marino Girolami (father of Italian cult cinema icon Enzo G. Castellari), producer Fabrizio De Angelis and assistant director Romano Scandariato, concerns a New York City Department of Public Health investigation (led by Brit Ian McCulloch, star of Zombi 2, and sexpot Alexandra Delli Colli, The New York Ripper) into random acts of cannibalism within the city.  The investigation leads McCulloch, Delli Colli and company to a remote South Seas island where primitive cannibals roam free and a mad doctor (Donald O’Brien) works to create an army of undead slaves.

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Flesheater

a.k.a.: Flesh Eater: Return of the Living Dead / Return of the Living Zombies / Zombie Nosh
Year: 1988   Company: H & G Films Ltd., Hinzman   Runtime: 88′
Director: Bill Hinzman   Writers: Bill Hinzman, Bill Randolph   Cinematography: Simon Manses
Music: Erica Portnoy   Cast: Bill Hinzman, John Mowod, Leslie Ann Wick, Kevin Kindlin,
Charis Kirkpatrick Acuff, James J. Rutan, Lisa Smith, Denise Morrone, Mark Strycula
Disc company: Media Blasters / Shriek Show   Video: 1080p 1.78:1    Audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 (Region A)   Release Date: 08/31/2010   Product link: Amazon.com

A bunch of drunk college jerks, hillbillies and innocent bystanders become embroiled in a zombie epidemic when a farmer unwittingly releases the eponymous Flesh Eater (guess who?) from his woodland tomb.  A local posse loosely organized by the police heads out to stop the crisis before the entire state of Pennsylvania is infested with walking un-dead.

Sometime in the ’80s Bill Hinzman, the cemetery ghoul from Romero’s 1968 opus Night of the Living Dead, walked into a horror convention and realized that, for whatever reason, he and his zombie alter-ego had developed a cult following.  Looking to capitalize on his middling fame and give his fans more of what they admired him for, Hinzman (who had made a comfortable living for himself in industrial films) set about developing a zombie vanity project in which he would take credit as producer, writer, director, editor, and star.  The result is 1988′s Flesh Eater (released straight-to-video by Magnum Entertainment as Revenge of the Living Zombies), a shoestring horror steeped to the gills in gore, sleaze, and unimaginable stupidity.

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The Beyond

a.k.a.: E tu vivrai nel terrore: L’aldia (And You Will Live in Terror: The Beyond), 7 Doors of Death
Year: 1981   Company: Fulvia Film   Runtime: 87′
Director: Lucio Fulci   Writers: Dardano Sacchetti, Giorgio Mariuzzo, Lucio Fulci
Cinematography: Sergio Salvati   Music: Fabio Frizzi  Cast: David Warbeck, Catriona MacColl,
Cinzia Monreale, Antoine Saint-John, Veronica Lazar, Anthony Flees, Giovanni De Nava, Al Cliver
Disc company: Arrow Video   Video: 1080p 2.34:1    Audio: DTS-HD Master 5.1 English,
DTS 2.0 English, DTS 2.0 Italian   Subtitles: English   Discs: BD25 (All Region) + DVD (PAL Region 0)
Release Date: 03/14/2011   Product link: Amazon.co.uk
The Beyond is reviewed here from a screener provided by Arrow Films.

In 1920′s Louisiana a man suspected of witchcraft is brutally lynched and buried in the basement of the Seven Doors Hotel.  More than half a century later the hotel is inherited by washed-up New Yorker Liza (MacColl), whose efforts to restore the property to working order are undermined by bizarre and violent happenings and the strange cryptic warnings of blind associate Emily (Monreale).  Liza sets about investigating the history of her hotel with the help of local doctor John (Warbeck), only to discover the shocking truth – that her property is situated on one of the seven gateways to Hell…

An experience like few others, The Beyond is the culmination of themes explored in Zombi 2 and City of the Living Dead and, by my estimation, the best horror film director Lucio Fulci ever made.  Originally conceived as a ghostly mystery in New Orleans The Beyond was caught in the burgeoning European zombie craze (for which Fulci, himself, had served as a prime instigator) before production began, ensuring a place in the production for Fulci’s mystical variety of the undead.  The result is a gruesome exercise in horror both visceral and existential, and a fantastical and hallucinatory vision of a literal Hell on Earth.

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Burial Ground

a.k.a. Le Notti del Terrore / The Nights of Terror / Zombie III
Year: 1981   Company: Esteban Cinematografica   Runtime: 85′
Director: Andrea Bianci   Writers: Piero Regnoli   Cinematography: Gianfranco Maioletti
Music: Elsio Mancuso, Berto Pisano   Cast: Karin Well, Gianluigi Chrizzi, Simone Mattioli, Antonella Antinori,
Roberto Caporeli, Peter Bark, Claudio Zucchet, Anna Valente, Raimondo Barbieri, Mariangela Girodano
Available on DVD from Media Blasters / Shriek Show. Product link: Amazon.com
Also available as part of Shriek Show’s Zombie Pack II, with Flesh Eater and Zombie Holocaust.

An assortment of upper class nincompoops head to a majestic, isolated villa for a bit of rest and recreation, unaware that the resident mad archaeologist has uncovered the terrible secret of awakening the ancient Etruscan dead.  Not long after the guests arrive the dead begin to rise, stalking our witless heroes with slow, sloooow determination and devouring them one by one.

Director Andrea Bianchi  heads up this dreadful zombie shocker from 1981, a derivative cross between Fulci’s Zombi 2 and Ossorio’s The Blind Dead series (substitute dead Etruscans for dead Templars) with a perverse dollop of sexploitation thrown in for good measure.  Bianchi appears to have been working with even less resources than normal for this feature, but he’s in rare sleazy form all the same.  Mostly known for erotic thrillers (MalabimbaStrip Nude for your Killer) and outright porn, the director loads Burial Ground to tipping point with crude sex and bottom dollar gore, not to mention a bit of his signature strangeness.

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