Thursday, September 16

Some quick thoughts on the Blu-rays of Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Versus (2000)

My love for Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead traces back to the earliest of my formative experience with horror. I've referred to this a couple times here before, but ROLD was a favorite on the weekend horror double feature that aired on my local Fox affiliate in the late '80s/early '90s. They ran this zombie comedy so much that it became the movie, aside from Ghostbusters, that I most associate with my childhood. Of course, being the TV version, I only realized how Trash came to wear rags later in the runtime years later.

O'Bannon's gifted writing talent shines through in the screenplay and does something that's relatively lost today in this type of horror picture. Even with juggling so many, the characters are so realistic and immediately identifiable that you can't help but care about their flesh-eating plight--in between laughing your ass off. Nowadays, the living in these romps seem like the last thing cared about by filmmakers more concerned with jamming in an overkill of undead antics. It seems widely believed the lighthearted take on the zombie subgenre is what made ROLD the '80s classic that it is today. That's only one ingredient with the fanastic, lived-in performances of the ensemble cast, there are no heroes, being the real anchor. Linnea Quigley at her sexual screen peak running around all naked before turning in an equally naked zombie seductress is also a stroke of genius by the Alien screenwriter.

So finally, MGM answered the high def prayers of ROLD's throngs of fans with the debut of a Blu-ray/DVD combo package this past Tuesday. Cutting to the chase, the 1080p/24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer is solid, but hardly revelatory for those familiar with the studio's two prior DVDs. The same high definition telecine as those 480p discs is used on this BD and I suspect was manipulated a bit several years ago. The picture, for the most part, lacks the high frequency detail associated with excellent Blu-ray transfers. Not anywhere as smoothed and processed as Anchor Bay's Day of the Dead, but never exhibiting the stunning, virtually untouched appearance of New Line's A Nightmare on Elm Street Blu-ray. Even the rather flat color doesn't seem too different. The only "new" aspect noticed, at times, was a better sense of depth between the actors and objects on-screen. So unfortunately, ROLD kinda sorta looks like the already strong DVDs (especially when well-upscaled), no matter how many say otherwise. Those who aren't in love with O'Bannon's cult classic are advised to be cautious or wait until it's cheaper if solely interested in PQ.

Both the lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 and standard Dolby 2.0 split-mono tracks are the "altered" audio heard on MGM's DVDs. TSOL's Nothing for You is indeed still missing. Also the Tarman's voice, the "send more..." zombie voices, Calfa's German storm comment, and Roky Erickson's Burn the Flames are all lowered in volume. The good news being the front heavy lossless track having a clear edge over the muddy mono track. All of the extra features from the Collector's Edition DVD (also included) are retained on the Blu-ray edition in standard def. The two ROLD theatrical trailers are presented in 1080p/24 HD.    

Moving on to Ryûhei Kitamura's Versus, it doesn't really need an introduction. This was the poster child for the explosion of fresh Far East oddities that flooded American shores in the early '00s. Aside from Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, Versus is also possibly the most bootlegged Japanese film in the last twenty years. So another official home video release is a harder sell than usual. Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters certainly doesn't make it any easier; all three of their DVD releases have been no great shakes in the A/V department. The studio's standard def discs featured shoddy interlaced transfers and the two Theatrical Version editions only sporting standard Dolby 5.1 audio. The Blu-ray released a few weeks ago rectifies some of the problems but also introduces a few questions.

Blu-ray enthusiasts have been weary of Media Blasters after their BD of Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer. Although not a "pretty" film, the U.S. Blu-ray is plagued by ugly artifacts to the point that it's akin to a digital slurry with no advantage over their DVD. Charges of the HD presentation actually being a DVD upscale flew about and the same accusations have started to circulate around Versus. The 1080p/24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer of the 119 Minute Theatrical Version isn't a stunner by any stretch. The image is never once tack sharp and softness abounds. Here's the thing, the transfer simply doesn't have the blotchy thickness seen in SD upscales on Blu-ray. There's no edge enhancement and it's easy to see sharpness (and grain) vary from shot-to-shot. Given Kitamura's frenzied style, the post production application of strong color hues, and the film's low budget--I doubt this is 480p upscaled to 1080p. It's just a cheap, guerrilla action epic on Blu-ray. There's also flecks and pops of "tight" print damage and an occasional "flutter" effect that gives off a theatrical exhibition vibe. This transfer looks noticeably better than the blurry Tokyo Shock theatrical cut, Japanese KSS Films theatrical cut, and Japanese Geneon ultimate cut DVDs.

The lossless Japanese DTS-HD MA 2.0 and 5.1 tracks are fucking awesome. If the picture doesn't thrill, the booming sound quality definitely will. I'm fairly certain Versus's soundtrack was originally stereo, so I'd suggest the option over the oddly distant 5.1 mix. The yellow, italicized English subtitles are high resolution. All the extra features of Tokyo Shock's 2-DVD Special Edition are on this Blu-ray. Don't tell anyone, but out of the two Blu-rays talked about in this entry, I'd be more inclined to recommend Versus.


Anthony1138 said...

I haven't compared with the DVD yet, but the Blu-Ray doesn't look much different from what I remember. It would have been nice if MGM sold the rights for RotLD to another studio with money fore a new HD transfer and some new extras. But this was probably just a quick way to cash in on a catalog title for Halloween, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Troll 2. Seriously though, where the hell is Pumkinhead on Blu-Ray?

Jayson Kennedy said...

Actually that Invasion of the Body Snatchers BD looks much more impressive than ROLD. Troll 2 is probably coming because of Best Worst Movie.

Pumpkinhead would be a must own!

Deranged said...

Hmmm, looks like I'll be sticking to the regular DVDs for the foreseeable future. Shame. you dare tread upon the staircase?

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