Thursday, October 31

Some thoughts on Scream Factory's Day of the Dead (1985) Blu-ray

Originally, I was planning to write a little about George A. Romero's Day of the Dead, but you're probably already aware of its positive attributes. It was one of the first horror movies I remember seeing on my weekend tape rental raids back in middle school. I loved this sequel from the first sitdown, with no knowledge of the ever-diminishing baggage it carries with longtime Romero fans, and see it as equal to Night and Dawn while furthering the commentary in much bleaker terms for mankind. Of course, back then my thirteen-year-old self just thought it was the most freakin' awesome/goriest zombie movie ever.

So naturally I've bought every subsequent U.S. video release starting with Anchor Bay's first DVD release from 1998 (roughly a year after the format debuted). What seemed like several long years later, yet only 2003, AB released their two-disc "Divimax" DVD edition. While most lavished praise upon the disc's picture quality, I found colors looked far too washed out even compared to the vintage MEDIA VHS. Then in 2007; shortly after the Blu-ray format debuted, AB released the film in their initial BD rollout. Despite again receiving praise, the picture still seemed too drab and any jump in detail or color was negligible over the standard definition Divimax presentation. It was also obvious the same HD master created in 2003 was simply brought to Blu-ray years later.

Finally this past September, Scream Factory released their Collector's Edition Blu-ray, promising a new 1080p transfer derived from a fresh telecine of 35mm materials. Now, despite this effort, some supposed videophiles are still bitching about the transfer. Claims have been bounced around about the prior dull color scheme of Anchor Bay BD being more "accurate" while others discount the SF transfer entirely due to very slight vertical stretching of the picture (which looks more proportionally correct in my opinion).

I'm not going to blindly blow Scream Factory, they have their share of just fair looking titles, but they've finally rectified what was an ultimately weak effort from Anchor Bay. The color has been brought back, sometimes maybe a touch too much, but the prior AB transfer was too bright and so desaturated the picture simply looked lifeless and flat. The improved color of the SF helps heighten the sense of depth, clothing especially exhibits this, and clarity from a lack of digital filtering, which the AB was caked with, is so great you can sometimes see the make-up on the actors. It's not a perfect presentation, the compression could be better for those with giant front projection set-ups, but this new Blu-ray is no doubt a step-up visually.

The sound quality is a complicated story. It's well known the Anchor Bay DVD and BD suffer from several (small) edits to dialogue and sound effects. These were mistakenly made during the creation of 5.1 mix for the Divimax release. This surround mix was accomplished by taking several sources of the original monaural (or "1.0") and separating the dialogue, foley (sound effects), and John Harrison's score into individual "stems" and then mixing these together with care in staging certain sounds around the five audio and subwoofer channel (or "5.1") soundfield to create a "true" surround sound track. The unfortunate edits were in the best available source for the dialogue stem and went unnoticed during the mastering of the 5.1 track.

The Scream Factory BD doesn't include this surround track, instead opting for the original monaural sound that doesn't have these edits, but there's a trade-off. This 1.0 track, despite being presented in lossless DTS, sounds noticeably worse than the Anchor Bay disc. Dialogue is often very harsh and limited in range, especially Lori Cardille, and there's a constant low background hiss that's completely absent in the AB mix. There's even several pops in the audio similar sounding to a vinyl stylus crackling over a dusty groove. The dialogue in the AB mix clearly sounds more spacious with nearly no raspiness. The overall audio experience is also preferable with the Anchor Bay. It's one of the better mono into surround upmixes with zero unoriginal effects added. So the choice is yours, but it's easy to see most choosing the Scream Factory for the lack of edits. That still doesn't change the fact it usually sounds worse than a VHS.

Although if you have the Anchor Bay Blu-ray and don't love Day of the Dead, you can probably stick with it. But fans are going to want to check out this new Scream Factory edition. The new BD also includes an brand new eighty-five documentary, produced by Red Shirt Pictures, entitled World's End: The Legacy Of Day Of The Dead. This great look into Day manages to be the one golden supplement this film really needed. Many cast and crew members are interviewed with every production stage explored with a satisfying focus on the actors. Interestingly, the film clips in this supplement are taken from the Anchor Bay transfer (and the difference is clear). All of the other extras from the AB disc are included. I imagine in a few years a new super deluxe 4K Blu-ray will appear with even superior picture/sound quality, but for now this fan is definitely happy. Worth picking up.

Tuesday, October 29

Some quick thoughts on The Conjuring (2013)

Always late to the party, I finally checked out James Wan's surprise theatrical phenom the other night and I'm hard-pressed to add anything new to the chorus of praise. The Conjuring intentionally hearkens back to the '70s possession spree, and like the best examples of that cycle, skillfully focuses on the ordeal in very human terms. Surprising considering the latest genre darling at the helm carved his name with power tools and butchered bodies.

The warm reception this throwback received globally speaks to this quality. Mainstream horror has recently become oversaturated with dwelling upon the immediate suffering of whatever the threat, be it ghost or monster or madman's trap, has chosen to attack with little concern for the psychological aftermath. The old "keep the blood runnin' down the screen" mantra.

That's not to say genre movies need to be after-school specials, but as proven by the most lasting horror staples, the easiest method to garner an audience's respect is through well-honed characters. Wan never lets attention stray from those often desperately trying to help, even in the most intense scenes of horror, rather than the obvious terror of the afflicted. This only makes the bond with reality stronger, as most have experienced the struggle of trying to help others in at least potentially serious circumstances, rather than dissolving into a scene of grisly violence probably alien to the average person. An defining aspect shared with The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and The Changeling (1980).

"...but we prefer to be known simply as Ed and Lorraine Warren."
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga do a tremendous job as the Warrens at humanizing people, a demonologist and a psychic, often portrayed on film as eccentrics. The pair ground their performances with the usual banter and stresses of a married couple as do Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the Perrons, the family under extraordinary circumstances. So the viewer, even dunderheaded tweens, quickly grow to trust their opinion even with their subtle religious methodology (likely to provoke debate for years much like The Exorcist).

It's also refreshing that while the Perron's children are targeted, they don't become the vessel of possession like many screen ghost stories have driven into the dirt in recent years. Of course, if this is all supposed to be true, that's not something that can be accredited to creativity. As a related aside, I've read negative comments solely predicated on whether or not the real Warrens or Perrons are being honest, if you're basing your opinion of the film on that, you're frankly stupid.

If there was a gripe, it's the demon witch ladies looking too typical of "old hags" with grey skin, frizzed hair, and runny mascara. Maybe that's just from years of listening to Art Bell with verbal depictions of the demonic entities being far more unsettling than wigged-out shopping cart ladies. Still, the scares are certainly there and Wan delivers an experience that'll actually creep you out by "the dead hour" far more than some TV show of teens with dowsing rods in green night vision. The Conjuring is one of those rarities that belongs to an elite group, playing off basic fears, that again re-establishes the staying power of the horror genre. It'll be a classic in short order.

Saturday, October 26

Great IFC "Best of Zombies!" 4-Movie DVD Pack at Target

You probably already own one or more of these separately, but I just grabbed this solid four-feature DVD pack from IFC Films at Target (lurking on the bottom shelf). Best of all the price was only $12.99 but rang up $9.98 at the register. I can't find any mention of this set online and haven't cracked it open yet to check the disc count/extras (separately Dead Snow is a two-discer), but this title combination alone is well worth a measly ten bucks (or thirteen, mileage may vary).

Friday, October 25

Zombie Hunter (2013), Codeword for Everything Bad about Modern DTV Horror

Well, nearly everything. If you've been following BoGD long enough, you're aware I'm not too hard of zombie flicks. As long as the actors suit their characters well enough and the action is fairly consistent, a given effort can still be highly entertaining even if story remains hunkered down in one location for the entire runtime. It's what one of the aspects of Romero's Night of the Living Dead that makes it so enduring to this day.

So there's no ill will toward Zombie Hunter for obviously being about zombies, even with popularity of the current mainstream zombie craze running on just three wheels and a snapped axle (outside of The Saga of Rick Grimes). Director, writer, and producer K. King's debut concerns a small band of survivors who've escaped to the desert expanse after a new drug turns much of the population into either undead shamblers or beastly "hybrids" that look directly ripped from the Resident Evil series (only rendered in terrible CG that looks much worse than what's the norm for TV commercials nowadays).

Okay, that doesn't sound too bad, the ol' dependable "fight for survival" set-up. Yet what makes this crowdfunded project so agonizing is its ridiculous overreliance on computers in post-production. Literally every gimmicky CG trick is used ad nauseum here. At first it seems like they're trying to create the now tired "faux-grindhouse" aesthetic, but it begins to feel like it's an attempt to make up for the many shortcomings on-screen. A couple of these instances in this tier of filmmaking are fine, but not so much that it becomes the core of the film. Since, you know, it's a movie and not a spastic music video. This flash gets so abused that it's amazing a real car was used to perform a real flip instead of some clunky 3D model for the high speed accident.

A great example happens early on when our hero, Hunter (Martin Copping), reflects on his lost wife and young child as he's cruising the badlands in his black 1987 Camaro SS. Instead of a quiet moment focusing on an actor doing his job, we mostly get an over-the-shoulder view of moving images of his two loved ones across his windshield. It's simply goofy, and like every other digital crutch leaned upon, pulls you right out of the movie. Maybe it's for the better since Copping, who happens to be Australian, has all the charisma of a completely monotone Mad Max once his mouth opens. At least a mostly shirtless Danny Trejo is used to good effect wildly swinging an axe through corpses in slo-mo. However; Machete's scant few scenes don't match the prominence he's given on the DVD cover...

This isn't enough to save Zombie Hunter. It's a soulless chore that's seemingly preoccupied with creating cool posters (and an end credit sequence) that display far more creativity than the actual product. This crap also proves horror fans should bitch about CG period and not just when it doubles as blood. And on that note, what all gore fans have lusted after, the zombie blood is a shade of screaming hot neon pink...?!?

Wednesday, October 23

EVIL ED (1995) "Special ED-ition" DVD/Blu-ray (Potentially) Coming...

Several years ago I posted this entry, Speaking of Evil Ed (1995), talking about Anders Jacobsson's gory Swedish import, Evil Ed, and how a newly assembled trailer advertising a special edition suddenly popped up on YouTube that looked uploaded by the director himself. Now it appears that he's trying to raise money to give his film, and his country's first ever splatter picture, deluxe treatment with a new DVD/Blu-ray.

As outlined below by Jacobsson over on the SE's Big Change kickstarter campaign below, there's hopes of a new HD telecine, a longer cut, and loads of extras. With two months to go to raise $30k, it'll be a tough road but here's to hoping funding can be procured. It's a great little send-up of the censorship woes genre cinema faces and clever homage to a plethora of horror classics. Not to mention the handful of previous DVDs being of rather poor quality and mostly out-of-print now (the two US DVDs and rated/unrated VHS are all cut too). There's also been a Facebook page set up for the project.

"Now it is time to refresh the old movie and re-scan the negative to High Definition. Our goal is to produce a special edition, with better picture and sound quality and lots of extra content:
  • Two never before seen scenes including a scissored foot, miserable disembodied head, and an angry wife.
  • A full 3 hour length documentary about the making of the movie, including interviews with the cast and crew and never before seen behind the scenes material.
  • A commentary track with the producers and the director.
  • A lot of deleted scenes, old promotional material (including old interviews from Swedish television, posters and trailers) and photos from the shoot.
We have wanted to make a complete and improved version of Evil Ed for many years, but it has been impossible due to lack of funding. No distribution companies are willing to take a risk by funding the project. Therefore we have decided to ask you, the fans, for help. With your support we can finally make the Ultimate EDition of Evil Ed. If our goal is reached all excess funding will go towards the creation of the spinoff Loose Limbs: The Anatomy of Fear, which is currently in pre-production."

Tuesday, October 22

Some quick thoughts on MANIAC (2012)

A young psychopath with mommy issues, Frank (Elijah Wood), cruises the city in his dingy serial killer van brutally murdering and scalping attractive women. Eventually, a photographer (Nora Arnezeder) befriends him out of interest in his vast vintage mannequin collection for her upcoming exhibition. It's only a matter of time...before this film is considered a classic of the horror genre?

Taken at face value (like the mostly jokey outline above), Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur's remake, directed by cohort Franck Khalfoun, of William Lustig's controversial 1980 grinder appears to wear everything on its sleeve. Two of the biggest "re-imagining" sins pop up almost immediately with elements only hinted at in Lustig's original expanded upon to the point it feels their being spoon-fed. And then an almost textbook stereotypical screen portrayal of a serial killer is strutted around like the ancient concept is groundbreaking. It's enough to make anyone whose seen a couple solid celluloid depictions of murderers gripe that it's just another dumbed down remake.

There's the danger of losing the audience Aja and Levasseur straddle with casting such a deceptively superficial light on Frank and his motivations. The pair take great pains in delving into his infatuation with the restoration of mannequins, once his family's business. This, and haunting memories of his brazenly promiscuous mother, feeds into his unstoppable quest for female victims to adore his life's work with. All of this is plainly spelled out in a compact narrative, much though Frank's own point-of-view perspective, that doesn't seem to make room for mystery or speculation. Yet throwing Maniac off as just another hollow serial killer outing that again tries to reinvent the wheel Norman Bates first began rolling would be in error.

Like their debut feature, Haute tension (High Tension) (2003), the writing pair have added a little climatic revelation that adds unexpected dimension to their main character. It's one of the few things not touched upon directly in the feature with the burden resting on the lead and Khalfoun to bring out with subtlety. And do they ever. Elijah Wood provides such a sense of nuance throughout, especially with regard to this twist, that his Frank rivals the iconic killers fashioned by Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960), Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu in The Vanishing (1988), and Ted Levine in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). If Wood's performance wasn't impressive enough, the care at which he handles this additional depth only proves what seemed like curious casting a stroke of brilliance.

But this might go flying over the heads of those that view this Maniac as a simplified knock-off concerned only with matching the misogyny and bruality of the original. And while Lustig and Spinell's potent sledgehammer approach still carries impact, this remake outwits the rough caricature seen in 1980 by refining what made Frank so chillingly real. The much more focused exploration of what drives his murderous inclinations and outward meekness of Wood's Frank combine to make this one of the best horror films of the last few years. Maybe even hindsight might provide Maniac with the status of a classic of the genre in the future. It's only a matter of time...

Sunday, October 20

Check out this ingenious Japanese homage to Terminator 2!

Recently browsing YouTube, I discovered this cool little segment from the 1992 edition of the Japanese variety special, New Year's Parlor Tricks Tournament (新春かくし芸大会). According the Japanese Wikipedia entry, the "best segment" competition show ran annually every New Years from 1964 to 2010. This short is sparse on dialogue with broad comedic touches and it's interesting to see how some of the then incredibly expensive effects were recreated on a nothing budget. They even managed to get a few seemingly unimportant details dead-on, like the neon "Corral Bar" sign being the splitting image of the one seen in the actual film. Some of T2's original score is utilized along with bits from Rambo and Aliens. If this segment ran feature length it would certainly count as one of the most curious cult exports ever from Japan!

Friday, October 18

Japanese SOV Gore Follow-Up: CONTON (獣神伝説 /Jūshin Legend /Chaos) (1987)

Here's a follow-up to this entry from a few years ago detailing the adventure feeling my way through Takuro Fukuda's unsubtitled shot-on-video gore short, Conton (Chaos). I finally got a copy of the original VHS, the very same copy from Z-Grade referred to in that write-up (not for $150 though!), and not the DVD-R used for that entry. Like GUZOO, see here, this VHS is also distributed by ROCO Company Limited. Looking around I'm confident in stating this is ZEUS Video's only release.

Here's Z-Grade's write-up from the auction: Over-the-top JAPANESE GORE HORROR SHORT directed by TAKURO FUKUDA! / EXTREMELY RARE JAPANESE VHS LTBX RELEASE – NOT AVAILABLE ON DVD! / ZEUS/ROCO CO., LTD / This is a Genuine Factory Original Japanese Import NTSC VHS tape and it will play in all U.S. VCRs. Presented in JAPANESE LANGUAGE ONLY with no English language or subtitles. NOT RATED / SP MODE / NTSC / COLOR / 45m 42s

In the fine tradition of the GUINEA PIG series, we present to you this weird lesser-known Japanese horror gore gem. The story involves a young otaku (nerd) collector and sculptor who works part-time as a production assistant for a television studio. He has quite a few vinyl Ultraman figures on display in his room. Anyway, it seems as of late, he has been having a lot of disturbing nightmares of tall armor-wearing demonic creatures that wield hatchets. In real life, he is having a bit of trouble with the local it seems he owes some cash to a trio of thugs. As his stress level rises, and the yakuza begin harassing him at his every move, the two realities seem to collide. At one point, he even sculpts out the creatures he sees in his dreams. 

And this is where the fun stuff begins. For starters, how about when our sleep deprived hero upchucks green puke into the sink, which then mutates into a face with an alien-like extended jaw and teeth? A few crushed skulls and eyeballs are on hand (check out the cover art on this sleeve!!), as well as the requisite tentacles, a nice beheading, and the climactic twist ending including the transformation of our hero into something ungodly. Nice EFX, if a little cartoony, but slathered in goo, puss, and lots of bloody mess. This gory Z-Grade Japanese horror gem is one rare tape, so get to bidding cause it's the only one we have.

Saturday, October 12

Some quick thoughts on The Day of the Cobra (Il giorno del Cobra) (1980)

Japanese VHS from MiMi Video (English/Full Screen)
Franco Nero stars as Larry "The Cobra" Stanziani, a weary private investigator resorting to tracking cheating spouses, who's offered an off-the-record job to take down a mysterious kingpin in Italy that ruined his police career years ago. Upon arriving in Rome, Stanziani is contacted by an powerful envoy and befriends a nightclub owner (Sybil Danning) for information, but he soon realizes no one can be trusted as his young son is targeted...

Much like the Italian rendition of Scorsese/De Niro, Enzo G. Castellari and Franco Nero have build their reputations through a multitude of usually great collaborations spanning their careers. Their first, and most pertinent to this review, partnership was the tremendous action crime film High Crime (La polizia incrimina la legge assolve) (1973). With parallels to Day of the Cobra, Nero stars as a brash police officer who becomes increasingly beleaguered in attempting to eradicate a drug ring with an unresponsive justice system. After his family falls prey, he realizes his relentless quest was all for not with his personal life in shambles despite supposed victory.

Image Credit: Atomic Caravan
This might be what ultimately hurts Nero's performance as "The Cobra". Stanziani's already nearly broken from the start and there's no redemption arch to make one care much about the character's plight. Instead, the story seems too preoccupied with laboring through familiar points with Nero's natural charisma and physicality in screen brawling barely keeping interest. It also doesn't help Stanziani suffers a bit from Kojak/Columbo syndrome of the period. Not to take anything away from those great television series, but Nero seems encumbered by little idiosyncrasies, like always chewing gum and wearing an unflattering tan bucket hat for most of the film. Those piercing blue eyes deserved better.

The Day of the Cobra isn't a bad effort, but it's too pedestrian when compared to better Castellari/Nero colabs. The sheer passion and scope of the aforementioned High Crime or Keoma (1976) is replaced by a lingering desperation to be too Americanized by "safely" going through the paces. Although maybe that can't be faulted with the popularity of the crime film beyond done in Italy and the entire film industry there beginning a long process of dwindling returns. Castellari, and maybe even moreover Nero, needed an international break and its a shame one never came for either.

Thursday, October 10

Friday the 13th (1980) - 1981 Warner Home Video Japan VHS

Here's another recent acquisition, Sean S. Cunningham's classic Friday the 13th from Warner Home Video Japan. Unlike Paramount's stateside video releases, up until 2009's Deluxe Edition DVD, this VHS is the uncut version which Warner released in several territories long ago. The presentation has some print damage and a slight reddish hue, but these qualities aid in the experience. 

The language is English with small Japanese subtitles and there's a curious few lines of Japanese text that don't correspond to speech. In the beginning, as Annie is seen silently walking in front of town shops, some text in quotations appears with "Friday the 13th" (13日の金曜日) in Japanese. I can't read the language and originally my best guess was maybe the date not carrying the same superstition in Japan, but a quick Google reveals it's also known in that country as an unlucky date. This edition doesn't seem too scarce but it is very hard to come by in this completely unfaded condition and in its original baby blue vinyl Warner logo-embossed case.  

Wednesday, October 2

Some quick thoughts on The Murder Secret (Non aver paura della zia Marta) (1988)

A family travels into the countryside to visit their aunt's home. Upon arriving, only Norman Ba...I mean the caretaker is present promising the woman will return the following day and that they can stay the night. It's then okay to fast forward or just eject the cassette afterward.

Yep, this is definitely one of the worst late era Italian potboilers I've ever sat down with. As the '80s wore on, the country's film industry was on the brink of a sea change which saw many once prolific filmmakers either being forced to adapt or essentially face extinction. Lucio Fulci, who oversaw the production with Mario Bianchi directing, obviously struggled valiantly through this period despite worsening health and diminishing career prospects. Sadly, The Murder Secret might typify everything awful about the product from this dark time.

With almost no money, talent (or woefully misused talent), and resources; most of these flicks either made the most of things and threw everything at the wall or resorted to merely filling time with a few done-to-death tropes. This Bianchi/Fulci effort chooses the latter as it's basically the Italian gore version of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). However; every opportunity to boringly drag to ninety minutes is taken, family members are finally slain one-by-one, the father (truly slumming Gabriele Tinti) finds their gruesome bodies, and the caretaker (truly slumming Maurice Poli) reveals himself to be the murderer while enshrining the dead aunt's corpse.

Oh, and there's a tacked-on twist ending that you've seen before and will likely piss you off more (recycled the next year in Fulci's superior House of Clocks). That's not to say there aren't endearing Italian schlockfests from the late '80s, but don't let the cheap gore shots fool you, The Murder Secret should remain a secret. Better off watching Fulci's strangely inventive A Cat in the Brain (Nightmare Concert) (1990) that jacked a couple quick murder clips directly from this junk.
. you dare tread upon the staircase?

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