Judge Ryan Keefer wonders how many components of a 24-hour day will George Romero make a film of that contain zombies?
The darkest day of horror the world has ever known.
In the blossoming war of next-generation video formats that very few people seem to care about or be concerned with, Anchor Bay Entertainment held the keys to a couple of interesting gems. The studio holds the video rights to the George Romero zombie films, not to mention some of the Halloween franchise. Recently they had decided to go Blu-ray exclusive, releasing a slew of films to the format. So how does Day of the Dead look in 1080 lines of video resolution?
Facts of the Case
Despite owning some films from the horror genre-basically restricted to the classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist and others, I'm not an aficionado of horror films. Though when I saw George Romero's 1968 benchmark film Night of the Living Dead, it did put the hook in me. Romero's movie was something that no one had seen before, and not many people have duplicated successfully in the last four decades years either. Romero's zombie movie odes continued with Dawn of the Dead in 1978, bringing things up to speed with Day of the Dead, which came out in 1985.
In Day, this time Romero puts some scientists and "soldiers" in a underground bunker, as the earth is overrun by flesh-eating zombies, and the bunker is used for both shelter and experimentation, as the scientists poke and prod captured zombies to find out ways to curb their zombie tendencies and domesticate them. However, the ranks start to thin and both groups clash at their breaking point. Sounds like it was good the first time, when it was John Carpenter's The Thing, but the psychological focus quickly disappears—just like various members of the cast of Day.
The more discerning fans of horror/zombie movies view this concluding part of Romero's trilogy as forgettable, and it pretty much lives up to that aspect. With laughable and unbelievable acting and casting (one of the soldiers looked like Dom DeLuise, for God's sake!), and the K-Mart type 80s soundtrack, where you can recognize the song, but it's not the actual song, or the rights would've had to have been paid for, it's really nothing more than a popcorn movie. However it does showcase the talents of Tom Savini, the make-up artist for Romero's films and well-renowned for his work.
Anchor Bay has been releasing and re-releasing Day over the course of the last few years, most recently as a Divimax film standard definition DVD that was Anchor Bay's interpretation of Sony's Superbit line whose emphasis was placed more on technical quality. Anchor Bay has been renamed Starz Home Entertainment for subsequent Blu-ray releases, and this 1.85:1 widescreen is presented very well, in almost pristine condition, and I was surprised to discover so much detail in this film that was made for under $5 million. However, even with the AVC MPEG-4 codec, there's not a lot of new detail that can be had on this high definition release. Blacks are pretty weak, the image might be pristine, but it isn't all that sharp. The PCM soundtrack doesn't really do the film better justice either, as the dynamic range is pretty understated and hollow, and everything seems to be focused in the center channel. The Divimax DTS soundtrack was also along these same lines, so I can't really hate it more than I do.
Starz has taken a perfectly good Anchor Bay release and not fudged around with it, which is good news for fans. We start with two commentary tracks, the first from Romero, Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson and Lori Cardille, who played Sarah. The group has a lot of fun in reflecting on the film, and the conversations between Romero and Savini are interesting. Savini even discusses the weapons master's function on a set, along with some prop-related deaths in recent years (including Brandon Lee's). Savini also discussed some of the latex effects and appliances used for some scenes as well. Cardille, however, seems a bit too serious for the room. While she does reflect on how her father played a role in Romero's first zombie film, she doesn't seem to have enjoyed it as much as the other parties did. The second track is film producer/director Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction). Avary is a huge fan of the film (despite periodically taking shots at "fanboys"). He even describes some shots as "Kubrickian." He doesn't really contribute anything to the film, aside from his enthusiasm. He played (and designed his own) Day of the Dead board game. What does that tell you? But he helped write Pulp Fiction, True Romance and Reservoir Dogs with Quentin Tarentino, so he must know something that I don't. But then again I don't have "dreams about this movie," like Avary does. He does compare it to more recent zombie films, specifically 28 Days Later, and provides some thoughts on it. It's pretty much fluff, but it's enthusiastic fluff if that makes a difference.
From there, you get a 39-minute documentary entitled "The Many Days of Day of the Dead." The feature contains new interviews with those in the commentary track, as well as Producer David Ball, Makeup Effect Artist Greg Nicotero, Assistant Director Chris Romero and actors Joe Pilato (who played Rhodes) and Howard Sherman (the lovable undead zombie named Bub). The feature is fairly comprehensive, as Romero talks about how he scaled his screenplay back to preserve the kind of vision he wanted, and Savini talked about how the first draft had a "Ben-Hur with zombies" feel to it. Thoughts on Bub are shared, along with some stories on Savini's effects, and the overall desire for those in Romero's hometown of Pittsburgh to be zombies in a Romero film. The feature does start with a 10 second title card warning of spoilers, which is nice, but if you've listened to the commentary first (which I did), there wasn't too much new information to be gained. The second feature is a behind the scenes look at the film, which runs for 31 minutes, and is solely production footage from Savini and his work. From the bullet hits to the prosthetics, to testing the bullet hits to the finished effect, it's all here. It's pretty cool to see the before and after shots of the prosthetics/zombie transformation, and fans of Savini's work will enjoy this inclusion to the DVD. There is an audio interview with the late Richard Liberty which is about 16 minutes where he is asked about the film and working with Romero. Recorded in March of 2000, the interviewer sounds like a bit of a fanboy, asking about questions which only devotees of the film would ask, but it's a harmless extra which, for nostalgia's sake, was nice to put on the disc. The underground bunker which was used in the film is actually a storage facility for records, film, what have you, and the promotional piece for the facility is included here. At just over eight minutes, it's probably a couple minutes too long, and anyone who's had to sit through training tapes for work or something pretty much knows how cheesy these things are, but it's a pretty unique choice to put in the set, so I've got to give them credit there. Trailers and TV spots (three of each), round out the extras in the set, save for a subtitled trivia track that you can turn on and off during playback. It's done a la "Pop Up Videos" style and does have some information related or unrelated to the film, and it's not really that important.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To be fair, many older horror films seem to lack a lot of the slick and expensive production values that many of today's films do, and Romero prides himself on studio independence. Does that lack of money or style show in high definition? Sure, without a doubt. Should high definition video apply for older, cheaper films? The jury's still out on this I think, but at least we know why Night hasn't come out yet if that's the case.
While it's nice to see the Romero films start to come out on Blu-ray, it's sad to see that the video and audio qualities are disappointing, to the extreme of silliness and without reason. I really don't see the point or value in upgrading this particular title, if for nothing else because the technical merits are vaguely noticeable.
Starz is found guilty of doing nothing more than double-dipping without any real improvements or reason to do so.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Starz Home Entertainment
• Commentary by Director George A. Romero, Special Make-Up Effects Artist Tom Savini, Production Designer Cletus Anderson, and Actress Lori Cardille
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