Blu Notes: Dawn of the Dead (ゾンビ) 35th Anniversary Box

I must confess that I find strict video reviews to be a soul-sucking experience anymore, so I’ll be keeping my comments on this one as brief as I can (alas, there’s a lot to cover). Those who wish to give them amiss in favor of screenshot goodness will find it at the tail end of the article. Go ahead and scroll. I’ll not think any less of you.

First impressions first: Despite some obvious shortcomings that I’ll get to in a moment, I love this box. Advertised as an “Ultimate Edition” by Happinet / Stingray, this pricey Japanese release (~$130 retail at today’s exchange rate, less through Amazon JP) certainly looks the part. It presents the three most familiar cuts of the film on three dual layer blu-ray discs, each in their own individual case and packed (along with a 24-page booklet and 4 postcards) in a shiny, sturdy, snazzy outer box. These pics aren’t the best, but they should give you an idea of what to expect. I’ve kept the plastic wrap on this release with the exception of the spine to prevent scuffing and scratching on the shelf (a lesson hard-learned from Universal Japan’s UFO box, which is physically quite similar and now has a wealth of frustrating scratches on its $300 hide).

Counter to tradition, I’m going to get the supplements out of the way before proceeding to the discs themselves. In how they’ve marketed this release Happinet / Stingray have forced some direct and unfortunate comparison to Anchor Bay’s now decade-old Ultimate Edition DVD set, to which it can’t hold a candle with regard to extras. The only big ticket item is a commentary track with Claudio Simonetti, Alessandro Marenga and Claudio Fiano, which accompanies the Argento cut of the film. Being in Italian with optional Japanese subtitles, this will be of dubious interest to most English viewers. The only other new stuff is a pair of trailers dating back to the Perfect Collection LD release, which have been newly transferred in HD. Otherwise you get the same mix of American, Japanese, International and German trailers we’ve all seen before, and that’s it. Off disc there is that set of four postcards, packed in its own resealable baggy, and the substantial booklet (Japanese only), which features translated writing from Leonard A. Lies (machete zombie), Mike Christopher (Hare Krishna zombie), and Jeannie Jeffries (blonde truck zombie), an interview with cinematographer Michael Gornick, making-of notes, and an introduction by Norman England.

Now to the discs. It should be noted that the technical specs are pretty much identical across the various cuts. Each receives a robust AVC video encode at an average of 36.0 Mbps and is spread comfortably across its own BD50. Audio is Dolby TrueHD with advanced 96k upsampling for the surround tracks (each cut carries one 5.1 English track), and Dolby Digital (640 kbps) for the 2.0 monophonic tracks (English and Japanese dub for each film). Japanese subtitles are available for each cut, and are optional.

Of the three cuts the transfer for Argento’s 119 minute European edition is the only that has been seen before, dating back to 2007 and having previously been released on Blu-ray in France and elsewhere. It offers the highest level of detail of the bunch and decent, if flat, color, but is also noisy and (to my taste) distractingly video-like – zooming in reveals gross vertical noise artifacts throughout. Framing is a little bizarre at times in comparison to the other cuts (see the comparison frames below), and the opening and closing credits (sourced from SD) look pretty bad – the closing scroll is an unmitigated disaster of aliasing. Still, the bulk of the film looks passable enough thanks in large part to the strong encode (shots I’ve seen of the single-layer French disc show it to be riddled with artifacting, which isn’t an issue here). It certainly doesn’t look as disgustingly processed as many of the Italian film transfers pumped out by Blue Underground, Raro and others.

The big news of the set rests with the 127′ theatrical and 139′ extended cuts of the film, each of which is sourced from a new HD master minted last year. The new master improves upon the old Anchor Bay transfer (originating with the 2004 DVD, later released to Blu-ray) in some key areas, most notably in its texture. The Anchor Bay was a mess of over-zealous noise processing that could look pretty sludgy in motion, with plenty of distracting motion artifacts to bog things down. The new HD master appears blessedly unfiltered, with plenty of visible grain and a smoothness in motion that give it a healthy film-like edge over past editions. For my tastes this was enough, in itself, to make it worth the investment.

That said, the new master is far from perfect (despite the “state of the art” ad claims). Detail has a few decent moments, but is quite subdued for the most part. Some of this boils down to the original photography, which suffers from poor focus on a host of occasions, but there’s no doubt that a more robust scan would have provided more substantial results. The color timing will be another contentious issue for some. The new master is cooler overall than the Anchor Bay, which is fine by me (I never cared much for the sickly warmth of that transfer), but suffers from a slight greenish tinge as well as shot-by-shot inconsistencies that could and probably should have been mitigated in post. Contrast tends towards the darker side, with weak black levels besides. Highlights, conversely, tend to burn too hot, leading to some loss of detail here and there. Color saturation looked fine to me for the most part, and overall I’d say this transfer felt more natural in that regard than the Anchor Bay.

Damage will also be a sticking point with some, though I’ve never minded it so much myself. There are a wealth of minor issues – speckling, light scratching and so on – as well as more noticeable blips in the emulsion that occur quite frequently. Similar, though fewer, examples of this can be spotted easily enough on Anchor Bay’s extended cut DVD – I did not check their other transfers for similar, and I no longer own their blu-ray to compare. Plain strange and well worth noting are a couple of shots in the new master that look to be sourced from older material, and just look weird comparison to the new stuff (one unfortunate example is Stephen’s headshot). I only noticed two instances of this myself (see the final extended cut screenshot for the second), though there may be more. One wonders what necessitated the substitutions in the first place, and why an alternate film source for these shots couldn’t have been utilized.

In closing, despite a few lingering issues (like the state of Stephen’s triumphant second demise) I’m rather enamored with this set. Over-processing and poor encodes are the bane of my blu-ray existence, and Happinet / Stingray have effectively avoided any such issues here. And that box! It’ll take a significant restorative undertaking to do better by George Romero’s quintessential zombie opus, and I hope it happens – if it does I’ll happily plunk down more of my hard-earned cash to support it. Until then this box is good enough for me.

Screenshots were captured as uncompressed .png in Totem Movie Player 3.0.1, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 96% using the ImageMagick command line tool with no further filtering applied. The first five captures of each series are of the same frame (or close to) for the sake of comparison.

Zombie: Dawn of the Dead (Argento Cut)

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Dawn of the Dead (Theatrical Cut)

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Dawn of the Dead (Extended Cut)

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Happinet / Stingray’s Dawn of the Dead (ゾンビ) 35th Anniversary Ultimate Edition Blu-ray Box was released on December 20, 2013 and is available from Amazon JP and other retailers. For those so inclined, each disc in the set has also been issued individually.