Day of the Dead (Blu-ray)
Directed by George A. Romero
Distributed by The Scream Factory
I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh to some (although I have a feeling it won’t), but I sometimes find myself wishing George A. Romero had never returned to the zombie sub-genre after completing Day of the Dead (1985). Romero built this sandbox, he’s the godfather of gut-munching zombie horror; however, few can argue his recent trilogy of films is even closer to what he wrought starting back in 1968. Night of the Living Dead is the seminal film for zombies. Period. He wrote the blueprint, he made the template. Dawn of the Dead (1978) is what I consider to be a perfect horror film. George nailed it, no question. Everything about that film works on numerous levels. Day, though, seems to be a toss-up for a lot of fans. It can’t be faulted for effects and gore, but the characters have always been a point of contention for some. Personally, I’ve always liked the exaggerated, maniacal personalities many of the lead actors possess. This world isn’t like Dawn, where you could still get lucky and find new people to join up with for survival. In Day, these people just might be all that’s left. According to an estimate by the good Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), the dead outnumber us roughly 400,000:1 with no signs of slowing down. Naturally, everyone is a little bit on edge.
Day of the Dead maintains the singular setting of its predecessor, only this time the walls are even tighter with our main group huddled deep below the Earth in a mine; a sprawling, labyrinthine cave that looks more like a massive tomb. Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) and Dr. Logan are tirelessly working to find a cure to the zombie epidemic using corpses brought down from up top. Their efforts are made doubly difficult by the presence of Col. Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and his rowdy bunch of troops. Logan’s procedure seem to have worked on one zombie, a “fast” learner named Bub (Howard Sherman), but the surgery is too difficult and esoteric to ever provide a viable means of stopping the outbreak. The possibility of a cure or solution seems dire, especially to the audience, making this less a film about ending the current apocalypse and more a study of how humanity cracks under the pressure of knowing we’re next on the extinction list.
Two aspects of this film that are undeniably stellar are Tom Savini’s gruesome makeup FX work, and composer John Harrison’s score. First off, I know some people who absolutely hate this score and, honestly, I just don’t get it. Harrison previously provided the tunes for Romero’s Creepshow, which was also graced with a chillingly horrific soundtrack. His work here is both ominous and slightly playful, sounding like a mix between synth music to signal the apocalypse and something you’d be listening to on a Jamaican beach, which seems especially fitting given how the film ends. Of course, some of it does sound like it was culled from Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice tapes, too, so I can see where there might be issues for certain listeners. Savini was in rare form here, delivering what are arguably some of his greatest effects to date. He had a stellar team behind him, including current KNB heads Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. Not to knock Dawn in any way, but the zombie and victim work there can’t hold a candle to the ultra-realistic, hyper-gory palette he brought to life here. From the opening of the film, where we’re introduced to a stumbling, blood-drooling Dr. Tongue, the picture hardly lets up from one stunning, shocking set piece after the next, culminating in the classic Romero full-body pull-aparts fans crave.
Ok, enough yammering about the film. You all know what you’re in for by now. Let’s get to the real reason why you’re here – how does this disc stack up to the countless editions that have come before it? More importantly, how’s the “all-new transfer” that’s touted virtually all over the packaging? It’s good – in fact, about as good as this film is ever going to get – but it’s not perfect, so upgrade accordingly. The previous Blu-ray released by Anchor Bay was soft and a bit less detailed, a hindrance due to the minor DNR that was applied in mastering the disc. Many fans may have purchased the region-free Blu-ray released by Arrow in the U.K., but that release, too, is plagued by DNR. A side-by-side comparison of Arrow’s disc versus Scream’s shows that grain is almost scrubbed free in the prior’s edition, losing any semblance of detail in the image. Scream Factory’s release is the best possible presentation given the limitations inherent in the source. Day is never going to look reference-quality.
The film was shot in a mine, with varying light sources, and while it was all done on 35mm the fact remains that it was a low-budget production and those roots will never recede - however, Scream has delivered the cleanest presentation that is clearly not tampered with in any way, aside from some contrast boosting. Whether or not it’s worth upgrading whatever disc you own currently depends entirely on your personal preference. Some people don’t mind DNR one bit. Hell, they may even love what it does, and so this release might not appeal to them. If you’re a serious fan of the film, though, then I’d suggest this edition if only because you’ll be seeing it as close to the original presentation as possible. Grain is present throughout, although it never gets heavy enough to become obtrusive. Only the optical shots are heavily grainy since that’s just how opticals look. Fans will also be happy to hear that this release finally contains the unaltered mono mix in DTS-HD. The missing and changed effects that were found on both AB and Arrow’s releases have been reinstated here, allowing fans to hear the theatrical track for the first time in lossless audio. It’s a limited track that works hard to pump out all the required sounds, sometimes to the detriment of the intended range. This is how it was mixed, and any multi-channel audio tracks are simply faux to give listeners a bit more oomph.
If you’ve bought the old Anchor Bay DVD, the special edition Anchor Bay DVD, the Anchor Bay Blu-ray, and the Arrow Blu-ray, chances are you know that with every new edition of Day comes a few new bonus features along with the loss of a few. This release from Scream Factory is no different, featuring a bit of the old and a bit of the new. On the recent side of things is World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead, a full-length documentary, presented in HD, that runs for around an hour and a half. This lengthy doc features many of the usual suspects – Romero, Savini, Nicotero, Pasquale Buba, Howard Sherman, Pilato, etc. – along with a few faces we don’t see so much – Cardille, Gary Klar – all of whom reminisce fondly about their time on set. Some of Savini’s on-set footage is spliced in here, too. The documentary’s only problem is that much of what’s discussed has been said other places a hundred times before. I’d call this “definitive” only in the sense that most of the anecdotes and information about the shoot have finally been collected in one piece since everyone available spills their guts. I mean, how many times can we hear about the fridge going out and the pig guts spoiling, right? It isn’t that the information isn’t of value, just that this piece runs very long and it doesn’t feel like it’s covering any new ground. I loved it for the candid recollections and to hear a fresh perspective from old faces, but it brings no new shit to light, so to speak. Two audio commentaries have been ported over from the Anchor Bay Blu-ray, the first with writer/director George A. Romero, special effects artist Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille. Too many people on one track can sometimes be a bit much, but everyone seems to get a word in when the time is right here. The second track is with filmmaker Roger Avary. He’s a big fan of the film. I don’t know who tracks like this appeal to, frankly. I only care to hear from those involved in making the movie; I don’t really care about the first time a young Roger Avary watched it. Right? Behind the Scenes Footage from Special Effects Creator Tom Savini’s Archives is the same 30-minute featurette that appeared on the previous Blu-ray.
Presented in full-frame, this is the footage Savini shot of the film’s many gory set pieces. Wampum Mine Promotional Video is an eight-minute ad for the services provided by the mine. No mention of facility use during a zombie holocaust. Underground: A Look Into the Day of the Dead Mines follows Ed Demko (is this guy a fan? no clue) through the mine locations, although a lot of it is Ed posing and reciting film lines with blurry shots of the mine in the background. It’s a bit like Horror’s Hallowed Grounds lite. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t have lowered Sean Clark down into that mine for his usual segment. A selection of Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots have also been included. Finally, there is a Still Gallery containing images including: Behind the Scenes, Day of the Dead Locations, Posters & Lobby Cards and Miscellaneous. The disc loses some features from both the Anchor Bay and Arrow releases, so completists are going to want to hang on to those.
This release from Scream Factory can’t be called the definitive edition of Day of the Dead because it still fails to collect all of the available bonus features in one convenient location. I know that probably isn’t even possible (well, with enough money anything is), but I’m sure fans are just tired of having to re-buy their favorite films over and over, filling their shelves with yet another copy acquired for a handful of new extras. At least this release goes the extra mile in delivering an image that presents the film as accurately as possible, outshining both previous releases by an appreciable, albeit minor, degree. The new features are well-produced, featuring recent interviews and collected tales, but in bringing not much new information to the table many fans may find even a lengthy documentary doesn’t satisfy their hunger. For those who don’t own any prior releases (there has to be at least a few of you), and even those that do, this stands for now as the best release available.
4 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5