Blue Underground's God Told Me To.... In 4k!? (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

You might've noticed I'm a bit of a Larry Cohen fan by now, and once I read that Blue Underground had created a bunch of new features for their blu-ray of one of Cohen's most out there features, I was already on board. I've owned the old Charter VHS tape of God Told Me To, upgraded to Blue Underground's 2003 DVD, and as of yesterday morning, I've upgraded to their new blu-ray edition. An HD upgrade would be pretty sweet for such an off the beaten path flick as this already, but I wasn't expecting to flip the case over and read "brand-new 4k High-Definition transfer from the original uncensored negative." 4k, what is this, Ghostbusters? I know they did it for the Maniac Cop sequels, which were incredible releases; but I figured sure, for Lustig's own films... but now here it is, a brand new 4k scan of God Told Me To!
I mean, God Told Me To is one weird film... It may not be Cohen's weirdest - I think that title still goes to The Stuff - but that film was light-hearted and silly. This is equally weird, but also pretty grim and disturbing.Tony Lo Bianco is a New York police detective who finds himself investigating a series of heartless murders seemingly commuted at random by disparate, everyday people. A man with a sniper rifle starts shooting people on the street from a rooftop, another man murders his wife and small children in their apartment - all played in a straight-forward, realistic manner. The only connection between the killers is that they all claim "God told me to."

Well, I'm not going to give away what turns out to be behind the killings, but I guarantee you'd never guess where this film is going unless someone spoiled it for you. But it goes in some wild, creative directions, that just barely hold together by the strength of Cohen's writing. Some great supporting actors really help bolster the proceedings to, including the instantly memorable Richard Lynch, a harrowing turn by Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf's Sandy Dennis, Cohen stalwart James Dixon and a small, surprisingly non-comic role by Andy Kaufman. I'd put this right alongside the very best of Cohen's work, but if you're expecting a light-hearted thriller along the lines of The Ambulance or Devil's Advocate, let alone a screwball comedy like Full Moon High, prepare yourself for a very different experience.
Blue Underground's 2003 DVD on top; and their 2015 blu on bottom.
Before sitting down to watch this properly on my television, I popped this into my PC drive just to have a quick look at it and my immediate reaction was: wow. This is the blu-ray experience. Blue Underground's DVD was already an excellent release, but the movie really feels alive now. The framing is pretty identical, but while the colors are vivid in both versions, but they pop even more, while still looking a little more natural, on the blu. The DVD leans a bit green in comparison. But it's all about the boost to HD and the improved detail. Just viewing these caps embedded in the blog doesn't show you the rich improvement of the new blu; you've gotta be sure you're viewing them full size. Let's get in close so we can really appreciate it.
Blue Underground's 2015 blu-ray left; and their 2003 DVD right.
Grain is still very much alive and untouched on the blue, and yet it's so much clearer and free of digital artifacting compared to the DVD.  The guys in the lower part of the image above look like a splotchy mess on the right, but perfectly real now on the blu.

The blu gives us three choices in the audio department:  7.1 DTS HD, 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX and the original mono track in DTS-HD for us purists. There are also optional English DTS, French and Spanish subtitles.The DVD was already pretty rich with audio options (four, not counting the commentary), but the subtitle options are brand new.
And how about those new extras? The original DVD had an excellent commentary with Larry Cohen and William Lustig, where they had a great back and forth yet imparted a lot of info, and that's been ported over here. Hidden as an Easter egg was also a brief Q&A with Larry Cohen at a NY film festival, which has been carried over and unhidden. The DVD was already pretty loaded with trailers. It had the original theatrical trailer, plus seven TV spots, including two which sell the film under the alternative title of Demon. But the blu goes even a bit further, including all seven spots, the trailer, plus another full theatrical trailer which uses the Demon title. Both discs also share a poster and stills gallery.

But that's about all the DVD had. Loved the commentary, and the Easter egg was a nice touch; but it still didn't quite feel like a special edition. Well, they've fixed that with the blu-ray. First there's an all new, and very charming 20+ minute Q&A sessions with Larry Cohen, where he's full of great anecdotes. There's also a new interview with special effects artist Steve Neill who got his start on this film and wound up working with Larry for a whole bunch of films, and he talks about all of them. Finally, there's another interview with the star, Tony Lo Bianco, who shows a real appreciation for this bizarre entry in his resume, except for one particular scene.
This is a terrific, underrated little movie, and it just received a best case scenario blu-ray release. I have some pretty high expectations from Blue Underground, and they've definitely exceeded them. If you were waiting for reviews before upgrading this one, go right on ahead!

The Troubled Troubles We've Seen, Marcus Ophuls' Overlooked Doc

Marcel Ophuls (son of filmmaker Max Ophuls) made one of the greatest one of the greatest holocaust documentaries (specifically about the less commonly addressed French occupation) of all time... indeed one of the great documentaries of all time period: 1969's The Sorrow and the Pity.  It's very well known as well as being highly regarded, having been released, restored and reissued around the world. But it's not the man's only film, or even his only great film. It's not even his only Academy Award winning film (Sorrow was nominated, but his 1988 documentary, Hotel Terminus, actually won). Unfortunately however, when it comes to releasing his films on home video, he's treated like a one hit wonder. Most of his films remain competently unavailable anywhere in the world. But at least one more of his powerful documentaries has actually been released in America, albeit very obscurely.
 
The Troubles We've Seen is one of his more modern works, from 1994, and focuses on wartime journalism. The bulk of the film was shot in Sarajevo in 1993 while the city was under siege, interviewing reporters from all over the world - including the BBC, CNN, ABC news, French television, etc -  who've converged in a Holiday Inn near "sniper alley" where news reporters are frequent and intentional sniper targets. At one point, he's interviewing a reporter while standing over the body of another reporter who's just died from a sniper's bullet; it can be pretty harrowing stuff.
But the film also takes a broader view, looking back at past wars and how the news reports are disseminated around the world. It's 224 minutes, so it has time to really sink its teeth into tangents, like a famous Spanish war photographer who was accused of faking some of his most famous shots, or the animosity between "on the ground" photojournalists and on-screen anchors. Other times he drifts more into covering the actual war the reporters are covering and the effect it has on its people.
 
And, perhaps to lighten the mood, we see Ophuls adopt a technique similar to what Errol Morris would start doing years later (inspired by this film?), of cutting in footage from old movies to act as a sort of commentary or counterpoint to what's going on in-film. For example, we'll have a politician talking about war and then cut to a scene from Duck Soup with Groucho Marx telling Harpo as he goes off to fight gallantly on the front lines for his home and country that he'll be back home, thinking what a sucker he is. Other times, it's more serious, a la a clip from some English adaptation of Henry V of the soldier's speech about how the victims of battle will rise up on the conscience of the king who led them to war while we look at victims of a recent bombing. He goes a little overboard with it in the beginning of the film, where it starts to feel like we get two sentences of clip for every one sentence of actual interview; but it soon tapers off and feels very natural and effective.
 
There's one example I've read Ophuls get criticized for a couple of times online, that I thought I'd take the liberty of defending. Ophuls is talking to a former actor who's now living in a cramped apartment with his wife and children, and his two legs blown off by a Serbian grenade. The actor says he expects to get prosthetic legs soon and plans to return to the stage once the war ends, and Ophuls is asking if he believes the Serbs and the Croats can ever actually live in peace after the war. The actor is completely convinced they can, and it cuts to a clip of James Cagney tap dancing on stage from Yankee Doodle Dandy, to which critics have said, isn't that juvenile and cruel to mock this man with no legs by cross cutting to a tap dancer, but I believe they've missed the point. During that interview, Ophuls keeps pushing the issue of whether they can ever truly live peacefully afterwards, forgiving and forgetting the atrocities of the war they just fought to live amongst each other again. He calls the actor "very optimistic" as he seems to act like it will be no problem. But when Ophuls asks" what will happen when he's on stage and one of the men responsible for blowing off his legs is in the audience, and the actor says, "I will kill him." So we see peace really won't be so simple or easy to achieve as the people are being lead to believe, and Cagney is representing the cheerfully naive fantasy of how happy everyone will soon be. He's happily tap dancing on stage, all smiles and flag waving, when the real actor already has the intent to kill again in his mind, just lightly covered by this dream of happier times.
Not that every thing about this film is perfect. I already mentioned the beginning feels a bit self-indulgent with all the excess cutaways, like when we see the opening of Annie Hall before Ophuls similarly addresses the camera to explain what his film is going to be about. It also drags a bit in the middle as it gets a little too mired up in the details of French television of the day, which non-viewers of early 90s French news programs won't get as much out of. And there's a weird bit where Ophuls talks about his "Fellini hat" (it's the same kind of hat Marcello Mastroianni wore in 8 1/2) and we see lots of footage of a naked, younger woman in his bed. I don't get what that was supposed to be about. I suspect it was to show that the reporters were all sleeping with hookers in this hotel - and so was our host; but the whole segment had the feel of a self indulgent in-joke. But so for all the virtues this film shows in its longer running time, allowing it to cover what most films wouldn't be able to get into, it does feel also like shedding a good 10-20 minutes could have made Troubles leaner and more powerful.
So this film is only available from Milestone Film and Video, a small NY company that sells this as a 3-disc DV-R set directly from its site and sometimes through Amazon when their storefront is stocked. To be clear, though, this is a legit, licensed release, not one of those bootleg sites that torrents obscure movies and sells them to you on homemade DV-Rs for $20 a pop. Milestone's releases used to be available in stores nationwide back when DVDs were the most mainstream, popular form of movie viewing, and in fact they're the company that put out the original DVD of The Sorrow and the Pity back in 2001. However, this release doesn't feel so official when you actually put it in your player...
First of all, for a 2011 release, it's surprising (and disappointing) that these discs are not anamorphic. I think thiat's because this disc was released previously as a proper pressed DVD, which has long since gone out of print, and this 2011 DV-R is just a quiet reissue. The back of the box says this film is 1.31:1, but look at the screenshots; that's obviously wrong. This film is more like 1.61:1; but that's good, because it looks like the correct aspect ratio. this film was shot on 35mm, at least according to the imdb, and was made to play in theaters, so we're probably getting the proper AR, at least. But since it's non-anamorphic, that means the film is windowboxed, sitting tiny in the center of your screen surrounded by black on all four sides. Subtitles are burned in. There are no extras of any kind, and only the first disc has a proper menu screen. The second disc ends abruptly but continues playing a black, silent screen for a couple minutes... I sure hope there wasn't footage from the movie that was supposed to be playing during that time that we're missing. Then it cuts to a gray screen for a little while, which is 1.37:1 - hey, that's where they got that ratio from!
Did I mention the discs are single layer? Of course they are! And they didn't even use all of that space - more like half. This film is divided into two distinct parts (with credits and everything), but it's broken up into three discs rather than keeping both halves together on two dual-layered discs, which would've played a lot better. Hell, they probably could've fit it on two single-layered discs without any additional compression. Speaking of compression, the video quality is passable, I guess, for a standard def DV-R, assuming you go in with low expectations. It's certainly soft and murky enough to make you wonder if this was sourced from video tape. Remarkably, it's not interlaced, though there are frames of ghosting, which probably come from sloppy PAL/ NTSC conversion, or just an old pull-down issue. This could obviously look heaps and heaps better. The labels on the disc are plain white with text, there's no insert, and yet they ask the painfully high price of $39.95. And you guys thought Zipporah films was bad!
Maybe he's just wearing two pairs of glasses?
Still, it's the only release of this remarkable film, and it does get the job done. And I get that they're a low budget company sitting on some important films, but there are so many improvements they could make to this release without spending a penny. We can all make anamorphic DVDs on our home computers. But again, I believe this is actually a really old disc that just wasn't updated at all, and it only gets into the realm of frustrating when you see the price tag. Oh well, in lieu of other options, this film is still worth it. I sure wish some blu-ray company (Kino? Criterion? Studio Canal?) would come along, though, and do the whole Ophuls catalog right. I mean, the films besides The Sorrow and the Pity.

88Films' Slaughterhouse Finally in Widescreen! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Slaughterhouse was a horror movie staple for me back in the 80s VHS rental days; I used to love the tagline on the box: "Buddy's got an axe to grind... a big axe." And I was psyched when it finally came out on DVD in 1999, from the too short lived Power 13 cult label, as a loaded special edition. Many of the biggest, most famous horror titles weren't getting the kind of bonus feature treatment this nutty, offbeat slasher got. And I was just as psyched 15 years later when I saw 88Film's trailer announcement that they were finally releasing this in widescreen on blu-ray.
This isn't one of those films that doesn't deliver what you see on the box.
Slaughterhouse isn't a great horror film, it's full of poor acting and lame characters. But it's also got a pair of fun villains, some genuinely funny lines, a rockin' soundtrack and a lot of effective, well crafted horror scenes with cool atmosphere in an ideal location. See, old man Bacon won't sell his dilapidated slaughterhouse to the big industrial guys, but it looks like the law is going to finally force him out because he hasn't been able to keep up with his taxes. Meanwhile, a bunch of typical 80s horror teens, played by typical 80s twenty-somethings, keep sneaking onto his property and getting killed by his psychotic, squealing son Buddy. That seems like a problem at first, until Les decides he could make this situation work for him by luring his competitors into Buddy's deadly sty. It was certainly never the kind of film to cross over to big, mainstream appeal; but if you enjoy 80s horror, you're sure to get a kick out of Pig Farm Massacre (as it was released in Germany).

But whether you got the German Pig Farm disc or the original Power 13 DVD, it was just an old fullscreen transfer in serious need of an update. And that's what 88Films has brought us, so let's see how they did.
Power 13 DVD on top; 88Films blu-ray on bottom.
It's night and day! And I don't just mean that because one is brighter than the other, although the new blu-ray transfer is definitely darker. Some of this will just come down to personal preference, but overall for me, the DVD looks faded and washed out, so I prefer the blu's deeper blacks. Of course, it helps immeasurably that the blu is also in its proper widescreen aspect ratio. The DVD is open matte, so at least we weren't losing much picture; but it was obviously meant to be matted to widescreen. Here it's 1.78:1 to fill your widescreen TVs, which still gives us a sliver more picture than the 1.85:1 it was probably framed for originally. And if you look carefully, there actually is more info on the sides of the blu.
Power 12 DVD on top; 88Films blu-ray on bottom.
There are also flecks of dirt and scratches on the print that aren't on the DVD's, but they're tiny and only last a few frames apiece. It's obviously not some super high budget Sony restoration, but it's also no "grindhouse print," a la Code Red. Basically, the new blu looks like film, whereas the old DVD looked like VHS. It has bolder colors and a much clearer, more streamlined picture thanks to the HD upgrade. It's still grainy as hell, and soft on detail; but that presumably goes right to the film's source materials. Certainly, compared to the DVD it's a huge upgrade, and probably looks as good now as this film ever did.
And what about those extensive extras from the Program Power DVD? You'll be happy to hear that 88Films has ported almost all of them over. Some of the names have changed... what was called the Financing and Distribution of Horror Films featurette is here listed, more accurately, as simply a Jerry Encoe interview. But all that stuff has been transferred over... the deleted scenes/behind-the-scenes footage, the Rick Roessler interview, all the crazy footage of the actor who plays Buddy walking around meeting people on the street, and the multiple trailers and TV spots, including an amusing "No Smoking" one you should make sure to check out. The DVD also had a bunch of .PDF files on the disc, which included things like the screenplay and photos, which were left off; but every video extra has made the transition.

And the commentary? Well, no. But 88Film's blu-ray has an all new commentary instead. Yes, I've listened to both; it's definitely an entirely new one for the blu. The new one features the director (Roessler) and producer (Encoe), whereas the original featured the two of them plus Michael Scaglione, the production designer. So that's one more reason to pick up the blu, but also a reason to hold onto your old DVD. The blu also has reversible artwork, without the garish ratings logos they're required to put on the front, which is a nice touch; plus a two-page insert with liner notes. And it comes in a cool red case rather than the standard blue. Oh, and there's over twenty minutes of bonus trailers of titles also available from 88Films.
Slaughterhouse may not be the classiest top shelf horror movie around, but it is fun, moves at a good pace and delivers the goods for horror lovers. And this is a top shelf, must have upgrade for fans of the film. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Orson Welles' The Trial (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

For me, The Trial is hands down Orson Welles' greatest film. Citizen Kane is certainly his best known, and Touch of Evil seems to be a bigger crowd pleaser; but for my money, The Trial is his greatest work. To be certain, a lot of the reason for that is simply because it's built on the writing of Franz Kafka. But Welles vibrant style is a perfect match for the material. One only has to watch the 1993 remake, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Anthony Hopkins, Jason Robards and Alfred Molina, which was rather good itself, to see how much Welles brought to the material and elevated it. Hell, just Welles' introductory monologue, which has been cut from several DVD editions of this film, works on a level higher than the remake manages to reach.

Update 3/18/17: Added Alpha's DVD edition to the mix, which really shows the range of quality this film's been shown in.
Anthony Perkins is perfect as the multifaceted everyman who's woken up in his bedroom by mysterious, gruff officers who interrogate him and tell him he's under arrest but allowed to continue going to work. Perkins remains relatable without even being perfectly likeable as he continually grasps out for some sliver of control or stability as the world around him transforms into a paranoid, bureaucratic nightmare. This film is evocatively photographed, with tone, atmosphere, lighting and space changing mid-shot, shot in huge and claustrophobic locations in both Paris and Yugoslavia. Kafka's writing is the kind that stays with you forever, and Welles marries that with images that stick with you just as long.

The Trial has had a bit of a storied past with its DVD releases. As I mentioned, some versions have been cut. And a few different but not terribly impressive stabs were taken at the transfer. For the most part, you weren't going to do much better than Image's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD from 2000, except it's long out of print and has wound up getting pretty costly. The French import seemed to be slightly better, but for most fans, it was a matter of dealing with even worse fullscreen junkers, like the 2003 DVD from Alpha, while waiting for the eventual blu-ray. And finally, that happened in 2012, when Studio Canal (who'd also released that French DVD I Just mentioned in 2003), released it as a special edition in France, Germany and the UK. I've got the UK blu as well as the original Image DVD, so let's have a look at them both now.
Image DVD on top; Alpha DVD middle; Studio Canal blu-ray on bottom.
The Image and Studio Canal framings are practically identical here (the blu-ray is a micro-smidgen zoomed in), both at the OAR of 1.66:1, with the blu slightly pillarboxed and the DVD windowboxed, as it's unfortunately non-anamorphic. But the Alpha is fullscreen, and evenly overly skinny at 1.28:1, cutting off the sides something fierce. It's also got a serious interlacing problem that the Image disc doesn't have.  There's no question that the blu is overall superior, looking cleaner and more defined. The blu is definitely more contrasty, a bit brighter with decidedly whiter whites, whereas the Image DVD looks muddier, although you might at first say that the lower contrast is more subtle or natural.  Of course, the Alpha is the muddiest of all, with very little dynamic range.  Here, let's get that crap out of the way and let you look at the Image and Studio Canal against each other.
Image DVD on top; Studio Canal blu-ray on bottom.
But as you can see above, even with the lower contrast, it's still the DVD that loses more detail to black crush. Look at Perkins in the lower right side of the second image above. He's a floating torso on the DVD, but you can easily make out his legs and the wall over his right shoulder (his right, our left) behind him. In motion, the blu looks even more vivid, and also doesn't have those patches of purple and green color distortion visible throughout the Image disc. And the blu includes lossless audio, so it's clearly a big all-around upgrade.
Almost all of the extras appear on this blu-ray disc two or three times over. In other words, if you choose to watch, say, the the first documentary after having chosen the United Kingdom's English language menu (Studio Canal provides full language options for England, France and Germany), you'll see one version of the documentary with the English title card. If you choose it from France's menu, you'll get an entirely separate encode even though the documentary is entirely the same, except for the language of the opening title card. That's true of all the extras on here, even the cheesy Studio Canal "sizzle" commercial that plays as soon as you load the disc. There's actually three encodes of that commercial on here. Not that I imagine the film is hurting for space; it is a dual-layer disc.

And just what are all these extras? Yes, let's dig in, because Studio Canal has a great selection that would be worth buying even if the film itself wasn't part of the package. We can start with the 'making of' documentary, which is 30 minutes long and features interviews with the film's DoP Edmond Richard and Welles' assistant director Sophie Becker, who are full of first-hand memories of making the film and traveling with Welles. It's rounded out by a literature professor to address the Kafka side of things, and filmmaker Andre S. Labarthe (admittedly the first time I've heard of him) to talk about the film's style.
Richard returns in a separate interview piece which focuses more on the technical side of making the picture and adding some more anecdotes he missed in the first doc. There's then a great British television episode of a 60s series called Tempo which interviews Welles and takes a retrospective look at his career. It gets into some interesting areas, and Welles is very open and forthcoming. Then there's an interview with Steven Berkoff, who's a bit of a Kafka historian, who gives a lot more information on the original novel and how the film represents it. Finally, there's the theatrical trailer, a 20 page booklet and the film's deleted scene, which has been floating around online, but never properly preserved on disc. I believe the old French DVD may've shown a clip of it, but without any of the words. See, the audio for the deleted scenes has been lost (although you hear a brief clip of it in the trailer), but for this blu-ray, they've used Welles' script to add complete subtitles, so we can finally understand everything the characters are saying.

The only thing that the Image DVD had that the blu doesn't is the alternate opening made for US television (The Alpha DVD has nothing but the trailer). This isn't as much as a loss as it sounds, however, as no original footage was shot for this opening. It's just a narrator introducing the cast and plot over stills from the film. Curiously, he tells us the whole story right up to and including the very ending moment - wow, spoilers! - before bidding us to watch the film. It would've been nice to have this on the blu has just another little bonus for completists, but it's really not important.
I should also point out that, for those interested, this blu is very robust with language options, including optional English, French and German subtitles and French and German dubs (along with the original English audio, of course). Unlike the DVD, this disc was clearly taken from a French print, as it has the Le Proces title card and completely different French credits at the beginning and end of the film. The opening credits scroll in the American version and fade in and out on the French version. But it stands out even more at the end, where Orson Welles reads the credits aloud over a still frame in the American version. He still reads them out loud in the French version, but now the names also appear in text on screen... and, distractingly, not in the order that Welles reads them in. Anyway. that's not a complaint (even though Welles was of course American, he was well into the stage of his career where he was making his movies in Europe, so the French titles could be said to be the original credits), just a little anecdote.

Simply put, this is the best, definitive release of The Trial in all regards. Superior transfer, superior audio, a strong collection of extras, better language options, and of course it's in HD. Could another company come along and take second, even better stab at this in the US? Sure, in fact, Kino was rumored to release a blu of this in 2013. But it's been a long time since we've heard any word of that, and there's every chance it would wind up being the same transfer anyway. So you can keep holding out if you want to, but what we've got here is pretty great.

Blue Underground's Hell of the Living Dead (Sound Issues and DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Anchor Bay originally released Bruno Mattei's Hell Of the Living Dead and Rats as two separate releases in 2002, and then reissued them as a double feature in 2003. Blue Underground than acquired them and put both titles out individually again, under their own banner, in 2007. Always with the same transfers and extras. But finally in 2014, Blue Underground has released them, again together as a double-bill, on blu-ray with all new transfers and features.
I was always been amused by both, but Hell of the Living Dead was the film I'd been a fan of since owning the old VHS release under the title Night Of the Living Dead in the 80s. It's an Italian zombie film that fully delivers on everything you wanted from those films, an at the same time is totally bonkers. And unlike most knock-offs and retreads, it's quite ambitious in its scope. This isn't four teenagers in a cabin beset by zombies; our cast travels practically half the globe, having adventures in the jungle, high rises, power plants, suburban homes and abandoned missionaries. It's got a huge cast, bolstered out even further by a generous helping of stock footage, which is creatively integrated into the film, even if its effectiveness is uneven. And it was pretty damn impressive to see Dario Argento's infamous scorers Goblin had done the soundtrack to this film... until I grew to realize it was just their previous work carried over from previous films, mainly (entirely?) Dawn Of the Dead.
I did see Rats back in the day, too; but remembered it mostly as a pretty average horror film that was basically 90 minutes of generic build up for an admittedly pretty great ending. But that was never enough to compel me to pick up any of the DVD releases, especially since Hell and Rats shared the same Bruno Mattei interview on both discs anyway. So I picked up the very first Hell disc and then just sat it all out from the outside, until I found out Blue Underground was creating an all new documentary on the making of Hell Of the Living Dead, compelling me to upgrade to the blu-ray. But I have to say, having gotten it now as part of the package with the Hell upgrade, the film has grown in my estimation, and I've grown to appreciate the silly, colorful comic book tone Mattei applied to both films.

Now, I just called this blu-ray an upgrade, but is it really? There's been a little bit of controversy about that.(and there'd probably be even more if word had gotten out more), so let's take a look.
Blue Underground's 2014 blu-ray on top; Anchor Bay's 2002 DVD on the bottom.
Well, okay, the framing is almost identical (in the top shot, you'll notice the AB disc has a little more info on the bottom and the BU has the same amount on top), both slightly letterboxed to the proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio. But the blu-ray certainly benefits from the HD treatment. The colors are pretty different, though, looking a lot colder and more muted on the blu. Margit Newton looks a completely different color on the blu-ray than she did on the DVD.

But that's not even what this disc's controversy is about. What you don't see in those screenshots is the sound, or the film's running time. So is this new blu-ray cut? No, not really... but technically yes. No scenes have been removed or graphic imagery censored, but their have been micro trims to a LOT of scenes. Basically frames have been removed regularly, throughout the film (only Hell; it's not on Rats), between shots. Essentially, it's the exact same problem that plagued Shriek Show's infamous Burial Ground blu-ray. And as with Burial Ground, the problem is not on the older DVDs, just the newer blus. To be fair, you don't generally notice it in most cases... In fact, I don't think I could even find all the instances without ripping both discs and syncing them up in a program like Final Cut to find the moments where the they go out of sync. But when the cuts happen during music, you do hear it. You don't hear pops or drop outs, because the shots have been buttressed up against each other, but the score skips notes. And it always happens as the video shot switches, which makes it seem like Mattei was some kind of amateur who couldn't edit the audio and video on separate tracks... it's the kind of error you find in student films. Except in this case, it's not a problem with the original film, only this new blu-ray.

So I contacted BU back when a forum member on blu-ray.com first pointed this out and another member followed up by uploading comparison footage, and here's what they said:

"We became aware of the issue with HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD after the Blu-ray was released. We brought it to the attention of the Italian licensor who supplied the new HD master to us. They informed us that there was damage at several of the cement splices in the original negative, necessitating that they remove one frame on each side of the cut so that there wouldn’t be noticeable frame damage or picture jumps during those cuts. Please keep in mind that this is a 30+ year old, extremely low budget film. We're confident they did the transfer as best they could with what they had to work with. Hopefully this does not impede in your enjoyment of the film. We believe that the positives of this new HD transfer far outweigh any negatives. As there is no way to fix the damage to the negative, we are not able to issue replacement discs."

Personally, I can think of ways to fix the problems digitally, if not perfectly, at least enough to salve the irritation almost entirely. But it would take a lot of work and expense (if they were going to replace all the discs) for BU to attempt any of that for what, now that I've sat and watched the blu-ray properly (as opposed to earlier, where I was specifically going through the film, searching for the flaws that had been reported), a not too noticeable problem. First of all, unless you're really searching for the problem, you won't notice it when the score isn't playing, which is most of the time. And even when it is, sometimes the cuts happen as the music is on a horn blare or beat that disguises the cut. I'd say there's only a handful of times where you'll be just watching the film and go, "hey, what just happened?" And of course it always passes super quickly. So... it's annoying, I wish it wasn't there, but it's not time to grab the pitchforks and torches and march on BU. This disc just doesn't rate 5 stars in the audio department is all.

And I think BU is right about the positives of the HD outweighing the negatives. Let's look at another comparison shot.
Blue Underground's 2014 blu-ray on top; Anchor Bay's 2002 DVD on the bottom.
Blue Underground's 2014 blu-ray on the left; Anchor Bay's 2002 DVD on the right.
I'll be honest, I'm on the fence about the colors; but there's no question this picture is a lot clearer on the blu. Look at how soft and smeary those faces are on the DVD. Heck, look at the leaves over his shoulder for an even bigger distinction. Maybe on a smaller TV, you might for the unbroken audio if you preferred the warmer colors, roo. But on a big screen, you've gotta go with the blu.
And Rats looks pretty great, too. I don't have the DVD to compare it to, but the image here looks great. Once again, it's been slightly letterboxed to 1.85, and it's a very attractive watch that's probably part of what helped me come appreciate the film more this time around.

But like I said, the biggest selling point for me to upgrade from my DVD was actually the special features. First of all, the original Bruno Mattei interview, which has been on every release of both Rats and Hell on both Anchor Bay and Blue Underground has been carried over here, too. And that's great, because it was a n upbeat yet very forthcoming chat. There's also trailers and galleries for both films, that have been with us since the earliest release. Some of the trailers are worth checking out, though, since you get to see the films marketed with different titles like Virus and Blood Kill. The DVD did have a unique insert, which included an interview between Fangoria's Michael Gingold and filmmaker Scooter McCrae; but I'm really not at all sorry to see their "Shatter Dead is a much better film than Hell of the Living Dead" trash talking fest go.

But then there's a new, 50+ minute documentary film called Bonded By Blood, which really focuses on Claudio Fragasso and his involvement. He's as forthcoming and engaging as Mattei was, but with an extra sense of humor, talking us through Hell Of the Living Dead, his marriage (his wife is also his collaborator who cowrote most of his films) and touching on the rest of his and Mattei's careers. Margot Newton and Franco Garofalo are also interviewed to share their side of things. And at first it seems like it's going to be all about Hell, but then we travel to the studio where they shot Rats and Fragasso talks to us on the old sets, along with stars Ottaviano Dell'Acqua and Massimo Vanni.
To be honest, I would've bought this blu-ray if Bonded By Blood was the only thing on it. The HD upgrade and the double-bill with Rats could just be like fantastic bonuses. And visually, this is a really top tier blu-ray release from BU, who after all had a few little problems with some of their earlier Italian blus. I suppose they've had a little problem with this Italian blu, too; but it's of a totally different nature. And while it is a flaw, it's not nearly enough for me to turn people away from this sweet little package.