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.

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