There's a New Dr. Butcher In Town: Zombie Holocaust (US/ UK, DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Update 8/2/15 - 7/19/16: There's a new Butcher in town! Severin has just released their 2-disc blu-ray set of Zombi Holocaust, including both versions of the film: the Italian original and the US Dr. Butcher M.D. version. They've also got a bunch of new special features. But how does this new blu compare to 88 Films' HD restoration from last year? Is it better, worse, or are they totally indistinguishable? Let's find out.

The rewards of 88 Films' indiegogo campaign have come in... the Zombie Holocaust restoration is here! [Update: 3/6/16: Burial Ground has just arrived, too.] Everyone who supported should have their blus by now, and they're available commercially for the rest of the world. Now it's time to crack these suckers open and see what we've got!
Zombie Holocaust, of course, is the over-the-top 1980 Italian horror flick that had the crowd-pleasing idea to combine the infamous cannibal and zombie subgenres into one nutty film. It also features Donald O'Brien as a mad scientist, hence the American title Dr. Butcher, M.D. Like Umberto Lenzi's Eaten Alive, this one starts out with a little bloody mayhem in a New York City hospital compelling our investigative leads, including star Ian McCulloch, to venture off into the jungles of the East Indies. Only this time they don't just fall into the path of a lethal cannibal tribe, but zombies as well! It all comes to an exciting climax on the set of Lucio Fulci's Zombie, because this film has three tent poles: thrills, exploitation and saving money. I mean, you saw the movie's title, right? So it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect, and whether that's terrible or glorious is all up to you.
a scene only featured in the Dr. Butcher M.D. version
Now, amongst other things, Severin's new set introduces the alternate, US version of the film Dr. Butcher M.D. to the table, which I don't think has been released on home video since the original VHS tape (which I used to own, back in the days). But are these two cuts significantly unique that it's worth getting both versions - what's the difference between them? Well, primarily, Dr. Butcher features some new, introductory footage shot in the US by Roy Frumkes (director of Document of the Dead). He intercuts that with some footage from much later in the movie, to try to establish the whole "mad doctor is making zombies" story-line right from the very beginning. But even with all this extra footage, Dr. Butcher is almost ten minutes shorter, trimming a lot out. Dr. Butcher also has an entirely different all-synth score, although famously, you can still sometimes hear the original soundtrack playing underneath it. Finally, Dr. Butcher includes the scene where Alexandra Delli Colli falls into a pit, and Ian helps her out, which has long been included on discs of Zombi Holocaust as a deleted scene. Interestingly, Severin has also reinstated that scene into the original Zombi Holocaust version of the film.

So yes, we now have two restored Zombie Holocaust blu-rays available now: 88 Films' 2015 release in the UK, and Severin's brand new 2016 release in the USA. 88's transfer had a lot of people looking at a lot of screencaps online, and now that it's got some HD competition, things are getting even more interesting. Well, I've of course got a few .png's of my own, and I've also got Shriek Show's DVD 2002 DVD here, so we can have a look and hopefully make some informed judgements.
Shriek Show's DVD first; 88 FIlm's blu second; Severin's Dr. Butcher third; Severin's ZH fourth.
So let's start by comparing 88 to the Shriek Show DVD. The slightly letterboxed 1.85:1 framing is virtually identical; both editions are in their 100% proper OAR. 88 Film's is a little bit brighter, but there's not exactly a wealth more detail and clarity. Especially since I'm comparing SD to HD. Film grain is much more accurate on the blu, of course, as it's smudgy and compressed on the DVD. There was a Shriek Show blu-ray in 2011, though, that already took care of that. 88's transfer is a fresh scan of the original negative, which is the best you can ask of any DVD label, and they've color graded and cleaned up dirt without messing up the grain. So while it comes off as just a subtle upgrade, I daresay the film can't really get too much better than this. That's all the detail there is to recover. And at least they don't have that awful interlacing issue the Shriek Show DVD had (see the second set of shots). Ey yey yey.

Now, fans holding out hope that the heavy grain factor of 88's blu would be cleaned up in Severin's will be disappointed. That's just how the film look, and the grain is as bountiful and frenetic as ever. I put both versions of the film from Severin's set into the film, but they're clearly using the same transfer of the same elements, and just cutting in the different extra bits. One of the key distinctions, though, is the aspect ratio. Unlike the previous releases, Severin's discs are in 1.78:1, giving us a little more vertical information along the top and bottom. 1.85 is probably the truer, more "correct" theatrical ratio, though, so that's a decision you guys will have to make for yourselves. The bigger difference between the new and old blu-ray is the color timing. Severin have re-time the color completely, and I have to say, their version does look the best and most natural. Skies look blue instead of green, etc. None of these blus feature any more detail or clarity really than the other. They're different scans, because you can see Severin's copy has flecks and damage in spots that 88's doesn't, but it's all completely minor. In future, Severin is the version of the film I'll watch, because I prefer the colors; but neither pulls far ahead, or lags much behind, the other.

Now, 88 had a nice advantage over Shriek Show's DVD and blu-ray, in that both Shriek Show editions only feature the US dub and no subtitle options. 88 has both the English and Italian audio tracks (in DTS-HD 2.0) and English subtitles, so you can watch it either way. Severin, meanwhile, has the English DTS-HD 2.0 and Italian in LPCM 2.0 on the Zombie Holocaust cut, and DTS-HD and LPCM options for the English on the Dr. Butcher cut. But here's the thing: no subtitles on either version! That's right, Severin has no English subtitles when you play the Italian version of Zombie Holocaust. Say what? Hope you speak Italian, I guess. So I said I'll be watching the Severin disc from now on, but obviously that's only if I want to watch the English version, otherwise it's back to 88.
Now let's talk extras! 88 Film's only has a couple, but they're pretty major. First up is a feature length documentary on Italian cannibal films (also included on Grindhouse's recent Cannibal Ferox blu). And this isn't one of those things where they let one or two "cult film extras" pontificate for the entire time; this interviews the biggest cannibal directors: Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi and Sergio Martino. There are cannibal film stars like Robert Kerman, Antonio Climati, and the delightfully controversial Giovanni Radice. There's Zombie Holocaust's distributor Terry Levine, and there are modern filmmakers like Joe Dante, Frank Henenlotter, Luigi Cozzi and of course Eli Roth. And yeah, the experts are on hand, too; most notably including Kim Newman. This is definitely not the kind of "extra" one skips; they break down each major cannibal movie film by film (though personally I would've included Deodato's Cut & Run, too, even if technically none of the natives quite managed to take a bite out of anybody) and discuss all the signature elements of the genre.

Their other main extra is a Q&A with Ian McCulloch. That's kind of light for being the only Zombie Holocaust-specific feature on here, but it does run about 50 minutes, so it's pretty substantial. The other extras are the deleted scene that's been on past Zombie Holocaust editions, and the trailer. The booklet's pretty cool... even if you're the type to usually forgo reading the books, this one has an interview with McCulloch, so you might want to check that out - that is if there's anything left to be said after the 50 minute Q&A. Oh, and as you can see up top, 88 has also included some cool, reversible cover art.
Unfortunately 88 didn't or couldn't get Shriek Show's extras. Shriek Show (on both their DVD and blu) had some interesting coverage of the whole Doctor Butcher M.D. thing. Shriek Show included that footage as an extra, as well as interviewing its director, Roy Frumkes. They also had a Doctor Butcher trailer and Frumkes' personal photo gallery. Still, if you didn't grow up with the old Doctor Butcher VHS tapes like I did, that Frumkes stuff may of less interest to you anyway. And apart from that stuff, plus the regular trailer and that deleted scene, Shriek Show I guess just had the one notable extra: an interview with special effects expert Maurizio Trani. That was pretty good, and Shriek Show also had a pretty neat fold-out insert with some fairly extensive notes.
Thankfully, Severin did get Shriek Show's extras, you can finally let go of your copies of those. All of that's been ported over, and they've also added a whole ton more stuff. There is a lengthy, 31+ minute interview with Terry Levine, a featurette with Frumkes talking about 42nd St, an interview with the guy who drove a "Butcher Mobile" van around the city to promote the movie back in the day (this one's pretty fun!), an interview with Jim Markovic, the editor who recut the Dr. Butcher version, plus several trailers. And that's just the first disc! Onto disc two, there's a new interview with Ian McCulloch. I think we might've finished mining the depths with him considering the mass amount of interviews we've seen of him on Italian horror DVDs, but it would be disappointing if he wasn't on here. There are also interviews with effects artist Rosario Pretopino, Enzo Castellari (son of director Mario Girolami), and actress Sherry Buchanan. There's also a short but fun featurette looking at shooting locations of the film (I'm a sucker for these), more trailers, and a clip of McCulloch singing a song for us. And in lieu of a typical insert or booklet, Severin includes a charming Dr. Butcher M.D. vomit bag [right].
So it may not look as amazing as we'd hoped for when 88 first put up their indiegogo, but these are the best looking editions we're going to get, even if it's not by such a wide margin. Both versions of the blu have their advantages: Severin their color and having the Dr. Butcher edit, but only 88 has subtitles for their Italian audio. And both having compelling extras... Severin has the most directly about the film, but 88's feature-length documentary on cannibal films is nothing to sneeze at (unless you've already got it on the Ferox blu, then go ahead and sneeze). If I never had any release before, and had to pick one version to own right now, I'd go with the Severin. But if you already have one of the other discs (yes, even the Shriek Show blu), it may not be worth double-dipping unless you just want to collect all the extras. But if you are getting everything for all the extras, remember, Severin has made Shriek Show redundant, so you can skip that release.

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