Compiling the Ultimate Day Of the Dead (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

For many years, Day Of the Dead was the under-appreciated, unloved entry in George Romero's epic "Dead Trilogy."  It was the dumb, trashy 80s film that followed two horror masterpieces that each had dramatically revolutionized the genre.  And okay, Day didn't have the formative impact its predecessors had; but over the decades, its reputation has grown and solidified as, if nothing else, one of the great zombie films.  And accordingly, it's received a series of compelling special editions, on both DVD and blu, here and abroad.  Very different special editions, in fact, with all sorts of unique quirks, faults and special features.  I'd actually been holding off getting any version of Day on blu, in fact, in a sort of "which is the right one to buy" paralysis.  But now that I'm the DVDExotica guy, I figured that's no longer acceptable, so I had to work it all out.
I've always dug this film, but I get why others haven't.  It's got big performances and heavy-handed characterizations, it's a lot less scary, particularly with its eccentric, calypso-inspired upbeat soundtrack (I mean, come on, Dawn had Goblin!), and it doesn't help that all the fans know Romero's original concept for the film had to be greatly scaled back from his original vision, including half the action taking place on an above-ground army base with an army of trained zombies and what would eventually become Land Of the Dead's centerpiece: Dead Reckoning. 
On the other hand, this film gets so much right.  The characters might be overdrawn, intentionally or not, but Joseph Pilato's Captain Rhodes, John Liberty's cheerfully demented turn as "Frankenstein" and of course Bub are all characters that forever stick with you.  It's got one of the all-time great locations.  And Day is the film where Tom Savini, assisted by a young Greg Nicotero brought just not top of the line gore, but elevated the zombies themselves from extras slopped in grease paint into jaw-dropping special effect show-pieces.  Practically all of the peaks and valleys that would become The Walking Dead can be found in this film, even the way the zombies wind up getting side-lined by the in-fighting of the survivors.  But even within the short run of a single movie, Romero takes the story farther with his idea of evolving zombie intelligence and views of the outer world at large, than TWD has in all of its seasons to date.
So, Day of the Dead was naturally in the hands of pretty much the #1 horror and cult DVD label during the 1990s and early 2000s, Anchor Bay.  They first released it in 1998 as a widescreen, but non-anamorphic single disc edition in 1998.  I've actually still got that one.  Then they reissued it in 2003 as a proper, anamorphic, 2-disc Divimax special edition.  I've got that one, too.  They also repackaged that as a cheaper, single disc edition without the fancy packaging in 2004.  But really, that 2003 DVD's been king until the age of HD.  Then, things get a little tricky.  Anchor Bay released a very early blu-ray edition of it in 2007, then Arrow put it out in the UK as a DVD/ blu-ray combo-pack in 2010 with all new special features.  Then they reissued it as a limited edition, 3-disc set in 2012 with even more special features.  They also put out a steelbook in 2014, but unfortunately without that third disc.  And back here in the States, Scream Factory picked it up for their own edition, with more unique special features, in 2013.  All of these blus have stuff on them that the others don't... and that includes technical problems.  This isn't gonna be a quick and easy comparison, so let's not waste any more time.
1) Anchor Bay 1998 DVD 2) Anchor Bay 2003 DVD 3) Arrow 2012 DVD
4) Arrow 2012 blu-ray 5) Scream Factory 2013 blu-ray
So the first set of shots shows exactly why the original DVD is hopelessly out of date.  It's a tiny, little 1.80:1 non-anamorphic image.  That alone is reason enough to replace it, which Anchor Bay did themselves, giving it a fresher, now thankfully anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer on their newer DVD.  The older DVD also had washed out colors, hot brights, artifacting, and all the obvious stuff you can expect from an old 90s DVD.  I won't waste anymore time harping on that; the pictures speak for themselves and the situation is already obvious.  Interesting, though, that Anchor Bay is the last we see of the traditional 1.85 framing.  Arrow and Scream Factory both opt for a 1.78:1 frame (though Arrow's DVD is a little rough around the edges and could be maybe considered 1.79:1).  It's never a massive boost in detail and clarity from the DVDs, but the difference is there.  You can actually read the numbers on the yellow sticker of that car on the blus, which you certainly can't on the original DVD.

And between the blus?  Well, there's room for improvement on both, but Arrow has a real smoothed out, DNR'd look.  Scream Factory isn't exactly a microscopically perfect 4k scan of every inch of grain, but it's more natural and filmic than Arrow's.  It also has richer colors.  Also, while both are in 1.78, the framing is shifted slightly.  But they're close enough that it's hard to guess which one is more correct or to say that one looks better.  They just offer slightly different slivers around the edges.  But in general, yeah, I doubt many would contest Scream's win in terms of PQ.  Everything's pretty natural and straight-forward so far.
But hey, that old 1998 DVD did get something right - the audio!  Now, it just gives us the original mono audio track in 2.0 (and no subtitles, for the record).  But having that original mono audio is going to prove important here.  But problems were introduced with the new 2003 edition, problems that would plague this film for years to come.  And this is ironic, considering we're talking about Anchor Bay's special Divimax edition, where their fancy new audio was a big part of their marketing.  They included three audio tracks: Dolby Digital Surround EX (a 5.1 mix), DTS-ES (a 6.1 mix) and Dolby Surround 2.0.  Oh, and now with English captions.  Just one problem with all three of those audio tracks - they're censored!  Lines with curse words, or even phrases like "oh, Jesus" as the scientists watch Bub eat human flesh st the 1:11:40 mark, are muted.

Now, I can't take credit for being the first to spot this problem; it's been written about plenty online.  This page on istherefood.com does a great job of finding specific instances and including audio clips of both the censored and uncensored versions; I definitely recommend pouring through that.  So I'm just going to focus on which tracks on which discs are censored or uncensored.  And so far, the answer is 1998 uncensored, and all the tracks AB's 2003 DVD are censored.  Now that page I linked writes about Arrow's audio being still censored.  But that article is from 2006, so thankfully he's talking about an older DVD set they released that year.  Checking Arrow's blu-ray, which offers both the original mono in 2.0 and a 5.1 mix in DTS-HD (but unfortunately, no subs), I'm happy to report that both tracks are uncensored.  And Scream Factory, which just offers the original mono in DTS-HD (and yes, subtitles)?  Also uncensored.
But we haven't even gotten to the most complicated part of the comparison yet: the extras.  It starts out simple enough.  The original DVD had a 20 minute collection of behind-the-scenes footage, the trailer, and an insert.  Curiously, it was a double-sided disc, with the film on one side and the brief extras on the other.  Anyway, the 2003 DVD really ramped it up, with fancy packaging of a 3-dimensional zombie acting as a little velcro gateway to the foldout case (protected in a clear plastic shell), and a neat booklet designed to look like Dr. Frankenstein's notepad.  They actually lost the original behind-the-scenes footage, though, replacing it with a new, longer behind-the-scenes footage featurette.  They're very different, though.  The original was apparently shot by Nicotero and interviews a lot of the crew and interns, while the latter was shot by Savini and focuses largely on the development of the special effects.  There's no overlap between them and they're both quite good and worthwhile.

Anyway, Anchor Bay's DVD also added a lot more, including an excellent audio commentary by Romero, Savini, star Lori Cardille, and production designer Cletus Anderson, plus another commentary by Roger Avery (Rules of Attraction, Pulp Fiction).  The second commentary is somewhat interesting, but runs out of steam about halfway through.  They also have a solid 'making of' documentary that runs about 40 minutes with a lot of interviews, an audio-only interview with the deceased Richard Liberty (the actor who played Frankenstein), and a fun promo video for the mines the film was shot in.  Also included are stills galleries, three trailers, three TV spots, and the original script as a DVD-ROM bonus.  The Anchor Bay blu-ray, for the record, has exactly the same extras as this 2-disc set.
Which brings us to Arrow.  Interestingly, Arrow's 2010 blu-ray featured all new extras, but none of the old ones.  These were all made by Highrising Pictures, during Calum Waddell's time with Arrow, and they're all pretty good (and yes, feature those cute animations by his wife).  There's an all new audio commentary by Nicotero and fellow effects artists Howard Berger, Everett Burrell and Mike Deak, which starts out really fun and informative, but like the Avery commentary, starts to run low on material in the second half.  Then there's a nearly hour-long interview with Joe Pilato, which goes quite in depth, and another seventeen minute "travelogue" of footage of Joe at various European conventions.  All great stuff, but by itself, pretty light.  Like, most of the major players aren't included.

And that's why they re-released it as a 3-disc set.  Now the original DVD and blu from the combo-pack are exactly the same, but they've added a third disc of extras, which basically restores most of the Anchor Bay special features.  Their 'making of,' the Liberty interview, the Nicotero behind-the-scenes footage (but not the Savini one!), even the mine promo.  Also this disc has all the trailers, TV spots and stills galleries.  Arrow's set also includes a 16-page booklet by Waddell, a card for a different Arrow release (mine was Withnail and I), and reversible artwork.
And Scream Factory?  It's another weird hodge-podge of old and new extras.  They have the two Anchor Bay audio commentaries (but not Arrow's), Savini's behind-the-scenes footage (but not Nicotero's!), the mine promo, and the trailers and galleries.  But they also have an all new, feature length 'making of' documentary.  This is better than the AB one, covering a lot of the same material but a lot more besides (though it has to be noted that the original AB one has some exclusive interviews, too, like Romero's wife).  And Scream also made a new featurette visiting the mine location (not to be confused with the promo video), which is kinda cool and a little bit weird, honestly.  Scream's release also includes reversible artwork.
So let's say you want all the extras.  Admittedly, some of it gets redundant (you'll hear the story about the guts used for the zombie attack scene going rancid about sixteen times), but each release has a lot of strong, exclusive stuff.  Well, if you can track down Arrow's 3-disc set, all you need is that and the Scream Factory.  Between those two, you'll have both companies' new content plus all of the Anchor Bay material.  But Arrow's 3-disc set was limited and out of print, so it'll take some digging.  Your only option using the regular, more readily available Arrow release is to buy all three blus: Arrow, Scream and Anchor Bay (or, at least, the Anchor Bay DVD set).

As far as the film itself, though, Scream is the easy choice.  Best video, uncensored original audio with subs.  Yeah, the mono has a little sibilance (on all the releases), but it's nowhere on the level of Black Christmas or anything.  Arrow does give you the uncensored 5.1 mix, but for me, I just want the original mono, not those revisionist remixes, and I'd rather have the subtitles.  So Scream Factory for the best presentation of the film, and add Arrow's 3-disc set (and, I mean, it's not that impossible to find) for the ultimate, full Day Of the Dead experience.

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