There has been something of a debate raging in the internet pipes of late surrounding Blue Underground’s BD versions of a number of cult Italian movies, notably the recent releases of Sergio Corbucci’s western DJANGO and Lucio Fulci’s zombie horror movie CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. The point of contention is grain… or rather, what at first glance APPEARS TO BE grain.

You may remember, back when I received my first Blue Underground BD, THE STENDHAL SYNDROME, I was slightly perplexed by the grain present in the image, chiefly its harshness. At times, it looked less like film grain and more like video noise. My initial inclination was that it had been artificially sharpened, but on the whole I was fairly impressed by the image quality. Subsequent Blue Underground BDs, while generally still featuring fairly pronounced grain, looked much less suspect, and I was generally extremely pleased with the look of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE NEW YORK RIPPER and (especially) TWO EVIL EYES. One of this site’s regular readers, Christopher D. Jacobson, even contacted Blue Underground to inquire directly as to the seemingly artificial grain in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME and was told unequivocally by them that

The extra grain you are seeing is normal for a High Definition transfer of an older film, […] present in the original photography of the film, as well as the High Definition transfer which was made in 2007 from the original Italian 35mm Interpositive.

As a result, I gave it no further thought…

…until I began hearing decidedly mixed reports about the recent releases of DJANGO and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, particularly the latter. Film restoration expert Robert A. Harris described it in positively glowing terms. It looked, he said, “like film.” Soon afterwords, he has similarly kind words to say about DJANGO. It “now has a new life on Blu-ray,” he declared.

Others had less positive things to say, however. In the same thread, Torsten Kaiser of Berlin-based film restoration house TLEFilms, and a man whose opinions have a great deal of respect for, asked Mr. Harris to confirm the presence of “maze patterns and the artificial sharpening / coring” on DJANGO. At around the same time, AV Science Forum member BsRoz raised objections about the look of both films on BD, stating that there was “clearly something very wrong with the image quality” and going on to posit that

It looks to be a combination of DNR gone wrong, combined with incredible amounts of sharpening and colour boosting. Blacks are riddled with noise and grain freezes from time to time, almost shaping a honeycomb pattern. There’s quite a bit of smearing and artifacting going on in CotLD. Detail in Django is preserved, but waxy faces tend to show up.

A little later, another AVS Forum member, Matt Stevens, had this to say:

OK, I just talked to some people here in NYC who do this for a living and their opinion is that Django was DNR’d of grain, then given fake grain, added via computer. They even showed me the algorithm for grain that looked exactly the same.

I was planning on picking up both these discs anyway (despite not being a huge fan of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD - I prefer Fulci’s gialli to his zombie movies any day), but news of this controversy caused me to go ahead and order them a little sooner than I otherwise would have. I’ve now taken a good look at both of them and, while I haven’t watched them from beginning to end yet and am therefore not willing to do a full-on BD Impressions piece just yet, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

Django

Click image above to enlarge to full size.

DJANGO

This one looks harsh, no doubt about it. It features what is probably the heaviest grain I’ve ever seen on a BD (DJANGO was shot on 35mm, but I can think of very few 16mm productions that come close to matching it in terms of grain intensity), and I’d be lying if I say it looked entirely convincing. The biggest issue for me is how sharp it looks. The film as a whole has a decent amount of detail, but the grain is crisper than the underlying image, creating a very odd look whereby the grain appears to “float” in front of the image rather than actually BEING the image… if that makes any sense. It’s not an unpleasant-looking image on the whole, but there’s something very artificial about it, and I would be prepared to buy into the theory that the image was scrubbed of grain and then regrained.

City of the Living Dead

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CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD

Ugh. This one looks pretty nasty. I showed it to my brother, an independent DVD/BD author and compressionist, and he very quickly concluded that it looked very much like the whole thing had been completely blasted with NR, scrubbing the grain entirely, and with some sort of electronically generated noise being added on top of it. There’s just no detail or texture whatsoever: all that’s left is a soft, waxy image with incredibly harsh digital noise dancing around on top of it. It doesn’t look remotely film-like, whatever Robert Harris may say. And in case anyone thinks the UK release by Arrow Films looks any better, it doesn’t: it’s just the same synthetic image with the added drawback of featuring significantly worse compression of the heavy grain/noise.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I don’t wish to state with any degree of certainty what happened here. I wasn’t there, I didn’t have any part in it, and while I like to think that I have a keen visual eye, I’m not an expert on film restoration. I can only state WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE TO ME, and what it looks like is something very suspect. It’s worth pointing out, though, that - assuming the grain Is synthetic (and that’s still a big assumption) - these image quality issues are not necessarily Blue Underground’s fault. Any independent label licensing films owned by other parties is going to be obliged to work with the materials they’re given, and these are not always of the best quality. In the case of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, it could well be that Blue Underground were simply handed a heavily DNR’d master of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and chose to attempt to reconstruct the grain rather than simply releasing it as a waxy, digital-looking mess. (There’s a truly horrendous-looking Italian DVD doing the rounds, taken from a “new digital transfer from the original Italian negative”, and the same master could potentially have been the original source for the BU release.) It does happen.

When my brother worked on the highly praised US DVD release of Andrzej Zulawski’s L’IMPORTANT C’EST D’AIMER from Mondo Vision, the opening credits were in a dreadful state and he ultimately decided to blast them with DNR and then recreate the grain digitally (sampling it from elsewhere in the movie). To the best of my knowledge, no-one has noticed. The point is, it can be done, and it can be done well. It just wasn’t done at all well for CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. DJANGO looks considerably better in my estimation, but I would still very much like to know the story behind these transfers. If it turns out that this is simply how these films look and have always look, then I will happily retract any criticisms. For now, though, I’m just not convinced that what I’m seeing is natural.


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