Digi-Schlock: DAY OF THE DEAD (Scream Factory Blu-Ray)

It’s kind of shocking when you realize that it has taken this long for an entry in George Romero’s beloved and influential “Dead Trilogy” to get the special edition treatment on blu-ray in the U.S.  Thankfully, Scream Factory has stepped up to do the honors for Day Of The Dead, the dark horse of the trilogy.  This film has come a long way towards getting the appreciation it deserves in recent years and this set offers a fitting tribute to the film in both transfer quality and extras.

A new HD transfer was done for this disc and the results do justice to this film: it’s a tricky title to transfer, including a lot of mine interiors shot with low light.  This transfer handles the challenges well, delivering nice rich black levels for those interiors as well as nice color reproduction and a high level of clarity in the details.  The mono audio is presented in a DTS track that sounds solid for a mix of this vintage.

Fans will be happy to know this disc includes some great new extras as well as some bonus material carried over from past editions.  For starters, the disc carries over the two commentary tracks originally recorded for Anchor Bay’s “Divimax” special edition DVD set.  The first track is a lively group affair that includes Romero, actor Lori Cardille, FX/stunt whiz Tom Savini and production designer Cletus Anderson.

It’s also as informative as it is lively because everyone involved brings something unique to the table: Cardille discusses the acting challenges and her fellow cast members, Savini offers plentiful insider detail on the effects sequences and stunts, Anderson discusses how he chose and dressed the locations and Romero supplies the why’s and wherefores of his filmmaking aesthetic while also engaging the other participants in a moderator’s role.  There’s a real camaraderie and warmth to the track that makes it a pleasure to listen to.

There is also a commentary by Roger Avary, the co-screenwriter of Pulp Fiction, who is also a Day Of The Dead fan.  This was controversial at the time it was recorded, as fan commentaries were a new thing, but it’s more interesting than it originally got credit for.  The track Avary provides isn’t a professional commentary nor is it designed to be. Instead, it offers an opinionated, passionate analysis whose value is enhanced by the fact that he is a working filmmaker.

Thus, he is able to provide director-minded appreciation for Romero’s framing choices and editing techniques and share stories about how he worked with Tom Savini on Killing Zoe.  He also offers some unique personal memories about his fandom for Romero’s zombie films.  The end result is a bit scattershot and  will probably be a “one listen only” proposition for most fans – but it’s got enough worthwhile info to make it worth giving that one listen to.

The centerpiece of the extras is The World’s End, an excellent 85-minute documentary on Day Of The Dead produced by Michael Felsher through his Red Shirt Pictures company.  Felsher has done several featurettes and documentaries on Romero’s work so he has a strong relationship with the director and his collaborators.  Thus, it’s no surprise that he managed to get Romero and virtually every major living cast and crew member who worked on Day Of The Dead to participate here.

The participants explore every aspect of the film and its history with just the right mix of fondness and honesty in The World’s End as Felsher and his editors sculpt their commentary into a colorful, tightly-paced chronicle.  We learn how the film began with Romero compromising on the scope of his storyline to maintain its integrity, the rigors of shooting such dark material in confined locations and the variety of unfortunate elements that caused the film’s initial release to be a disappointment.

That said, the documentary never becomes downbeat because everyone who worked on the film retains a fierce pride in their work and they reveal how it was achieved with great enthusiasm.  Every performance is explored in detail, the methods behind every Tom Savini effect are explored and there’s even a discussion of John Harrison’s controversial electronic-rock score.  Fans will treasure the great anecdotes, like Joe Pilato describing the torment of filming his character’s demise and Howard Sherman revealing how Romero’s collaborative nature allowed him to transform a bit part into one of horror cinema’s great sympathetic monsters.  It’s a joy to watch from start to finish for any Romero fan – and be sure to stick around for the end credits, which feature several cast members reciting their most famous lines in the film.

As with many Scream Factory discs for films featuring Tom Savini’s effects, a reel of behind the scenes footage from Savini included here.  It offers detailed looks into the challenges and labor involved in shooting several of the film’s big makeup effects setpieces.  Highlights include several actor-to-zombie transformations, the array of separate effects done to create the arm-amputation sequence, Greg Nicotero goofing around with his animatronic severed head and the FX techs catcalling Savini as he tries to toss a prop severed head into a perfect position within the frame.

Elsewhere, there are not one but two videos devoted to the film’s underground mine location.  The Wampum Mine promo video will be familiar to owners of the old Divimax set: it’s an eight minute company-produced sales piece that shows off the mine’s facilities to potential clients.  “Underground” is a new piece produced for this set.  It clocks in at just under eight minutes, featuring Ed Demko of Cult Magazine showing the viewer a series of mine locations, noting how they have changed substantially over the years.  It also incorporates some comments from Skip Docchio, a facility tech who was present for the shoot and has an amusing anecdote about watching one scene being shot.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to promotional material.  There are four theatrical trailers, all of which show that the distributor had a decent amount of money invested in these spots (three of the four include elaborate animated titles) but had no idea how to sell the film.  Only one trailer gives a semi-coherent idea of what the film is about – and it sells that aspect short by intercutting film excerpts with goofy comedy inserts of theater patrons reacting to a zombie in the theater.  The three t.v. spots that follow work much better, probably because they had less time to work with and had to be more focused.

There is also a set of four exhaustive image galleries.  The behind-the-scenes section is the biggest, offering over 200 photos.  Most of them are devoted to the ins-and-outs of Tom Savini’s gruesome makeup effects.  The locations sections show how nice the Florida locations actually were before they were redressed for the movie and just how spacious those underground mines in Pennsylvania are.  A promotional gallery offers over 100 stills, posters and ads from around the world, even the American and Japanese press books.  It reveals the film was called Zombie 2 in some territories, an irony that Lucio Fulci would no doubt appreciate.  Finally, the Miscellaneous section offers just over 125 images of various video release art, soundtracks, two(!) sets of bubblegum cards and a few more press photos.  Simply put, the producers of this disc outdid themselves in this area.

All in all, this special edition gives Day Of The Dead its due, offering a strong transfer plus a great new documentary and plenty more extras.  Scream Factory has racked up another winner here – so let’s hope they can get their hands on the films in the “Dead Trilogy.”

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