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Blue Underground // Unrated // May 25, 2010
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 16, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Django opens in the wake of the Civil War, just inches above the Mexican border. The only trace of civilization in this stark, muddy desolation is a town that seems to consist of nothing but a whorehouse...a hellhole in its death throes where Mexican bandits and straggling military thugs come to drink and screw. Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and the brutish, racist Confederate soldiers once under his command feast on what little meat is left on the bones of this town. They corral whatever Mexicans they stumble across like cattle and shove them out one-by-one to shoot for sport. The banditos aren't any better: feral animals trying to score enough heavy artillery to blast their way back across the border. A lone figure breaks through the emptiness, trudging through the searing desert heat in a weathered Union coat and dragging a wooden coffin behind him. He doesn't bother to tell anyone his name. He doesn't pretend to hold any allegiances to either side. He is out for revenge, though, and whatever it is he's lugging around in that coffin is going to unleash Hell on Earth.

Released just a year and a half after the record-shattering success of A Fistful of Dollars, the skeleton of Django's story doesn't veer too far away from Sergio Leone's seminal Spaghetti Western: a rundown town has been ravaged by violence and corruption, a mysterious gunslinger stands in the middle of two warring factions, he alternates between slaughtering them and skillfully manipulating whoever's left standing, and then he's savagely beaten and left for dead before the final shootout. Hell, both movies even have a gold heist. In lesser hands, Django probably would've come across as just another shameless knockoff, but this Spaghetti Western is so damned good that it doesn't just stand on its own but practically eclipses what Leone had shot just a couple of years earlier. Django is even bleaker and more pessimistic than A Fistful of Dollars. There's barely a spark of life in this town, and neither of the warring factions can even be bothered to stay there more than a few hours at a time. All that's left is the saloon, the skeletal remains of what was once the main thoroughfare, and a cemetery. It's caked in mud and surrounded by rocks, desert sand, and dying grass. These haunting visuals immediately set the tone for what's to follow, especially when paired with the sight of a man dragging a coffin through its muddy streets. Director Sergio Corbucci litters the screen with all sorts of evocative imagery, from the
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intensely violent -- an exploitative preacher having his ear sliced off and then force-fed to him -- to the unnerving sight of dozens of Klansmen in red hoods marching in for the kill.

...and then there's Django himself. As much as I love Leone's Dollars trilogy, Franco Nero just comes across as a much harder-edged badass than Clint Eastwood ever did, and when the big reveal comes -- when Django finally opens the coffin and whips out what's inside -- what follows is hand-to-God one of the most fucking awesome action sequences in any flick I've ever come across. It's a game of oneupsmanship, with Corbucci taking the best parts of A Fistful of Dollars and jabbing an oversized syringe of adrenaline straight into its heart. The body count is enormous. The brawl in the bar isn't just a few punches being traded...dozens of hits are thrown, and it doesn't end until damn near every table in the place is overturned and someone's laying down in a pool of his own blood. The Stranger in the first of Leone's Westerns seems more like a ghost...some supernatural force that's summoned to this town and disappears just as quickly. Django has a kind of otherworldly quality to him too but still has more dimension. Hell, he has a name, so that's one thing that sets this gunslinger apart, but he's also eventually given a clear motive for strolling into this waking nightmare. Django's an even more skillful manipulator than The Stranger, and as I'd start to see his schemes take shape, I couldn't help but cackle at how brilliant it all is. Django balances those glimmers of characterization and its overall story exceptionally well with the action. The pace never has a chance to drag, and the movie never stops dead in its tracks because there's some plot point it feels the need to overexplain. It's lean, efficient, and brutal.

Django didn't make much of an impact on these shores, but the movie was a colossal success throughout the world, shattering box office records and inspiring dozens upon dozens of unofficial sequels that threw "Django" somewhere in the title despite having nothing to do with the original. It's not hard to see why. There are a few action movies that just seem perfect to me, like Die Hard and Predator. Without hesitation, I'd rank Django up there with those too. Violent, sticky, depraved, and still pretty damned clever in its own right, this is just a hell of an action/exploitation flick, and if you only know Django by reputation, this is a movie you desperately need to discover on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.

Django opens with a disclaimer about how much the original negative had weathered over the decades and how the producers of this Blu-ray disc hope those defects won't get in the way of anyone's enjoyment of the film. Ignore it: Blue Underground has absolutely nothing to apologize for with their practically superhuman work here.

To try to put all that in perspective, here's a screengrab from MGM's Blu-ray release of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, a film that underwent a lavish restoration to the tune of many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
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The once-crisp photography of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has been softened excessively, the colors seem kind of washed out, and heavy-handed noise reduction has smeared away any semblance of fine detail and every last trace of the texture of its film grain. Especially considering that this is one of the standout titles in MGM's back catalog, its shoddy presentation on Blu-ray on these shores is shameful and embarrassing.

On the other hand, take a look at what Blue Underground was able to pull off with Django:
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I've made it a point to pick up every last one of the company's high definition releases, and no matter how dizzyingly high I set my expectations for one of their Blu-ray discs, Blue Underground almost always find some way to top them. Django doesn't just look amazing for a low-budget Spaghetti Western whose fiftieth anniversary is just a few years off on the horizon; it looks amazing, period. The 1.66:1 image doesn't suffer from any signs of excessive filtering or awkward digital manipulation. I can't shake the feeling that I'm looking at just about every last granule of film grain, and I consider that to be a very good thing. This gritty texture complements the look and feel of Django exceptionally well, and it'd be an altogether different movie if the grain had been smeared away. The bleak pessimism of the film is reflected in its palette, and though this is a movie heavy on ashen grays and muddy browns, Django's colors still come through exceptionally well whenever they have half a chance.

Detail...clarity...the sense of texture -- the things that really set a Blu-ray release apart from a standard issue DVD -- that's where Django really excels. As impressed as I've been with so many of Blue Underground's releases on much as I've come to expect nothing but the best out of them...I'm still floored by the level of fine detail they're able to reproduce here. Even when the camera eases back, I feel as if I can clearly discern each and every pore, every bit of stubble, and every grain of sand. This 1080p presentation is so revealing that I can make out the stray fibers on the casts' hats and the texture of their make-up. Very fine, intricate patterns are rendered without any moire or distortion. Again, I didn't just score Django a perfect five stars because it's a low-budget movie from the mid-'60s that has me rounding on a curve. I'd rank the level of clarity and detail belted out here against anything the bigger studios are churning out for their brand new movies too.

As for that disclaimer that opens the film, there are some incredibly minor issues with the source. A tiny handful of shots are unusually soft compared to the rest of the movie. A few frames warp and wobble slightly, a discolored splotch of what looks like water damage will occasionally creep in, or there'll be just a bit of fluttering in the colors on-screen. None of these are particularly distracting, I personally don't think they're enough to warrant that sort of disclaimer at all, and obviously these issues are so easily overlooked that I still feel comfortable giving Django's presentation a full five-star rating in the sidebar over there. It's definitely worth noting that there's no speckling to get in the way, and whatever nicks and tears the original negative may have suffered over the years have all been cleaned up flawlessly.

Even with the many thousands of titles on Blu-ray at the moment, Django easily ranks as one of the most exceptional presentations on the format. This is a spectacular effort on the part of Blue Underground, and Django is well-worth upgrading for those who've already picked up the DVD and is essential viewing for anyone with even the slightest fascination with Spaghetti Westerns.

Django is presented on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Having that sort of headroom is essential for a movie with this sort of grain structure, and its AVC encode never once buckles under the weight of all that grain. The image is also pillarboxed to preserve Django's original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

Django features
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two 24-bit, monaural DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in English and the other in Italian. Like quite a number of European films from this era, Django was shot wild, so there isn't an original soundtrack in the usual sense. These are movies with international casts who'd sometimes even deliver their dialogue in whatever language they happened to speak, and it'd all be recorded over later. That technically means that the Italian soundtrack isn't any more correct than the English track, but there's no question that it's far and away the better of the two. For one, Franco Nero delivers his own dialogue in the Italian track rather than being looped by some random, nebbish actor. Toggling back and forth, the performances just seem stronger...more natural, more Italian. To rattle off another example, I prefer the gruff, gravelly voice of its barkeeper to the one in the English track, where he sounds like some British stage actor trying to adopt a Southern drawl. The Italian track just sounds right to me, while the English version comes across as much more of an artificial construction. The dialogue is also much, much sharper in the Italian version. Even though I find the English audio to be pretty much useless, it's appreciated that Blue Underground has included both soundtracks here anyway, and I'm very glad to see monaural audio being treated the right way.

On the technical end of things, both soundtracks are reasonably solid. The English version has a trebly, more brittle quality to it. This is especially apparent as the title track is being belted out although the differences are less dramatic after that. The English soundtrack is cleaner while some hiss more noticeably lurks in the background of the Italian audio. Although I did take the time to do a few quick comparisons, I only listened to the Italian soundtrack in full. Its audio isn't marred by any clicks or pops, and the dialogue and sound effects stems show their age but generally come through about as well as expected. The audio certainly isn't as much of a revelation as the high definition visuals are, no, but it's a solid effort just the same, and I don't have any major complaints.

Along with the lossless monaural soundtracks, subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, and Spanish. The English subtitles are translated from the Italian soundtrack rather than just transcribing the clunkier dialogue from the English track.

Django opens with an optional thirty second introduction by Franco Nero.
  • Django: The One and Only (13 min.; SD): Most of the other extras use the movie as a springboard; trailers aside, this interview with Franco Nero and assistant director Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) is the only one directly related to Django itself. It's a terrific pair of conversations, though. Nero discusses
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    where his stage name originated, notes how he wound up being cast in Django, delves into aging the then-23-year old into a seasoned gunslinger, and smirkingly pointing out that his casting got the thumbs-up by none other than Sergio Leone himself. Nero spends a fair amount of time chatting about Sergio Corbucci both as a man and as a director, and Deodato does the same, going further by discussing their collaborations together. Deodato delves into where the imagery of the dragged coffin stemmed from, how his fascination with Neo-Realism shaped the film, and how the brutally cold weather, microscopic budget, and lack of horses wound up working to Django's benefit. Among the other topics are an explanation behind the red hoods worn by Jackson's thugs and the slew of shameless knockoffs that Django inspired. Well-worth taking the time to watch.

  • The Last Pistolero (10 min.; SD): Nero also stars in this ten minute short from 2002. Shot in black and white, performed by Nero alone, and delivered without a word of dialogue, The Last Pistolero melds together the past, present, and future. Not only is this evident in the score, which intermingles iconic Ennio Morricone music with electronic flourishes, but it's the crux of the story as well: a superhumanly talented gunslinger in a world without any worthy opponents to face.

  • Western, Italian Style (38 min.; SD): This 1968 documentary isn't in quite the same league as Blue Underground's own The Spaghetti West, no, but its off-kilter sense of humor and unconventional approach still manages to intrigue just the same. The list of talent interviewed here includes everyone from directors Enzo G. Castellari and Sergio Corbucci all the way to Chuck Connors, and they try to explain the international allure of Italy's take on the Western, particularly the sex and violence pervasive throughout them. We get a tour of Cinecitta's sprawling arsenal of rifles and revolvers, a look at how these films had cemented themselves into Italian pop culture, and an extended look at Almería, the Spanish province where so many of these movies were filmed. It's also amazing to see quite a bit of behind-the-scenes footage of several Westerns in production at the time, most memorably Corbucci's The Great Silence. Normally, these sorts of vintage documentaries have a bit of nostalgic, campy appeal and nothing more, but I really enjoyed Western, Italian Style. It's kind of playful and sarcastic, and there's something sort of fascinating about seeing how these films were viewed in their time rather than with four decades of hindsight.

  • Trailers (6 min.; HD): Last up are two trailers for Django: an Italian clip and an extended international trailer. Both are encoded in high definition, although the level of detail doesn't come close to what the movie proper delivers.

The Final Word
A Fistful of Dollars may have set the template that so many of Italy's Westerns would follow, but Django sharpened it to a razor's edge. The stark, gloomy atmosphere, a savagely violent streak that's still staggering today, an understatedly brilliant sense of humor, a phenomenal lead performance by Franco Nero, and the unforgettable imagery of a gunslinger dragging a coffin behind him...Django is just a hell of a movie, and its popularity and influence -- sparking dozens upon dozens of knockoffs and unofficial sequels -- cannot be overstated. Blue Underground has done a spectacular job bringing the film to Blu-ray, hammering out one of the most breathtakingly detailed presentations I've caught on the format, period. Very, very Highly Recommended, and here's hoping the rest of Blue Underground's Spaghetti Westerns aren't too far off on the horizon.

A Few More Screengrabs...
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