Color, 1966, 90 mins.
Directed by Sergio Corbucci
Starring Franco Nero, Loredana Nusciak, Simón Arriaga, José Bódalo, José Canalejas, Eduardo Fajardo
Argent (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Blue Undergrond (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)
In the iconic opening sequence, Django (Nero) appears as an unassuming yet oddly sinister figure trudging through a muddy western town. Clad in a dirty coat and dragging a coffin behind him, he quickly makes enemies with a diabolical fallen Major and rescues a tied up young woman in peril. Staying near a saloon/brothel in town, our antihero finds himself in the middle of a war between the Major's faction of racist vigilantes and a band of Mexican revolutionaries, who have become more than a little curious about what Django's hiding in his coffin.
Far less polished and artistically ambitious than the Leone westerns, Django instead grabs the viewer's attention through the sheer stark force of its imagery and the unremitting nastiness of its violence. The infamous ear slicing scene alone should have been enough to leave mid-'60s audiences catatonic with shock, but the entire film really rolls around in the dirt and still packs a punch. With his grungy clothes and unshaven appearance, Nero makes a good laconic leading man; it's easy to see why he went Hollywood for a brief period after this film. The catchy score by Luis Bacalov is also a bit different from the usual Ennio Morricone whistling and guitars, taking on a more pop-oriented, modernist approach that still holds up well today.
Though it was impossibly hard to find during the VHS age, Django has earned more than its share of DVD incarnations and even two Blu-Ray releases. The first notable edition came from Anchor Bay in 2001 with a decent widescreen DVD transfer but only augmented by the problematic dubbed English track which, unlike the Leone films, uses none of the actors' real voices and often sounds wildly inappropriate. The box set also includes a spectacular color booklet detailing the history of the official and unofficial Django films (including one sort-of-official Terence Hill sequel), complete with an eye-popping array of Italian poster art. A fine piece of scholarship and a handy guide for spaghetti western fanatics, this is almost worth the inflated price by itself. Extra supplements include a trio of brief theatrical trailers (all pretty much the same in tone), a Franco Nero interview in which the well preserved actor fondly discusses his legendary role, and a "Django shooting game" the viewer can play with the DVD remote control. Packaged with Anchor Bay's original Django two-disc edition comes a much more obscure companion feature, Django Strikes Back, in which Franco Nero reprises his role twenty years later. Originally released in Italy as Django 2: Il Grande Ritorno, the film was never officially released in the United States, even as a straight to video title. While the character may be the same, the jungle setting, low budget '80s photography, and massive rapid-fire gunplay put this more in the league of Italy's Rambo knockoffs, such as the Indio series. Adding to the peculiarity of the project is a Laura Gemser-style bondage queen figure and some increased salacious sexual material, far more blatant than what was suggested in the first film. Of course, the character of Django seemed more interested in pleasures of the flesh than the average "Man with No Name" spaghetti western hero, so this may have been a logical step forward. After years of living in solitude as a monk, Django is called back into service to rescue his daughter from the clutches of the evil Christopher Connelly (sporting a funny Udo Kier accent), who is running a steamer through the South American jungle. Along the way he meets the peculiar Gunn (Donald Pleasence) and a host of other bizarre characters before finally breaking out his trusty Gatling gun. While it's always good to see Nero back in action, Django Strikes Again never really catches fire like the original film. The constant waffling between genres, coupled with Ted Archer's flat direction, makes it more of a passable action piece than a true return to form, but its long overdue release is certainly welcome. Like its predecessor, the film has received first class treatment from Anchor Bay, who even included a subtitled five minute Italian prologue scissored from the English print prepared for export. Basically an amusing vignette with two old timers trying to recall the name of "that guy with the coffin" before being blown away, this kicks the film off on a better note than simply jumping into the main titles. Aside from the slightly dupey opening, the image quality is very good, if a bit murky during the night scenes. The English surround soundtrack features most of the performers' original voices, a very welcome touch, but features a rather primitive sound mix with some sloppy channel separation (ditto for the alternate Italian track). Also included is the trailer and another brief Nero interview in which he discusses the genesis of the sequel. Both films feature some terrific animated menus, including hilarious faux-Spanish menu options and nifty bullet-ripping effects.
After Blue Underground inherited the bulk of Anchor Bay's worthwhile Euro offerings, the company reissued Django at the beginning of 2003 in a significantly improved anamorphic transfer from the longer original negative, which restored various fleeting bits of footage lost to damage and censorship over the years. This version, initially rolled out as the headlining release in their four-disc Spaghetti Western box set, not only looks fresher but also includes both the English and Italian audio tracks with optional English subtitles. The Italian track is much more literate and appropriate, not to mention considerably more shocking with much more volatile racist language from the villains and a key recitation of the Lord's Prayer during the climax. Extras on this version include a different Franco interview, "Django: The One and Only," along with contributions from assistant director Ruggero Deodato. It's a solid piece that covers the film's influence, its international Italian/Spanish creation and shooting conditions, and Nero's reflections on his career following this star-making role, while Deodato recalls getting his start under the wing of Sergio Corbucci. Also included are the theatrical trailer and a poster and stills gallery. The following year, the long-standing UK ban on the film allowed it finally appear on DVD courtesy of Argent, who carried over only the international trailer and instead augmented their release with a video appraisal by fan Alex Cox, who largely spearheaded this film's revival in England.
Flash forward to 2010, with Django making the leap into the Blu-Ray era courtesy of Blue Underground. The HD transfer is also sourced from the same negative used for the previous release, but the improved resolution and superior compression technology result in a much more detailed presentation. There's also a pretty heavy wave of noise that's either very strange film grain or some kind of scanner weirdness, the end result is fairly similar to BU's Blu presentation of The Stendhal Syndrome, whose visual grittiness became much more apparent (and problematic) with the jump to hi-def. Some inherent damage in the negative has been conspicuously cleaned up here compared to the DVD (included some scratches here and there and some jumpy scene transitions), while colors are more vivid. The Italian and English tracks are again present with optional English subs, except now both are in uncompressed Dolby Digital HD mono. The Blu-Ray (which is Region A locked, unlike the region free DVD) features a quick half-minute Franco Nero intro and carries over the same Nero/Deodato interview, while adding on a perplexing but stylish short film, "The Last Pistolero," with Nero playing another Django-style gunslinger in a much more recent, artsy short film. The niftiest extra here is easily "Western, Italian Style," a great 1968 mini-documentary on the phenomenon originally included elsewhere in the BU Spaghetti Western box. Frank Wolff (best remembered for The Great Silence and The Lickerish Quartet) lends his recognizable voice as narrator of the piece, which reels through some of the most influential films of the period and features some great on-set footage. Among the highlights are a young, buff Enzo G. Castellari demonstrating how to play out a fist fight for his actors and interviews with the likes of Sergio Sollima and Sergio Corbucci. It's definitely 38 minutes wonderfully spent. Also included are both the international trailer and the more recently uncovered Italian trailer.
Of course, awareness of this film and its progeny spiked considerably in late 2012 with the release of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, a Southern tale of vengeance, slavery, and gunplay with a few nods to Corbucci's film, most obviously the name of its lead character. That of course inspired a slew of spaghetti western releases including a few in the UK, the most notable being Argent's early 2013 presentation of Django as a new Blu-Ray.
While the same negative was sourced for the transfer, it's not even remotely the same in appearance; the framing is significantly different, adding much to the right side, some more to the top, and shaving a bit off the bottom. The color scheme is also far more subdued and naturalistic, with the blood looking less cartoonish and flesh tones veering more to the earthy side; whether the Blue Underground one has the colors unnaturally pumped up (which is possible given the fact that the contrast is also visibly boosted) is something you'd have to see the original elements to determine for sure, but the UK one also has less (but still some) digital swarming noise. The exterior scenes have more depth and tend to "pop" where they didn't before, especially the wide cemetery shots near the end. A few of the more damaged sequences (especially a couple of the saloon interiors) still have that digitally processed look at times, especially where you can still see some signs of water damage on the right side of the frame; however, for those bothered by the strange look of the BU disc, this may provide a welcome alternative. (Both have the same English and Italian audio options, though the Argent disc presents them in DTS-HD two-channel mono). All of the frame grabs seen in this review are from the Argent disc; you can click on any of them to see them in full resolution. For comparison, the same four frames from the Blue Underground Blu-Ray can be found here, here, here, and here; obviously viewer taste will vary, but it's best to see them both in motion to really get a feel for how they stack up in this case as still images can't completely convey the presentation of either one. As they have essentially different extras, both discs probably worth it for fans. The Argent disc (which manages to reference Tarantino and his film at least six times on the packaging!) carries over the Italian and international trailers, the Alex Cox appreciation piece, a 3-minute international opening versus the Italian one seen on the main feature, and a 12-minute Franco video interview. Still a classic, and whether you've come across it before or are just finding it because of Tarantino's film, this remains an essential starting point for anyone's spaghetti western education.