Bringing Luster Back to the Grindhouse

By David Konow

Grindhouse Releasing has spent decades restoring horror and schlock movies that mainstream Hollywood has all but forgotten. Here's how they bring grindhouse cinema back to life.

When you think of film restoration, you usually think of something like Lawrence of Arabia or Ben Hur, where as much as a million dollars can be spent to save a film's negative from crumbling to dust. You usually don’t think of movies like I Drink Your Blood or Cannibal Holocaust, but there are companies that restore these films with great care, and have been doing so for decades.

Grindhouse Releasing was founded in 1996 by Bob Murawski, and Sage Stallone, the late son of Sly. Sage had an incredible passion for these films, and he enlisted Murawski and Dave Szulkin, who’s in charge of the company’s theatrical releasing, as his partners in crime. (Murawski has been Sam Raimi’s editor for many years, and he also won an Academy Award for editing The Hurt Locker. He keeps his Oscar on a mantle at home, right beneath his poster of Blood Feast.)

In addition to restoring these movies for home viewing, Grindhouse has also had successful theatrical runs with the original Evil Dead, Maniac, and most recently Gone With the Pope, and An American Hippie in Israel. (Both Pope and Hippie were lost films until Grindhouse saved them.)

In an age where so many theaters have to convert to digital projection, Grindhouse still proudly makes 35mm prints of their releases. Even with film on the way out, Murawski says, “Making 35mm prints is not difficult. There are still great film labs like Fotokem in business. And ironically, the print stocks are better than ever. The tricky part is finding theaters to play them. That's becoming more and more difficult. Many of the newer theaters don't even have the ability to play film. And some of the older ones don't want the expense or hassle.”

And don’t get Murawski started on how many theaters cut corners with digital projection. “They'd rather show it off of a crappy DCP [Digital Cinema Package] or Blu-ray,” he says. “Personally, I'd rather watch a movie projected from a faded, scratched print than a DCP. If I want to watch video, I'll stay at home and watch it on TV. 4K DCPs are great. I think they capture the quality of a film print. But most studios cheap out and go 2K, which is basically HD resolution, which is less than 1/4th the resolution of a 35mm print. And projecting from Blu-ray is a joke. It's an absolute rip-off.”

Sage Stallone and Bob Murawski of Grindhouse Releasing.

Back in the good old days of low budget movies, an indie company like American International Pictures couldn’t afford to make thousands of prints for a movie’s opening day. They would usually make, say, a hundred of them, and “bicycle” them around the country regionally. As Szulkin explains, Grindhouse does the same, but with a couple of prints going around from theater to theater. Szulkin says that there’s still theaters around the country that are equipped for 35mm projection, like the New Beverly Cinema in L.A., the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston, the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Ore., the Loft Cinema in Tucson, the Grand Illusion in Seattle, to name a few. He also says that Grindhouse will keep making 35mm prints, “Until they pry the film canisters from our cold, dead hands.”

But before they can get these prints on the road to theaters, Grindhouse Releasing goes through the arduous process of restoring these movies. Here's how it's done.

As far as the technology involved in film restoration, Murawski says, “You start with the best possible film elements, and it's always best to physically clean the film before it is transferred or scanned to remove any dirt from the element. The key is scanning at the highest resolution to capture every grain of the film. We scanned the original negative of Pieces at 4K. It was expensive, but with a classic like Pieces I didn't want to mess around.

Automated processes need to be used very sparingly. Computers are still too stupid to deal with film and introduce digital artifacts given too much free rein.

“Then the clean-up work is digitally, but pretty much by hand, frame by frame,” Murawski continues. “The automated processes always seem like a good idea, but need to be used very sparingly. Computers are still too stupid to deal with film and introduce digital artifacts given too much free rein.”

Szulkin tells us that when Evil Dead was re-released in 2009, it was restored from the original film elements, and it was the first time the movie was shown theatrically in Sam Raimi’s preferred aspect ratio (1.33:1). “I believe Bob lobbied the producers to go back into the vaults to the original film elements rather than taking any kind of short-cut,” Szulkin says.

No matter what kind of movies you like, there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing a newly restored print of one of your favorites. I’ve seen restorations that were so well done, it was like watching a brand new movie, and it’s still a major thrill for Bob and Dave to see the finished result after so much hard work and effort.

“It's the reason Sage and I started Grindhouse Releasing in 1996,” Murawski says. “We knew these movies were well made, but had suffered for years with bad presentations from low-budget distributors who thought the movies were junk and cheaped out at every level.

Seeing the first test print of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond made from the original negative at Technicolor lab in Rome was an incredibly moving experience. Wide screen, cinemascope, vibrant colors, rich blacks. Absolutely beautiful. It looked like a brand new print of a Fellini movie like Juliet of the Spirits. I love to see these movies on the big screen with an enthusiastic audience, and I try to attend every show I can.”

Murawski is especially proud of his work on Gone With the Pope, a wild crime caper where a gangster plots to kidnap his holiness. Pope was the brainchild of Duke Mitchell, a Dean Martin impersonator who also provided Barney Rubble’s singing voice. Pope was never completed, and it never would have seen the light of day without the efforts of Grindhouse Releasing.

Murawski says that on Gone With the Pope, “We started with a totally faded, filthy, scratched spliced-up work print and ended up with something that looks like a brand new studio movie. I am still amazed that it got done. There were many years of utter despair and dark nights of hopelessness on that one.”

Szulkin adds, “Gone With the Pope is a mind-blowing movie, and, I think, the company's crowning achievement. It's a movie that didn't even exist in anything close to finished form and had never been seen at all. Thanks to Bob and Sage, it was rescued from oblivion. All of the Grindhouse Releasing projects involve an enormous amount of hard work but Gone With the Pope really went way beyond what even seemed possible. The premiere of Pope took place the same week Bob and Chris Innis won the Oscar for editing The Hurt Locker so that was quite a triumph for Grindhouse!”

As a long time fan of B-movies and grindhouse flicks, I was concerned that these movies were going to be forgotten. The drive-ins went out of business a long time ago, and re-releases of these movies on home video took a big hit with the recession. Many young people of this generation don’t even understand what B movies or grindhouse flicks are, or why they can be so entertaining. But even with things as difficult as they are these days, Murawski says that, “Ironically, there is more demand for these movies than ever.”

The theatrical releases of Grindhouse releases like Evil Dead have done very well, “and the requests for it never seem to slow down,” Szulkin says. “Cannibal Holocaust and The Beyond are always big draws. The audience for these films will always be there.”

Film buffs are all too aware that a movie can wind up lost if no one makes any effort to preserve it. I was shocked to read in Variety years ago that the negatives for classics like Blade Runner, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver were all in peril of falling apart. (The Godfather negative was saved after a plea from Steven Spielberg, and Paramount spent over a million dollars in restoring it.)

While grindhouse films certainly aren’t for everyone, it’s good to know that thanks to people like Bob Murawski, the late Sage Stallone, and David Szulkin, that these films will live on for a long time.