Release Date(s)1981 (March 9, 2022)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Umbrella Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Australian Blu-ray import.]
One of the most unusual animated films ever made, Heavy Metal hit theaters in the summer of 1981 and the blew the minds out of many of the people who saw it, particularly those under the influence of... specific substances. The film played for years theatrically before finally coming to home video in 1996 after being tied up legally with music rights issues, which only allowed it to be seen in a theater or on TV—building a massive audience for it in the interim.
In a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, a deadly green orb known as the Loc-Nar has emerged, revealing its evil history to a terrified young girl. It shows her visions of a dystopian New York City of the future in which a cab driver helps a woman in need after stealing the orb for money; a young boy who is transported to the planet of Neverwhere where he becomes a well-endowed, muscular man that must save a sacrificial woman; a space captain on trial and one of the key witnesses turning into an oversized monster; a World War II B-17 bomber plane full of dead bodies reanimated by the Loc-Nar; an abducted scientist, a Pentagon stenographer, their alien captors, and their collectively loony and unorthodox journey into certain doom; and a beautiful warrior who flies to a city overrun by evil mutants to stop them and destroy the Loc-Nar.
Produced by Ivan Reitman and taking inspiration and stories from the original Metal Hurlant comic books (released in the US as Heavy Metal), rough ideas were sketched out in anthology form with a loose connection. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, action, and even film noir were all tapped into, not to mention an abundance of violence, nudity, and gore. The film’s other assets include an underappreciated score by Elmer Bernstein and a fantastic hard rock soundtrack that features the likes of Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Don Felder, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, Devo, Cheap Trick, and Journey. Also adding to the prowess is the voice cast, which includes Percy Rodriguez, Don Francks, John Candy, Susan Roman, Richard Romanus, Jackie Burroughs, August Schellenberg, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, John Vernon, and Harold Ramis.
Heavy Metal was a modest success upon release, even after the production went through a number of changes, including an alternate wraparound and major deletions before reaching its final form. The Ralph Bakshi-esque animation style mixed with live action opticals and models, rotoscoping, and an unbridled male chauvinist point of view make it not merely a film, but a total visual and sensory experience.
Heavy Metal was produced using a blend of cel-drawn animation and live action elements on 35 mm film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Umbrella Entertainment brings the film to Blu-ray as #16 in their Worlds on Film: Beyond Genres line of titles. This release sports what is likely an older but healthy master with medium grain that's well rendered. The animation is crisp and clean, but within the confines of the original cels, meaning that all of the defects inherent in the cinematography are still present. This makes the presentation authentic to its source—rough in appearance with occasional opticals. The variety of hues are strong, particularly the water color backgrounds that lack definition. Plenty of fine detail is on display with deep blacks and good contrast. It’s also a stable presentation with good delineation. Sony’s 4K Ultra HD improves upon this presentation, but it's still a nice alternative.
Audio is provided in English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English. The film was originally released in stereo and reissued in 1996 with Sony’s now defunct SDDS system (setting aside the Dolby Atmos track on the recent 4K Ultra HD release). These are likely the same mixes found on Sony’s previous Blu-ray. Dialogue ranges from mostly in the center and perfectly audible to a tad quiet. Elmer Bernstein’s score and the hard rock soundtrack is staged all around, but like the dialogue, not all of it is created equal. Sound effects have plenty of lift in the surrounds and there’s excellent low end activity. There’s room for improvement, but these are solid tracks that are similar aurally outside of the extra speaker space.
Heavy Metal on Blu-ray sits inside a black amaray case featuring a reversible insert, both sides showcasing the 1981 US theatrical poster artworks. Everything is housed within a slipcover featuring the main theatrical artwork. For a limited time, ordering directly from Umbrella Entertainment will provide you with an air freshener that features this artwork. The following extras are included on the disc itself:
- Rough Cut of Heavy Metal (SD – 90:19)
- Rough Cut Audio Commentary with Carl Macek
- Carl Macek Reading Heavy Metal: The Movie (HD – 76:50)
- Imagining Heavy Metal (SD – 35:39)
- Deleted Scene: Neverwhere Land Sequence (SD – 4:03)
- Deleted Scene: Alternative Framing Story w/Optional Commentary (SD – 2:37)
All of these extras are culled from the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film. The Rough Cut is a work-in-progress reel, which features mostly storyboards set to score and voice recordings, as well as snippets of animation. The late Carl Macek, author of The Art of Heavy Metal: Animation for the Eighties aka Heavy Metal: The Movie, provides an audio commentary on this version, delving mightly into the film’s production history. Also included is a recording of him reading his own book, which plays over the film itself. This particular extra cannot be found on US releases of the film (including the new 4K Ultra HD release). Imagining Heavy Metal is an excellent documentary piece that speaks to a number of the filmmakers about the making of the film, discussing how it was made, the difficulties therein, and the eventual releases of it. Participants include Ivan Reitman, Kevin Eastman, and Joe Medjuck, among many others. The first deleted scene, Neverwhere Land, was cut mostly for time. The sequence itself is excellent, and it’s a shame that it didn’t wind up in the final film. The other deleted scene, the Alternate Framing Story, never made it past the storyboard stage. Missing in action is the wealth of photo galleries that were included on the original DVD release. For posterity, the new 4K Ultra HD release also includes the new featurette Heavy Metal: A Look Back.
Without an ounce of political correctness to it, Heavy Metal is certainly a film that younger generations probably won’t understand. It’s not necessarily the stories themselves, but the feel of the entire piece. It’s like watching the most violent and sexy comic book stories you’ve ever seen come to life. Umbrella’s release of the film offers a fine presentation and quality extras.
- Tim Salmons