Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
Released on: November 25th, 2016.
Director: Franco Steffanino
Cast: Joe Spinell, Rebeca Yaron, Patrick Askin, Susan Bachli, Martha Somoeman
Purchase From Vinegar Syndrome
Joe Spinell will always be remembered in horror movie circles for his amazing performance in William Lustig's Maniac, arguably one of the greatest and certainly one of the nastiest slasher films ever made. Though he appeared in plenty of respectable films from The Godfather to Cruising to Rocky and obviously worked with some talented big name directors, he also made some questionable choices. This lead to his appearing in oddball titles like Karate Kids USA and this title, The Undertaker. Directed by Franco Steffanino in 1988, the film was never finished as Spinell passed away before it could be completed. A bootleg VHS release made the rounds in grey market circles, but it never got an official home release because, well, it's not really done. This didn’t stop Code Red from giving it a DVD release years back, however, which marked the movie's first official video release ever. Now Vinegar Syndrome give it a shot, this time with a vastly improved transfer and a whole lot more in the way of supplements to make this one worth the upgrade in a big, big way.
The storyline, such as it is, follows an undertaker (no surprise there) named Rosco (played by Spinell - again, no surprise there). He’s a creepy guy who works out of a small town funeral home. He starts randomly murdering various townspeople and, to add insult to injury, has sex with their dead bodies. We witness this early in the film when a woman’s car breaks down. A biker shows up, calls her sweetheart over and over again, and offers to drive her to a nearby gas station, but what he really means is he’s going to take her into the woods and rape her. She fights him off and makes her way to the road where Rosco picks her up. She asks him to drive her into town and he obliges but the next thing you know she’s naked on a slab in his laboratory and he’s fondling her breasts.
While Rosco is slicing and screwing his way across town, a kid named Nick (Patrick Askin) is complaining to his college professor (Rebecca Yaron) that her courses in necrophilia have got him thinking. After class one day he tells her he'd like to show her something that she just won't believe unless she sees it with her own eyes. She thinks he's a horndog looking for a date, and wouldn't you know it, he's Rosco's nephew so she might be right. At any rate, he eventually talks her into going to the funeral home with him one night and she tells her friend that she thinks he has 'cute buns.' What happens then is a bit confusing, though we know they're afraid of running into Nick's aunt Hazel (Martha Somoeman, an elderly woman with the thickest NOOYAWK accent you’ve ever heard, she’s great). Complicating matters is the presence of a movie theater worker/security guard who realizes that the rash of killings Rosco has secretly been committing around town are based on those seen in the film playing at the local theater. This guy clues into this when he sees Rosco at a gas station. He then takes it upon himself to track down the killer since the local cops are proving to be pretty useless in this regard. Soon enough, the townsfolk start figuring out what's happening and who has been making it happen, so it's looking like Rosco's reign of terror is coming to an end - but yeah, the ending... well we won't spoil it here. Needless to say, you won't see it coming.
A genuine cult oddity if ever there was one, you have to cut The Undertaker some slack as it's not properly finished. The movie cuts to different scenes for no reasons, camera shots are recycled ad nausea and the acting is more than a little questionable. And yet, as wonky as this movie is, you can't help but try to keep up with it. Sure, it's spastic in a lot of ways, so we cut it some slack for that but, it is assembled with such haphazard lunacy that it almost becomes an exercise in surrealism.
Spinell doesn't get as much screen time as some might like but he makes the most of what he does get, sleazing it up and looking as greasy as greasy can be. There are times where he’s clearly just crawled out of a bottle and as such, a little wavy in his delivery, but it’s Spinell doing what he does best and he is a complete blast to watch here. The rest of the cast were clearly not as experienced as ol’ Joe and they offer up performances of less than perfect quality, but there’s enough local flavor here to keep things interesting. The New York locations work well (judging by some painting on a park bench at least some of this was shot in New Rochelle) and the synth score is eighties horror soundtrack gold.
Bonus points for throwing in some gratuitous nude scenes, those who like big haired eighties ladies will no doubt appreciate this aspect of the movie. The movie also features some pretty strong gore as well, most of which is actually handled quite well. It all builds to such an amazingly ridiculous finale that, like whatever it was that Nick was trying to show his teacher at the funeral home, you just need to see it with your own eyes or you won't believe it.
As to the version of this movie? Well, those familiar with the aforementioned Code Red DVD release will be pretty surprised to find that this version is VERY different. The Code Red version runs a second shy of eighty three minutes. It’s got a load of aerobics footage in it and it uses a title card that reads The Death Merchant. It’s got a completely different soundtrack, and any time Spinell’s character goes into the theater he’s watching the old Bela Lugosi movie The Corpse Vanishes. None of this is in the VS version. The opening scene with the biker is not in the beginning of the CR version, it’s edited differently and placed in the middle section. The opening credits are different on each version and the CR version has a completely bizarre tacked on ending that isn’t on the cut of the picture on this release. Likewise, the VS version has the longer running time clocking in at almost eighty-nine minutes in length and it contains some footage not seen in the CR version! Fans will want to have both versions but The Undertaker cut is definitely the more polished and ‘better’ version of the movie.
The Undertaker was previously released on DVD by Code Red in a tape sourced fullframe transfer. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release presents the film on a 25GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen from a new 2k scan of the film’s original 35mm negative, save for about six minutes of footage (mostly from the end) that had to be sourced from a VHS tape as film elements were unable to be located. Those six minutes aside (they’re pretty rough, see screen caps #17 for an example), this is a very impressive transfer. The colors really pop here, you’ll notice this in the opening scene in the woods but also whenever there’s gore or bloodshed on display. Skin tones look nice and natural and black levels are solid as well. Aside from a few white specks here and there the 35mm sourced footage is pretty much pristine. The DVD release was a nice step up from the bootlegs that were around but this Blu-ray release is a massive upgrade in terms of video quality over that disc.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD Mono track, with optional closed captioning offered up in English only. The audio here is fine for the most part. Some of the limitations of the source material show up in the track – there’s one scene where an airplane flying overhead is probably louder than anyone would want, for example – but overall it’s fine. The dialogue is clean, clear and balanced and that score sounds really good.
Extra start off with a commentary track from screenwriter/director/actor/producer William James Kennedy moderated by Vinegar Syndrome’s Brandon Upson. Kennedy starts off by noting how he appreciates seeing a good print of the movie before then talking about how the girl featured in the opening scene was Spinell’s girlfriend at the time and how her scene wasn’t in the original screenplay, it was put in at Spinell’s behest. As the talk continues, Kennedy notes how the movie was actually paid for based on pre-sales thanks to Spinell’s involvement, where the movie was shot in and around New York City, casting the movie was a lot of local stage actors and how they shot in an actual funeral home. There’s a lot of talk here about making the fun on a low budget and how they had to compensate for a lack of funds, the film’s quick production schedule, what went into making the ‘movie within a movie’ scenes featured in this cut of the picture (replaced by The Corpse Vanishes in The Death Merchant!), how and why the movie wound up with multiple directors, shooting on location at the school while summer break was on, working with Spinell and the rest of the cast, the effects work featured in the picture, his own acting in the movie, and plenty more.
Kennedy also shows up in a twenty-minute making of featurette where he offer up more information about making the picture, including that the film was originally to star Richard Lynch before Spinell convinced the producers he was the right guy for the part. Here he talks about how the film was financed by way of a fifty thousand dollar loan from some ‘shady characters,’ shooting the picture on short ends, his thoughts on Spinell’s talents as an actor but also how his drinking affected his performance in the picture. It’s an interesting interview and quite informative.
Aside from that we get nine minutes of outtakes taken from a time coded VHS tape (the only available source), a five minute promotional video, a still gallery of behind the scenes images, animated menus and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack release the clear keepcase also includes a DVD version of the movie featuring identical extras.
It’s also worth noting the packaging for this release – the cover art is great and it fits nicely inside a very cool thick cardstock. There’s a coffin shape cut out of the front that displays the painted image of Spinell’s character underneath. On the flip side are some glossy embossed bloody fingerprints – a nice touch! Also included inside the case is an insert booklet containing liner notes from Mike Gingold about how the film was finally discovered and released, it’s an interesting read that gives the film some welcome backstory.
The Final Word:
The Undertaker is pretty screwy stuff but damn it all if it isn’t a ridiculously entertaining film. Spinell’s performance in this is one for the books, the guy just oozes sleaze appeal in every frame, but outside of that we get some good kill scenes, rad nudity and fun local quirk appeal. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release of the film is a huge upgrade over what we’ve seen in the past. Outside of that VHS sourced footage the film looks great, there are some seriously interesting extras included and the packaging is genuinely cool too.
Note that this edition is limited to 3,000 units and is available exclusively from Vinegar Syndrome’s online store.