Joe Spinell's real "last horror film" was the long unreleased THE UNDERTAKER, now out on Blu-ray/DVD combo from Vinegar Syndrome.
Traumatized in childhood by his exposure to undertaker uncle Roscoe's (Spinnell) necrophilic activities, nephew Nicky (Patrick Askin) starts to suspect that his uncle is behind a recent spate of murders of beautiful women whose bodies inevitably end up on Roscoe's slab. When his anthropology professor Pam (Rebecca Yaron) delivers a lecture about necrophilia, Nicky attempts to confide his secret to her, but she takes it as a kinky come-on until Nicky mysteriously disappears. She contacts the police – represented by Inspector Barry (writer/co-director William James Kennedy) – but Roscoe shifts suspicion onto his missing nephew. Now being stalked by Roscoe, Pam and her roommate Mandy (Susan Bachli) decide to do some investigating themselves. Unfortunately, health food, drunk driving campaigns, and warnings about smoking have slowed his business down, which puts a crimp in his ability to "deliver" his own comely murder victims to the other side in two-for-one burials and the bodies are piling up.
Helmed by at least four directors, the finished versions of THE UNDERTAKER are a patchwork experience in tone and style; but THE UNDERTAKER has some historical value as the last leading role for talented-but-not-photogenic Spinell who was memorable from supporting roles in some major films (ROCKY, TAXI DRIVER, CRUISING, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, SORCERER, and THE GODFATHER among others) but found stardom in cult roles with MANIAC and THE LAST HORROR FILM (FANATIC). Spinell is visibly impatient with some of his wooden co-stars, although it is fitting for his socially-awkward character. The film's positing of several would-be protagonists only to the take them out of the running becomes tedious, but the film so identifies with Uncle Roscoe to the detriment of the characterization of all others (his tacked-on comeuppance seems like a nod to MANIAC minus the extreme gore rather than a cheap scare ending). The version released presented here by Vinegar Syndrome is radically different from the version Code Red previously released with the onscreen title THE DEATH MERCHANT, and is actually the superior construction (88:48 versus THE DEATH MERCHANT's 82:54). THE UNDERTAKER has Roscoe's turn from merely feeling up corpses to procuring victims inspired by a gory Satanic slasher film showing at the local theater while THE DEATH MERCHANT finds him watching the public domain Bela Lugosi film THE CORPSE VANISHES repeatedly (that version is also further padded with footage SCARED TO DEATH, AFRICA SCREAMS, BEDTIME FOR BONZO, and THE TERROR). The fates of a few characters are also left unclear in the DEATH MERCHANT version while THE UNDERTAKER version (which is also gorier) ties up all of its loose ends (satisfactorily or not).
THE UNDERTAKER was often passed around the collector's circuit in a fully-scored video source (Code Red's DEATH MERCHANT version was also sourced from a tape master but the recut may have been finished on video). In 2012, the original 35mm camera negative was discovered but it turned out that it was missing roughly six minutes of footage. These bits included a couple prosthetic gore shots from earlier in the film and, unfortunately, the entire original five minute climactic scenes. Unable to find the missing bits on film, Vinegar Syndrome transferred the negative in 2K and restored the absent bits from workprint video. The film-sourced parts of Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer lend the film a more stylish and professional sheen not so evident in the video sources. Colors are rich and detail crisp for the bulk of the transfer while the inserts are significantly softer and blurry – indeed, the time-coded rough cut outtake video excerpts (9:54) actually provide a better look in alternate takes at the two bits of gore missing from the negative and inserted from video in the feature presentation – but the reconstruction/restoration effort is welcome nonetheless for such a marginal title.
Vinegar Syndrome has gone all out with THE UNDERTAKER even though it is a Black Friday extra. Packaged in a blood red o-ring slipcover with a coffin-shaped opening revealing artwork of Spinnell with a machete dangling from his neck in place of a necktie, the disc's extras include an audio commentary and video interview (20:45) with writer/actor/co-director William James Kennedy who reveals that he wrote the film with Richard Lynch (BAD DREAMS) in mind for the role (he was acting with Lynch in the film HIGH STAKES) but Spinell rallied for the role when he learned of it (the opening sequence was added to give a part to his girlfriend at the time). He also reveals that actor Joe Santos (THE ROCKFORD FILES) was the film's intended director, but he disliked the more humorous aspects of the film like Roscoe's awkward interactions with the townspeople ("Sorry for your gain," he tells a mourner). The film was paid for with foreign presale along with some investment by shady associates of co-director Frank Avianca (BLOOD SONG) – aka singer Frankie Sardo – who worked so slowly that additional scenes were helmed by himself, cinematographer Richard E. Brooks (BLOOD RAGE), and producer Steve Bono (LORD SHANGO). He also relates his memories of Spinell, feeling that the budget, the one-take-only practice dictated by using short ends, and the record heat in New York during the summer of 1988 worked against him more so than his drinking on the set. Commentary moderator Brandon Upson touches upon the film's erratic "release" history. Besides the aforementioned outtakes, the disc also includes a still gallery and an archival promotional video (5:07) which plays like an extended trailer and highlights Spinell's MANIAC fame. Also included is a booklet by Michael Gingold about his first encounter with the film and appreciation of it. (Eric Cotenas)
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