The Undertaker: Vinegar Syndrome and Code Red Finally Complete the Joe Spinell Trilogy (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Horror fans undoubtedly know Joe Spinell best for his deeply disturbing starring role in William Lustig's classic, Maniac. He's certainly got more mainstream film credits under his belt, from Rocky to The Godfather; but Maniac is the one that cemented him in viewer's mind. Before his passing, he attempted to tap the vein again in the never completed Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie, succeeded with 1982's The Last Horror Movie, and turned it all into a nice little trilogy with 1988's similarly themed film The Undertaker.  It's been pretty difficult to obtain for a long time, though.  Bootleg tapes have circulated for decades, and it wasn't until 2010 that it made its official debut on DVD from Code Red, in a surprisingly different form.

Update: 11/27/15 - 12/8/16: Now Vinegar Syndrome brings The Undertaker fully up to speed with their new blu-ray/ DVD combo pack that doesn't just move the film into HD, but restores it to its long unreleased, original cut.  And like I said, the two versions are extremely different from one another.
Spinell is the titular undertaker, who has a habit of increasing his business by killing local residents. He monologues to a few of his hanging corpses a humorous motive about how America's modern health craze (remember, this was the 80s) has people living longer, "business hasn't been good lately, what with all these vitamins that people are taking, and the surgeon general's warning about smoking, those silly driving without drinking laws... I guess I'll have to drum up some business." So he's sorta out to kill health nuts. But his nephew's college professor suggests a second motive: necrophilia. The nephew senses things are very wrong at home, so he asks his professor and her roommate to break into his funeral parlor. The cops are also trying to solve the case of a local serial killer who just killed the mayor's secretary... Oh, and a security guard at the town's movie theater has figured out that the killer is copying the horror film they play at night, and goes off on his own to investigate.
If that sounds like a jumbled, convoluted mess, that's because it sort of is. I think it's cleverly complicated in its original script, but the execution muddies it a little more so that this film feels like a couple different screenplays mashed into one. And that's just the first version of this film...

All reports of The Undertaker describe the film as never having been completed. But I've seen the old bootleg tapes (and now the new blu), and it feels pretty complete to me. It's got a beginning, middle and end, full-length running time, finished special effects, music, titles. It feels amateurish in some respects, low budget in all respects, and kind of a stilted, awkward but entertaining mess.  But not incomplete.  So, it was a surprise to see this new Code Red version.
See, the version I just described is the original "bootleg" version. The Code Red is a bizarre "remix" of that movie, completely re-edited, missing some footage and adding plenty more. It also has a new on-screen title: Death Merchant. Where the original opens with a young woman alone on the road at night, running afoul of our killer, Death Merchant opens with a montage of women doing aerobics, intercut with a pixelated punk rock performance. And things just get more off-base from there. Scenes are in a totally different order, given different context, new establishing shots, and that's just the scenes that haven't been changed all together.  When I first saw it, I assumed the movie was like this because they were trying to turn the scraps of an unfinished film into at least some kind of complete, 90-minute movie.  The fact that The Undertaker was actually fully shot, wrapped and put together into a perfectly viable 80s slasher just makes the Death Merchant cut all the more perplexing.
And it was already an utterly perplexing editing fiasco. Sometimes the film cuts back to the exact same footage of Joe multiple times, recycling footage like Prince Adam turning into He-Man. And most egregious of all, The Undertaker is full of stock footage.  For just one example, a girl puts on the TV, sits on the couch, and gets attacked from behind. In Death Merchant, before she gets attacked, we see everything she watches on TV. We see some Abbot & Costello, some Bedtime for Bonzo and a scene from The Terror.  They just cut to it and let it play out for minutes on end. And again, in The Undertaker, that movie the killer is watching is an original film-within-a-film. In Death Merchant, it's 1942's The Corpse Vanishes, which we see whole scenes of, matted very unconvincingly onto a graphic of a movie screen.
All over the 'net, fans refer to Code Red's version as a "cut version," because it's missing some of the most graphic kills and nudity. But it's not like this is just a censored version; this is a whole new version of the film. And it's not all bad news. The killer now has a rocking "Death Merchant" theme song, and there's plenty of new footage shot with a whole new cast of characters (mostly women in aerobics outfits), and a delightful new ending. While I would agree with anyone who said the original is clearly the far better and preferable film, it's wrong to treat Death Merchant like a Friday the 13th movie with 30 seconds of gore trimmed out. It's an entirely different - and in that sense not incomplete or cut - version of the film. And I guess, as far as whoever commissioned the Death Merchant version is concerned, the only finished and proper version. The bootleg being more of a rough cut in their eyes. It's just a strange factor that the rough cut is the stronger, more rational version of the two.
But is this film even any good?  I think so.  Certainly, if you're a big fan of 80s slashers, you won't be disappointed.  But even if you're a little more discriminating, The Undertaker is certainly flawed - a lot of the smaller roles are played by amateurs, and a lot of the look of the film has a clunky, made for 70s TV except lower budget vibe - but has a lot of attractive qualities.  Spinell is a treat to watch, and the woman who plays his sister is great, with a lot of the same charms as Spinell's mother in The Last Horror Movie.  If you're after cheap thrills, this film (especially the VS cut) has a lot of gory kills and trashy nudity.  Actually, the CR cut, though losing a lot of the violence, does add extra nudity.  So in the exploitative sense, both versions deliver.  But at its core, the story is at least a somewhat smart spin on the slasher genre, that always has a lot going on and never gets boring.  This isn't one of those flicks where you're watching sorority girls plan a spring break party for 80 minutes and you're checking your watch for when the killer is going to come in.  The score is simple but does the job, and if you check out the Code Red disc, you get a whole new soundtrack with a lot more energy, including that awesome "Death Merchant" theme song.  This is a film I would warn more people away from than recommend to, definitely not on the same level as high class slashers like Halloween or The House On Sorority Row.  But if you dig 80s horror a little further off the mainstream radar, like Pieces, Nightmare At Shadow Woods or Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker, then you should appreciate this for sure.
top: 2010 Code Red DVD, mid: 2016 VS DVD, bottom: 2016 VS blu.
my old bootleg, much worse than CR
Code Red's DVD may not look like much compared to Vinegar's beautiful new transfer.  They've made a brand new 2k scan of the film's original negatives, while Code Red's DVD is fullscreen, fuzzy and lightly interlaced, looking like it's sourced from tape, but probably a 1" master tape, not a regular VHS. At any rate, it was a revelation compared to the old dupes we'd been living with in the past, adding a lot more detail and sharpness.  But Vinegar Syndrome's?  Wow.  Their transfer is 1.85, and while Code Red's is slightly open matte on the tops and bottoms, VS reveals a ton of information on the sides, particularly the left.  And the detail and colors are so much more natural, it feels silly to even detail it all underneath the screencaps above.  Just look at the leap the image's taken.
VS blu-ray on top; VS DVD on the bottom.
But here's an interesting and unexpected detail: not a difference between the Code Red and VS releases, but between the two VS discs.  Again, it's a combo-pack, with a DVD and blu-ray copy of the film in the same package.  But this is the first time I've ever seen the DVD and blu in a combo pack be different from each other, besides being SD vs HD.  The blu-ray is framed at 1.85:1, but the DVD is opened up to 1.78:1.  It's essentially the same transfer, but the blu is slightly matted to the proper theatrical ratio, while the DVD leaves those off, revealing slightly more picture along the top and bottom.  A strange choice, or more likely an oversight, but it's interesting and gives the DVD half of the pack at least a little more valuable to blu-ray viewers.
the composite footage in the VS blu-ray
And there's one more thing to examine while we're on the subject of picture quality.  The Vinegar Syndrome release is a composite cut.  The original negatives were missing about six minutes of footage, which had to be restored from an old tape, which they matted to match the rest of the film (i.e. a rare, acceptable instance of zoom cropping).  The inserts appear throughout, but mostly come in around the climax.  This complete version, with the inserts, matches the bootleg cut; and this film would be missing some seriously important parts without it.

Vinegar Syndrome's blu features the original mono track in a strong DTS-HD presentation.  Surprisingly, even the scenes taken from the tape source seem to have the same high quality audio, or VS did a terrific job cleaning and matching it.  Either way, I'm impressed.  They've also created English subtitles for the film, which Code Red lacked.
Now, Code Red's DVD was not barebones.  Besides your standard collection of Code Red bonus trailers, there's also a funny intro to the film by actor Robert Forster, who wasn't in The Undertaker, but was a friend of Joe's.  He then comes back for the disc's main bonus feature, where he and his daughter (actress Kate Forster, who also worked on a film with Joe) share memories of Spinell.  It's short, but a nice little inclusion; and anybody buying this crazy DVD is probably coming from an interest in Spinell, so it's good to have here.
But again, Vinegar Syndrome comes to win, with a great collection of special features.  Of primary interest are the audio commentary and on-camera interview with William Kennedy.  He's the film's original screenwriter, plus co-director and actor (he played one of the cops).   He has a lot to say - thankfully, the interview and commentary don't have him repeating all the same anecdotes as so many DVDs do - and answers almost all of the questions this film raises.  I do wish he'd talked more about the Death Merchant cut, particularly the reason for its being created.  But he delves into just about everything else that went on behind the scenes of the film as well as some more stories of Spinell's life.  We also get about 9-minutes of outtakes which features some additional (improvised?) monologing by Spinell, various alternate and extended takes, and an alternate "European" version of one shot featuring full front nudity not shown in the final film.  Then there's a promotional video - essentially an extended trailer than plays like a highlight reel of the film's kills - and a cool photo gallery that gives an extra glimpse at the scenes behind the camera.  There's also a nice booklet with an essay by Michael Gingold, but he frustratingly talks about how he tracked down many of the film's cast and crew to interview about this film, but then doesn't share what any of them had to say.  Oh, and if you bought the release directly from the label, VS's set comes in a windowed, blood red slipcover.
Vinegar Syndrome's restored original cut is definitely the version to start with, even putting aside the fact that they've got the advantage of an amazing blu-ray edition.  With the gorier kills, coherent plot and no public domain padding, it's clearly the cut most viewers will prefer to have.  But I guess Death Merchant was somehow the official finished film, at least for a while there, and you can't blame Code Red for presenting what the producers handed them.  And hey, if you decide you're really a fan of the film, it's actually great news that the two companies allow us to have both.  Because the latter's so altered, it's really its own, unique viewing experience.  This isn't like getting five versions of Brazil where you're like, "well, I think the narration's a bit different on this one."  I believe this may be the most extreme case of a radically different cut of the same film I've ever seen, and honestly, the new ending has to be seen to be believed.  So I'd recommend beginners start with VS, but fans get both for a combined, crazy special edition of a film that does deserve to be rediscovered.  Personally, I'm very happy to have both.

2001: An HD Odyssey (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

To live up to the Exotica of our site's name, I think I've gotta have a little more science fiction in the mix.  And so today's entry is an obscure, 60s British space romp a few of you aficionados may've heard of before called 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Directed by the great Stanley Kubrick and based on an Arthur C. Clark novel that was being written concurrent to the filming, 2001 isn't really "my" film.  I've certainly seen it now a bunch of times throughout my life and appreciate a ton of aspects about it and like it well enough, but it's not really one I'm drawn to or would have in my personal collection.  In fact, it's literally not mine in that I borrowed the blu-ray from my dad for this review.  😎  But I wanted to cover it here because I was very curious about the quality of its blu-ray.
If you're not at least passingly familiar with the gist of 2001, then I worry for the state of our culture.  But I will say that, even if it doesn't sound like your bag, it really is one of those films you should see at least once in your life.  It may be the strongest example of Kubrick's style of developing a handful of really powerful sequences and just linking them together to make a movie that resonates more than it gets hung up in plotting.  And more than any other Kubrick film, this is a spectacle movie.  Younger audiences who grew up on Star Wars sequels and CGI wouldn't see it now, but Kubrick was making the Jurassic Park or Matrix of its day in the sense that this was the film mainstream audiences had to go see to witness the new technology and envelope-busting effects.  Unfortunately, computers have killed that "how'd they do that" part of the fun; but the budget's still on the screen, that's for sure.
On the other hand, all these decades later, it can feel like a lot of fawning over effects that, now in 2016, we've seen a million times before.  Hollywood's never been great about living up to the "effects should serve the story" mantra, but at least now the editing picks up the pace.  I mean, there's a point to the slow pacing, showing how man's day to day life has both changed and stayed the same across the film's two eras and all, and in some sequences setting up an ominous tension.  The conflict between the astronauts and their on-board computer HAL midway through the film is as engaging as any masterful thriller you can point to.  But I saw this once with a film class, and for all his extolling the virtues and joys of 2001, the professor slipped out the back door once the lights were out, rather than watch it with us.  I mean, even my grandfather checks his phone during the infamous 9-minute "star gate" scene, and he has a rotary (ba-dump).  But seriously, I could've walked out and gone home for the day as soon as I saw our prof slip away, but I stayed to watch 2001 again anyway.  And that would've been my 5th or 6th time watching it.  Because it is a pretty great, interesting film.  And it helps that I have a pretty steady attention span.
2001's life on DVD has been interesting.  It's a major, flagship title for Warner Bros, and science fiction is always a big seller.  So you can bet pretty much the most famous, critically praised sci-fi film of all time is going to be available for purchase.  And yep, it was released a whole heap of times in one respect, and in another, only a couple.  See, MGM released it first in 1998, then the rights went back to Warner Bros, so they re-released it.  But it was pretty much exactly the same disc.  They released it individually and then as part of a big Stanley Kubrick Collection boxed set.  Same disc.  Same dusty old, non-anamorphic disc.  Then, in 2001 (appropriately), they remastered it, and put out a superior, anamorphic widescreen DVD, in two versions: the standard and a limited collector's edition with the soundtrack CD and a film frame.  And they released it again as part of a second, digitally remastered Stanley Kubrick Collection boxed set.
2007 was the next big year for 2001, because that's when it came out on blu-ray and HD-DVD.  But for people who hadn't made the leap to HD yet, there was a new 2-disc DVD special edition, which featured the new transfer created for the HD ports on an SD disc, plus - finally - a bunch of special features.  And yes, there was another Kubrick DVD boxed set featuring the 2007 versions, and that same content was used again in a 2009 TCM Greatest Classics set.  Next, Warner Bros put out that 2007 2-discer (still with me?) again as a budget single-disc version in 2011, minus most of the extras.  And they put it in their 2011 Stanley Kubrick: Essentials DVD collection, as well as on a 2012 4 Films Classics release and as a 2012 double-feature with Clockwork Orange.  Meanwhile, the blu-ray was reissued as a triple feature with A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, included in the 2011 Stanley Kubrick Limited Edition blu-ray boxed set, 2014's Stanley Kubrick: Masterpiece Collection and Warner's giant Best Of Warner Bros: 50 Film Collection.  And of course, that's just the American releases.
So that's basically a whole ton of repackaging the same handful of editions.  There are effectively three actual transfers: 90s non-anamorphic, 2001 anamorphic and 2007 HD.  And 2007 is pretty old for blu-ray.  It may be getting repackaged as recently as 2014, but that's still a 2007 transfer.  And that's really why I was curious.  How does a very old school blu-ray of a super lavishly shot film, one of the rare ones shot on 70 (or technically, I guess, 65)mm which most hold an immense amount of detail hold up today?  It was certainly receiving glowing, 5-star reviews at the time, but now that we live in an age where Q: The Winged Serpent gets a brilliant 4k scan of the original camera negatives, how does 2001 look?
top: 2001 DVD, middle: 2007 DVD, bottom: 2007 blu-ray.
Well, for a 2007 blu-ray, it still looks pretty good.  You can see a real increase in clarity (and a slight shift in framing) between the 2001 and 2007 DVDs, and I'm happy to observe another increase in clarity from the 2007 DVD and its concurrent blu-ray edition.  It's definitely sharper, the lines are cleaner, and the grain is, well... kind of smoothed away and not there.  I suppose grain would be a lot finer and harder to pull out of 70mm.  Hmm...  Look at the last image, that's some funky edge enhancement haloing around the people chatting, isn't it?  And I see some artificial sharpening or clarifying around the letters in the background.  I tell you what, the reviewers that gave this five glowing stars back in 2007 wouldn't give it the same rating today.  And fair enough.  Now is now, and 2007 was a different time.  I would've been right there alongside everybody else in 2007.
Maybe he just naturally radiates a Heavenly aura around the back of his head...
But what this suggests to me is that it's time for a remaster.  And are you telling me we can't pull anymore background detail out of a film shot on 70mm?  I'd still rate this as a pretty good blu, but I'm pretty sure we could do better.  You know, if Resident Evil: Extinction is still stuck with an old HD master, I don't really care.  In my heart of hearts, sure, every film should get the ultimate, high quality special deluxe edition treatment, but I can understand a label looking at their dogs and leaving them on the closet floor.  But this is Two Thousand and Fucking One.  Also, the LPCM and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes sound impressive, and I appreciate the wealth of foreign dubs and 18(!) subtitle options, but surely a historical film like this should include its original audio mix as well?
Extras-wise, Warner Bros finally pulled it out in 2007.  The 2001-era DVDs had nothing but the trailer.  Actually, the old non-anamorphic DVDs (both from MGM and WB) had an interview with Arthur C. Clark, which was surprisingly dropped from later editions.  But in 2007, they generated a lot of cool stuff, all of which is on the blu and 2-disc DVD set, including: an upbeat audio commentary by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, a terrific 45-minute British television documentary that includes its own interview with Clark as well as a ton of other key and secondary 2001 players, four featurettes, twenty-plus minutes each, which cover the science and impact of the film (Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001, Vision Of a Future Past: The Prophecy of 2001, 2001: A Look Beyond the Future and What Is Out There?), a 76-minute audio-only interview with Kubrick himself, a short featurette on the special effects and a photo gallery.  Plus the trailer.
So yeah, if you ask me, this 2001 should have a brand new blu, with a fancy 4k scan, the original stereo mix restored, and they could fish that old Clark interview back up to add alongside all the other extras.  Because I want to see the film done right for history and its fans.  But I probably wouldn't buy it myself, so I'm just speaking idealistically.  haha  At least, in the meantime, the current blu can be found surprisingly cheap (because it is so old), and it's pretty loaded.

The Best Salem's Lotses

I've never owned Salem's Lot before.  I always appreciated it.  I even saw a few scenes as a little kid when it aired on TV and they were some of the few really scary horror moments for me.  But the fact that it was made for TV did put me off a little in the prime days of DVD.  Couple that with the fact that it never got a special edition, or even could quite decide whether it should be the shorter theatrical cut or widescreen or the TV version or what, and I just never felt compelled to pull the trigger.  But now that Warner Bros has released a killer new HD restoration blu with an all-new audio commentary by Tobe Hooper at a sell-through price, and who could pass that up?  Especially since I've already got the sequel.
Stephen King novels don't exactly have a spotless track record for being adapted to film, especially not on television (remember The Langoliers?).  But this one nails it pretty hard, being genuinely creepy and atmospheric with some great, inspired vampire scenes.  If you want an idea of how influential this was, watch Salem's Lot and Fright Night back to back and count all the times they cribbed from it.  James Mason is one cool customer of a villain and David Soul (Hutch of Starsky and Hutch) is surprisingly good as the leading man.  Except for airing in fullscreen with a little extra reliance of close-ups, Hooper does a great job of making this feel like a big-budget film, with a sweeping score and some great effects.  In its full 3+ hour version, Salem's Lot takes it's time building a whole little world of characters to then revel in ransacking.
Is it perfect? Well, no.  As much as I enjoyed seeing Fred Willard perform (well) in a rare, serious part, we do spend the first ninety minutes or so following a sub-plot of him having an affair with Bonnie Bedelia behind George (Law & Order) Dzundza's back, only to have it make absolutely no difference to the overall story (spoilers, I guess? lol).  King likes his over-the-top Norman Rockwell meets broad satire style ensembles, and while Hooper thankfully plays that down and keeps most of the characters real, there are definitely hints poking through.  Plus, the story's Mexican wrap-around does come from the novel, but it just doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the picture.  And a lot of camera set-ups have a cheaper, flatter feel than we probably would've gotten from an actual movie.  ...But for all of that, it's still pretty great.
Like I said, I've never owned it, but Salem's Lot has been available on DVD since 1999.  You know, one of those crappy snapper cases and everything.  It was full-screen, but in this case that's acceptable.  But still, for a 2016 blu-ray, the master was too old to just slap onto an HD disc like the major studios do with a lot of their catalog titles.  So we get a brand new transfer.  And which version of the film?  It's a hybrid of the longer television version but including some of the extra violent bits shot exclusively for the foreign theatrical version.  So for fans wondering: Willard puts the shotgun to his head, not in his mouth; and yes, Ed Flanders gets gruesomely impaled.  It's fullscreen.  And it's all edited into one long movie, as opposed to being in two parts with their own opening and closing credits like it originally aired.
And boy does it look great!  The detail is so fresh and naturally film-like.  Warner Bros hasn't put out much information on what they've done that I've seen, but it looks like they've made taken a fresh scan of the original negatives.  I definitely wasn't expecting it to look this good.  They opted for fullscreen, which does feel a little boxy with a lot of free space sometimes; but you really can't fault them for going with the OAR.

The DTS-HD audio is also pretty full and clear, so Salem's Lot doesn't feel creaky at all here.  Warner Bros has also included optional English subtitles, plus subs in 13(!) other languages and five audio dubs.  WB really went all-out here.
But is this a special edition?  Ehh... it's right on the edge.  It's main extra, and the first substantial extra this film's ever gotten, is a brand new audio commentary by Tobe Hooper.  And it's pretty good.  On one hand, it's actually great, with Hooper answering a lot of questions that come up as a viewer, plus some interesting anecdotes you never would've thought to wonder about.  But on the other hand, presumably to pace himself for a commentary that's over three hours long with no moderator, he pauses.  Like all the time.  He basically says a paragraph's worth of stuff, pauses, then another paragraph's worth, and so on.  So when he does talk, he's not stretching for things to say or low on energy, but that leaves a lot of dead air interspersed throughout.  So it's definitely worth the listen, but also takes patience.  But unlike some other slow commentaries, that patience is rewarded.  That and the theatrical trailer are all that's here, but that's still a big step forward.
Return To Salem's Lot, meanwhile, cannot be said to be a true sequel to Salem's Lot.  Not only do none of the characters return or get a mention, but the history of the Salem's Lot vampires as told in Return directly contradicts what we saw in the original.  This cannot be the same town after the vampires took over in the first one.  But, having watched them back to back for the first time after previously only having seen them years apart, there are enough similarities that I'm sure Cohen was at least making intentional nods back besides placing more vamps in the same town.  Both have a middle-aged man and a teenage boy as the vampire fighting leads.  Both films opening scenes are in Mexico, which is an odd choice both times.  There's a scene of a child vampire hovering outside a window beckoning the teenage boy to let them in, a clear reprisal of one of the original's most iconic scenes.  Of course, in both films, the vampires mostly look like typical humans with fangs, but the biggest baddest one is a blue, monstrous one.  And there are plenty more I could list, including this fun fact: because they couldn't afford to burn a whole house down, Hooper took b-roll footage that wasn't used in Eli Kazan's 1969 film, The Arrangement. And when a completely different house burns down in Return To Salem's Lot, Cohen clearly used the same Kazan footage.
2016 Blu of Salem's Lot on top; 2006 DVD of Return to Salem's Lot below.
Salem's Lot fans looking for more of the same are surely disappointed by this film.  Scary vampires really aren't what's for sale this time around.  But if you're a Larry Cohen fan, you should be happy.  There are his usual clever moments, there's Michael Moriarity giving another great and quirky lead performance, and just as you think maybe you're getting a little bored with his character and he's becoming too much of a generic, straight leading man... in comes Samuel Fuller as one of the most entertaining characters in any vampire movie ever.  Also look for Tara Reid looking lovely in her first acting role, Andrew Duggan in his final role and Cohen regular James Dixon, who this time also gets a co-writing credit.  This isn't a terribly ambitious picture; and Cohen's let it be known that he only made the film as part of a contract so Warner Bros would fund It's Alive 3.  It's no passion project.  But if you want a low-key enjoyable watch, hey, here ya go.
For ages, Return To Salem's Lot was unavailable on DVD, which was awfully frustrating for a Cohen fan like myself.  But in 2006, Warner Bros released it in Germany under the title Salem II: Die Ruckkehr, as an anamorphic widescreen disc to boot!  More recently, in 2010, Warner Archives finally released it, and that's anamorphic widescreen, too.  Certainly, I'm happy to have the properly pressed DVD rather than an MOD DV-R; but honestly if I didn't already own it, I might take the Archives version as "close enough" to save myself the trouble of importing.
Yeah, it's a little soft and obviously standard def as it's a DVD, but I just fired this up on my 65" and it still looks surprisingly good.  Solid darks, no interlacing.  It's basically 16x9 exactly, but with a little bit of blank space in what would've been the over-scan area, giving us a 1.79:1 aspect ratio.  This could definitely stand a bump up to HD for better compression, and a new scan of the original elements could look even better; but for a plain old DVD, you can't really ask for more than this.
And yes, it's English friendly.  It has optional German subtitles, but they're removable directly from the menu or the remote, and it gives you the choice of the original English audio (mono in 2.0) or a German dub. Unfortunately, it has no extras, not even the trailer (neither does the Warner Archives disc), except for a slightly amusing commercial that plays on start-up.  But it does come in a cool, red case.

I suppose I should mention that there's a Rob Lowe remake of the original, too.  To its credit, it's also a two-part TV series, meaning it didn't have to compress the characters and details.  It updates the story to 2004, forsaking the scary atmosphere for internet references, lame quips and rapping, but it's got an interesting supporting cast, including Donald Sutherland, Andre Braugher and Rutger Hauer.  The bulk of the acting and writing, however, is awfully stilted to the point of sometimes being embarrassing.  Lowe's narration is downright painful, and the CGI looks like cartoonish garbage, unlike the effects from the 1970s.  So give it a pass unless you're a serious fan who just wants to see what's been changed or kept faithful between this, the original film, and the novel (the most notable being that the vampire Barlowe is back to being a speaking part, more teenage characters, major scenes take place in a different order, the priest has a bigger part and there's no Mexico material).  But if you must, Warner Bros did at least put it out as a no frills, widescreen DVD in late 2004.
So, Warner Bros has finally done Salem's Lot justice.  They also released great new (and affordable) blus of Stephen King's It and Cat's Eye at the same time.  And apart from the lack of special features, they did alright by Return To Salem's Lot, too, at least for DVD.  I'd certainly be happy to see a special edition from the likes of Scream Factory, but Warners doesn't like to license their titles out, so I wouldn't expect one anytime soon.  This is probably the best we're going to see for any Salem's Lotses for a long time, and in the case of the original, it's actually pretty impressive.