A Pair of Vinegar Syndromes #2: Deathrow Gameshow.... The Only Way To Go

Released in the same DVD bundle as Code Red's Spaghetti Cinema and Six Pack #3 is the long-awaited special edition of Deathrow Gameshow, by writer/ director Mark Pirro. Known for getting 8mm horror comedies like A Polish Vampire In Burbank and Nudist Colony of the Dead distributed wide on cable and VHS, I believe Gameshow is the most mainstream and biggest budgeted of his films. It was 35mm with a theatrical run, was a big seller in the early days of VHS and I can certainly attest to the fact that it played a whole ton on late night HBO and Cinemax back in the 80s. I used to stay up all night to watch it as a kid, until I got savvy enough to tape it.

Update 1/3/15 - 1/4/20: You may've guessed this was coming after Psychos In Love yesterday, since it's the only film with a VS update that was still missing.  It might've hurt them to release this as a double-dip so quickly after fans had waited so long for Code Red's special edition.  That's certainly why I didn't jump on it right away.  But we're covering it here now, as we near the end of our update blitz.
So nostalgia definitely drove my excitement when I heard Code Red was planning a special edition for this release. It blew my mind that there would even be a special edition for this, and I couldn't wait to see if its outrageous humor would hold up as a grown-up. The basic premise is that death row inmates are given the option to appear on a network game show to win prizes in exchange for getting killed in silly games on national television. After a contestant at the beginning of the film fails to answer a trivia question to win a pardon, it's off to the guillotine - BUT, his family can still win a big cash prize if his head lands face up in the basket. It's kitsch, trashy, juvenile and loaded with enough jokes to rival a Zucker brothers film. As you can imagine, most of them are real groaners, but I have to say that some of are genuinely clever.
And yeah, there is an actual plot to the film. The host, who also happens to be a sexist heel, accidentally kills a big time mafia boss on his show. He appears on a talk show to debate the morality of his show with a beautiful feminist, and they wind up on the run from a crazed hitman played by character actor Beano. The film does a good job of keeping the predictable plot moving at a good pace, and never veering too far from the crazy game show itself, which after all is the draw of the film. It absolutely adheres to film rule #1: don't be boring. In some ways, the exaggerated cartoonish elements (for example, when the mob boss calls, the phone shakes and smoke comes out of it) remind me of early Raimi films, like Crimewave, only with more nudity. But between times changing in comedy and the audience becoming adult, the whole conceit of the show doesn't seem as delightfully demented as it did in the 80s, which once had me telling incredulous kids at school "you can't believe what I actually saw in a movie!" But it's still fun and very, very 80s, with an unforgettable theme song.
One last thing I have to address is the newer, director's cut of this film.  No deleted scenes or anything have been restored to the film, but if you listen to the audio commentary, you'll hear Pirro repeatedly identifying digital changes he made. He "Lucas'd it," he admits, pointing out how he added things like blood to the guillotine blade, and funny on-screen logos to a commercial that plays within the film. Blood and logos that the viewer never sees, because while the commentators are clearly watching this second version, we're watching the original theatrical version without those changes.  Until this latest release, you could only see the altered version if you ordered it specifically from the filmmaker's website... which is fine, since nobody wants CGI blood in their movies even when it was made like that in the first place. "Lucasing" a movie is pretty much universally acknowledged as a bad thing, and I gotta say, the added effects aren't exactly seamless.  But Pirro seems to prefer it, so for the curious, Vinegar Syndrome has finally made the special edition more accessible by including it as an extra on their release.  So now everybody wins because we can have both.
Original left, retouched version on the right.
Anyway, it took so long for Code Red to deliver the film after announcing it that I started searching around, and realized that it was included as a bonus film with another Crown International DVD release released in 2008 by BCI Eclipse, The Kidnapping Of the American President. I was expecting a junk-o VHS-sourced print, but amazingly it turned out to be a nice, anamorphic widescreen print. That DVD is now out of print, and going for outrageous prices on Amazon. I was actually able to rent it from Netflix, but now they no longer carry it. That same print turned up again in 2010, anyway, in a 12 film, 3 disc set (they're double-sided) from Rare Cult Cinema from Mill Creek Entertainment. That one's compelling as it sells for very cheap (about $6 new on Amazon, not even counting third party sellers).  It was great to have something to tide us over as Code Red's release got pushed back again and again.  But it finally came out in December 2014, and that was great have to tide us over until Vinegar Syndrome restored the film from its original negatives and released Deathrow Gameshow on blu in 2016.
1) 2010 Mill Creek DVD; 2) 2014 Code Red DVD; 3) 2016 VS DC DVD;
4) 2016 VS DVD; 5) 2016 VS DC BD; 6) 2016 VS BD.
So the Code Red and Mill Creek DVDs are virtually, but not 100%, identical.  Both have a lot of digital noise and are ever so slightly pinched and pillarboxed to 1.75:1, clearly utilizing the same master; but CR's colors are a smidgen richer.  Code Red had the edge already, anyway, because there is one clear difference between the two prints. After the closing credits, the film comes back with one more shot - a stinger.  Well, the Code Red's stinger is complete, but the Mill Creek one only shows a fraction, before chopping the actor's line mid-sentence, and cutting to the Mill Creek logo.

Of course, VS's restoration has far more than an edge.  The film is now matted to 1.85:1, and yet manages to unveil more information along all four sides.  The colors have been corrected and are cooler and more distinct (for example, the secretary's blouse is truly white).  Small detail is much clearer (we can finally read those post-it notes all over the walls), and a nasty collection of compression artifacts that've grown all over previous editions like mold has finally been cleared away.  Oh, and finally I have to point out that the Vinegar Syndrome's release is a DVD/ blu-ray combo pack; and they've continued their strange tradition of making their DVD actually open matte at 1.78:1, revealing even more vertical information than the blu.
And how about that director's cut (DC)?  Well, it fixes the DVDs' pinched aspect ratio slightly to 1.79:1, leaving just a single sliver of a vertical matte, but also zooms in on the picture ever so slightly.  It has slightly duller colors, with a bit more of a dusky red hue over the image.  The image is even softer with some unfortunate edge enhancement or something muddying the image, like this is a copy of a copy (which it probably is).  But the real problem is that it botches the frame rate, regularly double-printing some frames while interlacing - then correcting - others, creating ghosting effects and giving motion and panning a stilted jittery effect.  Putting aside any question of whether the film is improved or hampered by the creative changes made to the film, it's objectively the worst transfer of them all.

Every version just includes a simple mono track in 2.0, but it's now in lossless DTS-HD on the blu (though it's still lossy on the director's cut).  Vinegar Syndrome has also included optional English subtitles for the very first time.
But where Code Red really triumphed was in the extras. None of those old BCI or Mill Creek editions have any extras at all, not even a trailer. But Code Red has the trailer (plus the usual CR bonus trailers), and a whole lot more. First of all, the film has a very informative and engaging audio commentary by Pirro, stars John McCafferty & Robyn Blythe and co-writer Alan Gries, who mostly works as moderator. It's very upbeat, but not afraid to get critical and never lulls. Then, there's a great retrospective documentary called Revisiting Deathrow Gameshow, which features all the lead actors (except, unfortunately, Beano), lots of the crew and even the former VP of Crown International Pictures. It's over half an hour long and is a very fun look back on the shooting. And finally there's an old self-made documentary film by Pirro called Mimi Motion Picture Making from 1994. It's a 49-minute retrospective on Pirro's career discussing all of his films (including a segment on Deathrow Gameshow) with even more interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. All together, it's a wonderful retrospective you're sure to enjoy even if you didn't particularly care for the movie itself.

And Vinegar Syndrome?  They've carried over almost all of the wonderful Code Red stuff, except Mimi Motion Picture Making seems to have been just to much to fit onto a single disc.  That's because they've used that space to instead include two of Pirro's early short films.  Buns, from 1978, is a silly horror spoof about a maniac who only kills people who eat hamburgers, and stars Pirro himself and McCafferty in a smaller role.  And 1979's The Spy Who Did It Better is a 45-minute James Bond parody with McCafferty in the lead role, where the director has unfortunately added some more of his digital revisions.  These are distracting but never intrusive enough to spoil the fun.  VS also adds a brief director's introduction, TV spot, photo gallery, and includes reversible artwork.
Naturally, Vinegar Syndrome's is the decisive, definitive edition.  One thing the Rare Cult Cinema pack does have going for it, though, is that it also includes Pirro's My Mom's a Werewolf, which he wrote but didn't direct.  It's a fun flick, too, so that plus the price may make it a nice, cheap pick up for the casual viewer.  And dedicated fans may still want to track down the Code Red edition for the exclusive documentary.  But for most people, the VS is all you'll need.

4 comments:

  1. I once bought the "Special Edition" from Pirromount. There are not a lot of "Lucasing," but the film had a lot of issues and audio and video problems that were 'cleaned up.' It definitely was an improvement over the original version. It's very rare to find since I don't even think Pirromount is offering it on its site anymore.

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    1. Oh yeah? It would be pretty cool to see his special edition version and compare it to the this one. What I'd really like to see for a cleaned up Deathrow is a new scan of the 35mm in HD; but I imagine that would be no small feat to accomplish.

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  2. Pirromount DOES offer the remastered version on their website. I got it and the improvements are definitely worth it! I don't know why Code Red didn't offer that version, which is clearly a better way to watch the movie.

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    1. Oh, that's interesting! That's definitely been added since I posted. Surprising that he's openly competing with the Code Red disc, but it's cool that people have the choice (or can get both if they're big enough fans!). I think I still prefer having the original in my collection, but I'm certainly curious to see that special edition version.

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