Deathrow Gameshow.... The Only Way To Go

Released in the same DVD bundle as Code Red's Spaghetti Cinema and 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 int he 80s. I used to stay up all night to watch it as a kid, until I got savvy enough to tape it.
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 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.

Well, 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).

The prints is exactly the same. I took screenshots and had to carefully label them or else I wouldn't even be able to tell which shots came from which discs. Here's a couple of comparisons (Code Red on top; Mill Creek on bottom).
Oops - One frame off there!
The colors are a smidgen richer. Code Red had the edge already, however, 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. So Code Red is preferable already.

But where Code Red really triumphs is the extras. Neither of the previous editions have any extras at all, not even a trailer. But Code Red has that trailer, and a whole lot more. First of all, the film has a very informative and engaging audio commentary by Pirro, star John McCafferty 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 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.
Oh, and there's also bonus trailers for Death Machines, Top Of the Heap, Inn of the Damned, Zebra Force, Wheels Of Fire and Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary. Plus, like the other DVDs in the bundle, the disc opens with a trailer for Brotherhood of Death.

One last thing I should point out is that during the commentary, Pirro identifies digital changes he made to the film. 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 new version, we're watching the original theatrical version without those changes. To me, that's a very good thing, not a criticism, because while I can't judge effects I haven't seen, 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. But, for the curious, we do catch a glimpse of the sort of tinkering he's been doing thanks to a clip in that Revisiting feature:
Original on left, retouched version on the right.
Anyway, it's a landslide victory for Code Red's special 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. So that plus the price may make it a nice, cheap pick up for casual viewer; but for anyone just a little more interested in the film, I can't recommend the Code Red special edition highly enough.It's a real treat for fans.

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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