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.

1 comment:

  1. I almost fell out of my chair when I watched Code Red's version. I spent most of the time thinking something was off, but then the wtf ending happens and I realized they had made a completely different film. I made a mad scramble to find my old bootleg. It too prefer the original cut, but the Code Red version is just so bonkers that I can't get rid of it.