Color, 1988, 88/83m.
Directed by Franco De Stefanino
Starring Joe Spinell, Rebeca Yaron, Patrick Askin, Susan Bachli, Martha Somoeman
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
When wild character actor Joe Spinell passed away in 1989, he left behind a bizarre legacy highlighted by his unforgettable starring role in Maniac and supporting roles in everything from Taxi Driver to Cruising. While the proposed sequel to Maniac never got beyond the promotional short stage, he did finish another slasher film just before his death, a largely unknown oddity shot in upstate New York called The Undertaker. Due to some bad distribution calls and a disappearing producer, the film was never seen in America in the immediate years following its completion apart from some rare, horrible-looking bootleg VHS copies traded on the fan circuit; rumors abounded that it had been finished for foreign distribution but only existed as a rough cut. In 2010, the first bona fide home video release came out on DVD with the onscreen title of Death Merchant, a baffling mish mash of nearly gore-free horror and odd comedy. As it turns out, that was just the beginning of this film's bizarre history when Vinegar Syndrome crafted its own 2016 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release, bowed as a Black Friday release sold through their site with an exclusive blood-themed slipcover. This release is touted as the film's first uncut release mostly transferred from the rediscovered original 35mm negative, and as it turns out, you might as well consider this a completely different (and vastly superior film) that happens to share some footage with that other cut.
In a nondescript American town, a greasy undertaker named Rosco (Spinell, of course) is apparently killing several people per week and indulging in implied necrophilia before collecting the bodies in baggies in the basement. Coincidentally, college tribal customs expert Professor Pam Hayers (Yaron) is lecturing on that same subject, and when one of her students, Nick (Askin), tells her he wants her to see something relative to the subject, she blows him off as a pervert. Turns out Nicky is actually Roscoe's nephew, and he finally talks her into going to the mortuary one night where he can show her what he's discovered about his depraved uncle.
That's really all the plot the two versions have in common; in The Undertaker, Roscoe spends his spare time repeatedly attending a sickie satanic horror film at the local theater to get inspiration for his murders, which tips off one of the movie theater employees; in Death Merchant, he instead sits around watching public domain horror movies (mostly with Bela Lugosi) including The Corpse Vanishes, Scared to Death and The Terror, which pad out the running time. The older DVD version also spends its entire first half hour babbling incoherently with lots of footage of an aerobics class (shot much later on different film stock) and random pieces of the original cut thrown in with no concern for narrative at all. (In fact, the Pam and Nicky characters don't show up until over a third of the way into the movie.) There's also a subplot about the police represented by slow-witted inspector (played by the film's screenwriter, soap actor William James Kennedy) and his chief (Kay-Hune) sit around working through clues (like "There are traces of semen on the intestine tissue") which only comes to some sort of conclusion in the original cut. The DVD packaging refers to it as "unfinished," which is putting it mildly; the disparity between the running times is actually minor compared to how little they truly overlap when seen side by side.
The Vinegar Syndrome release is actually an enjoyable, bona fide slasher film with a coherent narrative and way more Spinell, including an avalanche of gory scenes omitted completely from the other cut including a nasty bit with a mutilated, topless woman trussed up between two trees and a vicious, gory skull attack in a parked car. There's also a substantial amount of additional nudity, which of course makes it even sleazier. It's so vastly superior and radically improved in tone that it makes the differences between House of Exorcism and Lisa and the Devil look like nitpicking.
The older DVD obviously had to look better than the bootlegs floating around, though some brief scenes in the second half betray some weird tape noise with rainbow colors rolling across the screen. The only real extra is an intro and interview with Robert and Kate Forster talking about their memories of working with the "interesting" Spinell, though you also get the usual glut of Code Red trailers like Nightmare, The Carrier, The Visitor, Slithis, and Horror High.
The Vinegar Syndrome release looks pretty astonishing for 90% of its running time, allowing this to finally look like an actual professional production with a nicely vivid, detailed transfer up to the company's usual standards. However, a few bits (about six minutes' worth) had to be pulled from a VHS workprint, the only source in existence. Apart from a brief extension to the satanic movie within a movie, the bulk of that lower quality footage comes during the climax (which has no connection to anything in the revised cut) which explains the fates of several major characters. It's not optimal as the quality is dupey and sometimes difficult to see, but it's miraculous that this could even be assembled at all. Slasher fans who were completely baffled before should find this release to be a major revelation. The DTS-HD MA English mono is in fine shape, with optional English subtitles.
The mysteries behind this film's creation are mostly answered with a host of new extras involving Kennedy who, as it turns out, was actually one of the four directors behind the pseudonymous "Franco de Stefanino" credited on the actual film. (The others were producers Steve Bono and Frank Avianca and Blood Rage's Richard E. Brooks, according to the excellent liner notes by Michael Gingold.) An audio commentary with Kennedy and Vinegar Syndrome's Brandon Upson and a new 20-minute video interview with Kennedy (plus a brief video intro) covering all the bases including his appraisal of this as one of the best performances by Spinell (a troubled but "spiritual" person), the team effort of sorts behind the camera to direct the film, the identity of the first victim (whose murder is restored to its proper place here), the disaster behind its distribution and the reason no one heard a peep about it during its production and solicitation, and much, much more. Also included are nearly 10 minutes of outtakes (nothing drastic but some interesting extensions of the first mortuary scene, the satanic movie ritual, etc.), a gallery of production stills, and a 5-minute promo video presumably made to pitch the film to distributors. To put it mildly, it's an amazing slice of slasher movie archaeology destined to completely change the reputation of this film for good.
Updated review on November 25, 2016.