Joe Spinell cannot die. Yet he has been dead for almost fourteen years. The sweaty, pock-marked Maniac is a beloved figure in retro slasher history, but he did several movies that were essentially variations of the same figure. We’ve been blessed with Spinell popping up every few years in another long lost lumbering, muttering role. The essentially short film Maniac 2: Mr. Robbie is in print on various DVD extras. Video obscurity The Last Horror Film enjoys wider appreciation thanks to the Troma Special Edition. And the longest holdout, the unfinished film The Undertaker ended its long road to official completion and release with Code Red DVD’s 2010 release. Long live Joe Spinell.
In his review of The Undertaker, Thomas Ellison exposed at length the patchy editing of what seemed to be an unfinished movie. His comments ended up being right on the money because the copy Thomas reviewed, and indeed the movie everyone saw prior to the release of Code Red’s DVD was a grey-market assembly cut VHS that originated at conventions, sold by one of the producers. Code Red DVD released the first official release of the film in 2010, and unbeknownst to many, it is a very different movie. Literally. The cover says The Undertaker, but the movie inside is actually Death Merchant.
After The Undertaker was was unfinished and unreleased, it was sold to Double Helix Films, who brought in a new director (Jim Markovic) and cinematographer (Peter Davis) to shoot additional scenes to be re-edited into a final version entitled Death Merchant (a catchy theme song was also recorded). The results were well-received by Double Helix who would next hire the two to shoot Sleepaway Camp IV, which ironically itself was ended prematurely. DHF’s death knell when the video market bombed out kept a number of movies on the shelf, not just SC4 but Death Merchant too.
The additional material was composed of hot chicks working out in the gym, some glorious 42nd St. exterior footage, and several vignettes featuring a gloved hand-double for the late Spinell in what would be a completely new angle of Joe Spinell’s Rosco being so much of a movie buff as to partly explain his mania (this harkens back to Spinell’s character in The Last Horror Film). Archive footage from older public domain movies like The Corpse Vanishes was implemented – many DVD reviewers have complained that the footage was used to pad the movie, however, it was instead used for the aforementioned plot point (the movie is even mentioned by characters in the reshoot material). There was plenty of material from the original unfinished shoot to pull from, but not all of it was actually relevant to telling a quicker-paced story.
Under the title Death Merchant, it’s not just the new material that makes it a different movie. It was completely re-edited from the ground up. The movie now has a more standard slasher film pacing with the killscenes spaced out throughout the story, and the abrupt starts and stops of story chunks have been better intermixed to create a linear plot and supporting subplots. Rosco’s financial motivations are made clear from the beginning and random kills now become pre-planned stalks. The climax is now less downbeat regarding the fate of the heroine. The depressed organ score of the rough-cut, while somewhat apt for a movie about a crazy undertaker was replaced with very 80s rock music, making this a more grindhousy effort.
What these changes have done is give the movie an identity more in line with what we’ve come to expect from a crazy Joe Spinell role. It now feels like the natural third chapter of the Holy Spinell Psycho Trinity that began with Maniac and continued with The Last Horror Film. In fact, fans of the latter really enjoyed the wacky ending between Spinell’s character and his real-life mother, so after The Undertaker‘s improbable but grim Pieces-like ending, a post-production ending was added, furthering Joe’s mother figure fixation from his other slasher roles and turning up the cheese to dizzy heights.
As per usual for the long-suffering company, Code Red’s DVD was not too appreciated upon its release. Complaints about it being “cut” overshadowed the historical importance of the finished version of an unreleased, unfinished Joe Spinell slasher movie hitting the shelves. While technically this doesn’t have every scene present in the rough cut, the rough cut doesn’t have alot of the material in this version either. The argument of cut vs uncut is kind of moot because the two cuts are virtually different movies created under very different circumstances for very different goals. The rough cut was the result of trying to make sense out of an unfinished movie shoot with a star that died. Code Red definitely should have created a deleted scenes segment to appease us, but the fact remains everyone has it backwards – this is not a incomplete version of the film. The bootlegged version everyone is familiar is the incomplete version. Semantics, perhaps? While basic gorehounds will enjoy the rough-cut more, this version serves Spinell’s legacy better.
Screen ratio of Death Merchant is full-frame, and the movie looks to have come from a slightly-beaten master video source. This movie’s photography has a unique look to it, with very vivid yet muted colors. It reminds me of when black and white movies were colorized and had a very gauche look. Skin colors are typically waxen-looking as if everyone is a walking corpse. In a movie originally called The Undertaker this kind of fits. In some scenes I wondered if they lit actors with neon lights – very in keeping with the awesomely trashy 80s feel. Death Merchant certainly has some quirky flashback charm.
As for the extras, they are thin on the ground (again, scenes from the readily available rough-cut as well as the rare trailer seen on Youtube could have been sources of special feature fodder). There are the usual assortment of Code Red trailers featured, and I get a kick out of these crusty old prints of movies like Nightmare and Slithis looking like they were kicked along the gutter of a 42nd st theatre. The only real extra is a gem though, “Remembering Joe” – an interview with Joe Spinell collaborator Robert Forster along with his daughter Katherine. The heartfelt reminisce is appreciated and goes towards Code Red’s DVD of Death Merchant being overall a loving eulogy for the late great actor.