Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Undertaker, The (1988)

...aka: Death Merchant, The

Directed by:
Franco De Stefanino

The last hurrah for character actor Joe Spinell, who appeared in everything from THE GODFATHER (1972) and ROCKY (1976) to TAXI DRIVER (1976) and CRUISING (1980) yet remains best known to us horror buffs for producing, writing and starring in the gory 80s psycho flick MANIAC (1980). Spinell wanted to do a sequel to that film and even shot a 10-minute promo with Buddy Giovinazzo (COMBAT SHOCK) in 1986. While he and the director searched for funding, Joe appeared in a half dozen other films to help pay the bills. This was one of those... and it turned out to be his final film performance. After securing the funding for MANIAC 2, Spinell was found dead in his apartment in January 1989 of undetermined causes that people still speculate about to this day. But the question remains: Is THE UNDERTAKER an enjoyable final showcase for the late, great actor? I'd say yes and no. It's a cheap and uneven exploitation flick and Spinell certainly deserved better material than this, but it's also quite fun and I can't say that I was ever bored watching it. Spinell seems in pretty bad health throughout and some of his dialogue is unintelligible, but he does gets to sob a lot and do those great bug-eyed intense looks while killing, which will instantly bring MANIAC to mind.

Roscoe Holland (Spinell) is an undertaker who runs his own funeral parlor alongside his completely oblivious, borderline-senile wife Hazel (Martha Somoeman). Roscoe's also a serial killer who stalks, attacks and kills young women, indulging in necro fantasies with the corpses, which he keeps stored in a special room in the cellar. Roscoe's orphaned nephew Nicholas (Patrick Askin) has vague memories of being sexually abused as a child by his uncle and suspects he's up to no good. The only person he has to confide in is his anthropology professor, Pamela Hayes (Rebecca Yaron). When Nicholas gets too nosy, he's knocked out, gagged, tied up and kept prisoner in the celler and when he isn't heard from again, Pamela and her roommate Mandy (Susan Bachli) start doing some investigating of their own. Some detectives, led by Inspector Barry (William James Kennedy, who wrote this), are also on the case.

Sufficient amounts of blood and gore? Check. High body count? Check. Sex and nudity? Check. Moderately fast pace? Check. Thoroughly depraved psycho killer? Check. I'd say this B-grade slasher pretty much does what it's expected to do. The dialogue's a bit cheesy, but that's just part of the fun, and while the supporting cast is mostly amateurish, the actors are likable and natural enough not to annoy. The main problem is that all available prints of the film are in God awful condition. The one I saw looked like a third generation VHS dupe.

Strangely, enough footage was filmed to release this in two drastically different forms. This one, and one titled THE DEATH MERCHANT (which was released in 1991). In the latter, Spinell's character targets females who do aerobics and work out. Code Red announced they'd be releasing this on DVD in 2008, but it hasn't happened yet.


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