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Case Number 20101: Small Claims Court

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The Undertaker

Code Red // 1988 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // November 12th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Paul Pritchard once worked as an undertaker, and was very popular. People were dying to acquire his services.

The Charge

The Maniac Who Terrorized New York City Is Back!

The Case

The Undertaker stars Joe Spinell, best known for starring in the 1980 shocker Maniac, which he also co-wrote. During a 17-year career, Spinell had small roles in the first two chapters of both The Godfather and Rocky film series', but is destined to be best remembered by fans of B-movies such as The Last Horror Film and the aforementioned Maniac. Shortly before his death in 1989 Spinell, aged just 52, finished work on The Undertaker, which, for a variety of reasons, disappeared without seeing an official release…until now.

It's evident early on that The Undertaker is an unfinished work. The plot, despite the filmmakers' best efforts to prove otherwise, is extremely simple. Uncle Roscoe (Spinell) is an undertaker going through something of a lean patch; business is, as they say, slow. So, rather than see his business go down the pan, Roscoe sets about driving up trade by committing a little murder. Unfortunately for Roscoe, his nephew, Nick (Patrick Askin), begins to suspect the grisly goings on just as a couple of detectives start snooping around the funeral home, investigating the numerous missing persons reported in the area.

Sadly, due to a combination of poor editing and an apparent lack of available footage, scenes are thrown together with little regard for such things as narrative, structure or coherence. Characters flit in and out of the story with little or no motivation; scenes frequently drag on too long or are hacked to pieces completely, and, annoyingly, there is an obvious use of both body doubles and recycled footage in a desperate attempt to plug the many holes in the film. A good chunk of the films 82-minute running time is taken up with shots of bustling streets, movies playing on TV (where Karloff fans can play guess the movie), and, most prevalent of all, lycra-clad women taking aerobics class or talking about their love life. Unless you're the type of viewer who is satisfied as long as you get a shot of naked breasts every few minutes, you're likely to find The Undertaker contains more filler material than any two of Nickelback's albums combined.

The film itself just meanders along, with only the faintest traces of a plot evident. Whole scenes are wasted with unnecessary conversations that fail to add to the story in any way; while Roscoe's acts of murder seem far too random, as if they were edited in from a completely different film. Worst of all is the film's finale, which features a typically stupid—though, in keeping with the rest of the film, adequately breasted—female character searching the cellar of the funeral home. Despite telling herself how dumb her actions are she persists in her search, which culminates in her coming face-to-face with a psychotic Uncle Roscoe. As Roscoe rises from his chair, laughing maniacally (thanks to a crummy bit of dubbing), the film abruptly cuts to a scene of Roscoe being attacked by a previous victim, before the frame freezes and, again, unexpectedly cuts to a bizarre shot of Roscoe in a coffin. The end. On my first viewing I suspected my DVD player may have malfunctioned, but alas, this was not the case.

The level of acting is such that, with the exception of Spinnel, there is little point offering a critique on it. Spinnel, who maintains a little of his former screen presence, is far from his best here; he's clearly not at all interested in the role, and is frequently guilty of a poor delivery of his lines, often slurring his words making dialogue incomprehensible. Admittedly the haphazard editing doesn't help his performance—in one scene Spinell is clearly waiting for the director to shout "cut" following an onscreen kill—but ultimately this just feels like Spinell going through the motions.

Although The Undertaker fails on all technical levels, it's true to say that many a slasher movie has been saved by the quality of its kills. Sadly, this is another area where the film falls short. I have to ask: where's the gore? Far too much of the slaughter goes on off-screen, with the camera cutting away from the action just as the claret is about to flow. The film also fails to create any sort of atmosphere, rendering it completely impotent.

Onto the disc's tech specs, and the bad news continues. A desperately poor quality soundtrack immediately jumps out at you. Dialogue levels are particularly uneven; in one scene the dialogue will be muffled and almost incomprehensible, while the next it may be crystal clear. The full frame transfer is a similar story, with an overly soft, noise-ridden image barely rising above VHS standard. Aside from a few trailers, the only extra on the disc has Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) discussing his relationship with Spinell.

I'd love to report that The Undertaker is a lost classic…but it's not. The truth is that this is a zero-budget, gore-free, clearly incomplete crap-fest that should have remained lost where it could maintain its mystique amongst Spinell's fans. Hats off to Code Red for giving said fans a chance to finally see the film, but unless you find a copy going extremely cheap, or you really get a kick out of bad movies, you're best left saving your cash for a more worthy release.

The Verdict


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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 40

Perp Profile

Studio: Code Red
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Bad
• Horror

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurette
• Trailers


• IMDb

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