The Undertaker (1988)

Mining the depths of bad taste for movies will lead you through a lot of crap. Much of it is stuff that’s entertaining, probably for the wrong reasons. However, sometimes you find a gem, not notable for its quality but because of its rarity or its surprising significance in the career of a particular actor, director, writer, and so on. This is the tale of one such gem, a craptacular vision that isn’t even properly edited and caused the lead actor to hide it for the rest of his unfortunately short life until it popped up decades later, horribly mangled by a distributor before finally seeing a proper but extremely limited physical release. But more on all this later.

A mortician named Uncle Roscoe is secretly a serial killer and necrophiliac who may have been driven to murder by his interest in a weird C-grade movie about a Satanic cult. Unfortunately for Roscoe, his nephew Nicky starts to get an idea of what he’s up to. Nicky reaches out to his professor about Roscoe’s possible tendencies towards murder and other dark tastes, and they investigate but find nothing really damning. Unfortunately, Roscoe finds out about it, kills Nicky, and when the heat starts to build, he claims the boy ran off after admitting to multiple murders to him. Yet as the noose begins to tighten around Roscoe, he tries to murder his way out. All of this occurs before the sudden shock ending which comes out of nowhere in the ten seconds of the film. And I mean absolutely out of nowhere. I won’t ruin it, but I will ruin that there is a surprise which left me wondering what the hell kind of turn this movie had just taken.

The Undertaker had a problematic production, to put things mildly. First, there was no actual director for the movie; instead, the screenwriter, producers, and cinematographer all took turns. The crew also appeared in bit parts and as background actors throughout the film, because we’re not just in low budget territory, we’re in ultra low budget territory. This is surprising, because lead actor Joe Spinell fought hard to get the lead role as Uncle Roscoe and even brought his girlfriend at the time and had her cast as the first of Roscoe’s victims. He apparently disliked the end result so much that he kept hold of the master copy until his death a year later.

Do you know Joe Spinell? You should if you’re a lover of cult cinema, even if you’re not a fan of his particular additions. A long time friend of Sylvester Stallone, Spinell managed to get supporting roles and bit parts for some extremely well known films, like The Godfather, Rocky, Sorcerer, Taxi Driver, Cruising, and more. He also managed to find his way into weirder films, like Forbidden Zone, Vigilante, and Starcrash. But Spinell’s greatest contributions to cult cinema came when he took the lead role. In 1980, Spinell co-wrote and then starred in the infamous Maniac, a film that earned him a spot on the Video Nasty list in the UK and resulted in criticism, protest, and censorship in the United States. It also furthered Tom Savini and William Lustig’s careers, led to an eventual remake starring Elijah Wood, and gave us one of the two greatest head explosions involving a shotgun, the other being in Cronenberg’s Scanners. Spinell then went on to star in the strange and absurd The Last Horror Film as another weird loaner with an obsession, this time about horror movies and a particular actress. While it’s a horror comedy, it helps to know that it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek going in. Either way, Joe Spinell’s place in horror lore was cemented with these two films, with The Undertaker serving as a final piece of a trinity of terror.

Unfortunately for all of us Spinell fans, The Undertaker wasn’t truly finished. Filming was completed, but the current state of the edit has problems, especially towards the end. The picture ends up falling on the short side too at under 90 minutes officially. Despite having lobbied so hard to get it, Spinell apparently wasn’t happy with the end result, so he kept the master and wouldn’t showcase it, hence it was never released. After his death in 1989, bootleg copies appear to have bounced around before finally ended up in the hands of Code Red in 2010. With less than an hour and a half of footage, they decided to recut the film and splice in public domain footage to pad the run time. This led to a change in title, with The Undertaker becoming Death Merchant. Finally, in 2016, Vinegar Syndrome got a copy, restored it, and did a limited run of the film on Blu-ray in its original state without the changes that Code Red made, thus marking the first time The Undertaker ever saw an official release. While it can now be found on streaming services such as Amazon Prime, that it’s available at all is a miracle.

As I have already mentioned, Joe Spinell died only a few short months after filming was completed. Spinell was born with hemophilia and suffered from asthma, and his bouts with alcohol and drug addiction didn’t help his health situation. It also led to personal conflict, such as a falling out with friend Sylvester Stallone nearly a decade prior while filming Nighthawks. On his last day, Spinell wasn’t in the best shape and managed to injure himself in the shower; his hemophilia caused him to bleed to death as a result. We lost a greater actor than we realized.

The Undertaker is not a good movie, but it is worth noting that Spinell is what makes the picture worth watching. He’s striking in his scenes, providing gravitas in a movie that feels populated with regular folks trying to get into a movie. When Roscoe lies, murders, and plots, Spinell is perfect, and whether he’s talking with a grieving family or calling someone a moron for getting in his way, he makes the character feel disturbingly human.

Joe Spinell, we cult fans salute you.

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