The people at the Vinegar Syndrome imprint are like late-night college DJs, the ones who pull out weird and obscure music, sharing songs they had to track down for years after hearing them once in a bowling alley. They’re the hardcore fans, the crazy ones, who not only reference movies you’ve never heard of, but can quote them verbatim. There is a need for people like that in this world, the cultural archaeologists, the keepers of the flame.
Their latest excavation in the pit of forgotten film has brought forth The Undertaker, a slasher from 1988 which stands as Joe Spinell’s last work. Spinell was one of those character actors that you saw in a lot of different films. He was “that guy,” particularly “that Italian guy.” Whether he was testifying against the Corleones as Willie Cicci in The Godfather, Part II or collecting money from a numbers-running Rocky Balboa in the first Rocky movie, you always knew Spinell when you saw him.
As his career progressed, he became a mainstay in the horror genre. Spinell wrote and starred in the original Maniac. He made a strong impression in The Last Horror Movie, stealthily filmed during the Cannes Film Festival. While all of those performances were admirable, his greatest performance is easily as Uncle Roscoe in The Undertaker.
Hair slicked back, constant nervous grin, and sweaty brow, Uncle Roscoe is an unsettling character. His unctuousness around grieving families in his funeral home is offset by his fey madness displayed when killing his victims. His eyes dart from side to side, and there are times when Spinell breaks the fourth wall, almost trying to show us that he is having a great time.
As a slasher, The Undertaker is a mixed bag. While some of the gore effects are effective, others are hilariously bad. Roscoe using a toy hypodermic needle to paralyze a victim is particularly funny; the spring-loaded needle skips across the skin from earlobe to neck to shoulder without ever seeming to penetrate. His motive for killing has something to do with a movie he watches obsessively, and something to do with just wanting some friends hanging around. On hooks.
Parts of the original negative have been lost forever to the decay of time, and there are certain scenes that were inserted from a workprint VHS. This makes the video and audio quality spotty overall, but those scenes are necessary to flesh out the story. This is the most complete version of The Undertaker currently available. The scenes that were able to be fully digitally restored and mastered look fine.
In some ways, if you’ve seen one slasher flick, you’ve seen them all. There are certainly a lot to choose from. What makes The Undertaker special, and worth your attention, is that crazy over-the-top performance from Spinell. He may have appeared in higher profile films, but he never poured himself into a role quite like he did with Uncle Roscoe. Had Spinell lived, and had The Undertaker actually been released, we may have seen quite a few more Undertaker movies. He is a franchise-worthy character.
But the Golden Age of Slashers ended soon after the film was made, as did Spinell’s life, when he passed away in an accident at home. This release is vital for horror fans not only for what it is, but as a tantalizing glimpse into what might have been.
The Undertaker is currently only available at the Vinegar Syndrome website, It is a limited edition, and only 3,000 copies have been pressed.