Well, friends, this one’s gonna be brief because we’re venturing into uncharted territory a bid here — the flick under review today, 1988’s The Undertaker, is actually an unfinished, believe it or not, but it’s worth looking at as it features the last starring turn of the one and only Maniac himself, the late, great Joe Spinell.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is included in our annual Halloween horror round-up more as an item of interesting curiosity than anything else. Given that director Franco Steffanino’s’s film ran into the twin obstacles of no more funding and Spinell’s untimely demise before it could be hammered out into finished form, essentially what we’re got on our hands here, thanks to the fine folks at Code Red DVD (specifications of said DVD being rather minimal here — the full-frame transfer looks pretty sparklingly, surprisingly good for the most part, though it veers into crummy, even downright greasy territory in some spots, and the sound is hit-and-miss to put it kindly — the only extra, cool as it is, consists of the legendary Robert Forster and his daughter, Kathrine, sharing their memories of Spinell — keep in mind I’m not complaining here because the fact that this thing even managed to get a DVD release at all is something of a miracle and I thank Code Red for doing all us Joe Spinell fans a great service here) is a rough cut of the movie. There’s very little by way of gore or other special effects, the editing is choppy (jarringly so in several instances), and the overall feel is of watching some semi-competent student project that just happens to feature a recognizable (to fans of cult cinema, at least) lead actor.
That being said, you can see that The Undertaker had some — I repeat, some — potential. Spinell is back to doing what he does best, playing a skin-crawlingly creepy and pathetic psycho, this time out said psycho going by the name of Roscoe, a small-town New Jersey mortician who has a penchant for necrophilia, a nagging wife who won’t leave him alone long enough to enjoy himself with his corpses, and a big problem with his business — namely, there just aren’t enough people dying in his town for him to have a variety of sexual — uhmmmmm — “partners,” not to mention a steady income.
As you can imagine, his only alternative is to take matters into his own hands and steer some business his way by dint of his own actions.
Spinell isn’t at his Maniac – level best here, but he still turns in a solid enough intentionally-way-over-the-top performance, and the overall tone of the film seems to be pretty self-deprecating in terms of its outrageously tasteless subject matter, but you never know how it all would have turned out with a few more scenes, a final edit, etc. Maybe the filmmakers unintentionally did us a great service by pulling the plug on this thing, or maybe we lost another Spinell classic, it’s hard to say (well, okay, it’s not — the surviving mish-mash of material leaves the distinct impression that we needn’t worry too much about the latter).
Still, in my book at least The Undertaker is definitely worth a look. You have to be willing to cut it a hell of a lot of slack, to be sure, but getting the chance to see Joe Spinell in action one final time makes putting up with all of this flick’s — how shall I put this? — glaring inconsistencies more than worthwhile. They just don’t make lecherously slimy cinematic killers like this anymore, and even in a raw and incomplete production (that, it must be stated, looked like it was most likely doomed to be a substandard effort anyway given the rather second-rate nature of the script), Joe Spinell stands out.