DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987) — Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray Review

by Austin Vashaw

Release Details

Deathrow Gameshow arrived on Blu-ray on October 25th from Vinegar Syndrome.

This article contains several comparisons which contrast an older Mill Creek DVD transfer (“before”, left) with the new Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray edition (“after”, right). The frames aren’t necessarily exact matches, but should give a solid indication of the visual differences. Note the horizontally-compressed DVD frames have been resized to provide an accurate aspect ratio comparison, unavoidably introducing a slight bit of digital compression.

It’s 1987 and a new movie spins a high-concept near-future setup that provides material equally suitable to action, horror, humor, and satire: Death Row convicts are given to opportunity to win their freedom in a barbaric television game show that pits them against death, and it’s the hottest thing on TV.

That’s the premise behind the gladiatorial cinematic treasure The Running Man, but it also describes Deathrow Gameshow, which had the critical misfortune (but perhaps commercial boost) of releasing a couple of weeks after the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic. Beyond that game show premise the films are quite different, but the obvious comparisons were inescapable, and critics were quick to dismiss Deathrow Gameshow as a lesser knockoff.

Both films incorporate satire and humor, but whereas The Running Man is a testosterone-fueled action/sci-fi hybrid about a framed contestant running the game show gauntlet (and, yes, the better film), Deathrow Gameshow puts comedy at the forefront and sides us with the show’s morally conflicted host.

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In the very near future of 1991, Chuck Toedan (John McCafferty) hosts Live Or Die, a goofy “The Price Is Right”-style game show in which Death Row convicts vie to win full pardons, temporary stays of execution, or prizes for their surviving families — but also risk death in the high-risk games. Both Toedan and his show are controversial and widely criticized, but the host defends himself: it’s not murder because the contestants enter voluntarily, and he’s doing positive work no matter how things pan out. Violent crime is down, he saves the government money, and people are obviously entertained — the show is a big hit.

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These arguments do little to deter vocal opposition from (woefully named) moral watchdog Gloria Sternvirgin, who leads the charge against the show’s tasteless death and violence. Nor does it assuage the anger of the mafia, who have sworn to kill Toedan to avenge their Don, who suffered an especially humiliating and undignified appearance on the show which ended in his death by electrocution.

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The bad guys continually fail to take Toaedan out, until at last their top hitman, the slobby Luigi Pappalardo (Beano), decides he has to do the job himself. He shows up at the studio with his Mama (who wants to attend the taping of her favorite show next door), and what follows is a goofy farce that pits enemies Chuck and Gloria together against the rather unbelievable killer.

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Deathrow Gameshow is a relatively underseen bit of low-budget exploitation, but I found it surprisingly funny. The gallows humor is on point, and some of the film’s best gags are when the camera is pointed back at the giddy, hee-hawing studio audience — and it’s certainly not lost on me that Pirro could very well be judging — or winking at — his own audience.

The jokes range from clever satire and pitch black gallows humor, to silly slapstick, to outright tasteless vulgarity. A surprisingly high ratio of the gags land, and I chuckled throughout the film, sometimes in spite of myself. The film is both crass and corny, but its overall tone is witty and positive, and I liked it a lot more than I expected to.

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The Package

Vinegar Syndrome has released Death Row Gameshow in its definitive edition, a feature-packed dual format Blu-ray and DVD edition that features the original theatrical presentation, scanned and restored restored in 2K from the original camera negative. A barely different 2015 “Director’s Cut” is also included as a special feature, albeit in much lower quality.

The new edition release comes packed in a clear case, and features reversible cover art.

The movie was last seen in a slick but obscure DVD edition from Code Red DVD, but has most commonly been available in Mill Creek’s Rare Cult Cinema multipack. The comparisons in this review use the Mill Creek disc (which, according to DVD Exotica’s review, is nearly identical to the Code Red disc). As the screen comparisons make clear, the new restoration is with vastly improved, not only in clarity but also much better color saturation, not to mention the absence of the DVD’s significant combing.

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Special Features and Extras

The disc ports over the Making Of documentary (now in HD) and commentary from the Code Red DVD edition, though not the 1994 “Mini Motion Picture Parketing” extra. It has two other 70s shorts instead, though, plus a number of other new features.

Commentary Track With Director Mark Pirro, Actor John McCafferty, Actress Robyn Blythe

Revisiting Deathrow Gameshow (32:30)
 Unique in that it was created by Mark Pirro and Pirromount rather than a publisher or outside group. Low budget woes, fun stories, and game cast and crew members make this a fun and informative Making-Of featurette.

2015 Director’s Cut (1:20:30)
 Identified as a bonus feature because it’s in SD (upscaled to 1080p), this cut is essentially the same but with minor accents added, such as visible crackles of lightning in the mob boss’s electrocution scene. The end credits have also been redone (poorly).

Short Films Introduction by Mark Pirro (1:15)
 Mark introduces the two previously unreleased late 70’s shorts included on the disc, which had a combined budget of less than $2000. The films include credits by many cast and crew members that would continue to work on Pirro’s films, and are effectively making their public debut on this disc. A bit disappointingly, both films have newly-redone digital titles which sharply contrast the films’ low-fi aesthetic.

Buns (1978) (20:44)
 A mentally disturbed “Hamburger Killer” stalks the streets murdering unsuspecting fast food diners in this horror-comedy oddity. Not great, but the surprise ending is worth it.

The Spy Who Did It Better (1979) (45:43)
 This early short by Mark Pirro is a James Bond spoof, more ambitious than Buns but honestly kind of dull. Interesting mainly for pretty cool henchman called “Eyes”, and in that star John McCafferty actually looks a lot like Austin Powers.

Theatrical Trailer (2:16)
 “Red Band” Trailer

TV Spot (0:42)

Image Gallery

Director Bio

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 Deathrow Gameshow — [Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format]

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