‘Cannibalism was never so funny’
The Undertaker and his Pals is a 1966 American black comedy horror feature film directed by T.L.P. Swicegood. It stars Ray Dannis, Warrene Ott and James Westmoreland.
The plot roughly follows that of the British standard Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and is one of the first wave of gore films popularised by Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Moving the plot of Sweeney Todd away from the Victorian streets of London and placing them in swinging 1960’s Middle America, we find a financially strapped undertaker, Mort, (an underused Ray Dannis, also gleefully seen in The Corpse Grinders and The Severed Arm) employing the services of a local greasy spoon to help business along. The goons from the cafe bump off local ladies, giving the undertaker ‘half’ their capture to overcharge grieving family members at the Shady Rest funeral home; the other half is kept at the diner to turn into dinner for unsuspecting locals.
As we see the first victim offed (a Miss Sally Lamb, leading to the day’s special, leg of…oh, you guessed), her wailing mother is allowed to sob over her coffin, whilst her father is offered ‘grief therapy’ by Mort, a service which involves taking his mind of his sorrow by being told the bill ($144.98 suddenly turning into well over $1000). When he protests, he lists the many extras he has laid on and adds that replacing her severed legs with plastic ones is worth the price alone…although he could, for a reduced price, offer only half a coffin, resulting in a punch to the jaw.
The girls are stalked, captured and killed by creepy-looking chaps clad in motorcycle leathers and with their features obscured by large goggles and helmets; alas, they are routinely careless and leave a series of clues at the scenes of their crimes.
On the case is detective Harry Glass (Westmoreland, later seen as the lead cop in the sleazy exploitation classic, Don’t Answer the Phone!) who not only employs the victims, he also dates them and takes them to the diner of ill-repute. Unlucky! Everything you need to know about the film is made clear when the next girl to die, Miss Poultry, is later offered to patrons as ‘breast of chicken’. With a generous extra of cheese.
Much-maligned, perhaps because it rather over-promises and under-delivers, certainly in plot and script, there is still great entertainment here and it’s probably time to re-evaluate it. The laughs are much more obvious than an H.G. Lewis film, the actors all but staring into the lens after a corny gag to check that everyone got it. The gore is also more sparing but jolly and pleasing when it is used. As the end credits role, the deceased characters rise from their graves to bid us their farewells; it all comes across as a bit like British TV sitcom nightmare.
Swicegood, whose disappearance from the industry has not caused many sleepless nights, knew his limitations and the cheapness of the sets and the almost neon reds of the gore are as entertaining as the characters, only Dannis of whom is worthy of any real praise. Extra gore footage, previously shown to trainee surgeons as part of their training, was inserted into the trailer to add to the allure but never made the final cut.
In slight danger of overstaying its welcome even at a paltry running time of just over an hour, it quickly vacates the stage and gives enough laughs to satisfy all but the stoniest of horror viewers sensibilities. Undertaker is a classic slice of Americana, the happenin’ instrumental tunes of the soundtrack and vivid effects spliced together with actual gristle and organs, an overlooked touchstone for peddlers of schlock and eternal budget drive-in froth.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
“The Undertaker and His Pals is weird and yet strangely watchable. Of course, it helps that the film is only 66 minutes long and that the acting so cartoonish (and, I think, intentionally so) that it’s impossible to take the movie seriously. Fortunately, the film ends with clips of the entire cast coming back to life and laughing, letting us know that no one was intentionally harmed or traumatized…” Lisa Marie Bowman, Through the Shattered Lens
Buy poster (image at top of this page) from Amazon.co.uk