14th Nov2016

‘Deathrow Gameshow’ Review (Vinegar Syndrome)

by Phil Wheat

Stars: John McCafferty, Robyn Blythe, Darwyn Carson, Beano, Debra Lamb, Mark Lasky, Bill Whitehead, Kent Butler | Written and Directed by Mark Pirro

deathrow-gameshow-cover

I have an a long history with Deathrow Gameshow, just not a history that actually involves seeing the film however! You see, when I was in college I used to spend all my free time at a local flea market scouring the stalls for ex-rental VHS tapes. And I stocked up big time. However there was one film I never bought but one that seemed to follow me everywhere I went… Deathrow Gameshow. Every stall seemed to have a copy of the old VHS tape but each and EVERY tape had issues: mold, damage, torn cover, etc. So I never bought it; and – unless I missed it – the film never made the transition to DVD here in England…

But now comes the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray which features a remastered edition of the film, in a release packed with a bevy of extras. You know, the kind of blu-ray release of an obscure(ish) film that could only come from Vinegar Syndrome… After all most of the Crown International films that have seen the light of day previously have typically been part of multi-movie packs or slightly dubious semi-bootleg releases (at least here in the UK).

Deathrow Gameshow tells the story of Chuck Toedan (John McCafferty), the host of the most controversial show on TV: Live or Die, where deathrow inmates compete against each other for a chance to beat the executioner. However, when he accidentally kills a mob boss of the most feared mafia in the city, a hit man tries to put an end to him and his show once and for all. As a battle of wits and survival ensues, Chuck is forced to engage in the very tactics he uses on his contestants, or die trying.

You know the phrase “must be seen to be believed”? Well that certainly applies to Mark Pirro’s film! Packed with outrageous scenes: from the secretary who is constantly masturbating at work, to the gloriously bad-taste deaths as part of the Live or Die gameshow, Deathrow Gameshow is just one bizarre scene after another; topped off by a three-minute dream sequence – presented like a film within a film, complete with credits et al. – that looks like an avant-garde 80s art piece!

From the outset Deathrow Gameshow just oozes that 80 vibe fans of the era love: big hair, crazy fashions, opulent lifestyles (our “hero” in true 80s styledrives a soft top Porsche and doesn’t leave home without his shades on!); plus it has a ridiculous synth-led theme song which is incredibly catchy! However this film is not all about the 80s vibe… Mark Pirro’s film also has is a satirical, dark edge – reminding me very much of Troma’s output from the same era – mixing sex, sleaze and over-the-top, politically incorrect comedy to perfection.

And that perfection is matched by the blu-ray package from Vinegar Syndrome. For a start, there’s absolutely no way a film like Deathrow Gameshow should look this good. The 2k transfer, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative, is stunning – yes there are some overly-grainy scenes but the care and attention given to what is, as VS put it, an “under seen piece of late 80s camp” is simply unbelieveable. Then there are the extras…

Not only are there TWO versions of the film on the discs (the originaly version and the 2015 “Directors Cut”, but there are also a host of other features, including 2 of director Mark Pirro’s early shorts: Buns (1978) and The Spy Who Did it Better (1979). The former is a bizarre film about Rex, a clearly schizophrenic man who is triggered to kill at the sight of anything hamburger related; whilst the latter is a James Bond homage. Also featuring John McCafferty, both films are presented in rough 4:3 transfers of the original Super 8 footage and both are marked by the same outrageous story tropes and bad taste humour that would be central to Deathrow Gameshow some 10 years later.

The other notable extra is a 30+ minute documentary entitled Revisiting Deathrow Gameshow, which features as series of talking-head interviews with writer/director Mark Pirro, actors John McCafferty, Robyn Blythe and Darwyn Carson, and some of Pirro’s regular crew members. The doc covers a number of subjects: including how the film was financed, the behind the scenes goings-on surrounding the making of the film, including the affairs between Pirro, McCaffery and the films leading lady Robyn Blythe; and the on-set troubles caused by some of the crew.

All in all this is another great blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome. If you like your films totally non-pc and in the worst possible taste then Deathrow Gameshow is an essential purchase. The film is available now.

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