This 1973 Cinerama production, directed by the late Eddie Saeta, tells the story of a man named Fred Saunders (Barry Coe) who has recently lost his beloved wife, Laura (Jo Morrow), in a nasty car accident. He pines away for her much to the dismay of his friends and particularly his secretary, Sandy (Cheryl Miller), who carries a pretty serious torch for him. Fred is willing to do anything to get his wife back, and eventually learns of a strange occultist known only as Doctor Death (John Considine) who supposedly has the power to reanimate the dead.
Fred attends one of Doctor Death's demonstrations where he chops a woman in two and sends her spirit into the body of a beautiful, and recently deceased, woman. The success of the 'operation' is confirmed by one of the men in the audience (Moe Howard, of all people!), and the gears start turning in Fred's mind. He talks to Doctor Death about giving his wife's body a new spirit, knowing that in some ways she'll be different but that her body will still have the same traits and characteristics that it has learned over the years. For the fee of fifty thousand dollars, Doctor Death agrees, but when Fred finds out that murder will be involved, he turns chicken and tries to back out of the deal, even offering to let Death keep the money. Death, however, is bound and determinate to complete the procedure. The fact that Laura's body is rejecting spirit after spirit spurs him on a bit of a killing spree, though soon enough he figures out exactly which soul will work and sets into motion an even more devious plan than Fred could have ever imagined.
Doctor Death is a lot of fun despite the fact that you'll know pretty early on just where it's all heading. The plot isn't in the least bit subtle nor is it particularly complex. Characters aren't all that well fleshed out and while they're not what you'd probably call thin, they're close to it. There's little background information give about anyone, though Doctor Death is given the requisite origin story told via smoky, sepia toned flashback. Despite these flaws, however, the movie works quite well. You know what you're going to get right out of the starting gate and the film deliver's all of the spookshow theatrics you'd expect it to and it does so with a whole lot of wonderfully garish color and swanky seventies style.
Front and center in all of the wacky high jinks is, of course, Doctor Death himself. John Considine appears to be having a blast playing the villain here, doing so with tongue placed firmly in cheek for most of the picture but periodically raising the intensity level just enough to maybe-kinda-sorta pass for creepy rather than hammy. With a cocked brow and a pointed finger, the bearded villain, magically necklace always in check and with nary a hair out of place, gets to play evil magician, ladies man, swanky dude and psychopath as he sees fit and you can tell the man behind the mayhem is enjoying himself (if you don't believe me, watch the intro where he's obviously getting a kick out of reprising the role for the first time in over three decades). The rest of the cast may be more or less disposable but Considine makes the role his own and it's surprising he didn't wind up working on more horror pictures. While he had a healthy television career before and after this part, the only other notable horror credit in his filmography is The Thirsty Dead made shortly after this film (where he appears sans beard!).
While it certainly helps to be a fan of seventies cinema when approaching this title - the wardrobe and locations will leave no doubt in your mind as to when and where this is all taking place - the movie benefits from a good pace, some great cinematography, a few fun shock-gore effects and a resilient performance from Considine. This easily adds up to much more than the film's flaws, and it's really hard not to have a good time with this one.
NOTE: This review is based off of a test disc (though it appears to at least represent finished product.
Doctor Death looks excellent in this 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen presentation (transferred in HD from the original negative, according to the packaging). The progressive scan image shows only minutes instances of print damage and while it does have that odd sort of seventies softness to its cinematography, detail is generally pretty good. Color reproduction looks great, there's a lot of interesting primary hues used throughout the film, and black levels, while not reference quality, are quite strong as well. Flesh tones look good, there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement at all, and there's really not a thing worth complaining about here. All oddball seventies cult titles should be so lucky to look as good as this one!
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track on this is also quite strong. It's well balanced, easy to follow and free of any hiss or distortion. A few sequences sound a little bit flat but that's likely got more to do with the nature of the recording than with the DVD. All in all, it sounds quite good. No alternate language options or subtitles have been provided for this release.
Doctor Death himself, actor John Considine, joins moderators Scott Spiegel and Walter Olsen for a commentary track that spends as much, if not more, time discussing Considine's acting career than the feature Doctor Death but it's an interesting track even if it sometimes goes off topic. Considine is pretty realistic about the film, well aware of its pros and cons, and he's got quite a bit of good information to share about the cast and crew and what it was like to work on the picture.
Also on hand are two featurettes, the first of which is called Remembering Eddie Saeta which is a nice ten minute interview with the late director's son, Steve Saeta, in which he reminisces about his father and his career - including how Moe Howard wound up in this particular movie. Doctor Death Commands is a ten minute piece with John Considine, who shares more memories of the picture and his career in this interview. Considine and Spiegel also provide a brief, optional video introduction for the feature.
Rounding out the extras is a TV Spot for the feature, and trailers for a few unrelated Cinerama Productions - Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly, The Last Grenade, Goodbye Gemini, Follow Me, and Say Hello To Yesterday. All of the trailers (and the TV spot for some reason) are in anamorphic widescreen. No trailer for the feature itself has been included. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
Doctor Death is a whole lot of fun. It's campy and spends much of its running time with tongue placed firmly in cheek but Considine's performance is great and as predictable as the whole thing might be, it's ridiculously entertaining. Scorpion has done a pretty impressive job on the film's DVD debut, providing an excellent transfer, strong audio, and a nice selection of extra features as well. Highly recommended for fans of seventies horror.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.