Driller Killer, The (Blu-ray/DVD)


Driller KillerStarring Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Distributed by Arrow Video

There is something to be said about directors who have successfully established themselves within the industry while also managing to remain true auteurs. It takes a real visionary to make films with little regard for commercial viability or mass audience acceptance. Abel Ferrara is one of those directors, known for his raw, uncompromising style that has resulted in the creation of at least a few undeniable cult classics. Bad Lieutenant (1992) and King of New York (1990) are incredible movies. Despite some rough early days (when he shot a porno, for example) his style has been evident right from the get-go, with his first picture, The Driller Killer (1979), filled with flourishes that have become his trademarks – religious iconography, troubled personalities, extreme violence, urban decay. Ferrara cemented his legacy as a notorious force of cinema when The Driller Killer was added to Britain’s infamous “Video Nasties” list of films banned from cinemas and video stores countrywide. It hit that list in 1984 and didn’t receive a fully uncut premiere until 2002.

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray debut for The Driller Killer suggests audiences “forget Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and The New York Ripper”, proclaiming this film as “the definitive look at NYC’s underbelly”. I know, I know… marketing, but I would never even joke about suggesting viewers could – or should – forget those truly seminal films. Ferrara’s power tool massacre movie does an excellent job of capturing NYC’s pretentious art scene as well as a growing noise-rock punk movement, all within the confines of a squalid, claustrophobic urban environment; however, the picture meanders about for too long. What might have been a rote city slasher is more of an expressionistic arthouse movie; a series of bizarre clips strung together by a threadbare plot. It’s respectable that Ferrara tried to do something different but the elements and story just never quite gelled for me.

Reno (Abel Ferrara) is an aspiring artist living with a lesbian couple in a filthy corner of Union Square. The stress of living in squalor is getting to him, as his art makes little money. With a stack of due bills and rent coming up, Reno is forced to visit Dalton (Harry Schultz II), an art dealer who occasionally buys Reno’s work. Claiming to be working on something grand Reno tries to convince Dalton to give him a loan of $500 but is rebuffed, instead being told that he will be paid a price commensurate with his work – when it is finished. This does not help Reno’s situation. A local punk band, the Roosters, takes up residence in an apartment near Reno’s, waking him up at all hours of the night with their noisy, repetitive attempts at songwriting. Mentally deteriorating and stressed out by life’s tolls, Reno finally snaps and begins to “clean up the filth” he finds on the streets, targeting homeless persons in his neighborhood and brutally dispatching them with a big drill.

Reno’s story is not all that compelling and Ferrara is not that good of an actor. What interest The Driller Killer does hold lies in Ferrara’s unmistakable eye for aesthetics and in his ability to perfectly capture multiple facets of NYC life. The art world scene has been seen as an abstract, hoity-toity field full of elitists and bullshitters. Art is nothing if not wholly subjective. Reno’s “masterpiece” he’s working on is actually a cool dynamic piece of a buffalo with lightning and splashes of color, yet when Dalton lays eyes on it he dismisses it as a piece of crap. Likewise, NYC has been known as a breeding ground for rough and raw music, specifically the punk and noise scene of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. The band featured here – far too heavily, in my opinion – is called the Roosters and their brand is decidedly abrasive and, well, annoying. Some scenes featuring their playing go on for so long it could be cut as a music video. Maybe this is Ferrara’s way of getting us inside Reno’s head, to be as disturbed and frazzled by the music as he is, but the point could have been made with a lot less of their “tunes”.

The film promises people will be killed by a drill, and in that respect it does not disappoint. I had only seen this picture once, nearly 20 years ago, and I forgot just how many hobos meet their demise at the pointy end of a drill bit. Although, wouldn’t Reno need a power supply for his drill? Cordless power tools were invented in 1961 but the model Reno uses looks like it would need a steady current to be able to drill so intensely. Am I thinking about this too much? Moving on… The kills here are done in that old-school, “buckets of blood” kind of way. Sure, you can usually see the latex when someone is getting drilled, and the blood is as candy colored as ever, but, well, I guess for me I just never tire of seeing old-school practical effects work. It’s fun.

Arrow Video’s release contains two cuts of the film – theatrical and a pre-release version containing around five extra minutes of footage. The booklet included with this release details all of the added scenes, complete with time code, but most of what was originally cut is superfluous. Ferrara’s preferred cut is the theatrical version, though he was happy to let Arrow release his initial cut when it was discovered last year. Although we’re only talking about five extra minutes the fact the film already feels overly-long should dissuade all but the most curious fans from giving that cut a spin. Ferrara’s slightly tighter cut seems to be the one to watch.

Although I was not exactly impressed by The Driller Killer in terms of plot, Ferrara does deserve credit for doing his best (however good that is) in a leading role and for accurately portraying the grit and scum of NYC’s nighttime underbelly. The story slowly becomes secondary until the movie devolves into little more than a series of uninteresting scenes as we wait for Reno to get his prowl on and drill a couple more heads. Still, fans of Ferrara’s work, especially his celebrated films of the ‘90s, will no doubt find some value in seeing how he began his craft back in these early days.

Ferrara shot The Driller Killer on 16mm, so don’t expect Arrow’s new 4K scan to blow anyone away with razor sharp detail or demo-worthy moments. The 1080p image is available in your choice of either 1.37:1 or 1.85:1 aspect ratios. The film was shot in the “Academy flat” ratio of 1.37:1 but was projected in theaters matted to 1.85:1, slightly cropping the picture. Honestly, the widescreen presentation is respectful enough in terms of headroom and framing that watching it likely won’t change the experience, but the 1.37:1 ratio does add to the lo-fi grindhouse feel. Expect to see a rough, gritty image with variable definition, overly consuming darkness, heavy film grain, and minor damage/dirt. Arrow has done the best they could for a movie shot as this one was, so their transfer is a triumph in that regard.

Audio comes in the form of an English LPCM 1.0 mono lossless track. The simple and effective synth score was provided by composer Joseph Delia, who has also worked on several other Ferrara films. The track sounds good considering the limitations of the source. Dialogue sounds muffled sometimes, usually depending on the room in which the scene was shot. The Rooter’s music will have you scrambling for the mute button. Subtitles are included in English SDH.

Abel Ferrara provides an audio commentary that is only available on the theatrical cut.

“Laine and Abel: An Interview with The Driller Killer” is a 2016 interview with Ferrara, who touches on a number of important moments throughout his life in just under twenty minutes.

“Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101” is a visual essay covering all of Ferrara’s work.

“Mulberry St.” is a feature-length documentary shot by Ferrara, detailing the Manhattan neighborhood where he shoots all of his films.

A trailer is also included and there is a booklet filled with writings on the film and pictures.

Special Features:

  • Brand new restoration from original film elements
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
  • Original Uncompressed Mono PCM audio
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary by director and star Abel Ferrara, moderated by Brad Stevens (author of Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision) and recorded exclusively for this release
  • Brand new interview with Ferrara
  • Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101, a new visual essay guide to the films and career of Ferrara by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Cultographies: Ms. 45
  • Mulberry St. (2010), Ferrara’s feature-length documentary portrait of the New York location that has played a key role in his life and work
  • Trailer
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Michael Pattison and Brad Stevens


  • The Driller Killer
  • Special Features
User Rating 3.07 (14 votes)


Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter