The one that’s got the most “street cred” is Blue Underground, because it was founded by none other than Bill Lustig, a genre fave thanks to directing Maniac, Maniac Cop, and the underrated Relentless. Originally an outfit that was producing bonus features for other company’s releases, they’ve been distributing their own titles for about a decade now. Italian and “grindhouse” type movies are their bread and butter (Deep Red and Lustig’s own Maniac are some of their more popular titles), but their output contains plenty of terrific, underrated but fan-loved gems. Their two disc set of Dead & Buried is incredible, featuring new interviews, a couple of commentaries, and other goodies (plus a gorgeous transfer of the film), and even though I’m not crazy about the film itself, their release of The Crazies (re-released around the time of the (IMO) superior remake) allowed fans to discover this often overlooked entry in Romero’s career.
They’ve also been behind several Dario Argento special editions: Suspiria, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, etc. You can also thank them for the “good” release of The Stendhal Syndrome – the film was originally released via Troma (!) and given a terrible transfer and a “special edition” that was more concerned with selling Lloyd Kaufman’s book and Toxic Avenger toys than giving fans some insight into what some consider Argento’s last great film.
Focusing even more on the grindhouse/cult titles is Code Red, which doesn’t have many A-list “gets” like Blue Underground, but is still responsible for delivering the first proper DVD releases of several cult titles, as well as introducing forgotten minor gems to the newer generation. The wacked out killer kid movie Devil Times Five is one of their bigger acquisitions, but sadly (as with many of their titles) the disc is now out of print, which is why you’re more likely to find a washed out transfer on a budget pack than on their restored release featuring interviews with some of the child actors (not Leif Garrett, sadly) and a commentary track – a damn shame, really. Still in print, however, is an equally impressive set for Beyond The Door, a batshit Exorcist/Rosemary’s Baby wannabe from 1974 that I recently saw for the first time. If you love profane children, this is quite possibly the best movie you’ve never seen – the little girl in particular drops curse words enough to make ME blush.
Like Code Red, Synapse focuses on more obscure/cult titles; films that the average horror fan may only know by name, like Vampyros Lesbos and Nail Gun Massacre, plus a lot of hilariously lurid entries like Entrails Of A Beautiful Woman and even something simply called Graphic Sexual Horror (Special Edition). Synapse is also responsible for the 42nd Street Forever trailer compilations, which are amazing to put on at parties or gatherings. They have put out a few mainstream titles, such as Stepfather 2 and the Romero documentary Document Of The Dead, but if you have a lot of Synapse titles in your collection, I think you can officially call yourself a hardcore horror fan.
Same goes for Grindhouse Releasing, which is owned by Sage Stallone (more than making up for "Get him dad, he took my room!" in the process) and Oscar winner Bob Murawski. While their DVD output (which is distributed by Ryko) is much slimmer compared to these others, what they lack in quantity they more than make up for in quality. Who would have thought that we'd have a lavish double disc set of Pieces or Cannibal Holocaust? They've also gotten involved with theatrical releases, treating moviegoers to a beautiful restored Evil Dead as well as the late Duke Mitchell's long lost Gone With The Pope.
Shout! Factory is one of the most prolific distributors going these days, thanks to their strong relationship with Roger Corman, focusing mainly on his 70s and 80s genre flicks like Piranha, Galaxy of Terror, Humanoids From The Deep, and Death Race 2000, all with tons of bonus material (some spread across two discs). You can also thank them for re-releasing the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy on DVD after a long moratorium. Not only were the movies present uncut (!), but all had commentaries and retrospective documentaries, with plenty of candid stories. And that’s part of the fun of just about every disc mentioned in this article – the movies are so old and the original distributors are gone or forgotten, so few participants feel the need to bite their tongue when discussing some of the less-wonderful aspects of the productions.
I guess it would be weird not to mention Anchor Bay, since they were sort of the golden boys of special editions back in the early days of DVDs. They were the ones doing collectible packaging (read: it was cool but now it just annoys you because it doesn’t fit right anywhere) and two disc releases before anyone, though lately they’ve focused beyond horror and acquire far fewer library titles. Hell they’ve even seemingly given up on re-releasing Halloween over and over, and have let the rights to the Evil Dead sequels move on to other companies (Lions Gate is putting out a new Evil Dead 2 disc today, in fact). But while their releases may be few and far between, they’re still top notch; whether or not the movie deserves it is debatable, but those crazy Children Of The Corn fans must be ecstatic about their Blu-ray release of the film, which boasts an amazing transfer and tons of newly created bonus material, even roping in Linda Hamilton for new interviews.
Of course, most of this is probably “no shit” to the die-hard horror fans, but I hope these articles are reaching beyond guys like us. And to those folks, I hope this is useful, because common to all of the above (save maybe Anchor Bay) is a severe lack of awareness beyond the horror mags and such. You’re not going to find any of those Synapse releases at your local Best Buy, and if I ever saw Beyond The Door at Target I’d probably shriek like a wee girl. Ordering online is usually your best bet for a lot of these, but of course the problem with online shopping (or renting) is that you have to know what you’re looking for more often than not, since suggestions never work properly (when you bring up Devil Times Five on Netflix, they suggest you might also like the 1974 caper comedy Bank Shot). You’re also more likely to be swayed into buying used, something that doesn’t really help these companies who are already limiting their audience to the “Fangoria crowd”. So when you shop around, ask yourself if saving the buck or two is worth the fact that you won’t be helping out the company that spent a lot of time and effort putting together the release in the first place.
Because ultimately, as we move toward streaming, these specialty outfits are going to be the only ones delivering the stuff we fans really want – but only if they’re still around to do so. So go online or to your local “cool” DVD store and sift through those obscure titles; you never know when you’ll stumble across a gem like Pieces (a blind buy for me!) – you’ll broaden your horizons AND send a little monetary bit of love back to the guys who are here for us.
P.S. This is not meant to be all encompassing, but all the same: my apologies any similar companies that I've neglected to mention.