Killer Workout, Bro
Deadlifting with the utterly bizarre DEATH SPA
Oh Death Spa, what have you done? All those years I spent bad-mouthing slasher films from the 1980s, then you go and immediately make yourself one of my favorite horror films by being one of the most cracked, absurd examples of horror filmmaking one is likely to stumble across. It’s probably because you actually have less to do with the American slasher films that permeated the horror scene during that prolific decade and instead can count yourself the peer of insane Italian horror films from the same decade. You are less Jason Voorhees and Friday the 13th and more Lamberto Bava and Demons. I loved you when, in the first five minutes, you gave me Ken Foree in micro-shorts, full frontal nudity, and attempted murder by steam room. But then you just kept piling absurdity on top of insanity, so that by the time we got to the frozen flying eel, I was willing to pledge my very soul to you.
Death Spa came out in 1990. By then the slasher film had pretty much run its course. Those that stuck around into the next decade were sort of like the James Bond cash-in spy movies that came out in the 1970s. By that point, earnest (or crass, depending on your generosity) copycats had given way to tongue-in-cheek spoofs and films with no interest in taking seriously what was, for the most part, a pretty ludicrous premise to begin with. The initially grim slasher films of the 1980s quickly gave way to entries that were less grave in their take on the genre. Before too long, you’ve got Freddie Krueger slinging Borscht Belt one-liners, and everything is pretty much over but the curtain call. However, the tail-end of a genre’s popularity can also contain some of its most surprising efforts, and Death Spa emerges as such thanks to its willingness to go completely off the deep end. It combines pretty much everything the 1980s loved: aerobics, slashers, gore, neon, nudity, smug assholes in sweaters driving Porsches, Spandex, pink smoke…I don’t recall there being a scene of anyone snorting cocaine, but I’m sure I either missed it or it was planned and mistakenly got cut from the final film.
Pleated jeans and tank top aficionado Michael (William Bumiller) is the owner of the most technologically advanced gym in the world. Everything is controlled by a central computer, which is itself controlled by twitchy programming genius David (Merritt Butrick, best known as either Johnny Slash from Square Pegs or Kirk’s son from Star Trek II & III). The entire concept behind the club makes no sense. I can understand controlling day-to-day operations with the computer—your swipe cards, fire control system, membership logs, and air conditioning. But why would you want the resistance on the weight machines controlled by a computer? I suppose you’d want it to be controlled by the computer so that when the computer inevitably goes haywire, you can kill people in all sorts of ludicrous ways — though I’m not sure how that plays on an application for a business loan.
Michael is haunted by a past tragedy in which his wife committed suicide after being crippled. David happens to be her twin brother, and he blames Michael for his sister’s death. When things start to go wrong with the club’s system—a sauna showers a woman with acidic fluid (which is in the plumbing why?), a diving board breaks and almost kills a swimmer (why the hell would the screws on your diving board be computer controlled???), the obvious suspect is David, who both has a chip on his shoulder and is the sole employee who understands the computer. But we the viewers know that something much stranger is going on.
As the accidents at the club become increasingly deadly and increasingly difficult to chalk up to malicious computer hacking. Nude women are assaulted by ceramic tiles in the shower. A guy using the butterfly machine is killed in a way that demonstrates whoever came up with the kill had never touched an exercise machine and has no idea how they or the human body work. People start getting stabbed, cooked, and pretty much whatever else the movie can think of. Before too long, Michael suspects that it’s not just the computer; the club might also be haunted by the vengeful ghost of his dead wife!
I might like Death Spa so much despite not usually liking slasher films because it’s only partially a slasher film. It veers wildly from slasher to the killer technology/haywire computer films that were popular in the 1970s-80s, and then throws in full-on supernatural shenanigans partway through. Oh, and a bit of Jaws, since one of the gym’s board members refuses to close the club despite all the deaths, because there’s the big Mardi Gras party coming up. As always I have to ask, wouldn’t multiple gory deaths, be they accidental or murder, sort of take the decision on whether to stay open out of the hands of the gym’s board of directors and place it in the hands of, you know, like some sort of local authorities? And would those authorities not consider assigning more than one cop to a case so full of bodies? And if you’re wondering why a drunken Mardi Gras fete would be happening at a gym, remember that this is the 1980s. My parents were members of a gym that had a full bar, and everyone had post-workout Harvey Wallbangers.
I invoked Lamberto Bava’s Demons earlier, and if Death Spa has any peer, it’s that completely absurd and gleefully weird horror film, or even more so, Demons 2, which also deals with a high-tech building getting possessed by the supernatural. Death Spa’s finale, in which the gym goes completely, murderously insane, is full of surreal slow-motion shots, pink smoke, and inexplicable neon lights. It looks exactly like something you’d expect from a dreamlike, surreal European horror film. The scene in which a frozen eel flies around ripping out throats, or a woman gets her arm eaten by a remarkably persistent blender, propel Death Spa into the advanced ranks of lunatic horror films, up there with the random helicopter from Demons, the confounding tutu dancing interlude of Hell of the Living Dead, or the flying refrigerated zombie head in Zombi 3.
That’s only a sample of the mind-boggling nuttiness the movie is willing to throw onto the screen. It’s obvious that no one involved in the writing is taking anything seriously, but the final film handles every scenario, no matter how absurd, with total straight-faced gravity. No winking or self-awareness. Whatever preposterous situation screenwriters James Bartruff and Mitch Paradise (sounds like a porn pseudonym) dreamed up during a writing session that had to involve a lot of weed is presented to you in total seriousness. That’s a beautiful thing. If this movie had been self-consciously jokey, I wouldn’t have enjoyed half as much. I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all. The fact that it is willing to over-indulge to such a degree but refuses to crack a smile makes it a much sweeter confection.
Most of the cast is disposable (and disposed of). The only actor who stands out as possessed of any talent is Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), who I wish the film used more. Merritt Butrick is OK, but I’ve never thought him to be a particularly good actor. There’s something stilted about him, but he fits pretty well for a nervous, unstable David. Michael is a dull hero. His bloodthirsty ghost of a wife (Shari Shattuck, Naked Cage and Desert Warrior) is fine but not as memorable as the sundry deaths she orchestrates. Frank McCarthy is a suitably gruff and world-weary cop, and Rosalind Cash (Omega Man, Dr. Black Mr. Hyde) puts in a welcome but minor appearance as his partner.
Everyone else is overshadowed by their sweet gym wear and leotards, and they are present only to work out and then get killed or get naked or get naked and then get killed. Ah, the 1980s. And in the realm of both kills and nakedness, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an ‘80s horror film as willing to indulge in both. Death Spa trots out full frontal nudity during the credits and never relents, serving up a steady stream of shower scenes, locker room scenes, and of course, gym sex. This film being what and from when it is, the nudity is handled entirely by the female cast, although there are some beefcakes in tight t-shirts and like I said, Ken Foree struts around topless in some tiny shorts. I guess you take what you can get.
Death Spa revels in excesses of both gore and nudity while remaining delightfully “innocent” in its leering — no rapes or sexual assaults; just good clean sex, changing rooms, and shower scenes. Death Spa is very much a celebration of the excesses of 80s cinema. When it comes to offing the gym’s members, the film is as enthusiastic as it is about nudity. Initial kills are pretty subdued, but the film gets more and more daring. By the time the guy is ripped in half by the weight machine, you know Death Spa isn’t going to pull punches. And once we get to the final third, it throws every notion of reserve out the window, abandoning itself to a veritable orgy of exploding heads, ripped limbs, reanimated frozen seafood, and spurting gore.