Revolving around a series of deaths in a health club and featuring lines like “I’m Beta, and you’re VHS,” Death Spa is a movie that’s so ’80s, it’s got Drakkar Noir seeping from its pores — which is odd, because according to IMDb, it actually wasn’t released until 1990 (technically, it hit a theater or two in 1989 before heading to home video a year later). The end credits actually state 1987, so I guess that’s when it was shot, but even if that’s the case, the whole “health spa” craze wasn’t exactly still a fresh topic at that time; it had been in full swing since the turn of the decade. I mean, even the awful John Travolta-Jamie Lee Curtis aerobics drama Perfect — not cutting edge fare itself — came out in ’85. A partial explanation comes from this interesting oral history of the film, which states the original draft was written in 1983; I suppose the concept of a horror movie set in a gym was so full of potential, they took four-plus years to cultivate the story so they didn’t ruin this classic in the making.</sarcasm>
Anyway, cultural relevancy isn’t why I’m reviewing Death Spa. I’m more interested in black relevancy, and by ’80s standards (or even today’s standards, frankly), this movie is blaxploding with black people! There are a whopping FOUR familiar black faces here. Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) plays Marvin, the right-hand man to spa owner/emotionless pod person Michael (William Bumiller), who, for some reason, wears a blazer with shorts while spotting people in the gym. Then, there’s Rosalind Cash (The Omega Man), who plays Sgt. Stone, an LAPD homicide detective investigating the deaths at the spa. Vanessa Bell-Calloway, one year after her memorable turn barking like a dog in Coming to America, plays gym member Marci. And in an early bit part, we have The Fresh Prince of Bel Air‘s Karyn Parsons as another client, Brooke, who manages to survive being attacked by a shower.
That’s right; I said attacked BY a shower, not IN a shower. You see, the deaths in Death Spa come from a series of “accidents” that may or may not be accidents (hint: they’re not). Who or what’s behind the deaths is pretty ridiculous, and it plays out like a mix of Psycho, Ghost in the Machine and a Jane Fonda workout video. It’s cheesy, yes, but cheesy is part of the charm of the ’80s, and Death Spa does actually manage to deliver several unique, gruesome kills (death by frozen fish?), plus some obligatory ’80s T&A.
And, of course, there are four whole black people! Even more if you count the extras! That said, while the black roles are plentiful, they’re relatively minor with little impact to the story — although Bell-Calloway does have a featured death scene, and Cash technically finishes off the bad guy at the end after the mandatory “come back from the dead” moment. The black characters are inoffensive, almost overly PC, and the only mention of race is Marci joking that she might dress up as Snow White for a Mardi Gras party. That’s so Marci.