Death Spa (1989)

Death Space
Death Spa Trailer




We don’t spam!

After gorging myself on Thanksgiving dinner and experiencing the predictable postprandial bloat, my thoughts turned to health and resolutions for the New Year. But instead of resolving to join a fitness club–let’s not get crazy here–I committed to watching a cult classic that explores the horrific possibilities of the gym: Death Spa (1989). 

Starbody Health Spa is state-of-the art: All of the equipment is controlled by a single sophisticated computer program that creates personalized workouts for each user. While this feature gives Starbody an edge in the competitive LA market, the club is losing members at an alarming rate due to “accidental” injuries and deaths. But as malfunctioning machines blind his girlfriend and kill his clients, Michael, the owner of the gym, begins to suspect that David, the resident “hacker,” is behind it. Michael was once married to David’s twin sister, Catherine, who died by setting herself ablaze. Is David getting revenge for his sister? Or is Catherine’s spirit punishing Michael for moving on after her death? This is all very complicated. But ultimately, questions of motive are irrelevant because I’m just here for the blood-spattered leotards and exploding biceps. 

Death Spa is a strong entry in the long list of 80s technology horror, a parade of terrors brought to life by fear of the now ubiquitous personal computer. We’re witnessing a similar surge of anxiety in response to AI and, from what I can tell, the process seems to go like this: When we don’t fully understand the capabilities of an exciting new technology, we imagine that it will inevitably do the absolute worst. Back in the day, we speculated that  home computers connected to a network could access government systems and launch nukes (see War Games 1983). Death Spa explores a scenario that’s far worse. What if computers could increase the resistance on weight machines to quad-splitting levels? It represents this concern through an aesthetic of technology that’s comically excessive. With huge consoles housing tiny monitors, hundreds of lights, and what appear to be sonar screens, Starbody has a glittering control room that would make NASA envious. 

The command center’s dazzle rhymes visually with the brilliant clothing. In an apotheosis of 80s spectacle, gym members in bright leotards and legwarmers split-leap and jazz-hand their way across the floor in what seem like endless dance sequences. These extended routines gave me an opportunity to fully appreciate the discrepancy between form and function in 80s athletic wear: There’s nothing like a tight, belted, bodysuit to restrict blood flow to the extremities. Still, fascinated by the fantastical quality of this attire, I was like a deer in headlights, caught in the glare of neon leggings

While Death Spa’s entertainment value is primarily on its blinking and colorful surface, it does make some clumsy gestures at pathos. The sensational story of Catherine should pull the heartstrings: A woman who is ambivalent about motherhood suffers a paralyzing spinal injury while giving birth and is bound to a wheelchair. Indisputably awful, right? But then she makes some inexplicable clothing choices and takes a drastic step. Dressed in a Victorian cameo and nightgown she immolates herself. Watching her empty a container of gasoline onto her shoulder flounces shouldn’t be funny. And yet it is. 

Catherine’s spectacular and unusual mode of death is just one of the idiosyncrasies that make this movie memorable. Another is the unaccountable emphasis on indigenous-looking art. Vests adorned with turquoise, woven rugs, and decorative antlers are displayed throughout the back offices of this white-owned LA gym. Were they playing with the IBG trope, gently touching the idea that the club might have been built on “sacred” ground? If that doesn’t situate Death Spa firmly in the 80s, then the insane amount of casual touching does. Mike is oblivious to the notion of personal space and lays hands on everyone he meets. No one objects. 

While the anachronistic behavior, 80s glam, and unintentional melodrama make Death Spa a great movie, the full force of it’s genius is evident in the creative kills. There are so many ways to die in a haunted gym and Death Spa dispatches its characters in a variety of fun and messy ways. So if you are looking for something to watch this holiday season, don’t miss this classic of fitness horror!