Movie Review – Seven Dorms of Death

According to Enid in “Ghost World” there are three kinds of bad: bad, so bad it’s good, and so bad it’s gone past good and come all the way around to bad again. With Seven Dorms of Death, director Richard Marr and writer Matthew Jason Walsh attempt a death-defying feat: make a parody of the last category, and in the process bring it all the way around to good again.


At first blush you might not realize how difficult that goal is to reach. Shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 took the worst of the worst in cinema and merely made it fun to watch by cracking jokes along the way. And clearly making a terrible movie isn’t very hard; studios have been doing it for decades. But to make a movie so bad that it’s good on purpose is probably harder than making a good one in the first place. After all, humor is a very subjective and elusive thing; you need to go just far enough – or a step too far – but no more. And even though you’re trying to be stupid and unskilled and just plain awful, you have to do it intelligently. The whole process is as contradictory as the realization that to inoculate yourself against a disease you must inject yourself with the very disease you wish to avoid.


As their target, Marr and Walsh selected the early 80’s horror genre, one that flooded the pre-Blockbuster video stores and local UHF stations that suddenly were syndicated by early cable TV. I’m not talking about the Shot on Video films with $500 budgets, or the wide-release slasher films. No, here I mean the mind-numbing movies so bad they quickly found their way to the television horror shows, and later to USA Network’s “Up All Night” (where Gilbert Gottfried’s pre and post-commercial bits were 100 times better than the piece of crap you were watching).


Not satisfied with just the genre, they also decided to wrap the movie with a Count Floydesque horror host (but with less of the slapstick), Baron Von Blah (played with gusto by Michael Thurber). We join his “Celluloid Crypt” as they are to begin showing their second and final feature of the evening, the awful Seven Dorms of Death. Because this is a “restored” copy of the film from a recovered VHS tape, we’ll be subjected to occasional channel changes, previews of coming attractions (which you can find on Youtube and enjoy for yourself in extended format), 80’s-era local business commercials, poor reception, and some behind-the-scenes conversations between the Baron and his crew. But that’s all part of the fun (for us, anyway).


Seven Dorms of Death brings us to a small college in New England, where the drama department is preparing to put on a play. Unfortunately, the last time (and only time) this particular play was put into production, the college’s auditorium burned down and the entire cast and crew were killed. But that was over 100 years ago, and the head of the Drama Department has no fears that any such catastrophe will stop his production.


There isn’t a lot of mystery about where we’re all headed; the opening murder scene is a combination of horrific acting, stunted dialogue, and a ski-mask-clad killer armed with a potato peeler who is suffering from a loud and heavy cough none of the characters seem to notice. That first killing also reveals we’re to expect confused and unbelievable special effects common in the genre, where close-ups of killings have little similarity to the longer shots. Wound locations change or disappear, blood goes from a tidal wave to a few drops, and the screams or moans of victims bear no resemblance to the movement of their mouths.


The characters are a line-up of the usual 1980’s suspects, but mashed together to allow multiple clichés in a limited cast. We have the flamboyant professor and director of the play, the sexually-active Geri-curled male lead and his bouncy girlfriend (who is never seen without her Walkman), the drug-using Karate Kid-looking stagehand, the shy glasses-wearing clumsy virgin who has psychic visions, the long-haired Satan worshipper, the jock (except in this case the jock appears to be in his 50’s and has suffered a previous coma), and the crotchety old janitor who warns everyone about the death curse the play is under. And soon we meet the two police detectives who are committed to solve the mystery before there are any more deaths (including Aaron Andrade in delicious full-blown overacting mode as Vargas). There’s even a Pulitzer-prize-winning female journalist who claims to be as strong and independent as Bonnie Franklin but sounds like a classic 1940’s male reporter from any random black and white film.


The humor is a mixture of in your face and hilariously subtle. Corpses keep breathing. Heads change from flesh to mannequin and back again with each cut of the film (as do popsicles and other little genius touches). Strings and fishing line are blatantly attached to props. Scenes end in mid-sentence of continue past the shouting director’s “cut!” Guns never need to be reloaded. Booms appear and disappear from the shot at will. It’s the kind of multi-layered fun I enjoy in comedies from Drop Dead Gorgeous to Chasing Amy to the Christopher Guest company films…every time you watch them you discover a little something you haven’t seen before. I really think I’ll find that to be true with Seven Dorms of Death.


If you’ve ever enjoyed (or been subjected to) the 1981 Clint Howard film Evilspeak you’ll have a good idea what this movie makes fun of, and has fun with. From the nonsensical use of an early PC to translate satanic verse (another plot point also used in Seven Dorms of Death) to characters that act with no logic or motivation, Seven Dorms of Death has it all. But instead of being terrible, here it is hilarious. On IMDB, one of Evilspeak’s listed “Goofs” perfectly describes the kind of things you’ll be laughing at. “Obvious dummies in a number of gore scenes, the dummies’ bodies and body parts are often different colors and sizes than the actors’ real bodies. Most obvious is the dummy used in the opening decapitation scene. The actress’s breasts change size and her nipple and skin color changes before she is beheaded.” But Seven Dorms of Death always tries to take things a little beyond what the worst movies did.


I could go on and on with the iconic 80’s-era horror film clichés thrown in. There’s the awful synth music (even from the devil-worshipping heavy metal band). We have countless obligatory references to Judas Priest. Impossible timelines that would make Dr. Who shudder. There are leg warmers, in and out of the shower, and on male and female characters. And characters announcing their actions and motivations aloud like some of the worst of modern Broadway musicals.


I do wonder just how difficult this movie was to make. Clearly the cast and crew are having fun with what they’re doing, but it seems to me that it can be rather difficult to be awful on purpose. Jill Poisson’s DP work is a tribute to her skill; to be able to make a good shot look exactly like a bad shot – while still having it be a good shot – seems complicated enough to make your head spin. The whole process must have been like driving on the wrong side of the road. But they pull it off.


It’s not ALL fun and games, though. I don’t want to put any spoilers in here, but I will say I never expected the real killer would be the person it turned out to be. I won’t even tell you if it was a male or female character. But it was a plot twist I never saw coming, and to go to the trouble to work things out in the plot so perfectly while surrounding the film with madcap humor must have been just as difficult as the direction and camera work. And to follow that up with even another major twist for our heroes just when you think the movie is ending was a stroke of brilliance.


I admit I am a big fan of Richard Marr and the Scorpio Films Releasing catalog. But I became a fan because of the films, whether it was the unforgettable Disco Exorcist (now finally available in Blu-Ray), the hilarious Nun of That, the creepy Beyond the Norwich Horror or the surreal Exhumed. So don’t let me prior appreciations of his work dissuade you from giving Seven Dorms of Death a try. Make some popcorn, perhaps prepare an adult beverage or two, and sit back ready to laugh.


You can order your copy direct from Scorpio Films at

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