movies

How 80s Slasher Movies Skewered Fitness Culture

Horror flicks like 'The Toxic Avenger' lambasted the workout culture that has become a fixture of American society thanks to cultish fitness programs, social media gurus, and reality TV.

Sarah Fensom

Screengrabs from left, Linnea Quigley's Horror Workout, The Toxic Avenger, Fatal Games

Just at the tail-end of the 80s, Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout (1990), satirized two juggernauts of the home video market, the horror film and the wildly popular celebrity workout tape. “Everybody had one,” said Quigley, the 80s darling and scream queen, “but we wanted to go in a totally different direction because we’re horror lovers.” It was on the set of schlockmeister David DeCoteau’s Murder Weapon (1989), where she had to repeatedly smash a mallet into an actor’s head, that the idea for the workout tape came about: Kenneth J. Hall, who was on set, joked that being in a horror movie was "a real workout." A week later, they were making Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout with Quigley in a studded leather outfit, leading a group of zombies in a poolside aerobics routine, and hosting an ill-fated slumber party complete with jazzercise and chainsaws.

Today, the veneer of “body positivity” conceals an insidious desire for constant self-improvement. From biohacking with Soylent to Kim Kardashian’s Flat Tummy lollipops, boutique ballet fitness classes to cult-like warehouse gyms, the future promises to turn average Joes into Instagram cash cows and already-successful people into superhumans. Celebrities and self-ordained social media gurus broadcast their routines and fitness journeys publicly, creating a culture in which no one can ever reach perfection, yet everyone is an expert at how to get there. It’s a bleak landscape, to be sure, but it’s not unlike the one horror movies tried to dismantle back when the seeds of modern workout culture were sown nearly 40 years ago.

"The 80s was the decade when fat became evil!" Shelly McKenzie, the author of Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, joked to me over the phone. "We see in that period the emergence of an idea that still exists today: That people who are fit have their lives together, that they’re professional and successful." These notions made working out a national phenomenon, and people exercising, as seen in films such as Chariots of Fire (1981) and Perfect (1985) became some of the most enduring images of the 80s.

Attracted by the promise of combining outsized egoism and dangerous machinery, horror filmmakers flocked to the trend. Slasher flicks—the junk food of the genre—found new settings and victims in the health club and its aspiring Adonises. For every leotard-heavy Jane Fonda workout tape or Olivia Newton John music video, there was a student getting crushed to death by a barbell, like in the Canadian slasher Happy Birthday to Me (1981). In the 80s, weight machines became just as menacing as any knife or chainsaw.

In short, horror movies relished ripping apart the bodies that exercise junkies spent so much time building. Fatal Games (1984) showed Olympic hopefuls working out and getting killed by a javelin-wielding psycho. Coroner Axel watched a suggestive workout video (Aerobicise: The Beautiful Workout) in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). A chest-fly machine did a gym-goer in while the other patrons are forced to put their fitness to the test against spirits in Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2 (1986). Terrorvision (1986) opened with Mary Woronov doing an aerobics routine in colorful spandex. Killer Workout (1987), also known as Aerobicide, portrayed the boutique health club as a near-pornographic meat market ripe for the rage of a jealous killer. Zombies became transfixed by aerobics on a television in Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988); while Freddy proved himself to be the worst spotter ever during a weightlifting scene in Nightmare on Elm Street 4 (1988).

But the gold standard for consciously mocking 80s workout wave and its attendant virility was Troma’s The Toxic Avenger (1984), which celebrated its 34th birthday in April. In the classic horror comedy, which was initially going to be titled Health Club Horror, Melvin, the Tromaville Health Club’s scrawny janitor, is constantly being picked on by idiot meatheads while mopping the gym’s weight rooms. But a toxic waste accident turns Melvin into an enormous, muscle-bound but kind-hearted monster who rights the wrongs of the gym-going set and Tromaville’s numerous criminals. “The health club is the perfect place to establish the bullies, and to show someone who is slightly different getting bullied,” Lloyd Kaufman, the film’s co-director and the co-founder of Troma Entertainment, recalled to VICE.

He got the idea for the film, in fact, while working on Rocky (1976). “I was hanging around gyms a lot, and I realized that we were building up our bodies—with all of these gyms popping up and personal training becoming the new thing—but we were defiling the Earth and ruining the environment,” says Kaufman. The Toxic Avenger’s environmental message was potent, but its gory scenes of weight machines killing workout-obsessed trolls were brilliant. The film managed to make machismo look completely futile.

In the 1990s, the genre got self-involved, most notably in the meta-horror films Scream (1996) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). But gyms and exercise culture were still used for the occasional setup—like when Ryan Phillippe got a foreboding Polaroid following a boxing session in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Even the jogging sequence that opened The Silence of the Lambs (1991) established the dichotomy between brains and bodies that unraveled over the course of the film. But the health club as a major site for kills or gags became a thing of the past—American Psycho (2000), a film based on a 1991 novel depicting life in 1987, captured some of that old 80s magic by showing its psychotic protagonist obsessively working out while Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays on the TV, and Final Destination 3 (2006) featured a weight machine reminiscent of Demons 2. But when the country declared war on obesity, documentaries, talk shows, and reality TV made the alternatives to fitness look horrifying enough. Who can forget the guy who got calf implants on the “I Want the Perfect Body” episode of MTV’s True Life (2003)?

Though a few recent horror films have brought attention back to our hard-on for hard bods, including the rehab sci-fi horror The Cure for Wellness (2016) and even the youth and physique-obsessed Get Out (2017), we’re still yet to see the genre make a major return to highlighting the masochistic ways we build our bodies—not that the idea of the “revenge body” isn’t perfect for it. Instead, eviscerating exercise culture seems more the province of comedy these days, despite the fact that comedians like Amy Schumer are also in pretty good shape.

Much like the horror genre, the fitness industry was borne out of the fear of death. As McKenzie pointed out, the so-called “cardiac crisis” of the 1950s, a widespread cultural unrest related to an increased number of middle-aged businessmen dying of heart attacks, inspired the earliest instances of gyms for the middle class. “Corporations started putting in company gyms for middle class men who sat on their butts all day and were dropping like flies at the time.” Thus, in an era of constant self-commemoration via social media, it seems that fear of mortality has taken on a new sense of urgency. Our bodies, which have become more public, are becoming more image than reality. But as horror master David Cronenberg pointed out in a 2009 interview with ContactMusic.com, “…the first fact of human existence is the human body. But if you embrace the reality of the human body, you embrace mortality, and that is a very difficult thing to do because the self-conscious mind cannot imagine non-existence. It's impossible to do.”

Unfortunately, while American society has taken workout culture to new heights in its pursuit of flawless bodies, we've yet to really embrace our mortality in the way that Cronenberg outlined. Because of this, the scary movies of the 80s still have a prescient message about the horror of our unyielding and fruitless obsession with physical perfection.

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