I love genre cinema. I will always have a soft spot for horror, action, sci-fi, and all the subgenres that exist inside those larger categories. What I have never felt any real connection to are those films that exist in the realm of pure sleaze. You know the ones: the films from the ’70s and ’80s, filled with ugly violence and sex that is the opposite of titillating, usually shot on cheap film stock with semi-amateur casts. But knowing these films have a large following and several companies devoted to restoring them makes me wonder what I am missing. With that in mind, I am going to do a deep dive into the world of sleazy exploitation. This is My Exploitation Education. This week’s entry is KILLER WORKOUT.
The alternate title for KILLER WORKOUT was AEROBI-CIDE. That little tidbit tells you almost everything you need to know about what fad writer/director David A. Prior was exploiting with this cheap, occasionally amusing, ultimately routine slasher flick.
In an opening scene that encompasses the three elements (ogling of the female body, clumsily executed horror movie effects work, and goofy plot twists) that drive the entire film, a model who is close to hitting the big time lays down in a tanning bed only for it to malfunction and catch fire. Could it be a hint that her face is never shown? You don’t really need me to answer that question, do you?
The action then shifts to a struggling private gym called “Rhonda’s Workout.” In a long, introductory scene that exists to play the entirety of one of several cheesy, “motivational” pop songs while Prior focuses the camera in on the women in an aerobics class (or more accurately, specific body parts of the women), we meet Rhonda (Marcia Karr), slimy gym rat Jimmy (Fritz Matthews), and Jaimy (Teresa Van der Woude). Rhonda is one of the owners of the gym and always seems to be pissed off. Jimmy is a chauvinistic moron who hits on every woman in the gym, but has his sights set most specifically on Rhonda (which is why she always seems so pissed off). Jaimy is the irresponsible aerobics instructor who can never get to work on time, leading to a contentious relationship with Rhonda. When bodies start dropping at the gym and police detective Morgan (David James Campbell) shows up to investigate, the behavior of all three leads is enough to raise suspicion. But who is the killer and who is just a red herring? Where does mysterious new gym employee Chuck (Ted Prior, the director’s brother) fit into the equation? Does it really matter? No, it doesn’t.
Prior is one of those rare independent exploitation filmmakers who had just enough of an idea about how to put a film together that his movies are uniformly mediocre, but not terrible. Despite being prolific (he averaged more than one movie per year in his thirty year career) and eventually working his way up to bigger budgeted films that allowed him to cast exploitation faves like Robert Davi, Joe Don Baker, Michael Ironside, and Jeffrey Combs, his skills as a filmmaker never really improved beyond the quality shown in early efforts like DEADLY PREY or KILLZONE. But because of the video store boom and the expanding need for late night movies on cable, many of Prior’s films have gained cult audiences. KILLER WORKOUT is a prime example of one of these mediocre films that have gained unexpected cult status.
And when I say mediocre, that is exactly what I mean. KILLER WORKOUT is never a chore to watch. It is competently shot and edited. The screenplay is not good by any stretch of the imagination, but it is no worse than any other independently produced slasher flicks from the ’80s—at least it has some truly loopy twists in the third act that provide some legitimate fun. But there is never the feeling that Prior is interested in making a good film. KILLER WORKOUT is clearly a cash grab trying to put together two fads that were waning when the film was released in 1987: aerobicise classes and slasher flicks.
By the modest goals of a relatively easy to watch slasher time-waster, KILLER WORKOUT does find the occasional wrinkle that is strange enough to snap the viewer to attention. The killer’s use of a giant safety pin (!?) as a murder weapon is at least something I’ve never seen before (even if it makes zero logical sense) and Prior suddenly ramps up the body count in the third act, finding some unexpected laughs in what can only be called a murder montage. But even with those positives, the film fails to deliver the horror movie goods with largely bloodless killings and absolutely no idea of how to build suspense.
With its occasionally oddball plot twists, clumsy slasher set pieces, and amateurish acting, KILLER WORKOUT does contain all the elements that I sometimes find charming in ’70s and ’80s exploitation films. But the sense that Prior was a good enough craftsman as a filmmaker to rise above the low budget obstacles and create something better places the film in a weird limbo of feeling like a missed opportunity. Like so many of the director’s other films, it is neither terrible nor good. It simply goes through the motions until the end credits roll and the viewer is left wondering what happened to the last eighty-five minutes.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)