Dead Man On Campus

August 21, 1998

is when BLADE came out and changed both cinema and humanity forever. But I already wrote the definitive review of that so here I am reviewing DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS.

It turns out maybe the comedies that come out in August are not essential to a summer movie retrospective. That’s a lesson I’m learning. I actually saw DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS at the time, but I realize now that I was conflating my memory of it with IDLE HANDS. I knew it was a different movie, but I thought it was another supernatural teen horror comedy. It was about half an hour in before I realized oh shit, he’s not gonna turn into a zombie. This is that movie where they find out their college has an obscure rule that if your roommate commits suicide then they have to give you straight As (just go with it) so they try to find an unstable roommate and push him to the brink. The kind of movie that should just have a disclaimer and a 1-800 number running across the screen throughout like a watermark on a critic’s screener.

Josh (Tom Everett Scott, who really did do a supernatural horror comedy – AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS) is the hard studying everydude who moves into a dorm to find that one of his roommates is a mischievous party animal rich kid who owns a bong the size of a didgeridoo. That’s Cooper, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who had already graduated from college in Saved By the Bell, but here his hair is dyed dark, so it’s a total career reinvention in my opinion. (Seriously though, he is good at playing this type of character and maybe could’ve become a movie star if this was a good movie.) Cooper is very distracting to Josh because his philosophy is “college is our last chance to go crazy,” and his approach to bad grades is “just laugh because they’re silly.”

Josh is very laid back and reasonable, portrayed as slightly dumb, but in a lovable way. He gives many variations on this smile:

When he meets a girl who likes him named Rachel (Poppy Montgomery, MAGIC BEYOND WORDS: THE J.K. ROWLING STORY) and gets laid, all the sudden he realizes that college is fun, and the next thing you know he’s at risk of losing his scholarship. Then they find out about that suicide rule, apparently a popular urban legend (as well as the subject of a serious thriller called DEAD MAN’S CURVE that played Sundance before this, but got changed to THE CURVE by the time it was a cable movie).

It looks like the guy from Boy Meets World on the left, but it’s the guy from Saved By the Bell.

So Josh and Cooper scheme to find a roommate with a low life expectancy. The school conveniently has a group for severely psychologically troubled students, and they fake friendships with them. Lochlyn Munro (Texas Slim from UNFORGIVEN, Deputy Stubbs from FREDDY VS. JASON) has fun playing a psychotic frat boy who involves them in a high speed chase and police shootout and accidentally lights Rachel’s friend Lucy (Alyson Hannigan, after starting Buffy the Vampire Slayer but before AMERICAN PIE)’s hair on fire. Buckley (Randy Pearlstein, co-writer of CABIN FEVER) is a guy who has posters of himself on his wall and believes that Bill Gates is trying to kill him and Kurt Cobain, who is still alive. Matt (Corey Page, DEVIL’S PREY) is a gloomy musician who’s exposed as a poser when they catch him laughing at a sitcom.

There’s lots of lying and trickery, spying, theft, disguises. There’s a part after they break into a school building to steal files and then escape from security where they excitedly yell “VAN DAMME!” to each other. I enjoyed this because Scott probly wouldn’t have guessed that 15 years later he’d be the hero of an action movie (ENEMIES CLOSER) with the actual Van Damme playing the villain.

Rachel is kind of an unfortunate character because she immediately likes Josh and then he ignores her and acts like an idiot for the whole movie and you know she’s gonna take way too long to cut him off and then let him win her back, because that’s what that character always does in this story. She’s a writer and he promises to read her story and then doesn’t – the “dad doesn’t make it to the recital” of negligent boyfriend moves.

I do respect that Rachel drinks and has sex on the first date and it doesn’t at all negate the responsible good girl vibe she gives off. I have a complaint though: she’s part of this tight knit trio of friends with Lucy and Kristin (Mari Morrow, TODAY YOU DIE, HOUSE PARTY 4), but she and Kristin both go off with boys immediately after Lucy pukes over the side of a bridge from drinking too much. Not staying to look after her does not ring true for the friendship depicted and I suspect it is a serious violation of all known girl codes.

By the way, like most big teen movies, they manage to land some up-and-comers in the cast who became a bigger deal later. Most notable in my opinion would be Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini (KILL THE IRISHMAN) shortly before they starred in Freaks & Geeks together. It’s Segel’s second movie – remember, he had a bit part as “Watermelon Guy” in CAN’T HARDLY WAIT – but here it’s a pretty funny part as an intensely horny roommate.  Cardellini, who had already been in GOOD BURGER and several TV shows, has a less rewarding part as the girl he falls in instant lust with because she also went to a Catholic school.

I’m not trying to judge the values of movies from the past, but it’s interesting how these old comedies can sometimes measure our progress as a society. Many of these ’98 movies I’ve been watching show the biggest change in the area of gay jokes, so I was ready for some light homophobia in the scene where Josh and Cooper’s neighbors see them spying,  Cooper tackles Josh to the ground to try to hide, but they still see them, so he asks “Can we have some privacy, please?” It becomes a running gag that those guys think they’re gay. But ultimately I think the joke turns out to be fine because #1, Josh and Cooper don’t act grossed out or embarrassed by the misunderstanding, and #2 the neighbors are supportive of them and call them “a cute couple.” It’s different from now, because the joke comes from expecting everybody to be homophobic and being surprised if they’re not. But it seems to come from a good place and it’s definitely progressive compared to CAN’T HARDLY WAIT, where somebody calling the asshole character a gay slur was treated as a righteous comeuppance.

But I don’t think modern audiences would be as okay with the very premise of the movie. Of course Josh eventually feels sympathy for suicidal people and realizes that what they’re doing is wrong. But I don’t think people would enjoy the fun it’s having with mental illness.

To me the part that’s in the poorest taste is when Cooper volunteers at a suicide hotline so he can answer when their roommates call and give bad advice. At first he grabs the phone from the woman in charge and takes the call against her objection – I’m not sure why she then lets him get away with it and continue coming in as a volunteer. Or why she doesn’t seem to hear the horrible things he’s saying on the phone right near her desk.

I think one reason this rubs me the wrong way is because I’ve read that Ted Bundy, when he was in college, also volunteered at a suicide hotline for sicko purposes. They later found out that when he stayed by himself for the night shift he would just turn the phones off. Not that funny, in my opinion.

Which is kind of my feeling about the movie overall, but I didn’t hate it because it at least captures a little something sincere about friendship – these two guys who are very different from each other going through some dumb shit together and getting to know each other on a different level. And I don’t think it’s wrong for teen movies to fuck around with dark and touchy subjects. I would never wave a finger at HEATHERS.

DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS is actually an MTV Production. I had kinda forgot about seeing that moon man logo before movies back then. This was the company’s third film, following JOE’S APARTMENT and BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO AMERICA, preceding VARSITY BLUES and 200 CIGARETTES. They actually produced one movie that’s in the Criterion Collection: ELECTION, and many others that I forgot or never knew they were involved in, including POOTIE TANG, BETTER LUCK TOMORROW, HUSTLE & FLOW, THE FOOT FIST WAY and FOOTLOOSE.

Does MTV’s involvement mean the music is gonna be hipper than other ’98 pictures, or some kind of TRL shit? Well, the soundtrack is executive produced by the Dust Brothers, genius producers of Paul’s Boutique and soundtrack composers of FIGHT CLUB, but it’s not in that same vein. You do get to hear a little bit of Dr. Octagon’s “Bear Witness” playing from one of the dorms. Bands include Soul Coughing, The Muffs, Nashville Pussy, Blur, Elastica, and, uh, Creed. I really thought they would avoid playing anything that could also be in BASEKETBALL, but then they used a Squirrel Nut Zippers song.

The script seems to be by a bunch of future indie cinema guys. The story is credited to Anthony Abrams & Adam Larson Broder (directors of PUMPKIN), screenplay by Michael Traeger (writer/director of THE AMATEURS) and Mike White (his first credit – then he did CHUCK & BUCK, ORANGE COUNTY, THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK, BEATRIZ AT DINNER, etc. [holy shit, I did not know he worked on THE EMOJI MOVIE and PITCH PERFECT 3]).

It was the only theatrical feature for director Alan Cohn, whose biggest claim to fame is 24 episodes of The Man Show. Or composing the theme song to The Wayans Bros.

DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS opened at #6, below BLADE, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK and SNAKE EYES, all movies that are better and better remembered. (I guess sometimes box office and level of quality do correspond.) It did better than WRONGFULLY ACCUSED, at least. In the end it only made about a million dollars more than its budget, and at least one of the people who did bother to see it misremembered it as a MY BOYFRIEND’S BACK type deal.

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26 Responses to “Dead Man On Campus”

  1. Mark-Paul keeps cropping up in stuff, whether it was NYPD BLUE, through several failed dramas and sitcoms and on a show just about to drop on Fox that doesn’t look any more promising but I’m glad he’s still getting work. It’s more from the few episodes on NYPD BLUE I saw him on where I was impressed with his dramatic chops. Even something like this, which I might have caught 10-15 minutes once channel surfing. As far as I know he’s still getting movies too, though mostly just on the indie or straight-to level. He even did something with De Niro a few years ago.

  2. Election in this scene with Jessica Campbell (who also appeared in Freaks and Geeks) produces one of the greatest moments in motion picture history.

  3. I can confirm hearing the urban legend years before this movie came out. I guess it’s a funny premise in a “you had to be there” kind of way, because obviously we would not make fun of suicide anymore.

    Munro also had a good run playing that type of crazy guy character before moving on to dads. I guess he’s kinda both in Riverdale now.

  4. ‘…[Mark-Paul Gosselaar] is good at playing this type of character and maybe could’ve become a movie star if this was a good movie.’

    I always wondered about that movie that MPG did with Bruce. It seemed okay and I thought maybe he’d be a good Deadpool in a cartoon or if Ryan Reynolds hung it up and the franchise went DTV. (Of course, I have a soft spot for glib white guys making sarcastic remarks that, no matter how much I grow as a person, seems to persist in some small way.) Did anybody see Precious Cargo?

  5. Mike White is gay, which might be why the “gay joke” is pretty progressive for the time. If I’m remembering correctly, he claimed that coming to terms with his sexuality informed his work on the Emoji Movie, and although I haven’t seen that film, it still sounds like a stretch. He could have just said, I like to get paid. (Also, Enlightened, which he created and wrote for, might be the most underrated TV show of the 21st century and the only TV show I’ve seen that actually made the half hour dramedy work).

    It looks like not only was Segel in this movie and Can’t Hardly Wait, but he was also in SLC Punk!, which was released in 98. That must have been a pretty big year for that dude.

    I vaguely remember watching this in college, a number of years after it came out. I can’t remember why we watched it. Maybe we still had some misplaced affection for Saved by the Bell and Mark Paul Gosselaar? The only thing I remember is that they clearly tried to make the premise a little less icky by making the characters learn from their experiences and write a paper on suicide and Emile Durkheim (who I had just learned about in my sociology class).

  6. Segel’s brief role was the best part of SLC punk… well except for Til Schweiger’s “Sink, you fool!” and this one really funny line reading from Adam Pascal (in, I guess, the first non-RENT acting job he ever had)… It’s two words “…and mur”… but just thinking about the way he said it makes me laugh.

    I’ve always like MPG and thought he should get more/better work. He was the only legit actor on SBTB and not just cast because of their physicality or their “look”. Apparently the whole time he was playing Zack Morris he was actually a really shy, timid kid and teen.

  7. The gay jokes must have come from White, considering he is Queer and consistently includes LGBTQIA content in his scripts. I can’t believe a movie with this premise was made and got a wide release. I mean, I wanna go watch it right now because it sounds so sick, but who thought this was socially acceptable?

  8. This went straight to VHS over here and seemed to be a minor hit. I don’t know any numbers, but a surprising amount of schoolmates recommended that one to me, so I guess it was pretty popular. But I never saw it. Not because I object to its plot (which admittedly is in bad taste, but so are most dark comedies, including classics like FARGO or ARSENIC & OLD LACE, if you think about it), but…I don’t know.

    But I own IDLE HANDS on DVD.

  9. Grimgrinningchris

    Are you besmirching the majesty of SLC!Punk? How dare you. That movie IS my adolescence. The main love interest even looks a lot like my first real girlfriend. Every note hits perfectly. And then the director went on to do, uh… the aforementioned IDLE HANDS, a buncha DTV horror sequels and an unwatchable, Kickstarter-funded SLC-quel.

    Still. SLC!Punk is a visceral, emotional and hilarious rollercoaster.

  10. Shan: ELECTION was a pretty seminal film for me. The sense of entitlement, apathy as rebellion and how uniformly clueless adults can be sometimes in dealing with children, all were much closer to how I was seeing the world work, than say something like AMERICAN PIE. Along with RUSHMORE, they were both the films I gravitated to most as sort of best encapsulating aspects of my teenage experience.

  11. I finally saw Patton last year and when he says “YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD” I was like, “hold up, that phrase didn’t come from Dead Man on Campus?!?” Anyways, I remember this being funnier than I expected it to be even though the commercials were heavily reliant on Lochlyn Munro who isn’t really in it all that much. Btw, Munro recently joined the elite pantheon of actors who have played the biggest man on campus, i.e. the President, in Max 2. Which is nowhere as good as Max 1 but Munro is solid in it. And more Presidential than the actual President – (yes, the psychotic frat boy from Dead Man on Campus somehow found the restraint not to fist pump at a 9/11 memorial or throw paper towels at people).

    Side note: Even though i think we’re never going to get that Good Burger review (which is totally Vern’s prerogative), I’m glad you referenced Linda Cardellini’s role in it. Besides being a very, very funny comedy with some of the best “dumb” humor I’ve ever seen, I think Good Burger deserves props as being the first kids movie I can recall with an interracial romance, especially one with a black boy (Kel Mitchell) and white girl (Cardellini). It’s the rare deliriously stupid movie that’s progressive at the same time.

  12. I liked this one in my teens and watched it a couple of times, despite being someone who never liked teen movies and only watched them as part of some kind of weird obligation. By the time I saw it (2003) it was somewhat refreshing to see an R-Rated teen comedy which (from memory) went fairly easy on the explicit gross-out gags in the vein of AMERICAN PIE and its progeny.

    I also liked JOE’S APARTMENT, 200 CIGARETTES and more respectably ELECTION, so maybe I really was part of this MTV generation even if I didn’t watch it much.

    Ancient Romans- I saw PRECIOUS CARGO and enjoyed it more than I expected to. Can’t really remember anything about it now though

  13. GOOD BURGER recently showed up in HD on German Netflix, which means that this wonderful stupid movie might finally discovered by a big German audience, after it got dumped here straight to VHS (in so small contingents that I only knew one video store that had at least 1 copy of it), was never relased on DVD or BR and maybe only ran thrice on TV.

    Thanks, Netflix. Sometimes you are cool.

  14. I also never related to the American Pie movies. I graduated from high school two years before it and felt very distant from a film about teens whose music of choice was Matchbox Twenty.

    I went to see DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS with a bunch of friends one afternoon. Some of them smoked up first, and one of them must have had similar expectations to Vern, because halfway through he started freaking out, “Guys, where’s the dead man?!” And yeah, considering how controversial 13 REASONS WHY is there’s no way a major movie could get away with this premise now.

  15. I got some beers. Let’s drink em!

    Man, maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I have a soft spot for this one. MPG is very funny. I completely agree with Vern that had this been a bigger hit/better movie, he might have had a solid comedy career. He seems to be doing fine on TV but this is the only role I’ve ever seen him in where he really shines. Him coming back to the dorm all drunk and doing one push-up before bed is so funny. Also, there’s one scene where they’re running through campus and one of them slips on the grass and it looks very unplanned, which makes it way funnier.

    Most of the credit goes to the writers though. It’s hard to know who had a hand in what, but I suspect Mike White had a lot to do with what works (White has done some good movies but I think his HBO series Enlightened is his crowning achievement).

    I agree that a lot of it is pretty tasteless, but I’m fine with that. It’s not quite as good as something like Heathers (no great funeral scene with the heartbreaking shot of a little girl who just lost her brother to really make you question what you’re laughing at), but how many teen comedies are? Anyway, a lot of times I’ll watch comedies I liked from when I was much younger and groan at how poorly they age, but I rewatched this a couple years back and was surprised by how well it held up.

  16. @ onthewall2983

    I had to create a fusion in my head of Election the book and Election the movie. Some parts of the movie are better, like that speech clip I posted but other parts from the book I liked more. Like the ending of the film is viciously well done but so bile drenched that I’ve only been able to watch it once when I first saw the film back in the cinema. Also, it came across as no-one learned *anything*.

    I much preferred the book ending insofar as it showed everyone had grown up a bit and had realised they’d thrown away so much for so little. Then I found out they had filmed that ended (sort of) and it turned up in a flea market sale somewhere (at least part of it) but it turns out they bottled the execution of it when I saw it … so … I guess the version of the story I most like is this weird hybrid in my head. Works for me, though and that’s the important thing.

  17. Tawdry…

    Nah, I like SLCPunk just fine. I even booked The 8 Bucks Experiment once (even though they weren’t very good) just cuz they were Extreme Corporal Punishment in the movie.

    Segel, Schweiger and that one line reading from Pascal are just highlights to me more than anything from Steve-O or Bob or anyone else.

  18. I too have seen Precious Cargo and, like Pac-Man, I remember none of it but it wasn’t bad.

  19. Grimgrinningchris —

    Good. Just wanted to make sure we didn’t have to have an internet tiff, or whatever.

  20. Two of the most punchable faces I have ever seen on a movie poster.

  21. Off-topic obviously and I’ll save my full thoughts for later, and I feel kind of bad to bring this kind of negativity in, but I’m sorry to say I found THE PREDATOR to be Shane Black’s first out and out failure as either screenwriter or director. Not an A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD-level DOA disaster but I have surprisingly little good to say about it. Hopefully at least some of you guys will disagree with me; anyone else seen it yet?

  22. I just got back from The Predator. And, yeah, it’s disappointing. But it has some great moments and some cool ideas. It’s just hacked to death. It’s clear that there are certain scenes that are just torn out of the movie and other moments that are just poorly edited. My guess is that Fox had no faith in the film and wanted to squeeze in as many showings as possible.


    I’ll single out Sterling K. Browns villain as one of the high points. He’s clearly having a lot of fun and enjoys Shane Black’s dialogue. [Warning again: slight spoilers ahead] His death is absolutely perfect, and it’s very much something you’d only get from Shane Black.

  23. I posted quick thoughts on my Letterboxd but summary: I’m way nicer to it than most. It’s undoubt Black’s worst but there is too much fun stuff in it for me to dismiss it.

  24. Comments on The Predator are actually not too off-topic here as DMOC star Lochlyn Munro is in it for about two seconds, basically playing the same role Bill Paxton did in Commando. I’ll save most of my thoughts for Vern’s eventual review, but I’ll say it’s not as bad as I had heard but certainly not very good. I think the best thing about it is it will make alot of people (including myself) appreciate Predators more, a movie which seemed like a huge disappointment at the time but delivers the streamlined plot, atmosphere, and tension that the new one sorely lacks.

  25. I did notice Munro and I was pleased to see him but had forgotten about it. Not quite as baffling as Jake Busey’s non-role; what a waste of both Jake himself and the in continuity connection with his dad!

  26. What makes Busey’s non-role even weirder is that entire bit with the wacky scientist at the end should have been done with his character! Instead the final frames of the movie are spent with some dude we’ve literally never seen before. I thought The Predator was surprisingly more coherent than people are giving it credit for but the more I think about stuff like that I have to admit it’s a giant mess.

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