For every studio-produced slasher to emerge during the early eighties (especially throughout the genre’s heyday of ’80-’83) there was a batch of independently made features. The Dorm That Dripped Blood was such a film. Developed by a group of UCLA students of a minuscule budget, Dorm succeeded in being picked up by the whirlwind that was the slasher boom and, along with the likes of The Boogeyman, Don’t Go in the House, and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, fell foul of the ‘video nasty’ witch-hunt in the UK, further raising its profile with bloodthirsty horror fans. Released in certain regions under the less inspired title Pranks, Dorm became one of the most notorious slashers of the era and would remain heavily censored in Britain more than twenty-five years later. But, due to its low production value and bleak ending, the movie would fail to reach the financial heights of Prom Night of My Bloody Valentine.
Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow had forged a creative relationship whilst studying film at UCLA (The University of California, Los Angeles) and fruit of their hard work would become Death Dorm, an attempt to capitalise on the success of recent slice ‘n’ dice thrillers. Utilising whatever they had at hand, as well as fellow students and local wannabe actors, Carpenter and Obrow hoped that their project would attract the attention of a major distributor. Despite the cast consisting of performers far older than the characters they would be portraying, Dorm would mark the only notable role for many of them, although there would be one young hopeful who would later find modest success. Nineteen year old Daphne Zuniga, who would only appear briefly as her character would be one of the first to die, would make an appearance a couple of years later in another slasher, Initiation, before finding fame in the Mel Brooks spoof Spaceballs, the horror sequel The Fly II and a regular role in Melrose Place. Most recently, she was seen in the hit teen series One Tree Hill.
As the semester comes to a finish, a group of students remain behind at Morgan Meadows Hall for the holidays to help prepare for a renovation. Spearheaded by the sensible Joanne (Laurie Lipinski), the friends have one last party before they face the daunting task of emptying out the building over the Christmas holidays. But, just as they are about to start, Debbie (Zuniga) tells Joanne that she has to leave as her grandmother has fallen ill and must return home. But when her parents arrive to collect her, all three are slaughtered by an unseen assailant, one falling victim of a spiked club. The following morning, the remaining students begin their hard work but soon find that they are not alone, with local freak John Hemmit (Woody Roll) constantly appearing to steal food and cause a nuisance. To help assist with the manual labour, Joanne enlists the help of handyman Bobby Lee (Dennis Ely), who she hopes will help dispose of the desks, but when he meets her he seems more preoccupied with flirting instead.
As the tension grows, they decide to hunt Hemmit down and confront him once and for all. But as another handyman, Bill Edgar (Jake Jones), is hard at work the killer appears behind him and brings a drill down through the top of his skull. That evening, more food goes missing and they are forced to call the police, who claim to have already arrested someone who fits Hemmit’s description. A few hours later, Joanne and Patty (Pamela Holland) hear a strange noise on the roof and attempt to call the police again, only to discover that the line is dead, quickly followed by the electricity. Next to fall victim is Brian (David Snow), whilst Patty and Craig (Stephen Sachs) try to restore the power supply, but before they know it Craig is knocked unconscious and Patty is brutally murdered by being dropped into a boiling vat. Craig manages to make his way back to Joanne and the two head out in search for Brian, but instead find Hemmit, which results in Craig being knocked out once again.
Believing Hemmit to be dangerous, Joanne attempts to escape by hiding in an unused room, where she comes across the mutilated corpse of Brian. Knowing that to survive she must fight back, she pulls a machete from out of Brian’s body and manages to wound Hemmit’s shoulder, who claims to be trying to save her. Craig eventually wakes up once again and finds Joanne, where they face off once and for all against Hemmit, with Joanne finally killing him. But suddenly Craig confesses to her that he is the real killer and begins to show her the bodies of Debbie and Patty. Bobby Lee appears and so Craig knocks Joanne unconscious and a fight ensues, but the police suddenly appears and shoots Bobby Lee dead, believing him to be the real killer. But as they race upstairs to find the missing students, Craig picks up Joanne and carries her into an incinerator.
Shot in Los Angeles on a budget of $90,000, Death Dorm, or The Dorm That Dripped Blood as it would eventually be released as (despite Death Dorm still being referenced on the end credits), would mark the first full feature for most of the amateur cast and crew. To help keep costs down, the directors would take on many roles themselves, with Carpenter handling cinematography duties whilst Obrow would edit the film. To create the special effects (which would include a hand being sliced in two), the filmmakers enlisted the help of Matthew M. Mungle, a native of Durant, Oklahoma, who had moved to California in 1977and had enrolled in Joe Blasco Make-Up Center. Another early effort for Mungle would be Jeff Lieberman’s rural slasher Just Before Dawn. One of the most creative deaths in the movie (though, sadly, this concept would be underused) was a spiked club which the killer would swing into his victim’s face.
Perhaps the most professional aspect of Dorm was the score, composed by a then-unknown Christopher Young. Having graduated from Massachusetts Hampshire College, Young had studied at North Texas State University before relocating to Los Angeles in 1980. Whilst attending lectures by David Raksin (who had scored various film noir classics), Young made the acquaintance of Carpenter and Obrow, who were deep into pre-production on Dorm. Once completed, the film was opted by New Image and given a theatrical release, though its arrival on VHS at the hands of Media Home Entertainment (previously responsible for the video distribution of The Tourist Trap, Don’t Answer the Phone!, Mother’s Day and Hell Night) in 1984 would help bring it to the attention of horror fans.