Dead Man On Campus (1998)


I recently mentioned coincidences, two (or more) movies from the same time, with very large similarities, that apparently aren’t intentional- “Commander” and “The Commander”, both from 1988 with a catalogue of similarities; and “Contamination” and “Zombie Flesh Eaters”, both from 1980 with an opening scene where a boat full of badness drifts into New York harbour, seemingly abandoned.


Although details are a little hard to come by, no lawsuits were issued, so it seems like the case of “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Dead Man On Campus” is another example of movie coincidence. Both are based on the “pass by catastrophe” rule in place in many US colleges, that if your roommate kills themselves, you get an automatic A grade for the entire semester so you don’t have to worry too much about studying while you’re dealing with the grief. “Curve”, starring Matthew Lillard and Keri Russell, played it as drama, and “Campus” played it as comedy – while neither film is terribly well remembered today, “Campus” was definitely seen as the poor cousin at the time. But how well has it aged in the last 17 years?

DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS, Tom Everett Scott, Mark Paul Gosselaar, 1998, weapons

What we have here is sort of an evolutionary dead end in the Judd Apatow comedy tree. The screenplay is by Mike White, who wrote for “Dawson’s Creek” and “Freaks And Geeks”, then went on to do “Orange County” and “School Of Rock”, and is now the creator / producer of “Enlightened”. Given small parts but nailing them are a very young Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini, the year before “Freaks and Geeks” set them (well, Segel mostly) on the path to stardom. Alyson Hannigan, who was on “Buffy” at the time, also has a fun small role, and Poppy Montgomery, who’d go on to huge success as the star of “Without A Trace” and “Unforgettable”, is given a thankless task as the love interest to one of the leads. But it’s packed top to bottom with characters who do great things in a very small amount of time – from the organic chemistry professor to the other dorm guys, there’s hardly a wasted one.


A pretty impressive pedigree already, and we haven’t even mentioned the stars yet. The guy we’re supposed to be cheering on, who’s super-smart but needs to stay on the straight and narrow in order to keep his scholarship, is Josh, played by Tom Everett Scott. He’s still solidly in work, even if his career did dip low enough at one point to be in a SyFy Channel original movie, “Independence Day-saster”; and the other lead is the clean-cut-looking but hard-drinking, pot-smoking party animal Cooper, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar. His tenure on “Saved By The Bell” had ended four years previously, and he was in a bit of a wilderness – much as I’d love to say this turned it round for him, it wasn’t until a four-year stint on “NYPD Blue” starting in 2001 that he got a response other than “why is Zack Morris in this movie?”


I think the best way to describe this is if a Judd Apatow movie acknowledged how dark its central premise was, but played it for laughs anyway. Josh and Cooper meet and while they don’t get on initially, Cooper introduces him to the gorgeous Rachel (Montgomery) and he starts relaxing a little. Anyway, this relaxation causes him to start failing his classes; at the same time, Cooper’s dad, a toilet-cleaning magnate, threatens to force him to clean the country’s dirtiest toilets if he doesn’t improve his grades.


Do our friends decide to knuckle down, work hard and improve their grades? Of course not! They’re told a tall tale by a couple of old drunks in a bar about getting straight As if your roommate commits suicide, then decide to break into the school library to read the relevant page from the school’s charter (rather than just asking politely to read it – but asking politely isn’t all that funny). The majority of the second half is them trying to find the right candidate to move into their dorm room (Josh works in the housing office, so has access to this stuff) – is it the clearly deranged frat uber-slob Cliff (Lochlyn Munro)? Conspiracy obsessive Buckley, who has huge pictures of himself all over his walls and thinks Bill Gates wants to steal his brain (Randy Pearlstein)? Or the grunge-esque musician who loudly trumpets his suicidal nature to anyone who’ll listen, Matt (Corey Page)?


White gives Scott and Gosselaar some great lines, and they deliver them really well. Scott’s completely deadpan delivery of “It was so easy. I mean, I didn’t have to do anything. To make it happen. It was just like. ‘Time for sex. We’re gonna have sex now. Prepare for sex’” is a thing of beauty; and Gosselaar turns the guy who could have been the world’s biggest asshole and makes him loveable. Lochlyn Munro steals every scene he’s in, though, and he’s an absolute quote machine, starting off hanging from a flagpole throwing water balloons and only getting crazier.


A few little bits of interest before we get to the meaty bit of discussion. First up, women are completely in charge when it comes to sex – Rachel makes every move with Josh, for instance. It’s refreshing and because you don’t have to worry about stupid sexism, you can just sit back and enjoy things. There’s also a lot of really nice craft on display, as the editing of one scene flowing into another is really well done, among those hundred other little touches that let you know someone was bothering to pay attention (it was produced by Gail Anne Hurd and had serious money behind it, so perhaps this is just my reaction to watching something that looked half decent for once). Great soundtrack, too, with the alt-pop of the time blending with stuff “executive produced” by the Dust Brothers, who’d go on to do the soundtrack for “Fight Club” among many others. Oh, and the opening credits! Check out this collection of screenshots:


Now, you may not find it funny in your teen raunch movie when one of the main characters gets a job at a suicide hotline in order to encourage his mentally ill roommate to off himself; I think it’s dark and hilarious. The casual nature with which Josh and Cooper have a sort of competition to see who can pick the most suicidal person to be their roommate is funny as hell because it’s played the same way as any two college kids mildly poking fun at each other, and not, y’know, like they’re discussing the death of a human being.


I think I missed just how dark “Campus” gets when I first watched it, 15 years or so ago, but now it’s pretty amazing how they made a light comedy about such a topic. I’m guessing it wouldn’t get made today – kudos to the ending too, which is (when you think about it a second) a really weird way to wrap things up – could you imagine a character in a 2016 Apatow movie doing that?


Rating: thumbs up


One thought on “Dead Man On Campus (1998)

  1. Pingback: CyberTracker (1994) |

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