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Movie Review: 'The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders' Exploits a Cult Legend

'Room 37' is attempting to cash in on the death of a New York Doll.

Room 37 The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders has a high ick factor. A speculative horror movie about the final days of former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, played by Leo Ramsey, Room 37 leaves good taste well behind with its very premise. Leering and sweaty, Room 37 The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders opts for ugly, unfounded speculation over anything remotely accurate about what may have happened to the mercurial rock star.

Undisputed evidence finds that on April 23rd, 1991, former New York Dolls guitarist and resident bad boy, Johnny Thunders, was found dead in a New Orleans hotel room. Beyond these facts, we have only speculation. New Orleans Police closed the case quickly, perhaps abruptly, with the family and Johnny’s manager believing that the case should have been investigated as a murder rather than simply the death of a former drug addict.

A coroner’s report would go on to indicate trace amounts of drugs in Johnny’s system but does not mention what kind of drugs. Most importantly, though, for the sake of accuracy and good taste, the coroner indicated that Johnny Thunders had undiagnosed leukemia which may have explained why Johnny looked gaunt and ghostly in his final days, as reported by witnesses, and not unlike the look of a person who could be mistaken for a heroin addict given a past history of drug use.

That, however, is not all that interesting to the makers of Room 37 The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders, which dreams up a murder scenario/fantasy about Thunders being dosed with LSD at a bar and then robbed while he hallucinated and wandered the streets. Desperate for methadone, a cruel hospital tosses the clearly disturbed Thunders into the streets where he travels to underground circles in search of methadone.

What he finds, according to the movie, is a series of deaths or hallucinations of death, each that foreshadows his own death. The film dreams up a character named Iris, played by Devin McGregor Ketko, a hotel worker who provides opportunity for Johnny to have someone to talk to when the movie needs to pad the run time. Ketko is fine in the role but what purpose she serves beyond a few odd jump scares-sudden appearances is not made clear.

The Cordero Brothers are the credited directors of Room 37 The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders and they have created an elaborate horror movie hallucination that tries to also double as a legitimate speculation on what happened to Johnny Thunders. The Cordero’s, Fernando, and Vicente, are eager to speculate that Johnny Thunders was murdered by junkies who stole his money and methadone and left him to die alone, on the floor of his hotel from apparent withdrawal seizures.

It’s not a bad theory but getting to that theory is a whole lot of ugly speculation about what lengths Johnny may have gone in order to retrieve his methadone supply, including blacking out in a dingy drug den, breaking into a hospital morgue, witnessing a murder, and then himself murdering a drug dealer and other bizarre nonsense that the movie attempts to hand wave away as what Johnny may have imagined he did while having been dosed with LSD.

Room 37 The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders reminded me of the similarly in poor taste Wired, the reviled, early 90’s biopic of the late John Belushi. Like that awful movie, a rather good cast is lent to a terrible piece of speculative fiction. Wired gets poor taste points for screwing around with John Belushi’s corpse, but Room 37 carries the same level of ick factor in how it portrays a celebrity icon in moments that the movie can’t justify as factual.

The death of Johnny Thunders is far better suited to a sober documentary than to the ugly, exploitative notion of speculative fiction. A documentary would require an air of respectability, whereas a movie like Room 37 thrives on wringing a few dollars out of rehashing speculation as fact and inventing portions of its story out of whole cloth. These filmmakers have no care for Johnny Thunders, his family, or his legacy. They are strictly cashing in on a legend and because of that, Room 37 The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders turns my stomach. 

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Sean Patrick
Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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