Dead Heat (1988)
Directed By: Mark Goldblatt
Starring: Treat Williams, Joe Piscopo, Lindsay Frost, Darren McGavin, Vincent Price, Clare Kirkconnell, Keye Luke, Robert Picardo, Mel Stewart
1/2 (out of 4)
When I was growing up, I was an avid collector of Fangoria magazines, much to my mother’s dismay. I remember many articles surrounding the Treat Williams/Joe Piscopo horror comedy Dead Heat and lots of groovy special effects photos. I was not disappointed by the film at the time – for a kid, it has almost everything one could ask for – one liners, gun battles, zombies, and decomposing bodies. (The only thing missing was the female nudity). Watching Dead Heat more than 20 years later, I find, surprisingly, that many elements still hold up. Some things – like Piscopo – do not. The movie, ultimately, is big dumb fun, but I see in it the occasional flashes of brilliance that manage to break through the clumsy 80s veneer. If Dead Heat is an immature teenager, I get the impression that part of it really does want to grow up.
The movie begins just like another (better) 80s sci fi actioner called The Hidden – two jewelry thieves commit a heist in broad daylight and get into a giant gun battle with cops. They take multiple bullet hits, but like Terminators, they refuse to go down. Buddy cops Det. Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Det. Doug Bigelow (Piscopo) are not exactly by-the-book, so naturally they are the only ones to take out the bad guys using a police vehicle, which gets them chewed out by their boss (as happens in all buddy cop genre flicks). An autopsy on the thieves reveals that they already had an autopsy, which leads to Dante Pharmeceuticals, where the heroes encounter a mutated giant who breaks loose. Mortis gets trapped inside an asphixiation chamber (for killing lab animals – the poor dog waiting in the hall is happy to give up his place in line) and dies. Now, it’s a strange decision to kill off one of your main characters so soon in a film if you aren’t Alfred Hitchcock, but wait until Bigelow and Mortis’ ex girlfriend/forensic scientist Dr. Rebecca Smythers (Clare Kirkconnell) discover the in-house company resurrection machine. Before you can say Frankenstein, Roger Mortis is resurrected through lightening effects, but he has a curious side effect of no heart beat (see: Return of the Living Dead). He is also informed that he has about 12 hours to get revenge on the people who killed him before his body literally falls apart.
I assume you have already spotted the references, “Roger Mortis” being the most obvious, as Treat Williams must now spend the rest of the film as a zombie (but a mentally sharp one) looking for vengeance. That’s a straight homage to the 1950 noir film D.O.A., which involves a poisoned man searching out his killer before the poison takes effect. (Piscopo’s character Bigelow was named after that movie’s main character, played by Edmond O’Brien). Surely, the naming of Dante’s Pharmaceuticals suggests that Mortis is damned from the get-go. After saving Dante PR spokeswoman Randi James (Lindsay Frost) from an assassination attempt by some zombie hit-men, the duo follow her lead to a Chinatown butcher shop run by the dependable Keye Luke (Gremlins) which results in the film’s best sequence – a house of horrors involving reanimated poultry and hogs. The scene is capped by an attack on the Williams character by a skinless, headless cow – something truly, deliriously crazy and surreal. Some other noteworthy sequences in the movie include a woman literally falling apart (decent F/X for the time) and two zombies firing machine guns at each other point blank for a full 30 seconds.
The film’s weak point is Joe Piscopo, who delivers many snarky one-liners, most of which fall very flat. Not helping is his style of delivery – the man does not have a good sense of comic timing here. Perhaps sensing this, the creators of Dead Heat take him out of the action to focus on Williams and his eventual disintegration, but not before finally reaching his target, which is where the late Vincent Price makes his cameo. I love how Price’s character gleefully explains to a group of rich old farts how they can now afford not to die (“It will cost you half your fortunes, but you’ll have forever to make it back!”) Helping Vincent out is a welcome performance from the late Darren McGavin, playing a sleazy coroner.
Dead Heat ends up being a fun B-picture that does a good job of sending up the Lethal Weapon formula while dropping it into a stew with zombie and noir ingredients. It suffers from many bad jokes but Williams’ great performance mixed with some gooey effects helped keep me interested. I actually wish that Treat was given more time to contemplate the existential questions raised by his “death” (an earlier line by Piscopo asking the quite obvious question “What about his soul?” is dismissed too easily by Kirkconnell’s character). Alas, the movie is not really interested in matters of the soul, but of the (decaying) flesh. I did enjoy how, in the end, two zombies walk into the fog/oblivion in a funny nod to the ending of Casablanca. There’s one line in the film – “Welcome to zombieland!” – that has me comparing it to 2009′s horror comedy Zombieland – in some ways Dead Heat is less funny; on the other hand, it has more brains. Director Mark Goldblatt was also responsible for directing the underrated Lundgren vehicle The Punisher, as well as editing lots of action and horror flicks like Piranha, The Howling, Halloween II, Terminator, Rambo – First Blood Part II, and many others.
- Bill Gordon
The Anchor Bay release of Dead Heat (Divimax Special Edition) is all one could ever ask for. Decent widescreen transfer, deleted scenes, trailer, gallery, press kits, and commentary track by director Mark Goldblatt, producers David Helpern and Michael Meltzer, and writer Terry Black.