Anchor Bay // 1988 // 84 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 15th, 2004
You can't keep a good cop dead.
While on routine patrol, Detectives Roger Mortis (Treat Williams, Critical Mass, Everwood) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo, Johnny Dangerously, Saturday Night Live) are called to the scene of a brazen daylight robbery. The city of Los Angeles has been stricken with such daring acts of theft, but it's the first time anyone has met the fiends face-to-face. After a shootout that leaves the villains ventilated, the coroner makes a gruesome discovery -- these dead criminals have appeared in the morgue before. And they have the autopsy scars to prove it. Apparently, the living dead are on a crime spree.
With some odd chemical information in their hands, the officers visit Dante Pharmaceuticals, where they get the runaround from P.R. person Randi James (Lindsay Frost, Collateral Damage, The Ring). When an accident during a scuffle leaves Roger resting in peace, an odd invention is uncovered -- Dante, the drug company has a resurrection machine, capable of bringing the dearly departed back to life. So Roger's partner Doug and his ex-girlfriend, assistant coroner Rebecca (Clare Kirkconnell, TV's The Paper Chase), microwave their pal to give the deceased detective a new lease on living. One session of zapping in the rebirth apparatus and Roger is back on the case.
But there's a drawback to Roger's newfound rejuvenation. He only has 12 or so hours of existence left. Afterward, he'll dissolve into human soup. With Doug by his side and Randi in tow, Roger sets out to discover the secret of the amazing machine, to learn who is behind the zombie robberies, and whether anything can be done to stop his own decomposition. Time is of the essence and terror is on the startling block as the corpse cop tries to solve his own murder before the race against rotting becomes a disgusting Dead Heat.
Before its release in 1988, Dead Heat was a hotly anticipated horror title. Written up numerous times in Fangoria magazine and rumored about by knowledgeable fans eager to see what sick, twisted special effects makeup artist Steve Johnson would come up with, it seemed like a can't miss prospect. Johnson was a young gun of prosthetics who had quickly become a fright flick favorite with such spectacle-filled titles under his belt as Videodrome, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Howling II. And the premise was ripe for a few quickie sequels, the continued stories of the living-dead law enforcement friends. It seemed as though the scene was set for another potential hit terror title.
Then Dead Heat hit theaters and flopped, vanishing to video shelves everywhere. It became a forgotten film, a mere blip on the radar of well-regarded scary movies from the decade that minted the most of them, the 1980s. And that's too bad, because Dead Heat is an inventive, inviting horror comedy that avoids formulas while it deconstructs clichés to make what has to be the first action-adventure-living-dead comedy ever conceived. Utilizing a wonderful idea and presenting it with all the creativity a barebones budget would allow, director Mark Goldblatt perverted the buddy cop prescription into a zombified geek show of bloodletting, corpses, and plenty of jocularity. Toss in the graphic (for its time) snuff stuff and some self-deprecating wit, and what you have is something very special; a movie that should have been a creepy crawly contender. Instead, it's just a fond memory for those who discovered it initially, and a "What the heck is this?" moment for a few formerly famous faces.
Treat Williams is wonderful here, tossing aside all his gruff, anxious high drama seriousness and letting loose with a cool, collected performance. He brings the right amount of anarchic authority to the film, helping to sell the over-the-top foundation. When he becomes a walking corpse cop, you can see Williams relishing the renegade antics of his character the more he decays and rots. Joe Piscopo, occasionally appearing as nothing more than an ad for anabolic alteration, does manage to get in a couple of zesty zingers before it's time to flex his non-hilarious pythons again. Frankly, this is one of the few times where the ex-SNLer's bulking routine actually fits his character. Detective Bigelow seems a couple of protein shakes away from a health regime, and Piscopo's radically altered physique logically illustrates this pumped-up personality choice. Such cult icons as Vincent Price (still spry and sinister in one of his last roles), Darren McGavin (giving his criminal coroner a real peppy persona), and Keye Luke (actually playing a cutthroat villain) bring another level of star polish to the independent terror tale. Indeed, between the acting and direction, a solid little scarefest is created.
But Johnson's novel -- and unnerving -- special effects work is the film's most memorable asset. From reanimated corpses in various "stitched together" configurations to the set-piece gross-out in the Chinese butcher shop (where cuts of meat and other "processed" animals come back to life to get revenge), this effects wiz really excels here. Lindsay Frost undergoes one of the best onscreen makeup meltdowns ever. It's because of the glorious grue that Dead Heat, even with all its help, rises above other routine terrors from the MTV decade.
Frankly, it's surprising that in the rush to remake any old horror film, no one has thought about giving this tantalizing tale a little redux action. One can easily see a successful mainstream movie of the macabre being fashioned out of the successful shell of this stellar work. Jazz up the effects, increase the blood, and infuse the story with lots of A-name star power, and boffo box office is some studio's for the taking. Bigger than life on a Cineplex screen or loaded onto your home theater setup, Dead Heat can and does work.
It's mainly because scriptwriter Terry Black (brother of Lethal Weapon's Shane Black) has crafted a well-conceived film. Dead Heat never lets its premise get so out of hand as to destroy the dimensions of dread, and all the comic elements help to magnify, not minimize, the shocks and slaughter. Zombies are always good for some gore and terrorizing, but here they are walking, talking, thinking ex-humans with a capacity for immortality (unlike typical living dead gospel, they seem near-impossible to kill). Limiting the craven creeps to a chosen few and giving them distinct visual personalities (the two-faced fiend, the walking-dead weasel, etc) helps us handle the more implausible elements. Black also gives the typical cop team-up dialogue a little added vitality by making Roger a dull, drone-like officer with a penchant for interpersonal insincerity. This gives Williams's scenes with both Frost and Clare Kirkconnell as morgue assistant Rebecca Smythers a kind of human emotional resonance that many monster movies lack. Black's script, combined with Mark Goldblatt's crackerjack direction and sense of tension, enables Dead Heat to surpass its small-time trappings and become a big-idea film in a petite independent package.
Anchor Bay uses its Divimax Series subheading for this DVD release, and the moniker of magnificence is almost warranted. This is a fine -- if somewhat flat-looking -- digital presentation, with enough bonus content signals and shrieks to warrant a fright fan's attention. Now it's true that the image leaves a little to be desired. Dead Heat never looked great on home video (a grainy, open-matte disaster on VHS can attest to that), but this version is a vast improvement over other releases. The anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer preserves the original aspect ratio and captures details missing from previous offerings of this film. But the print shows damage and dirt, and the contrast occasionally seems off. The scenes in the deli and in Frost's bathroom may be purposefully muddy to hide effects work, but they do degrade the overall visual vibrancy of the film. Sonically, Dead Heat is nothing to sound spastic over. The Dolby Digital Stereo is clear and clean, but there is nothing immersive or engrossing about the surround.
Thankfully, the extras make up for some of the film's cinematic weak points. First up is a wonderful audio commentary by Goldblatt, Black, and producers David Helpern and Michael Meltzer. This is a fact-filled, insight-riddled retelling of how this $5 million movie saw the light of day. Everyone contributes equally, explaining decisions over casting, MPAA cuts, and dealing with on-set effects. The participants remember the names of even the most ancillary actors and marvel at the amount of production value they got out of a small budget. They even discuss the planned-for sequel that never saw the light of day (New World Pictures went under before it could be made). Though the comments tend to die down toward the end of the running time, this is still a great listen and a welcome inclusion to the disc.
We are also given access to some deleted scenes, but the awful, mucky, worse-than-Beta presentation makes appreciating them next to impossible. One scene in particular -- a birthday dream where Mortis witnesses a corpse popping out of his cake (and doing a seductive, shocking dance) -- would have been of special interest to fans of the film. But the visuals are so shoddy hardly anything can be seen. Thankfully, both of the press-kit puff pieces are pristine and interesting, showing how hard New World found it to market this film. Along with a trailer, an extensive gallery of stills and poster art, some storyboards and DVD-ROM accessible material (the screenplay in PDF format), everything else here fits the Divimax distinction. Too bad the basic elements of digital demonstration are so humdrum.
Too bad also that more video nasty nuts don't know about Dead Heat. It has its slow spots, and occasionally Joe Piscopo swings at a wild joke without having the proper audience anticipation for same, but this is really a funky, frantic film. While you may never think of Chinese pork the same way again, you'll definitely get a heaping helping of fright fun with this long-lost title.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Director Mark Goldblatt, Producers David Helpern and Michael Meltzer, and Writer Terry Black
* Theatrical Trailer
* Deleted Scenes
* MIFED Promo
* Original Electronic Press Kit
* Poster and Stills Gallery
* Original Storyboard Art
* DVD-ROM: Original Screenplay