Saturday, February 27, 2010

DEAD HEAT (1988)

Detectives Roger Mortis (think about it for a second) and Doug Bigelow stumble onto a very weird case. Arriving on the scene of a heist, they join their fellow cops in a violent shoot-out with the criminals. When all is said and done, the bad guys are hit a dozen times each but their bodies don’t quite get the message. As it turns out, both villains have been dead for some time. This leads our intrepid pair to the Dante Laboratories where Bigelow is attacked by a large biker (whose face seems to be splitting directly in half) and Roger winds up dead, suffocating in an asphyxiation room meant for euthanizing test animals. But all is not lost! The lab happens to have a reanimation machine. But all is not sunlight and puppies for poor Roger. The resurrection is merely temporary and he will turn to dust in roughly twenty-four hours. But until then, he’s virtually indestructible—or, at least, unkillable, since he accumulates plenty of damage while searching for the meaning behind it all.

Not technically a zombie movie, Dead Heat is a horror comedy best described as a slapstick reimagining of D.O.A. (a movie playing very prominently on a television midway through, in case you didn’t get the joke). The gore is played for very broad laughs, showcasing the make-up work of Steve Johnson. The game cast makes the best of Terry Black’s script which has a decent mystery at its core but nearly all the humor is forced. Treat Williams as Roger and Darren McGavin as McNab (the “BODYDOC”, as proclaimed by his license plate and a key bit of ludicrous plot) seem to be having the best time (particularly as Roger takes on more damage--Williams adopts a real "screw it" attitude towards the end), and it’s always nice to see Vincent Price, no matter how decrepit he is (Price cameos in a central role as the rich madman behind the resurrections). Other fun cameos from Dick Miller, Robert Picardo and Linnea Quigley liven things up here and there as well.

As Doug Bigelow, however, is the movie’s sore thumb, Joe Piscopo. While good ol’ Joe, having left behind a career on Saturday Night Live, is not bad in Dead Heat so much as he is self-aware. Part of the blame can be leveled at Mark Goldblatt, an exemplary editor but not so much as a director (see the Dolph Lundgren Punisher for another case in point). Much of the movie is delivered in masters and two-shots, underlying the “buddy cop” aspects of the script and when Piscopo isn’t delivering his lines, he seems to stand around waiting to speak again, rather than reacting to anything going on. In one scene, Lindsay Frost actually seems to be inching away from him during a conversation. This could just be my imagination, but it makes for interesting speculation. And the fact that I’m doing any speculating at all should tell you all you need to know about the film’s soggy middle section.

For so lightweight of a movie, Dead Heat has a lot of detractors. A disaster when it was released, the movie slowly garnered a cult following but never really took off one way or another and is usually mentioned as an afterthought in zombie movie compendiums. Some dismiss it as unwatchable but that might actually be giving it too much credit. At its worst, Dead Heat is merely uninteresting—although at its best it’s merely amusing. No strong feelings can be had one way or another about it. It has fun parts, it has lousy parts and there are huge stretches of credibility (zombie cops we can buy but how does a runaway ambulance speed uphill?). The end result is more ‘enh’ than ‘aagh!’ And let’s face it: you’ve seen worse.

Readily available on DVD (in a sparce "you're lucky to get the movie, meatbag!" edition), you can choose to seek out Dead Heat or just catch it accidentally when it pops up in your Netflix queue. 

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