Have you ever seen a movie that blended the buddy cop, zombie, comedy action horror genres all together? Could you believe such a thing even exists? Well, they did, back in the 80 cop films were all the rage and buddy comedies even more so but it took writer Terry Black and director Mark Goldblatt to come up with such a bizarre blend of horror, comedy and action that really has to be seen to be believed, that is if you want to believe that Joe Piscopo could be an action star of any sort.
Mixing genres is always tricky business and Mark Goldblatt’s Dead Heat not only tried to make a horror/comedy but a buddy cop action film as well, and I’ll give him full credit for delivering all of those elements in one film, even if they didn’t always quite work. The film’s plot was, I’m guessing, derived from the 1948 film noir D.O.A. where the protagonist had been slipped poison and had only a matter of hours to figure out who had murdered him, which is a damn cool premise, but with Dead Heat, writer Terry Black took that overall concept and then ratcheted it up to eleven and through in a zombie element to spice things up. The story kicks off with detectives Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo), who are your standard maverick cops who will bend the rules and get screamed at by their boss, investigating a series of robberies that results in them coming into contact with undead criminals, needless to say, things start to get interesting and violent.
After eventually and violently killing the perps, our heroes return to the precinct to get chewed out by their captain, something to do with collateral damage and parking tickets, but they are soon called down to the city morgue by Dr. Rebecca Smythers (Clare Kirkconnell), a possible old flame of Roger’s, who informs them that the two bodies they had brought in had already been in the morgue on a previous occasion, with autopsy scars to prove it. Her jerk boss, Dr. Ernest McNab (Darren McGavin), points out that corpses don’t just walk off on their own accord so they must have been alive and she simply misdiagnosed them as dead, which is pretty ridiculous but we don’t have time for questions of logic because a unique preservative chemical compound had found been in the bodies and this sends our heroes off to check out a Dante Pharmaceuticals. They meet the company’s public relations person, Randi James (Lindsay Frost), whose tour leads Bigelow to discover a strange lab and the resurrected corpse of what looks to be a mutant biker, and at this point, you may want to ask “Why does that raging corpse of three noses?” but it’s not for us to question these things as one must let the absurdity of it all simply wash over you.
During the chaos, Roger is knocked into a decompression room and is asphyxiated to death, helped along by a mysterious figure who activates the room with Roger is trapped inside, but a quick-thinking Rebecca figures out that the machine Bigelow discovered is actually capable of bringing people back from the dead and with Bigelow’s help they successfully bring Roger back from the dead, unfortunately, while he is up and about he’s also technically not exactly alive. With no heartbeat and skin that is cold to the touch, Rebecca surmises that he has about twelve hours before the reanimation process ends and he dissolves into a puddle of mush, thus film’s ticking clock is engaged as our heroes must solve the mystery before Roger dies, for good this time. Another question you shouldn’t ask is how a city coroner can quickly figure out how a crazy resurrection machine works.
The premise certainly has the potential for some great dark comedy, with Roger’s body slowly deteriorating while Bigelow does his best to keep up with all the strangeness surrounding this case, one scene with Roger trading machine gunfire with another undead is kind of brilliant, but where the film fails is in the blending of comedy and horror because while the gore is well-crafted, by makeup effects artist Steve Johnson, it doesn’t match with the tone of the script which keeps trying to be a comedy even while bodies continue to pile up and everyone, including our heroes, end up dead. Then there is the mystery itself, if what unfolds can be considered a mystery, which sends our heroes careening across town to fight with the undead menu of a Chinese restaurant and to uncover the secret behind Dante Pharmaceuticals’ founder Arthur P. Loudermilk (Vincent Price), who is presumably the father of Randi James and is also dead, but can anyone in this film be considered truly dead?
• The members of the “Cash and Dash” gang wear these bizarre leather cowls that don’t so much as hide their identities as it does make them look more like S&M enthusiasts than it does professional thieves.
• Dr. Ernest McNab rebukes Dr. Rebecca Smythers for signing death certificates to living people, but even if they had arrived at the morgue alive they wouldn’t have survived the autopsy, basically, this guy is either a raging idiot or the film’s villain.
• Bigelow is able to enter a secured laboratory simply by sticking a plastic nametag into the card reader slot and shorting it out, which is up there with the stupidity of action heroes opening doors by shooting their keypads. That’s not how electronic locks work, all that would do is permanently lock it.
• Mortis dies because he gets locked in a decompression room used to euthanize test animals, but the door has a large glass window and Bigelow doesn’t once think of shooting the window, instead, he just hits on it with his bare hands. Are we to think he wanted his partner dead?
• Of all the corpses McNab could have chosen for the demonstration he picked one of the cops who had been trying to expose this resurrection syndicate, and sure, he assumed he’d been brainwashed by the process, but he clearly didn’t understand the power of friendship.
What truly kills this film is the comedic stylings of Joe Piscopo which just don’t work here and barely even rises to the level of amusingly stupid, and his chemistry with co-star Treat Williams is almost non-existent which is something a buddy cop lives and dies on, with the viewer becoming invested in the dynamic between the two leads, but in this case, it critically failed and doomed the film from the outset. While Dead Heat misfired in the delivery of its premise it still offers some great practical effects in the makeup department and if you can stomach Joe Piscopo’s attempt at comedy you will more than likely have a good enough time watching this bizarre hybrid of a movie.
Dead Heat (1988)
Movie Rank - 6/10
Mark Goldblatt’s Dead Heat is probably the best buddy cop, zombie, comedy action horror flicks out there, which to be fair is not saying much, but if you can survive some of the worst written dialogue and even worse delivery, verging on levels of pure anti-humour, then this unusual entry can be considered a successful oddball cult classic and worth checking out.