Wednesday, October 01, 2008
(Thanks to Analog Medium for some of these images)
With the right four leads, zombie comedy Dead Heat could have been a minor cult-classic. Unfortunately, we have Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo as Roger Mortis (get it?) and Doug Bigelow, and Lindsay Frost and Clare Kirkconnell and plot-moving ingénues Randi James and Rebecca Smythers. That said, Dead Heat is still a fun, harmless B-pic that manages to successfully exist in several genres: Buddy-Comedy, Cop Actioner, Science Fiction and gross-out Zombie horror.
While writer Terry Black has a slim resume, director Mark Goldblatt has an interesting oeuvre. He’s edited many Arnold movies, from Terminator and T2 to Commando and True Lies. He edited Get Crazy, Predator 2, The Howling and tons more. Dead Heat was his first foray into directing, which he followed with the Dolph Lundgren Punisher the following year. Also, Goldblatt is credited as First A.D. to Paul Verhoeven on Robocop (also he edited Starship Troopers, Showgirls and Hollow Man).
And, Robocop clearly had an influence on this film. Dead Heat opens with an aerial skyscraper tour of L.A. against a Pouledouris-biting main title theme. The similarities continue as we join a crime already in progress: two masked hoods robbing a yuppie Jewelry store. The cops soon arrive to complete the triad, and a spectacular display of indiscriminate gunfire seems to kill everyone except the thieves, who nevertheless take plenty of bullets, baffling the cops (PCP? They wonder). The way civilians and cops alike go down reminds of the ruthless and misanthropic action cinema of the time.
The comparisons to Robocop end here, with the entrance of Piscopo and Treat as Doug and Roger, two rogue cops on “double probation,” who cruise around listening to generic new wave tunes in a drop-top. Piscopo plays himself, mugging, wearing muscle-tees and telling offensive, unfunny jokes. Treat’s character, “Roger Mortis”, is his foil, a dry, deadpan stoic. Treat Williams is a B-string lame leading-man of the Matt McCoy or Parker Stevenson variety, here doing a straight man’s version of an off-beat cop. This casting (a boring actor as a low-key guy) actually makes you want more of Piscopo, which I never thought would be possible.
The two hear about the stand-off on the Police radio, which gets Piscopo so hyped-up he squeezes his hot dog really hard, causing the ketchup to obscenely bust up out of the bun. This seems to really shock them both. They jam on over to the scene, finally disposing of the long-lived criminals with a grenade and a speeding car, which really steams the chief! But the force has bigger things to worry about, because the coroner’s office immediately recognizes the bodies as recent arrivals... as in dead guys who walked away.
While the shifty Dr. McNabb (Darren McGavin) is uncooperative, Roger and Doug turn to his assistant—and their friend—Rebecca Smythers, played by Clare Kirkconnell, who has the right look and attitude, but not the chops. Her and Treat together are really a snooze-fest. She discovers that an experimental drug called “Sulfathyasol” is pumping through their un-dead veins, which can be traced back to the monolithic “Dante Pharmaceuticals”. While Becky stays at the morgue to perform a second autopsy on the thugs, Roger and Doug head over to Dante Pharm to check it out.
There they meet PR head Randi James, who gives them the standard tour. Of the four principles, Lindsay Frost is the best actor, well-cast and game for the part (she’s been in loads of TV shows, including Lost). Doug sneaks off to break into the super-secret wing of the facility, and is immediately assaulted by a many-faced mutant biker. My Netflix DVD started to skip at this point, so I lost a few minutes of the battle. While this is going on, Roger finds himself locked in a decompression chamber, where he suffocates and dies. Doug joins up with Randi (who claims ignorance), and they promptly rig up the re-animation machine and bring Roger back to life, with little deliberation aside from Piscopo trying to emote and saying “But what about the soul?”
The two cops visit Becky, who diagnoses Roger as a walking corpse, with less than a day to live. He’s determined to use his remaining hours to bring down Dante, so Doug and zombie-Roger rush off while Randi continues doing whatever it is that she is doing. They stop off at Randi’s, and find two hilarious zombies straight out of Miami Vice, who they kill with a harpoon and an electrified hot tub.
Randi seems to recall something about a sketchy Chinese butcher Dante Pharm makes mysterious deliveries to, so the three zip over to his deli to check it out. They find Professor Toru Tanaka chopping up a chicken! This is the best scene in the film, as Doug and Roger have to fight not only Tanaka but also a roomful of reanimated deli-meat, including a giant headless cow, which Doug dispenses with a meat hook. The pre-CG special effects here are impressive, as are the prosthetics and make-up FX throughout the film. They miss out on the butcher, “Thule” (Keye Luke), who’s escaped back to Dante.
After a short stop at the library (to give Treat a chance to freak out and flail through an existential crisis), they split up to follow different leads. Roger and Randi travel to Randi’s adoptive father’s crypt (Dante Pharmaceuticals honcho Arthur P. Loudermilk, played by Vincent Price!), where they discover some useful cryptogram on a lampshade. When they get back to Randi’s, they find Doug upside-down in a fish tank dead! From here they race over to Dante for the big conclusion, as all parties converge. Loudermilk isn’t dead after-all, as we see him trying to convince a crew of oldies to invest in his regeneration tech. A nearly decomposed Roger comes in with a machine gun, and has a hilarious fight with a zombie where they shoot each other about a thousand times. Also, most of the old people go down as Thule indiscriminately shoots up the room. A brain-dead Zombie-Piscopo comes at Roger, but he snaps him out of it by quoting homophobic jokes the two had cracked earlier in the film. I’m not lying. (Spoilers coming’) They then swiftly take out McNab and Loudermilk and blow up the lab. The two walk off to the cheesy credit song, flipping Casablanca: “This could be the end of a beautiful friendship.”
Dead Heat is completely dumb, and derivative, but it’s still fun, and has fantastic special effects. While it’s a far cry from its source material, Dead Heat is loosely based on DOA, which it references twice, with the character of Bigelow and also with a scene playing on a television in Randi’s apartment. Dead Heat is also clearly inspired by An American Werewolf in London, which inspired a whole micro-genre of transforming-buddy or family member horror comedies in the 80s and 90s: Teen Wolf, She's Back, My Mom’s a Werewolf, My Boyfriend’s Back, Idle Hands, et al.
The Anchor Bay DVD I watched is loaded with extras, including twenty minutes of deleted scenes (including a lost Dick Miller cameo), promos, the script, and a commentary with Black, Goldblatt and the producers, where Black reveals that a sequel was commissioned but never filmed, which he wrote the script for (makes sense—Loudermilk’s body is never seen and Becky hints that she’s found a way to slow or reverse the decomposition process). Too bad, as the fully zombied-up duo could have been more fun leads than they are here—neither particularly shines, unfortunately. If Michael Nouri and Wings Hauser played Mortis and Bigelow, this film would have been much improved. Nevertheless, I present here a well-paced, fun, lively, gory little flick with great special effects to kick off The October Ordeal ’08.