The buddy cop movie has had some strange variants over the years with everything including dogs (K9), mom’s (Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot) and even extraterrestrials (Alien Nation) thrown into the mix, but in 1988, Dead Heat gave us arguably one of the weirdest ones of all – zombies.
Directed by renowned editor Mark Goldblatt (he cut such explosive classics as the first two Terminators, Starship Troopers and Rambo: First Blood Part II), Dead Heat gazes into the void that is the eternal question about what happens to us after we die, shrugs its shoulders, flicks through a porn mag, takes a sizable hoof of cocaine and instead wonders: “Hey, what do you think Lethal Weapon would be like if one of them was fuckin’ dead?”
The answer? A dated, clunky, 80’s action comedy that survivess as a genuinely fun guilty pleasure.
Detective Roger Mortis (seriously) and his permanently horny partner Doug Bigelow manage to put down the latest in a string of violent robberies perpetrated by pairs of cooks who won’t do the police the decency to simply up and die after being pumped full of bullets. After getting chewed out by their captain for their heroic deeds as standard, the mildly uptight Mortis and the swaggering Bigelow desire to crack this spree depending on if they have any time left on their shift after their endless bantering as they eventually get caught up in a bizarre conspiracy involving a machine that can bring the dead back to life.
However, while trying to uncover the identity of whomever is creating zombies in order to finance this operation through some posthumous thievery, Roger is locked inside a giant decompression chamber (*slaps door* all sinister research labs should have one of these bad boys) and is asphyxiated to death by a mystery button pusher. Distraught, Bigalow and Roger’s coroner ex-girlfriend hit upon the bright idea to use the resurrection machine to bring Roger back and after aclumating to his new status surprisingly quickly, Mortis sets out to track down his own murderer. However, just as you’d expect with a zombie making machine, there’s a sizable catch and that is Roger only has a mere 13 hours to get justice before his reanimated body collapses into a pile of smoking goo.
After finding the right brand of makeup to make Roger look less like a colourless slab of beef, he and Bigalow team up with Randi James, the alleged daughter of recently deceased rich industrialist Arthur P. Laudermilk and slowly start to get to the bottom of this strange state of affairs, but can Mortis embrace his undead attributes enough in order to avenge his own life before his second life splutters out into a final meltdown?
So, let get a few things established first. Dead Heat isn’t art, nor is it trying to be (at least, I hope it isnt) and all it’s interested in doing is delivering as many goofy, cop one-liners as it possibly can in 86 minutes while letting special effects wizard Steve Johnson stretch the budget with some divering and truly cool effects. However, maybe the most alarming thing about the movie is it’s cast, which not only contains some typical – yet inexplicable – Treat Williams slumming (the man was in Once Upon A Time In America for Christ’s sake), it also boasts obnoxious, 80’s comedian Joe Piscopo trying to be likable while still stating things like that he would like to be reincarnated as a woman’s bicycle seat, the Night Stalker himself Darren McGavin and, most bewilderingly of all, a frail looking, cameoing Vincent Price who luridly reads all of his lines like he’s still doing the rap from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
And yet, somehow this all works in an incredibly cheesy way. The action sequences, that are populated by people who can’t die, feel very much in the same vein as other, witty, genre blending actioners like The Hidden and Maniac Cop (although not quite as good) and a scene where Mortis trades point blank machine gun fire with another dead guy for 10 straight, unbroken seconds is nothing short of tongue in cheek genius. However, what truly stands out most is the enjoyable cringe inducing one liners and the truly superlative effects and the two battle each other mercilessly for supremacy. Whenever the script deals out some dialogue like: “Hey, you’re hurt.”, “Lady, I’m fucking dead!” or “You remember when we were in training? They always told us, “You can’t be a good cop if you’re a dead cop.” Here’s your chance to prove them wrong. You’re good and you’re dead.”, the effect team counters with an obese zombie biker with extra features stitched into his ruined face or an entire chinese kitchen full of reanimated animal carcasses, including – but not limited to – a face hugging liver and a worryingly affectionate beef carcass. On top of that, Steve Johnson’s talented crew also give us an impressive zombie meltdown and more, increasingly mangled looks for Roger as the general wear and tear of a comedy action film begins to take it’s toll.
None of it is supposed to be taken seriously, of course (fat chance of that happening) but the movie itself is staged a little stiffly by first time director Goldblatt who also brought his stilted blocking to Dolph Lundgren’s ultra violent turn as The Punisher in 1989, however, despite the movie’s rather patchy low-rent nature (or most likely because of it) I’ve always had something of a soft spot for this misshapen flick. Surely I can’t be the only one to think that the concept of zombie cops is insanely ripe for a gore & stunt-filled remake (imagine what someone like Tim Miller or David Leitch could do with it) while quips fly thicker and faster that the bullets that explode from the uzis that everyone seems to be carrying somewhere on their person.
Hardly the exhilarating blast you’d hope something this ridiculous would be, Dead Heat still ends up being quite the lumpily-shaped romp whose quality vastly improves depending on a) how far your love of trash cinema goes, or b) how drunk you are.
Dumb as a lumbering corpse with a criminal record, crass as virtually everything that comes out of Piscopo’s mouth and yet as strangely endearing as the sight of a partially burnt and practically invulnerable Williams driving a motorcycle through a door and flying through the air only to mow down the bad guys with returning fire as he slides across the floor, Dead Heat may not be vintage 80’s action or horror, but it’s certainly goofy enough to kill and hour and a half – and resurrect it as well.