From The Parallax Review Vaults: Dead Heat (1986)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Dead Heat was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Encore Action

Playing like a slapdash combination of Lethal Weapon and Re-Animator, Dead Heat is an incredibly derivative film that turns on one good gimmick: zombie cop. But this isn’t the evil kind of zombie cop seen in such trash classics as Maniac Cop and, er, Maniac Cop 2. This zombie cop retains his living personality while violently seeking justice for his own murder. This could have been an interesting, if ridiculous, film. At the very least, it should have achieved trash classic status as being so bad that it cries out to be seen. Instead, it settles for occupying a purgatory between total mediocrity and silly camp.

Treat Williams stars as Roger Mortis (ha!), the smooth-talking half of a pair of trigger-happy detectives. His partner is Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo), a loutish goon with a taste for shirts three sizes too small that show off his steroid-pumped arms. Together, they are the prototypical movie-cop loose cannons. Obsessed with bringing down a gang of armed robbers who have been wreaking havoc all over Los Angeles, they get in a violent shootout with two members of the gang and discover that they’re nearly impossible to kill. When bullets don’t do the trick, Roger resorts to slamming a car into one. In the morgue, they discover that the man was already dead, having had an autopsy done previously. One vaguely explained clue leads to another and, before you can say Lazarus, Roger is killed and brought back to life by something called the resurrection machine. The problem comes from the fact that Roger is not really alive; he’s a zombie with around twelve hours of usable time before he suffers total decomposition. Instead of spending these last hours setting his affairs in order or living like there’s no tomorrow, he does what any macho, ’80s movie cop would do, he attempts to solve his own murder.

When Roger turned into a zombie, I immediately wanted to love this movie. Unfortunately, my good will was punished with bad filmmaking and tons of awful, awful Joe Piscopo one-liners. There were more groans in my living room while watching this movie than there are on a busy night at The Bunny Ranch. The director, Mark Goldblatt, is a veteran editor, but even he wasn’t able to cover up all the plot holes and bad performances in this movie. Given the material, Williams gives a remarkably good performance, as do the always reliable Darren McGavin and Vincent Price. But the rest of the cast turn in work that ranges from uninspired to Piscopo’s Mystery Science Theater 3000-worthy assault on the art of acting.

However, as painful as it sometimes was to watch, a glimpse of a better movie would accidentally emerge from the wreckage. Namely, the clever ways that Roger manages to use his undead condition to track down his killer. Whether executing an ambush by waiting underwater in a Jacuzzi for five minutes, crashing a motorcycle to turn himself into a human missile that can smash through windows, or just walking unharmed into gunfire, these moments always entertained. When the inevitable turn into a bad scene would come along, my mind would wander to the idea that this could make a great TV show if they just stripped away all of the horrible puns and convoluted conspiracy. You could probably even get Treat Williams to star in it. He’s not exactly busy these days.

Perhaps I’m being generous with the two-star rating, but between the great concept, the occasional flashes of ingenuity, and a genuinely charismatic performance by Williams, the movie found a soft spot in my dark, critical soul. If Williams had suddenly turned and, Romero-zombie-style, feasted on Piscopo’s flesh, I would have bumped it up to 2½.

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