Once upon a time in the 1980s, MTV, big hair and VHS ruled the day. The impulse renting of horror titles in long-gone video stores allowed fans to discover flicks that died in a theatrical release. One such flick is the now cult-classic DEAD HEAT – an over-the-top retread of the noir thriller D.O.A – with Treat Williams as an LA cop resurrected from the dead who has to solve his own murder before he decomposes entirely in a mass of goo. Along for the ride is his “straight laced” partner who drops one liners faster than you can say Joe Piscopo, fresh off his near-star making turn on SNL.
The two LAPD-ers, in true LETHAL WEAPON fashion, are called in stop a jewel robbery when they run afoul of nearly-unstoppable killers. Homicide detectives Roger Mortis (Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Piscopo) are shocked to learn that they have been battling the newly dead that have been somehow resurrected after spending some “down time” on an autopsy table.
Following a lead to an experimental mad lab, Mortis is accidentally killed and then resurrected by none other than Vincent Price as inventor Arthur B. Loudermilk! Unfortunately, the newly arisen dead have a short shelf life before they are reduced to primordial glop. As Mortis rushes to find his killer, his body begins to deteriorate before our very eyes. Williams’ SFX makeup (done by the legendary Steve Johnson) runs the gamut from horrific to hilarious as he styles his decomposing zombie façade into a stylish punk look.
Meanwhile, the undead criminals fight back armed with machine guns (Yes – zombies with machine guns!) Mortis & Bigelow follow a slew of creepy clues and bodies to a Chinese restaurant’s butcher shop. A beam from the Resurrection Machine reanimates the hanging, fetid fowl – chickens and ducks – that leer menacingly at our heroes. A boar, ripe for the main course, glistening in sauce, charges the defective detectives.
Soon enough, Bigelow joins Mortis in death as he too is resurrected and our buddy zombie cops enter into a final showdown with the mysterious ringleader – Carl Kolchak himself – Darren McGavin! Shutting down the resurrection machine, Mortis and Bigelow die – this time for good.
A witty script by Terry (brother of Shane) Black and expert direction from top Hollywood editor Mark Goldblatt keep the action – and the gags – fast and furiouser in pure exploitation flick joy.
DEAD HEAT was lambasted by critics at the time who just didn’t get it. The LA Times called the script “pseudo-hip gruesomeness that has no moral or satiric basis: full of juiceless, one-note, joylessly profane dialogue, car-crashes, slaughter and juvenile gross-outs, shish kebobbed on an empty high concept.”
Dumb critics – THAT’s all the reasons it’s great!
Despite a lackluster theatrical performance, the film’s VHS rentals and cable sales prompted New World Pictures to ask for a sequel from Black. When he told them that all the main characters were finally dead, the exec reportedly said, “You’ve got a resurrection machine, you figure it out.”
We’re still waiting….