October Horrorshow: Dead Heat (1988)

“These caps[sic] are on the biggest murder case of their lives...their own.”

So declares the DVD box art for the 1988 zombie action flick Dead Heat. When searching for a shitty movie to idly pass an evening, a typo on box art is a pretty fair indication a viewer has found a winner. Any movie called Dead Heat and starring Joe Piscopo doesn’t need any extra hint that it’s a special film, but the fact the producers didn’t care enough to release the flick with a simple bit of copy editing on the box is just icing on the cake.

Directed by Mark Goldblatt, Dead Heat follows two 1980s Hollywood-style rogue cops, Detectives Mortis and Bigelow (Treat Williams and Piscopo, respectively), as they try to track down a ring of armed robbers that have an uncanny ability to absorb massive amounts of flying bullets and not die. The film opens with a shootout of ridiculous proportions to ram this point home, as a pair of robbers armed with Uzis take on half the police force in a shootout on the street. Cops are dropping left and right, but no matter how many times the perps are shot, they just won’t go down. It takes a grenade and a speeding car to do the trick. To start the film, this scene is a total howler, in the scale of its violence and its absurdity. It does wonders to set up the rest of the film for a viewer.

Mortis and Bigelow learn from the coroner that the two robbers have already been through her morgue before. What? How is that possible? Well, it appears someone out there is using zombies to commit crimes, and it’s up to Mortis and Bigelow to find out whom. The trail leads to a pharmaceutical company, where Bigelow awakens an outlaw biker zombie with two faces. As they slug it out, Mortis, tragically, Dead Heatbecomes mort. But never fear, our intrepid hero is resurrected as a zombie himself, and now has to track down his killer in the short amount of time he has left on earth before he dissolves into a puddle of goo. That’s a heavy trip, man.

Their investigation takes them all over the city, the highlight being a trip to a Chinese butcher shop that must be seen by anyone into horror comedy. That’s what this film is, really: a horror comedy. The idea behind the zombies is serious to a point, but no filmmaker casts Joe Piscopo in a starring role and expects a weighty outcome. The man is a comedian, despite how one may feel about him. He spends the entire film spouting cheesy one-liners and looking buff, with Treat Williams left to play the straight man. But the film is more of a sendup of ’80s cop films than it is a spoof of horror. The horror is what it takes seriously. It’s the police that catch the script’s ire. There’s the uptight lieutenant, the screaming captain, the heroes that play by their own rules, etc. I had thought Tango and Cash was the main target of its satire until I found that Dead Heat predated that dog by a year. So maybe it was Lethal Weapon that it drew inspiration from. No matter. I’m content in thinking that Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell were so wowed by Dead Heat that they felt they needed to get in on the buddy movie business.

The thing about this movie, though, is that it just misses. It doesn’t play for the gags, but doesn’t go for the scares all that much, either. I found myself just wanting it to go all-in on one or the other. Preferably the horror. The creature effects were decent for low-budget fare and those sequences were the most effective. It did go nuts for one aspect of the film, and that was the gunplay. There were a lot of bullets fired in this movie. For some reason, the go-to firearm was the Uzi. I can understand why. The bad guys acquired a whole bunch of them that can fire about a thousand rounds before they need to be reloaded. You don’t pass up reliability like that on the open market.

Sometimes a shitty movie can be a real drag. Not this one. It was fun. Dead Heat is a more enjoyable film than Alien: Resurrection.

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