October Horrorshow: Death Warmed Up

Death Warmed Up movie posterThere’s not a lot of plot to Death Warmed Up, the 1984 horror flick from writer Michael Heath and director David Blyth. There are hints of plot here and there, but any cohesion or sense is tossed away in service of spectacle. That’s not inherently a bad thing. Story, while necessary for most films, would just have gotten in the way of this flick’s many, many, blood-spurting wounds.

A New Zealand production, Death Warmed Up follows Michael Tucker (Michael Hurst). In the film’s intro, we see Michael come under the influence of the evil Dr. Archer Howell (Gary Day), who is conducting experiments into human resurrection and mind control. After injecting Michael with his serum, Howell sends Michael to kill Michael’s parents. Michael’s father is a professional rival who threatens Howell’s experiments. After the deed is done, Michael spends the next seven years in a psychiatric hospital. The main part of the film picks up after his release.

Dr. Howell has since set up shop on a remote island. Michael, seeking revenge for what Howell did to him, tricks his girlfriend, Sandy (Margaret Umbers), and friends Lucas and Jeannie (William Upjohn and Norelle Scott) into going on a weekend getaway to the island. The plan is, while his friends are putzing around on the island, Michael will confront Dr. Howell. That’s it for plot. Not long after viewers learn of Michael’s vague plans, everything falls apart. The four youths are chased through some old World War Two tunnels by crazed bikers, Dr. Howell’s undead experiments escape from captivity, and a whole lot of people get killed in grisly fashion.

This is one of those horror films that defies rote categorization. Is it a mad scientist flick? Certainly. Is it a slasher flick? Hmmm, sometimes. Is it a zombie flick? Perhaps, but not a traditional one. I prefer the unpaid Wikipedia employee’s take, which is, as of this writing, a “science fiction horror splatter zombie” film. That’s accurate enough.

The special effects team must have gone through drums of fake blood. It spurts and gushes from every wound inflicted on this flick’s poor victims. And I mean every wound. Even corpses that the protagonists come across after the fact let loose arterial spray. Bloodhounds will get their fix from this movie.

I can’t recall a film that throws away its main plot elements with such abandon, yet still keeps from falling to pieces. Maybe that’s a failing on the part of Blyth and company — the result of poor filmmaking. But the overall quality of the film belies that. Blyth could have filmed an actual narrative, if he had wanted to.

That’s not to say this is a great, or, a groundbreaking horror film. It’s not. But it has a fantastic style. James Bartle’s cinematography is very much kin to what came out of Australia and New Zealand at the time. For those of us raised on a diet of Hollywood blockbusters, the style of shooting has a unique and fresh feel. Not bad for a film that’s almost forty years old. Bartle also used colored lighting and wide-angle lenses to effect, with a subtle touch that keeps it from falling into gimmickry.

At 82 minutes in length, Death Warmed Up does push the envelope for a film with so little plot. Some ruthless cutting would have been useful. There’s a sequence of repurposed footage near the end that could be excised completely. By the final act, I was hoping for things to wrap up. So, yes, there was a cost to abandoning the narrative, measured in the patience of the viewer. But, for those horror fans looking for something a little different and a little weirder than most horror flicks, this is a good choice.

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