Before its release in 1988, Dead Heat was a hotly anticipated horror title. Written up numerous times in Fangoria magazine and rumored about by knowledgeable fans eager to see what sick, twisted special effects makeup artist Steve Johnson would come up with, it seemed like a can’t miss prospect. Johnson was a young gun of prosthetics who had quickly become a fright flick favorite with such spectacle-filled titles under his belt as Videodrome, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Howling II. And the premise was ripe for a few quickie sequels, the continued stories of the living-dead law enforcement friends. It seemed as though the scene was set for another potential hit terror title. Then Dead Heat knocked into theaters and flopped, vanishing to video shelves everywhere. It became a forgotten film, a mere blip on the radar of well-regarded scary movies from the 1980s.
And that’s too bad, because Dead Heat is an inventive, inviting horror comedy that avoids formulas while it deconstructs clichés to make what has to be the first action-adventure-living-dead comedy ever conceived. Utilizing a wonderful idea and presenting it with all the creativity a barebones budget would allow, director Mark Goldblatt perverted the buddy cop prescription into a zombified geek show of bloodletting, corpses, and plenty of jocularity. Toss in the graphic (for its time) snuff stuff and some self-deprecating wit, and what you have is something very special; a movie that should have been a creepy crawly contender. Instead, it’s just a fond memory for those who discovered it initially, and a “What the heck is this?” moment for a few formerly famous faces.
Treat Williams is wonderful here, tossing aside all his gruff, anxious high drama seriousness and letting loose with a cool, collected performance. He brings the right amount of anarchic authority to the film, helping to sell the over-the-top foundation. When he becomes a walking corpse cop, you can see Williams relishing the renegade antics of his character the more he decays and rots. Joe Piscopo, occasionally appearing as nothing more than an ad for anabolic alteration, does manage to get in a couple of zesty zingers before it’s time to flex his non-hilarious pythons again. Frankly, this is one of the few times where the ex-SNLer’s bulking routine actually fits his character. Detective Bigelow seems a couple of protein shakes away from a health regime, and Piscopo’s radically altered physique logically illustrates this pumped-up personality choice.
Such cult icons as Vincent Price (still spry and sinister in one of his last roles), Darren McGavin (giving his criminal coroner a real peppy persona), and Keye Luke (actually playing a cutthroat villain) bring another level of star polish to the independent terror tale. Indeed, between the acting and direction, a solid little scarefest is created. But Johnson’s novel—and unnerving—special effects work is the film’s most memorable asset. From reanimated corpses in various “stitched together” configurations to the set-piece gross-out in the Chinese butcher shop (where cuts of meat and other “processed” animals come back to life to get revenge), this effects wiz really excels here. Lindsay Frost undergoes one of the best onscreen makeup meltdowns ever. It’s because of the glorious grue that Dead Heat, even with all its help, rises above other routine terrors from the MTV decade.
Frankly, it’s surprising that in the rush to remake any old horror film, no one has thought about giving this tantalizing tale a little redux action. One can easily see a successful mainstream movie of the macabre being fashioned out of the successful shell of this stellar work. Jazz up the effects, increase the blood, and infuse the story with lots of A-name star power, and boffo box office is some studio’s for the taking. Bigger than life on a Cineplex screen or loaded onto your home theater setup, Dead Heat can and does work. It’s mainly because scriptwriter Terry Black (brother of Lethal Weapon‘s Shane Black) has crafted a well-conceived film. Dead Heat never lets its premise get so out of hand as to destroy the dimensions of dread, and all the comic elements help to magnify, not minimize, the shocks and slaughter. Zombies are always good for some gore and terrorizing, but here they are walking, talking, thinking ex-humans with a capacity for immortality (unlike typical living dead gospel, they seem near-impossible to kill).
Limiting the craven creeps to a chosen few and giving them distinct visual personalities (the two-faced fiend, the walking-dead weasel, etc) helps us handle the more implausible elements. Black also gives the typical cop team-up dialogue a little added vitality by making Roger a dull, drone-like officer with a penchant for interpersonal insincerity. This gives Williams’s scenes with both Frost and Clare Kirkconnell as morgue assistant Rebecca Smythers a kind of human emotional resonance that many monster movies lack. Black’s script, combined with Mark Goldblatt’s crackerjack direction and sense of tension, enables Dead Heat to surpass its small-time trappings and become a big-idea film in a petite independent package.