Believe it or not, there’s an interesting idea lurking inside Dead Heat. It arrives too late to save the viewer, but it should have been the pitch that got this film made. Rather than focus on the one-sentence plot description (“It’s a buddy cop picture where one of the buddies is D-E-D-Dead!”), writer Terry Black should have lead with the reason the machine that reanimates corpses exists. During the climax, mad-scientist Vincent Price explains to his rich investors that his machine will reanimate them after death so they can live forever and screw their heirs out of their inheritance. The machine will also perform maintenance on them so they can look their best, while those greedy bastards they sired wither away and die. “That’s a great idea!” I thought. “This is Death Becomes Her before Death Becomes Her became Death Becomes Her!”
Unfortunately, this development comes out of left field and is quickly discarded in the ensuing climactic carnage. Until this point, the machine was being used to create an indestructible race of jewel thieves. Two of these creatures are seen in the opening of the film, appearing just as a snooty rich woman utters, “I was hoping for a little more suspense.” She’s talking about jewelry, but she’s also echoing the audience’s sentiment. Dead Heat bills itself as a horror-comedy, but it’s not gruesome enough to satisfy gorehounds, and it isn’t intentionally funny at all. It keeps the sad promises offered by the familiar red New World Pictures logo that graced similar ’80s output: sober people with little time on their hands need not apply, as this one’s for bored drunks on lonely Saturday nights.
As the zombie robbers smash and grab, detectives Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) appear on the scene…along with half the police department. The criminals are shot 40,000 times but will…not…die. Mortis, Bigelow, and their cop brethren respond to this far too calmly. “Maybe they’re on PCP,” says one cop. Nobody thinks to shoot them in the head, though one is blown up by a grenade. “You have the right to remain…disgusting!” says Bigelow to the exploded corpse.
It also has the right to be reanimated. Dr. Rebecca Smythers (Clare Kirkconnell, who’s actually decent here) informs our heroes that the thieves had been to her morgue before. “I did them myself,” the coroner says. Her boss, Dr. Ernest McNab (Darren McGavin), thinks she’s bonkers, but the guys follow a lead to a company that ordered tons of the predominant chemical that’s present in the dead bodies. They’re met by the company’s PR director, Randi James (Lindsay Frost), who’s evasive in the ways all hot, blond PR directors are. She deflects his questions with her gorgeousness, but that doesn’t stop Bigelow from sneaking behind a metal door to investigate. He’s met by a huge three-faced creature that will…not…die. While Bigelow’s fighting Tri-Face, his partner gets trapped in a room that sucks all the air out of him. This kills him, of course.
Williams must have owed loan sharks when he agreed to take this movie. But he appears to get an early exit, so his dignity remains intact—until his character is reanimated using the machine Bigelow conveniently found before his near fatal face-off. Did I mention that Williams’s character is named Roger Mortis? There’s also a Lieutenant Herzog and a Captain Mayberry, and screenwriter Terry Black’s more famous brother, Shane Black, appears in a mercifully unnamed part. Maybe Joe Piscopo’s character is named after Katherine Bigelow, but I won’t give the filmmakers that much credit.
Now that Roger Mortis has, you know, that thing that sounds like his name, he can go after the undead zombie robbers. According to Dr. Rebecca, a reanimated corpse will disintegrate in about 12 hours, which leaves little time for the guys to solve the case. As indestructible as the other corpses, Mortis takes a shitload of bullets, but not before director Mark Goldblatt gives him a very short scene where he contemplates how wasted his life was. It’s not Prince of the City, but at least Williams has a moment to show his chops. Alas, there’s little time for introspection when you have people to shoot and blond PR people to screw.
Speaking of which, 90% of Dead Heat’s special-effects budget goes to Little Miss Perky Blonde, and not for something like boob implants, either. Randi James turns out not to be what she seems at all: Regarding the evil reanimator company, Randi’s not only the PR person, she’s also a client. This revoltin’ development leads to her rather spectacular demise, and as her pretty features melt into goop, my thoughts of “OOH! YUCKY!” gave way to choke-inducing laughter. She continues to apologize to Mortis even after her head falls off and turns upside down. This is worth the rental price alone, though I do suggest you fast-forward to it.
Everybody dies Dead Heat. I mean, every single main character does. Whether they stay dead is another story, but I found that a tad refreshing. Black’s script ensures that there’s no sequel potential; the other 10% of the F/X budget goes to the splattery demise of both the main villain and the reanimation machine. Even so, death doesn’t stop our heroes from walking off into the 1980s explosion smoke that replaced the sunsets of old movies.
Today, Piscopo’s career could use a reanimation machine, but the director of Dead Heat needs no such device. Mark Goldblatt continues to have one hell of a career as an editor, having edited or co-edited movies for Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Hollow Man), James Cameron (both Terminator films, True Lies), and Joe Dante (Piranha, The Howling). He’s also at least partly responsible for the Cuisinart-endorsed editing styles of Michael Bay and Tony Scott. That’s a far bigger sin than anything I saw in Dead Heat.
Odie “Odienator” Henderson is a contributor to RogerEbert.com and runs the blog Tales of Odienary Madness. He’s the troublemaker responsible for the annual Black History Mumf series at his other blog, Big Media Vandalism. His work has appeared at Movies Without Pity, Salon, and, of course, here at The House Next Door.