Dead Heat / 1988
Dir.: Mark Goldblatt
Starring: Treat Williams, Joe Piscopo, Lindsay Frost, Darren McGavin, Vincent Price
Scary movies are great because what happens in them doesn’t matter. Even at their worst, when you leave the theatre shaking and every little sound makes you jump and you have nightmares for a week, you’re aware they will fade into memory and nothing in your life will change. This is a strength as much as it’s a weakness. The greatest dramas and comedies put characters in situations that viewers see themselves in and ask people to think about how they would handle them. But horror movies are rated on different scales, like how many people died, how gruesome were the deaths, how insane and/or relentless was the villain. And already everyone knows what to do if you’re approached by Leatherface: run.
Since I’m deeply rooted in reality yet emotionally weak, the scary movies that really get to me have heavy psychological themes. Alien is one of the only films that can still scare me, but not because the aliens still freak me out. (Though I did have a phase during which I was TERRIFIED of extraterrestrial life, UFOs, “The X-Files,” and, by extension, Mitch Pileggi.) It’s Ripley’s loneliness and helplessness that frighten me the most. Recently, I saw The Conjuring. The fact that it’s based on “true events” is meant to get under your skin right off the bat, but it’s not the thought of vengeful spirits and witch-curses that bothers me. No, I just have a general fear of home invasion. You can haunt me or whatever, but don’t barge into my house uninvited, alright?
How does that relate to Dead Heat, a movie about a murdered cop who’s been reanimated and is out to solve the mystery of his own death? Vaguely, at best. It’s primarily comedic, but has all the makings of an old school sci-fi thriller, a screwball buddy comedy, a low-budget action movie, and a makeup-heavy horror flick. Though they’re never frightening, its attempts at horror work, in part because a lot of its jokes really land. If it wasn’t funny, the “scary” parts would stand out for being dumb and jarring, rather than for offering a change of pace.
Most shitty movies are shitty because they have no idea what they want to be, but Dead Heat is totally self-aware. The story is uncomplicated, the two main characters are great together, the effects (by Steve Johnson, a protégé of Rick Baker who worked on An American Werewolf in London and Videodrome, now launching his own company with Dead Heat) are gross and excellent. As the murder is investigated, a strange and elaborate conspiracy headed up by Darren McGavin (The Old Man in A Christmas Story) and Vincent Price is uncovered. If it was any longer than 84 minutes, it would collapse into itself. Thankfully, it’s perfect.
Okay so Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo are Los Angeles detectives Roger Mortis (HA!) and Doug Bigelow (ha?). Roger is kind of a straight-shooter, a bit of a by-the-books type. Doug loves to crack wise, but dammit, he’s a fine cop. (When we meet Doug, he is enjoying the “rock music” on the radio in Roger’s bright red convertible by literally acting like a gorilla for some reason.) They make a good team, as so many cops in movies do, and when they pick up on a pattern of violent robberies perpetrated by a gang of seemingly invincible thugs, they resolve to crack the case.
When the lovelorn coroner Dr. Becky Smythers (in her first of three scenes in which a relationship with Roger is implied, not that it matters either way) informs Mortis and Bigelow that the two gang members they killed in the opening scene had been on her autopsy table once before, the detectives track a lead to Dante Pharmaceuticals. On the surface, the company appears to only produce cosmetics, ointments, and various over-the-counter items. It also has an ASPHYXIATION ROOM, because something something animal testing. Seems legit.
But obviously Dante hides a terrible secret and obviously that secret is a RESURRECTION ROOM, stumbled upon by a snooping Joe Piscopo, like so many of history’s greatest secrets. In the RESURRECTION ROOM, Doug encounters a giant two-faced monster leather daddy, and this is where Dead Heat gets weird. Bigelow’s fight with the creature spills out into the office and shots are fired, fatally wounding the sniffling security guard reading a Penthouse at the front desk of this very professional-looking scientific facility.
In the commotion, Det. Mortis winds up locked in the ASPHYXIATION ROOM, conveniently located down the hall from the entrance. Quite un-conveniently, a very mean man in a hidden control room starts the process that sucks all the oxygen from the room. There’s no way for Bigelow to free him, and it’s actually kind of sad when Roger dies, even though you know Roger is totally about to get his ass resurrected. (Dr. Smythers is also there, to make sure the audience recognizes that the resurrection process is scientifically solid, thank god.)
Doug wants his friend back, but has one major concern: “The soul, Becky, what about the soul?!” Will Roger still be the great partner and companion he knows and loves? Or will he simply be a shell of a man, living again but lacking purpose and personality? Of course Dante Pharmaceuticals “found a way around that” whole soul issue, so Roger Mortis returns fully functional, if a little spooked that he no longer has a heartbeat or needs to breathe.
Motivated by the slow decomposition of Roger’s body, which will leave him dead (for real) within the next twenty-four hours, the detectives track down Dante Pharmaceutical’s PR rep Randi James for some answers, and she has them because her father is Arthur P. Loudermilk, founder of Dante Pharmaceutical and surely the world’s premiere Vincent Price lookalike.
For the next fifty minutes, every plot point is purely expository, and the characters don’t really change or express emotions. In a lot of movies, that could get boring, but not Dead Heat. It overstuffs that span with ridiculous gunfights, human reanimation, nasty makeup and special effects, an incredible ambulance explosion, hacky jokes, vengeful resurrected cuts of meat in a disgusting Chinatown butcher shop, and the shrill terror of Vincent Price.
While all that insane business would be more than enough to drive any movie that clocks in under an hour-and-a-half, Dead Heat has a distinct advantage: the legitimately endearing relationship of its lead characters. Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo could have easily just been two empty vessels joylessly pushing the story along, but they bring emotional depth to something that has every right to be a stupid pile of garbage. As goofy as Joe Piscopo plays Doug, you’re never not on his side. And near the end of the movie when you see him dead, suspended upside-down in a fish tank, it’s actually pretty disappointing to lose him, even though you just know his ass is totally gonna get resurrected. It’s their friendship that helps New Doug, who came back to life as a mindless zombie – because he’d been dead too long before reanimation, of course – overcome his soullessness and finish the job by his rotting best friend’s side. Which is actually really dark, when you think about it.
Obviously Dead Heat ends with Doug and Roger walking into a bright light and Roger aping Casablanca (“This could be the end of a beautiful friendship.”) as the movie’s own fucking theme song plays. There was no other way.
It’s not surprising that Piscopo makes such a solid foil to Treat Williams, since his time at “Saturday Night Live” is best remembered for his scenes opposite Eddie Murphy. He makes a great side-man, but as Murphy became insanely huge during and after “SNL,” Piscopo mostly faded away. He made a few movies, did some TV and stand-up, made tabloid headlines, was the butt of jokes on “The Simpsons” and “Married…with Children,” was featured in this really awful-looking “multimedia celebrity poker” video game with Jonathan Frakes and Morgan Fairchild. Not exactly Eddie-level fame. Dead Heat makes me wonder, however, if Joe Piscopo wasn’t poised to re-enter the world stage…
If anyone else has thoughts regarding former “Saturday Night Live” cast members, horror scenes in comedy, great friendships in bad films, the sound of Vincent Price’s screams, and movies with their own theme songs, I’d love to chat. Dead Heat is magical because it represents a cross section of all those aspects. No other movie even comes close.