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.