Each week in November, the Deadshirt crew is partnering up for a look at cinema’s defining Buddy Cop movies. In this installment, Mike Fiorilla and Dylan Roth are tasked with a piece of buddy cop esoterica: Mark Goldblatt’s 1988 film Dead Heat, in which in which two police pals go up against mad scientists and bank-robbing zombies.
Dylan: Dead Heat is a movie with a seemingly can’t-miss premise: a police detective gets killed and brought back as an unkillable zombie, and has twelve hours to find his own killer before his body breaks down into a puddle of goo.
Fio: And topical, given that goo is such a pressing issue in this modern day and age. In all honesty, this film wasn’t anywhere near weird enough for me, which seems like a strange thing to say about a police-horror-comedy featuring an extended fight scene against zombie ducks and a half-butchered zombified cow corpse, but the fact that this diverse batshit wonkery all comes back to a single rich mad scientist really makes the “universe” of this film feel small and it’s all the worse for it.
Dylan: The world of Dead Heat is contained to what feels like a three-block radius in sunny Los Angeles. There’s a bank, there’s a lab, there’s a library. The stakes of this film are, on paper, incredibly high, as the villain’s plan is to sell immortality to the rich to cement their domination over the poor, a plot that would have global repercussions. And while some films can successfully build world-shaking stakes in a small-scale setting (The Faculty sets its alien invasion at a suburban high school), nothing in Dead Heat feels like it matters. Even the characters feel mostly unphased by all the insane twists.
Fio: Everything in this film just feels so listless. The direction and cinematography lack any sense of energy or urgency. Even Vincent Price can’t bring himself to turn in a performance a note above perfunctory here. It doesn’t help that the plot itself seems to make little sense and clues appear at random to lead our heroes to their next location, even though, in hindsight, there’s no reason for those clues to appear where they’re found at all.
Dylan: Our film opens on a cartoonish jewelry store robbery, where two burly men in bad masks rough up an old lady and talk in monster voices. Our two heroes Det. Roger Mortis (“Vanilla” Treat Williams) and Det. Doug Bigelow (alleged comedian Joe Piscopo) arrive at the scene in a sweet red Chevy convertible, which I suppose is meant to be evidence enough that these are two Cool Guys. They crack wise, they shoot guns, and Roger calmly rocks one of the baddies with his lieutenant’s sedan. I think Roger is supposed to read as a calm cold badass, but he radiates absolutely no danger or charisma for the first half of the film. He’s just “a guy,” foil to Doug’s swing-and-miss one-liners.
Fio: Let’s not pretend these are supposed to be characters. Our leads are basically Detective Bland Deadman and Detective Joe Piscopo. After they foil the robbery, we’re treated to what amounts to a best-hits version of a Buddy Cop flick, with the partners being called on the carpet in front of their captain and chewed out for being loose-cannon cops on the edge. The captain’s main point about their recklessness seems to hinge on the number of parking tickets they’ve gotten over the last month which…what? I can understand that said behavior is unbecoming of a law enforcement official, but I’m not sure it should be the main crux of your argument when you’re trying to convince your audience that you’re dealing with a couple of badasses.
Dylan: These boys run the streets. They park where they want, when they want. Joe Piscopo only “edgy” characteristic appears to be a penchant for sexual harassment, except I think we’re supposed to find him charming as he makes clumsy passes at every woman he meets. It’s refreshing, at least, that no woman in the film seems to find him appealing, either. Roger’s apparently had a thing going on with coroner Dr. Rebecca Smithers (Clare Kirkconnell), but he has that classic character trait we love, “doesn’t call people after having sex with them,” which keeps anything real from developing between them.
Fio: Man, there are very few people to root for in this movie. Luckily 80% of the named characters here end up dead before the end credits. Back in the lab, it’s a discovery by Dr. Smithers that leads our two “heroes” to Dante Pharmaceuticals, where Piscopo interrupts a security guard reading a Penthouse at his station (was this a thing in the ’80s that you’d have to worry about when hiring security personnel?) and we’re introduced to the PR manager for the pharmaceutical giant with the clearly evil name, Randi James (Lindsay Frost). From there, it’s a quick tour around the pharma company set before Piscopo finds himself in a pitched battle with a massive stitched together zombie biker (or Zombiker, if you’d prefer the industry term) and Treat Williams is locked inside a chamber they use to asphyxiate test animals, because this film doesn’t want you to get all carried away with the zombie cop whimsy.
Dylan: Credit where it’s due—killing Roger via asphyxiation really serves the premise of the film. A few hours after Roger’s death, Dr. Smithers discovers the secret zombie lab and brings him back to life/undeath, and he appears perfectly normal. He’s got no heartbeat, but he’s also got no gaping wounds or anything, because he died pretty. So, he’s starting from a picture of health and slowly deteriorates throughout the film. But oh boy, does every character undersell this series of events. So, Roger’s dead. (Roger Mortis! Like Rigor Mortis, get it?) And Doug’s upset, sure. Rebecca, his supposed love interest, is barely stirred, and she brings him back to life more out of scientific curiosity than the desire to see him alive again. Which is a fine motivation for a character who’s a scientist, but it also means that there are no emotional stakes. And once he’s alive again–BACK FROM THE DEAD, which is not normal–both of his companions have reactions akin to “that’s neat!” and the story rolls on with very little change in tone or character interaction.
Fio: I think that might be close to what I was attempting to get at earlier when I argued that the film wasn’t weird enough. He’s a zombie cop, but everyone just treats him like he’s totally normal. He can take a bullet and shrug it off, but making a comment about that is as far as the movie goes toward discussing the philosophy of being reanimated as a member of the undead. They go to interrogate Randi about the Actual Zombie Factory inside her mild-mannered pharmaceutical giant when they’re attacked by some zombie goons played by actors who probably haven’t seen a zombie movie before, given that they act more like extras on a Planet of the Apes film than the living dead. Also, the rules become inconsistent here. Why can zombies take bullets but being stabbed by an umbrella and dropped a distance shorter than a high dive into a pool kills them? I’m not asking for a primer on zombie physiology, just some consistency in abilities. After this brief fight, Randi confirms that Roger is a zombie and the three of them take a trip to a Chinese market for reasons that I’m honestly a little hazy on? It doesn’t matter, if you’re going to watch one scene from this movie, the one at the Chinese market should be it.
Dylan: Yeah, there aren’t a lot of memorable scenes in Dead Heat, but I couldn’t name you another film in which the heroes are attacked by plucked chickens or disembodied duck heads. But speaking of unclear rules, apparently it’s also possible to keep a resurrected body alive indefinitely, as is the case with Randi, who died months ago and has been holding up a steady job ever since. Her eventual deterioration is one of the other memorable scenes in the movie. That’s another thing that I have to give Dead Heat credit for—the makeup and optical effects are pretty solid. But Randi’s extended lifespan also leads to the truth of the plot, that the armed zombie robberies are just a source of funding for Vincent Price’s immortality machine.
Fio: Which just opens up more questions. What was with the list of recently dead rich people? They couldn’t have been killed by Price and the Doctor, they’d be much more useful as part of their client base. And who left the bloody message inside Vincent Price’s house if he wasn’t dead? Price said they buried a “volunteer” which, sure, he probably murdered some chump, but he didn’t have to do so in the comfort of his own home. The plot of the movie dissolves into so much goo under the least amount of scrutiny. Luckily we have a zombie biker cop going on a rampage to distract us from paying attention to the slight excuse for a story.
Dylan: If anything justifies the existence of Dead Heat, it’s the action finale. Randi, Doug, and Rebecca are all history, and the villains have trapped Roger in the back of an ambulance to “live” out his last hour before melting. But until the clock runs out, Roger can’t die, so he manages to get the driverless van to roll down the hill into a flaming wreck. Roger, of course, walks out of the wreck, his skin burnt up and peeling apart, borrows a bike from another cop (Shane Black!) and rides into action. He rampages through the zombie lab, kicks ass, blows shit up, and that whole portion of the movie is undeniably fun.
Fio: I feel like the by-the-numbers direction of it hurts it slightly, but yeah, the bit where Roger and another zombie stand like 5 feet away from one another just pumping bullets into each other until Roger throws him in the asphyxiation chamber with a grenade is great (side note: where did he get all these extra guns and grenades?). The whole film wraps up with a neat little bow as well: When Roger goes to confront Price and his buyers, the good doctor reveals that he’s brought Doug back to life as well for a zombie cop showdown. This is played as a big surprise twist in the film, but it read as really, really obvious to me.
Dylan: Oh, most definitely. The moment Vincent Price’s men (no, we’re not ever going to use his character’s name; he’s Vincent Price) bring a body bag into the resurrection chamber, you know who’s gonna be in it. What’s kind of sweet (if not entirely earned) is that the supposedly braindead Doug recognizes Roger almost immediately and refuses to kill his friend, instead helping him wreck the mad scientist responsible for both of their deaths and destroy the machine that would have offered them eternal life. They choose to die together rather than live forever, which is a cool choice for the characters to make for themselves. Not so cool of them to deny the entire world the secret to immortality, but within the context of the movie, it’s understandable.
Fio: Man, death is an important thing that needs to happen in order to put life into context; from that angle we’re dealing with the Kubo and the Two Strings of poorly directed forgettable buddy cop zombie comedies. So our movie closes with our heroes walking down a hazy, shining white hallway, Piscopo makes a joke about being reincarnated as a woman’s bicycle seat, roll credits. Ultimately, I’m disappointed with this film. It’s not bad enough to be entertaining and not good enough to redeem its copious flaws. It’s just there.
Dylan: My favorite thing about Dead Heat is its modest 86-minute runtime. If it were two hours, it would be unbearable. But at under an hour and a half, it’s just this side of watchable. There are moments when it’s almost compelling, like whenever Roger remembers that he’s only got hours to live and questions the way he’s spending it. But if I was living my last day, I wouldn’t want to spend it watching Dead Heat, either.
Check Deadshirt throughout the month of November for more Buddy Cops!