Wednesday 3 April 2013

Obscurity Files - Dead Heat

Take one of Saturday Night Live's biggest stars of the '80s trying to break into movies and team him up with an up and coming actor with matinee idol looks and what do you get? A cop drama that slowly reveals itself to be a gore-filled zombie comedy. When downtown LA's jewellery stores are raided by a heavily armed gang of almost indestructible men, it's up to Detectives Mortis and Bigelow (Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo) to uncover what's going on.

On first appearances Dead Heat does seem to be a relatively straight forward cop procedural, albeit with foes who can withstand a lot of gunfire before they go down. However, on closer examination the cracks filled in with outright ridiculousness start to appear. Take for example the lead character's name. Although at first it sounds like a generic cop name, it only takes a few mentions before you realise that anyone called Roger Mortis is almost duty bound to end up dead (Rigor Mortis, geddit?) before the end of the first act.

Which of course he does, thanks to a stumble into the "Asphyxiation Room" at a secretive lab owned by the deceased Arthur P. Loudermilk (played hammily by Vincent Price) he and Detective Bigelow go to investigate. Luckily they also have a re-animation chamber on site (the source of the zombified jewel thieves), so it's not long before Mortis is back on his feet again. Well, for a while at least. Given 12 hours to solve the case before his decomposition becomes too severe, Mortis and Bigelow hit the mean streets of LA to find the masterminds behind the machine, including a disgusting trip to a Chinese butcher's shop.

Piscopo delivers one-liner after one-liner, but very few of them register as being genuinely funny. Prior to viewing this film, my knowledge of Joe Piscopo went as far as a thinly veiled insult to him in an old Simpsons episode (referring to 1985, Homer mentions "Joe Piscopo leaving Saturday Night Live to conquer Hollywood") and such a footnote in the history of SNL he is, I couldn't actually tell you whether he's failed to successfully transport his persona onto the big screen or not. He certainly failed to equal the box office success of his SNL contemporary Eddie Murphy, but then I suppose few have.

Piscopo's co-star and necessary straight man is Treat Williams, an actor best known for the television series Everwood, but also recognisable for his work in endless B-movies. 
Piscopo and Williams share little on screen chemistry with each other, the mismatched partnership not really working. Most of the time Williams appears fed up with his co-star to the point of ignoring his presence, only settling in to a comfortable pairing towards the end of the film. Luckily the action and special effects are above par, with some of the Death Becomes Her-esque decomposition effects aging well, so to speak. When the conspiracy starts to unravel and the involvement and inevitable fate of Arthur P. Loudermilk's daughter becomes clear, what follows is a scene that goes some way to being the zombie equivalent of American Werewolf in London's infamous transformation.

If the mismatched detectives aspect sounds like a twisted version of Lethal Weapon (whose title would have fit this film just as easily), that may be down to the writer, Terry Black, being the brother of Hollywood's bad boy screenwriter, Shane Black. The comparisons are clear (even down to Piscopo's distinctly Mel Gibson-like haircut), although Dead Heat shares more common ground with the Tales from the Crypt TV series that Terry Black would go on to contribute to.

By the end, with Williams' transformation into a hideous zombie cop complete, it's just balls to wall fun. Lovecraft meets Lethal Weapon, if you will. It may be low on laughs but it's still damn entertaining, finally answering the age old question of what a zombie led version of Lethal Weapon would be like. No-one else wondering that? Oh, just me then.

Save from obscurity? YES

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