Dead Heat (1988)

Joe Piscopo was a punchline up until the early '90s for a celebrity that had become suddenly irrelevant.  I honestly don't remember if the reason for his suddenly disappearance in the early 1980s - thyroid cancer - was quite as well-known at the time as it is now, but he and Eddie Murphy were the only survivors of the first major change in cast of Saturday Night Live, and the two of them pretty much carried the show at that time.  Just when Piscopo could have used that to propel him further he got sick and, though I remember liking when I saw him do stand-up, that period of being out of the spotlight put a damper on his career.

Treat Williams was different.  He looks like a movie star, only had to switch to his middle name to get a movie star pseudonym, and had legitimate stage credentials.  He is also versatile enough to do serious movies as well as low-budget zombie buddy cop parodies like this one.  Not that anyone cared; the little advertising I remember about this really tried to push Piscopo, hoping this would be his big comeback, and writer Terry Black was probably hoping this would make him a bankable screenwriter like his brother Shane, who was responsible for Lethal Weapon.  None of this came to be, as the film was lambasted by critics and generally ignored by audiences.  

Roger Mortis (Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Piscopo) are Los Angeles police officers that play fast and loose.  Responding to a jewel heist they find it strangely difficult to take down the men responsible, and when the bodies are brought to the morgue Mortis's ex-girlfriend Rebecca (Clare Kirkconnell), an assistant coroner, discovers why.  It turns out the men were already dead and still have signs of the autopsy she did on them previously. 

The bodies show signs of a drug called sulfathiazole and, it appears, a company called Dante Pharmaceuticals recently ordered a bunch.  Mortis and Bigelow check out the lead and, after a tour by guide Randy James (Lindsay Frost), appear to find nothing.  That is, until Bigelow opens what is supposedly a waste area and finds a resurrection machine.  Mortis unfortunately is killed, but Rebecca is able to use the machine to bring him back to life for 12 hours so that he and Bigelow can find out who is behind Mortis's death and the robberies.

Dead Heat is supposed to be a parody of buddy cop films by way of adding in horror elements.  On that end it is like a number of late '80s films were just about anything goes, and the best sequence in the whole film is one of the bad guys, Mr. Thule (Keye Luke), using a smaller version of the machine to bring the contents of an entire Chinatown butcher shop back to life.  There is also some great makeup work on Williams toward the end as, predictably, Mortis ends up a little bit worse for wear.  

Besides the main cast this has some big names attached to it, including Luke, Vincent Price and Darren McGavin.  Although known by most as the father from A Christmas Story, McGavin was most likely tapped for this due to his earlier role in the television show Kolchak, the Night Stalker.  None of them are given much to do except help push the plot along and, in Price's case, spout some expository dialog toward the end, and unfortunately not get to chew the scenery like one would expect a director to do when they drag Price out of semi-retirement. 

Director Mark Goldblatt was, and is, one of the most famous editors in Hollywood.  He is merely serviceable as a director, and that is the big problem with Dead Heat.  Black's writing may not be the greatest, but the effects work is excellent.  Unfortunately Goldblatt doesn't seem to know how to balance the horror and comedy, nor does he have the willingness to just give this the b-movie treatment it deserves and just lean into the general concept and let the humor work itself out.  Most likely he stuck too much to Black's script rather than trying to dress it up himself and make things work better.  In addition Joe Piscopo really didn't have scripted lines, but was encouraged to improvise throughout, which is not really his forte.  It feels like when anyone goes up to a comedian and asks them to suddenly "be funny."

While it doesn't help that Dead Heat was also butchered by the MPAA, resulting in the erasure of a scene that makes a "death day" conversation pay off in a meaningful manner, the movie is still a lot of fun as it is.  It's fast-paced, it delivers on the action and the effects and it never gets boring.  It just should have been much better.  It probably still wouldn't have been a big blockbuster or the breakthrough film for either Williams or Piscopo, but dedication to either the over-the-top gore or straight comedy - or just letting the former provide the latter, like in Dead Alive - would make this a lot more memorable.  Even as far back as the early '90s I saw praise for what this movie tried to do, and even halfway remember either Siskel or Ebert being one of the few critics who liked it.  However, if one wants to see a successful parody of the buddy cop genre, a television show called Sledge Hammer ran for two seasons around the same time this came out, and often managed to do a half hour what this movie hoped to do on the big screen.

Dead Heat (1988)
Time: 84 minutes
Starring: Treat Williams, Joe Piscopo, Lindsay Frost, Clare Kirkconnell, Darren McGavin
Director: Mark Goldblatt



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