Review by Mike Finkelstein
It's interesting to track over the years the way the zombie genre evolves and changes. With George Romero in the driver seat the genre was very serious, tackling matters of politics and import. Romero saw zombies as a metaphor for the human condition and used them in many ways to tell stories about humanity through the eyes of monsters. but as the 1980s came along and The Return of the Living Dead and it's sequels started exploring other avenues of zombie stories, the things writers and directors could do with the undead shifted and changed. They weren't just creatures of horror but could also elicit humor as well.
Growing up, I'd seen bits and pieces of Dead Heat on cable TV, it being a regular staple of the cable movie channels. You'd catch it while surfing through, seeing a few minutes here or there before surfing past. I hadn't really sat down to watch the film but I'd always assumed it was a parody of Red Heat. It wasn't as it actually came out a few months earlier. It is a parody, though, just of the buddy-cop action films, as well as the zombie genre in general. In concept and tone this film has a lot more in common with the Return of the Living Dead films, and if I hadn't seen the opening title of Dead Heat when watching I could have assumed it was part of that zombie film series. It's goofy, it's strange, but it's also a fair bit of fun all the same.
The film focuses on Detectives Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo). The two have been tracking a series of robberies over the previous weeks, with a gang of thieves attacking banks, jewelry stores, and other high-priced establishments. Previously the gang got away with their crimes scot free, but this time, with a burglary going down at a jewelry store, Mortis and Bigelow get there in time to help the first responders take out the two perps responsible. Only problem is that the guys won't die. Bullet after bullet goes in but the bodies won't drop. It takes a high explosive for one, and massive trauma from a car crash for the other, to take both perps down.
The strangeness of the bodies doesn't stop there. Once the two dead criminals hit the morgue, Dr. Rebecca Smythers (Clare Kirkconnell) reveals that the bodies had been in her morgue before. She did their previous autopsies. They were dead, and then they weren't. The only clue as to what happened was a strange drug in their systems, one that was recently bought up by a powerful pharmacology group in great supply. Mortis and Bigelow head over to the firm to talk matters, and they're led around by P.R. rep Randi James (Lindsay Frost). However, when Bigelow goes off the main path in the labs and accidentally wakes up a corpse, all hell breaks loose. Mortis ends up dead, and Dr. Smythers suspects it was all an elaborate murder plot. She tests out the machine the previous corpse woke from and, suddenly, Mortis is back up and walking again. Now, as one of the slowly rotting dead, he has just 12 hours to solve his murder, and the case of these undead thieves, but the bad guys get away with everything.
On the one hand, Dead Heat is a fairly paint-by-numbers buddy-cop comedy. It has a lot in common in this mode with the Lethal Weapon films: one is a wild card comedian, the other a straight laced, suit-and-tie kind of guy, but together they have the right chemistry to solve the cases and get things done. They even had a supervisor that yells at them for every little bit of carnage they cause. You can absolutely see the writer, Terry Black, saying, "hey, what if Lethal Weapon, but instead of one of the two having a death wish they're actually dead." The script, I guess, writes itself from there.
As a cop movie riff, Dead Heat isn't really anything special. The case itself is pretty basic: there are only so many suspects and, lo-and-behold, every single one is in on the conspiracy. It's not even really much of a conspiracy and the film has to tie itself into knots to make all the characters work in the context of a simple case of greed and power. Its the kind of case where you can pretty much figure out who the players are within its confines within minutes and it makes you wonder why the cops take so long to make the same realizations. Intelligence is not their strong suit.
And yet, really, the fun of this film isn't just from the cop story but, more so, the zombie crap slapped on top. This is a film that gleefully revels in the bloody and the disgusting, having plenty of creature effects that will make your skin crawl. There are scenes with mutant undead bikers, an entire Chinese butcher shop going undead, and a whole lot of zombies getting shot up all to hell. This is a film that doesn't shy away from following whatever strange ideas it can think up, and that adds a lot to its overall charm.
That's what made me think of Return of the Living Dead. You get the vibe that the creators on this film saw the original comedy horror movie and, just in time to compete with the sequel, these creators got out their film to play on whatever crossover hype there might have been. Creatively, instead of sucking air out of the room, this film adds a lot to the zom-com genre, to the point that all those films work well on their own, but can work even better together.
More to the point, with just a couple of mild story changes, this could have worked as an official Return of the Living Dead. Swap out the chemical in this film for the one used in the Return series, and add a couple of references to wanting to eat brains, and suddenly this film is Return of the Living Dead: Dead Heat. It's so close in tone and style that you can't help but assume someone was reading from the same playbook. And it works.
This film is goofy and silly, for sure. It's full of low-budget schlock and wears that proudly on its sleeve. Hell, it hired Saturday Night Live alumn Piscopo to add the needed extra little bit of comedy (which is nails more often than he misses here). This is a film that knew exactly what it wanted to be and it nailed it. That didn't stop it from bombing at the Box Office at the time, and receiving all kinds of negative reviews back in the day. Now, though, with fresh eyes and a desire for some goofy zombie fun, this film delivers all I wanted.