Junkfood Horror: Dead Heat

By  · Published on October 7th, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; now incapable of discerning tricks from treats. In case you’ve been binge drinking for the last week and chucked your wall calendar, cell phone, and computer – in which case how are you reading this – onto the lawn in a fit of rage, October has arrived. As such, it is time for Junkfood Cinema to set its beady little eyes upon the campiest, the cheesiest, the frighteningly schlockiest titles that the horror genre has to offer. Every week from here until we reach glorious Samhain, I will carve up a Samheinous horror film like a helpless jack-o-lantern. But then I will set a candle of pure adoration inside its hallowed out carcass so that it shines like a beautiful goblin. To top it off, I will prescribe a tasty treat themed to the film that will haunt your waistline in the same fashion that the film haunts your sense of better judgment.

This week’s ghoul: Dead Heat

What Makes It Bad?

The basic premise of Dead Heat is that a detective is killed while investigating a bizarre jewelry store robbery that leads him to a mysterious laboratory. The detective who dies is named Roger Mortis because apparently when you opt to make a movie called Dead Heat, you’ve already thrown subtlety into the meat grinder. Det. Mortis is then resurrected by a machine at that same laboratory and must try and solve his own murder before his body decays. Dead Heat is a buddy cop movie with delusions of horrordom. Frankly, it also suffers from delusions of hilarity, buddiness and coptitude as well.

The two cops in the film are played by Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo. If you aren’t familiar with Joe Piscopo, he is a prime example of humanity’s ultimate failure as a race. I weep that there was ever a time in our shared history that anyone thought this mulleted assortment of ill-earned muscle and wasted machismo could be a movie star. I’m not saying he’s a steroid freakshow, but he does resemble a walking, unfortunately talking, Roger Clemens perjury case. Imagine a caveman granted the ability to speak only in atrocious puns and one-liners. It’s as if that monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey was covered in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lines from Commando…or The Running Man…or his state of the state addresses to the people of Caly-FOR-nia. Piscopo doesn’t so much drive the plot as he does drive the movie as close to total destruction as possible before Treat Williams has to save it.

The worst part about Joe Piscopo in this film is that Dead Heat is structured in such a way as to never let us be rid of him. Dead Heat does us the very kind service of killing his character horribly, and there is much rejoicing. But our elation is quickly sullied by the sudden recollection of the film’s plot. “Don’t worry gentle audience,” it brainlessly cheers, “we have a plot device to bring Joe back from the dead.” We begin to sniffle. “He’ll survive to the last frame no matter what!” A solitary tear of deepest sadness cascades down our cheeks. “You’ll never be rid of him… NEVER!” We contemplate hurling ourselves under buses or eating an entire magazine of bullets, which sounds only as impossible as Piscopo’s career.

So much of this film requires of you to forgo logic. No, that’s not enough actually. You must indeed stuff all your logic in a burlap bag, beat it with a cricket bat, set it on fire, and chuck it through the front window of your local library. For example, it seems to me that any facility that builds an asphyxiation room the size of a racquetball court with a wide-open door that closes easily with no way to open it from the outside is asking for trouble. And they actually try and justify its existence by calling it the most humane method of putting an animal to sleep? If this plot point were any more convenient, it would serve you Slurpees and speak very little English. And the twist about the 80s hot 80s average lab employee being dead the whole time is absurd even within the confines of the film’s already absurd central conceit. If she was brought back to life years ago by the same machine that brought Roger back, why isn’t she slowly decaying too? Instead she looks conspicuously alive the whole time and then randomly dissolves to ash within seconds for no discernible reason. Dead Heat, you forget yourself! At least play by your own ridiculous rules.

Why I Love It!

If 80s movies came any more enjoyable than Dead Heat, you’d have to pray they weren’t undercover cops and tip them generously afterwards. A buddy cop movie smacked upside the head with Return of the Living Dead is everything I’ve ever wanted from the medium of cinema; Piscopo notwithstanding.This is a zombie film in which the zombies don’t shamble aimlessly in search of brains. This is a world wherein zombies commit robberies, crack wise, and engage in balls-out awesome gun battles. Our heroes are zombies on a mission to avenge their own deaths; ironically breathing new life into the procedural police drama.

Every scene in this film is a cheese-soaked testament to the wild imagination of the 1980s and it refuses to take itself even the least bit seriously. Even in the moments wherein the characters are contemplating life and death, they do it so hilariously clunkily that their truer, more irreverent take on the matter is crystal clear. I mean come on, two undead tough guys shooting each other at point blank range for five minutes before one of them thinks of an alternative? How can you not love this film? And Darren McGavin’s explosive exit from the film calls to mind Scanners by way of…leaving a hotdog too long in the microwave. When Doug and Roger walk off into the sunset, or in this case a brilliant white light, they discuss reincarnation. Roger would like to come back as a statesman, Doug as the seat on a girl’s bike. Just like Vishnu intended.

While Piscopo may be a titanic waste of flesh, Treat Williams is incredible in Dead Heat. In life, he’s a charming, no-nonsense cop who gets results no matter what and an effective counterbalance to the loudmouth slacker with whom he is partnered. In death, he becomes an angry gun-toting wraith of action hero vengeance. I love the makeup they used to show his slow descent into necrosis. It begins subtly with hair falling out and darkness around the eyes, but by the end he bears striking resemblance to the most terrifying monsters to ever host The View. After he is burned up in the ambulance crash, his approach to solving his own death goes from investigative to ass-kickative and name-takeative. Throughout all of this, Treat William’s performance is grounded and empathetic. I’d make a joke about spending 90 minutes with him being a real “Treat,” but I’d like to think my puns are slightly above the Piscoposian standard.

If for no other reason, Dead Heat is worth watching for the butcher shop scene alone. The zombified carcasses of everything from ducks to suckling pig attack our intrepid heroes con gusto! It’s like watching George Romero’s botulism-induced fever dream. Of course hideous puns get slopped about like so much A1 sauce, but the scene is riotously funny in concept alone. As goofball chic as it may be, the practical effects used to animate this kitchen of the living dead meat are quite remarkable. My favorite aspect is the entire side of beef that comes bursting out of the freezer like it is entering a bullfighting ring. I like my meat rare, but this is *Insert Piscopo Joke Here*.

Junkfood Pairing: A Barbecue Sampler Platter

I defy you not to develop a hankering for fire-roasted meats after watching the butcher shop scene in Dead Heat. Even if you don’t live in the saintly barbecue mecca that is Austin, Texas, I highly advise you to run, don’t walk you lazy bastard, to your local meat purveyor and demand a sloppy cross-section of all their wares. Eat as much barbecue as you possibly can no matter your dietary proclivities. Vegetarians will not be spared when the zombecue uprising is upon us.

Suck the sauce and zombie guts from your fingers and go read more Junkfood Cinema

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.