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Dead Heat (1988)

You Can't Keep a Good Cop Dead

Dead Heat
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I'm a child of the 80s, and as such, you might be expecting some clever opening about how Dead Heat was always one my childhood favorites and that it has always held a special place in this long-decayed heart of mine. Well I could do that, but I'd by lying. The fact is, I had no idea this movie even existed until a few months before its release on DVD. I never saw it in theaters when it came out in 1988, and by the looks of its box office receipts I wasn't the only one that missed it (ahem). I was only 11 back then and it was an R-rated film after all, so there's my excuse. How it escaped my keen horror radar in the following 16 years is a complete mystery, however. You'd think that I would have caught it some late night on television or on video at least once in all those years, but Dead Heat proved as elusive for me as a successful movie career did to Joe Piscopo.

While Joe Piscopo may not have had a stellar career in movies, as soon as I found out that he was in Dead Heat and that the film is billed as half “buddy cop comedy” and half “zombie horror”, that’s all I needed to hear. I was sold. I’ve been a fan of his since his Saturday Night Live days hamming it up with Eddie Murphy. In a rare move for me, I bought the DVD without even having seen the movie. My instincts proved correct once again as I found out that zombies plus Joe Piscopo equals comedy gold! Actually, gold might be overstating it. Comedy silver? Maybe. At the very least, Dead Heat is pure comedy bronze!

Detectives Roger Mortis and Doug Bigelow (note the comedic subtlety of the names) are walking, talking police partner stereotypes. Roger (Treat Williams) plays the straight man…all calm, cool, and collected. Doug (Joe Piscopo) is his wisecracking, loose cannon of a partner.

Called to a jewel heist in progress, Roger and Doug join the fracas as two thieves with Uzis (the movie has no shortage of these) unload on what appears to be the entire Los Angeles Police Department as they’re exiting the store with the goods. Roger and Doug, along with the rest of the good guys unload back with a flurry of gunfire, only to see the thieves take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. How can these thieves survive such a barrage? That’s the million-dollar question. Doug quips, “Maybe they’re just flesh wounds”, but oh if were only that simple.

The thieves aren’t dying because they’re already dead! It looks like someone in town is resurrecting the criminal element and using the zombies to do their dirty work. It takes a grenade and a well-placed sedan to the midsection to finally dispatch the two undead evildoers, and detectives Mortis and Bigelow begin their investigation into just who might be behind this bizarre new crime wave.

It wouldn’t be a buddy cop movie without the mandatory dressing down from the captain scene. You’ve seen a hundred of them I’m sure, it’s the usual stuff. Despite the fact that the perps had taken out at least half a dozen cops, there’s still too much damage to property, they should have done it by the book, blah, blah, blah, and the like.

It doesn’t take long before Dead Heat strays from your normal buddy cop formula in a big way. When Roger bites the big one in a doggie euthanasia room while fighting a hefty undead two-faced biker (don’t ask me about the two faces, I don’t get it either) and is resurrected shortly thereafter, it becomes a race against time as they try to find Roger’s killer. Can Roger find his killer before his body decomposes and he turns into worm food? Can Doug keep from becoming a walking corpse himself? Can someone tell me whatever happened to Joe Piscopo?

Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo aren’t exactly the first actors to come to mind when you’re casting for police detectives, but if you preface the film as a zombie comedy then the casting doesn’t look as absurd. In a film like Dead Heat, they actually hold their own as a crime-fighting duo. There’s no doubt that when Piscopo is on screen, you hardly notice Williams. Along with the some surprisingly cool special effects, Piscopo carries the picture and the film suffers dramatically when he’s not in the scene. It’s not really that Williams is a bad actor, he’s not. His character is just too bland and boring when he doesn’t have a sidekick to bounce dialogue off of.

Piscopo's character Doug is a veritable one-liner factory, churning them out fast and furious. It's probably because we're too busy trying to absorb them all that the audience essentially ignores Treat's character, Roger. Joe Piscopo delivers the lines with ease, some being real gems and some are just plain bad. The bad ones don't linger too long because there are enough good ones to get you through. These one-line jokes make up essentially all of the comedy in Dead Heat, and in that respect the script is a little weak. They seem to get less and less funny towards the end and it makes for a bit of a slow jog to the finale. It's a shame because the movie starts out with such a bang.

Like a lot of horror movies, the special effects and makeup are almost a character in themselves. Dead Heat is no exception. I was highly impressed in the job that Steve Johnson (Species) did. With no CGI, all the effects withstand the test of time, even after all these years. There's a particularly nice scene of a woman who fast-forward decomposes right before your eyes.

Even better than the decomposition scene is the Chinese restaurant scene. In one of the most phenomenal scenes in all of movie history, you can see all manner of animal get resurrected and get very ornery. From a pig on a platter and a flying liver of unknown origin to, best of all, a completely skinned undead steer on the attack. It's so utterly ridiculous, it's brilliant, and I doubt anything quite like it will ever be seen again on film.

Director Mark Goldblatt's vision for Dead Heat was for it to be a legitimate comedy/horror crossover. If you hold it up to that standard it definitely falls short, especially if you compare it to the 80s film that was the most successful at it, Return of the Living Dead. Where Return of the Living Dead was funny, yet still very much a horror film, Dead Heat doesn't nearly compare. There's just no horror to speak of. All of the scenes that are supposed to scare just don't work very well. Zombies attacking with Uzis in broad daylight are more laughable than horrific. They would have been better served to just concentrate on the comedy.

Seeing as 1988 was the same year that brought horror fans Chucky's debut film (Child's Play) and the fourth installment of Freddy and A Nightmare on Elm Street, I can see why Dead Heat was easily overlooked. Interestingly enough, the similarly titled buddy cop movie Red Heat actually did well in theaters that year and as we know now, Arnold Schwarzeneggar and James Belushi went on to do much bigger things while Piscopo and Williams went on to do.well, not as much. Wait, that's not really fair; Treat Williams did land roles in the mega-blockbusters Deep Rising, Venomous, and Substitute 3: The Winner Takes All. So it wasn't a total wash.

Simply put, despite its shortcomings, Dead Heat's a fun piece of cheese that is distinctly 80s. Vincent Price has a small, but important role, and what his presence adds to a film you just can't quantify. This is one of his last films, and it's worth seeing almost for that fact alone.


(Out of 5)
May 6, 1988
January 27, 2004
May 13, 2004

Recommended. It's cheesy, but in a fun way. The restaurant scene is a classic and one that everybody should see.
1. Aim for the head. Apparently some people still don't understand that.
2. Uzis are the preferred weapon of choice for undead villians who use firearms.
3. If you ever find a zombie in your jaccuzzi, just throw a plugged-up radio into it. That will solve your problem.
-"You have the right to remain disgusting."
-"I'm dead Rebecca, how much worse can it get?"
-"Remember the good old days when guns killed people?"
-"Zombie duckheads. What a concept."

Mark Goldblatt (The Punisher)
Terry Black (Tales From the Crypt)
Allen Alsobrook (Pleasantville)
David Helpern (The Hidden 2)
Michael T. Meltzer (Carnival of Souls)
Treat Williams Roger Mortis
Joe Piscopo Doug Bigelow
Lindsay Frost Randi James
Darren McGavin Doctor Ernest McNab
Vincent Price Arthur P. Loudermilk
Clare Kirkconnell Rebecca Smythers
Keye Luke Mr. Thule
Robert Picardo Lieutenant Herzog
Mel Stewart Captain Mayberry
Professor Toru Tanaka Butcher
New World Pictures
New World Pictures
United States
84 mins R

Dead Heat grossed a total of $3,588,626 during its quick theatrical run. In comparison, it had a budget of $5.4 million.
Linnea Quigly (Trash from Return of the Living Dead) plays a zombie go-go dancer in one of the deleted scenes cut from the film.
Martha Quinn, the 80s MTV VJ, makes a brief appearance as a television news anchor.
Ivan E. Roth, who plays a zombie at the end of Dead Heat, also was in the zombie flicks Night of the Comet and Night of the Creeps.
Dead Heat Poster
Joe Piscopo Official Website

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