A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #20: “Dead Heat” (1988)

by A.J. Hakari


Most of those buddy cop movies from the ’80s really were pointless, huh? The only thing separating them was what mismatched partners were the headliners; they’re essentially all the same story, but hey, this one’s got Clint Eastwood working with a salmon. Dead Heat looked as if it would follow in these not so glorious footsteps and deliver an equally flat police thriller. But the further it goes, the more chances it actually takes, ending on a not entirely perfect note but one that manages to save quite a bit of potential from going to waste.

Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) are two Los Angeles detectives who Don’t Play by the Rules ™. You can tell because they don’t use a squad car, they rattle off quips while their colleagues are getting blown away, and they nearly destroy an entire city block trying to nail two jewel thieves who won’t stay down. But as the pair discovers, there’s a good reason for that last bit: the hoods were already dead. Mortis and Bigelow trace their origins to a pharmaceutical lab, where Mortis is killed and subsequently brought back to life thanks to a handy resurrection machine on the premises. With so many hours left before he decays into goop, Mortis hits the streets on a revenge-fueled quest to find out who’s churning out zombified thugs and why.

Dead Heat‘s future was looking awfully bleak throughout that first act. Between the aforementioned cop genre tropes being rehashed with a bare minimum of satirical undertones and Piscopo’s groan-worthy one-liners, I’d have been surprised to see the zombie angle used at all, for fear of seeming too original. But it’s there, and surprisingly, once Mortis returns as a card-carrying ghoul, Dead Heat slowly but surely starts to find its footing. It’s still a very basic action flick with some horror twists thrown in (i.e. Mortis’ near-indestructibility works great in gunfights), but the attitude it carries is kind of offbeat. Though I won’t spoil what happens, I will say that characters you expect to live may not make it, the ending is appropriately bittersweet, and the visuals get weirder and weirder (prepare for the only fight scene featuring a reanimated side of beef you’ll ever see).

Dead Heat is cheesy to the core, but it’s a lot more novel than I would’ve given it credit for. Piscopo’s terrible comic relief notwithstanding, it’s fun and, dare I say, even badass, particuarly when a decomposing Williams mows down bad guys Terminator-style during the climax. Dead Heat is dumb, but it’s a dumb well worth sharing with friends.