Dead Heat featured

Dead Heat (1988)

Dead Heat poster

Tagline: You can’t keep a good cop dead.
Director: Mark Goldblatt
Writer: Terry Black
Starring: Treat Williams, Joe Piscopo, Lindsay Frost, Darren McGavin, Vincent Price, Clare Kirkconnell, Keye Luke, Robert Picardo
18 | 1hr 26min | Action, Horror, Comedy
Budget: $5,000,000


As genre crossovers go, Dead Heat is about as bold and as ridiculous as they come. By the late 1980s, buddy cop movies were ten to the penny, and for the most part you knew exactly what to expect. Of course, that was a large part of their charm. Movie’s such as the Shane Black penned Lethal Weapon would take the sub-genre to new and still unchallenged heights, a formula that was aped to varying degrees by movies with various production values. This was a genre that gave us Riggs and Murtaugh, Jean Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman (Double Team) and Samurai Cop‘s Marshall and Washington, which should provide a microcosm of the scope in quality we’re dealing with.

While movies such as Alien Nation gave us concepts that attempted to freshen that formula with conventional sci-fi gimmickry, Dead Heat begins as a run-of-the-mill action movie before evolving into something else entirely, wryly taking the mantle of tried-and-tested before rubbing our faces in the punchline. On the surface it’s as formulaic as they come; a movie about two polar opposites: one straight-edged and acerbic, the other a randy meathead with a penchant for the reckless and lowbrow. We have a disgruntled ex-wife, an exasperated police captain, a fiendish villain in cahoots with the Chinese mafia—just about every genre trope you would expect from a buddy cop romp of this variety.

Dead Heat ketchup
Stopping for hot dogs may have flown in your old district, but ’round here we play by the rules!

What it then decides to do is ape the characteristics of just about every other genre in the field, mixing action, comedy, science fiction and horror into a stew so pungent it will make your eyes water. Technically, Dead Heat is as derivative as they come, but through sheer audacity it presents us with such a wildly stereotypical concoction that it can only be described as unique, becoming much more than it ever had the right to be. Not only do we have a glut of typical action sequences, we get undead hitmen, zombie ducks refusing to become part of a Chinese banquet, and a reanimated cow liver whose purpose can only be presumed. We also have the spectacle of an ageing Vincent Price, who hams it up as a Dr. Frankenstein beset on bringing immortality to the wealthy elite of America. Confused? Let me take a moment to explain.

Following a stint of robberies by a seemingly invincible gang of thieves, Detectives Roger Mortis (get it?) and Doug Bigelow head to the morgue, where they discover that the criminals in question have in fact been dead before, undergoing full autopsies before rising to head into the night. According to Roger’s ex-wife and resident coroner Rebecca (Kirkconnell), the returning undead are full of Sulfathiazole, an organosulfur compound which has been ordered in massive quantities by Dante Pharmaceuticals, and which may be a source of human reanimation, something she presumably learned at a medical school for the criminally insane.

Dead Heat sealed
Mortis does his best mime impression.

Armed with the kind of radical suspicions that would have any cop committed to a mental asylum in a heartbeat, the two crime fighters soon begin snooping around Dante headquarters, and after Roger is killed in a decompression chamber he is quickly brought back to life by the corporation’s Resurrection Machine, a contraption which, with no previous knowledge of its uses or functions, Rebecca manages to understand and operate in a matter of seconds. Awakening with a smile, Roger has never felt better. The only problem is he has no pulse. Nor does he bleed after accidentally severing his artery—although he bleeds at every opportunity thereafter.

This blaring oversight notwithstanding, such developments lead the trio to deduce that Roger is still dead, and though undertaking no further research regarding a completely new scientific phenomena, Rebecca manages to further diagnose her former spouse, coldly informing him that he has approximately twelve hours until total decomposition, a time when his body will dissolve into a kind of organic stew. Unfazed by this groundless diagnosis, detective Mortis is instead interested in using his final hours to nail whoever landed him in this mess, shrewdly using lipstick to conceal his paling kisser while in search of the truth. First on his list is the surreptitious Randi James (Frost), the supposed daughter of Arthur P. Loudermilk (Price), a recently deceased millionaire who had used the Dante research facility as his own personal plaything.

Dead Heat Zombie
Williams’ Terminator audition didn’t go so well.

As ludicrous as all of that may sound, it is but a morsel of the frenetic madness that sees our protagonists wrestle a reanimated cow carcass, while Mortis goes full-on Terminator as a rotting corpse hellbent on justice. This is overblown action, absurd set-pieces and the kind of eyebrow-raising dialogue that would fall flat rolling off Arnie‘s tongue. Of course, that is the whole point, and this is the kind of movie that excels at being outrageously dumb.

Dead Heat‘s frenzied mix of genres bombed at the box office, but as a VHS treat the movie is a heady delight, and much of that fun can be accredited to our leading men, whose casting is something of a successful curiosity. The movie stars made-for-TV stalwart Treat Williams as the straight-edged Mortis, who actually goes on to become the movie’s comic cherry, despite his partner’s real-life comedy credentials. That partner is played by former stand-up comedian Joe Piscopo, who is perhaps most famous for being around for Saturday Night Live’s lowest ebb, a viewer backlash leading to a mass cull that only he and action innovator Eddie Murphy would survive. Unsurprisingly, his comedic star wouldn’t shine for too much longer, but Dead Heat will burn brightly in the hearts of trash movie fans for as long as time permits.

Best Kill

After revealing that she too is a zombie who had been promised eternal life, Randi begins to wither and melt into a lip-dripping stew. Wracked with guilt following her constant lies and misleading tactics, her decaying skull even manages to repent, unhindered by the fact that it possesses neither a tongue nor vocal chords (or even a brain for that matter).

Most Absurd Moment

Pressing the Chinese mafia for details about their mass purchase of sulfathiazole, our heroes are set upon by a whole host of dead animals, including fried ducks, split pigs and a giant, headless cow. Not to worry! Bumbling musclehead Doug has a cunning plan: to drown the cow in A1 sauce.

Doug, it has no head.

Most Absurd Dialogue

Attaching a duck head to a battery and marvelling at its quack concerto, detectives Mortis and Bigelow are left befuddled.

Roger Mortis: Zombie duck heads: what a concept!

Doug Bigelow: This could replace the whoopee cushion!


A zany treat which delights in its own silliness, Dead Heat flips one off to the joyless bad movie cynics, teaching a valuable lesson to those who are quick to condemn. Perhaps the greatest buddy cop/zombie crossover ever put to celluloid, and almost certainly the only one.

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