Shock-O-Rama: Dead Heat (

By:Chuck Francisco
Date: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Three weeks ago I wrote about a film which I hold tremendous love for, Event Horizon. My fellow Maniacs where very vocal on both sides of the battle for the soul of this flick, and I appreciated the passion and stories fueling their reasoning. Geeks love and loathe films for a wide swath of reasons, some quite specific. It's the nature of humans to build up or deconstruct what they observe around them. Still, despite this, most movies find reactions in one of three camps: loved it, hated it, indifferent to it. I'm fascinated by those that trigger a binary response, with no middle ground. My lilies are even further gilded when I find myself to be the only one on the middle ground of a movie. 

The tale of how I discovered this began about a month ago. The horror exhibition luminaries over at Exhumed Films ( announced a zombie double feature of The Video Dead and Dead Heat. The former is making the rounds thanks to Scream Factory's recent home release. I wasn't even aware that the was a 35mm print of The Video Dead, since I'd assumed it was an early direct to video ordeal.  Having seen them both before, my first vibe was that Dead Heat would be the heavy hitter of the billing. I should have gotten a clue when host Dan Fraga quipped about really hating Dead Heat. It wasn't until the week prior to the show, when I couldn't convince anyone to attend with me, that it really hit home how much people loathe this campy Joe Piscapo/Treat Williams ActZomCom (Action Zombie Comedy).

 "I F'n hate that movie!" was the common refrain. The hate did not compute. Dead Heat is not the golden standard of anything, but it's wacky, campy, corny, and so very 80's. How did it become so polarizing? Joe Piscapo is an easy target of scorn now, but his character in the film is precisely what we'd come to expect from the macho, ladies' man detectives of 80's action fare. He's cocky, drives a cool car, hits on all any woman with a pulse (and one without), and generally provides the comic relief early on to Treat Williams' straight man. The problem surely can't be with Williams; his performance is great and you've gotta respect the man; he's been a cult mainstay, constantly working, always popping up where you least expect him (The Substitute 2 and 3, The Phantom, Deep Rising). We even get some hot Vince Price action in the third act (of course we always want more of him then we get)!

There are some very understandable grievances with the plot; it's a pea soup thick mess. At it's base it follows Williams as detective Roger Mortis, and Piscapo as his macho beefy partner Doug Bigelo (they weren't even subtle with the names). One afternoon, whilst driving about in manly fashion, Roger and Doug get the call to respond to a jewelry store heist in progress. The problem is that the crooks are carrying automatic weapons and seem impervious to harm. These reanimated zombie thieves wipe out a number of patrol officers before Roger takes them down with Robert Picardo's car (please state the nature of the medical emergency, indeed!). While following leads to their natural ends, Roger is trapped in an asphyxiation chamber and killed. Luckily the medical examiner is his exgirlfriend, and she conveniently discovers (and is able to operate) the zombie revival machine. Ah but the device isn't perfect and Roger only has twelve hours to find his killer before he melts into a puddle of goo. 

There's quite a bit of shooting, smashing, crashing, and gore as our doofy heroes explode their investigation across our screen. It would all be so much mindless dreck except for the clear infusion of humor. They hamfist the laughs, and we could never accuse it of subtly, but there are some solid chuckles throughout. Piscapo's final line had my audience howling, and Treat's (a play on the final line from Casablanca) tries to instill a sense of grander that Dead Heat never even gazes on from afar. This rough and brash juxtaposition itself is a meta joke which is pretty damned funny (but in an "aaaaahhhhh ha!" fashion, which comes to you later on). 

The worst failing of Dead Heat is the abrupt offscreen death of Doug. For such an important character to simply be found by Roger, bound and drowned upside down in a fish tank, is a massive slap in the face to the audience. Since this isn't an important movie trying to make a profound statement, there really isn't a logical explanation to have done this (aside from cutting room floor atrocities). I forgave the film this trespass in the name of having a good time, but I won't begrudge anyone else who cannot. It's easier to swallow since the very next scene contains some marvelous gore effects, with the secondary love interest dissolving into a splash of a gal, splattered across the bathroom floor.

So here I find myself, firmly on the fifty hard line of appreciation for Dead Heat. It's fun, campy, and enjoyable; yet it's plot is weak and absurd. I can understand why fans love it and why detractors loathe it. I simply don't know why it's quite so polarizing. Is anyone else stuck in the middle with me? What do you think of this crazy campfest?

If you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll).

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.