Can’t Keep A Good Cop Dead: DEAD HEAT’s Dead Spin On The Buddy Cop Film

Few film trends in the 1980s were as ubiquitous as the buddy cop movie. Audiences were absolutely ravenous for these unlikely police officer pairings and voiced their support with cold hard cash. Films like Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Lethal Weapon (1987) and 48 Hrs. (1982) received not only critical acclaim, but staggering box office numbers. Before long, studios would be churning out quirky crime-centric combos in an effort to capitalize on the craze. Even the world of horror was not immune to the charismatic charm of the buddy cop flick, and honestly, it’s surprising that it took as long as it did to get a proper installation. Thankfully, acclaimed editor Mark Goldblatt blessed the world with his take in 1988’s Dead Heat. In celebration of Cops N’ Killers Month here at Nightmare on Film Street, let’s take a look at how Dead Heat put a dead spin on this prolific and beloved sub-genre of cinema.

Roger Mortis and Doug Bigelow are cops that are chasing crooks that are dead serious about crime. Or should I say they are chasing dead crooks perpetrating serious crimes? Seems some nutcase has learned how to bring back the dead and is sending them on crime sprees. Now these indestructible goons are in the way of officers Mortis and Bigelow. To even things up, when Mortis is killed (in the line of duty, of course) he gets a jump start from the Resurrection machine and takes the fight to the zombie bad guys.



Right off the bat we are introduced to our official ‘buddy cops,’ Roger Mortis (Treat Williams) and Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo). While driving around in a 1960 Chevy Impala, the two decide to intervene in an armed robbery of a jewelry store. Needless to say, a shootout ensues with the two robbers putting up one hell of a fight. Dozens of shots are fired with none of them seeming to phase the two burglars. However, thanks to some quick thinking from lead protagonist Mortis (and a poorly executed grenade), the two criminals finally become incapacitated.

In the ensuing scene, we see Mortis and Bigelow getting a classic chew out session from their steaming police chief, Captain Mayberry. Just like any good buddy cop flick, Mayberry has had it with their antics and excessive parking tickets. It’s up to them to fix this mess and they better fix it quick because, of course, this is the final straw. Next, the two visit the morgue and its coroner (Mortis‘ ex), Rebecca Smythers. She reveals that the criminals were not just supernaturally tough, they were in all reality…dead. With a test result showing large amounts of an outdated drug in their system, the plot is officially off to the races.


“[…] horror was not immune to the charismatic charm of the buddy cop flick, and honestly, it’s surprising that it took as long as it did to get a proper installation.”


Not only do these early scenes set up our plot, they also set up our characters dynamic. Quickly we learn that Bigelow is our wise-cracking, physically dominant doofus oozing with stereotypical machismo. In Mortis, we see a slightly more subdued character who balances out Bigelow‘s ineptitude with logic and practicality. He’s a dedicated police officer with a propensity to choose work over personal relationships. While the two lack the charisma of more formidable acting duos like those found in Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash or even Red Heat, the same basic framework is evident.



One of the lovely aspects of Dead Heat is the true passion for genre film that is infused into each and every frame. While Mark Goldblatt has a limited amount of directing credits to his name, his CV is packed to the gills with cinematic gold. As an editor, Goldblatt’s hands were on films like Piranha, Humanoids from the Deep, The Howling, Halloween II, Terminator 1 & 2, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. And these are just the credits before Dead Heat‘s release! His roots in genre film run deep and it only makes sense that he would pick up a few pointers along the way. This rich history combined with Terry Black’s (Tales from the Crypt) script creates a killer combo of street cred.

For example, while it’s inevitable that our leads will encounter a dire situation early on, the inciting incident in Dead Heat remains beautifully ridiculous. After snooping around at Dante Laboratories (surely a nod to Goldblatt’s frequent collaborator Joe Dante), Mortis ends up becoming the victim of a strangely located asphyxiation chamber. Bigelow, unable to save Mortis due to his fight with a special effects masterpiece, is reasonably upset and frantic. Together with Dr. Smythers, they stumble across a reanimation machine and decide to give it a go. And voila! Mortis is brought back to life…for approximately 12 hours.

While Mortis is aware of his limited window of remaining time, he makes the ridiculous movie decision to hunt down his killer. This plot point, along with Bigelow‘s name, is a direct nod to Rudolph Mate’s 1949 noir, D.O.A. In that movie, a man named Bigelow is poisoned and uses his remaining time to also hunt down the responsible party. However, in this version, our lead is battling decomposition rather than a toxic poison. Even though the film is undoubtedly a buddy cop horror-comedy, this cinematic deep cut further emphasizes both Black and Goldblatt’s rich love for film.


“While the two lack the charisma of more formidable acting duos like those found in Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash or even Red Heat, the same basic framework is evident.”


The addition of the ‘undead factor’ also allowed Goldblatt to really play with some horror genre techniques. Aside from Mortis‘ own decaying outer shell, the duo encounter a variety of zombie baddies and reanimated creatures. To help with this feature of the film, Goldblatt enlisted special effects artist Steve Johnson. Through his work on films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Leviathan, Species and Blade II, Johnson was capable of creating and executing fantastical practical effects. Even though Johnson took his craft very seriously on the film and created some exquisitely effective pieces, never once is the humor of Dead Heat sacrificed for it.

Perhaps the best example of this comes when Mortis, Bigelow and their Dante Lab rep Randi (Lindsay Frost) follow a lead to a Chinese butcher shop. There, they discover the shop houses a smaller re-animation machine that the shop proprietor implements to make a quick getaway. As the machine shoots its zombie rays around the shop, roast ducks, a suckling pig, chicken wings and a full, unbroken down cow corpse comes back to life and attacks the group. The absolute insanity and flawless execution of this scene is not only a testament to Johnson’s effects but to Goldblatt’s appreciation for them. Not only does Goldblatt shoot each creation to maximize its effectiveness, he allows them all proper screen time for maximum admiration and audience enjoyment. So although the scene is drowning in horror elements, the absurdity of what is actually transpiring keeps the level between horror and comedy perfectly balanced.



Mirroring Mortis‘ exponential decay, the plot continually spirals, checking off buddy cop tropes along the way. Car chases, bonding moments, one-liners, explosions and crazy shoot outs that never stop for a reload fly by with particularly witty style. Mortis is a dead cop on the edge who willfully sacrifices procedure for justice. At this point, he literally has nothing left to lose and practicality has simply lost its meaning. But even there, in these final moments, Dead Heat stops to give proper deference to its horror audience.

But what is a buddy cop film without a bonkers villain? Lucky for us, Dead Heat provides not one, but two. Perhaps the more typically evil of the two is Dr. Ernest McNab played by the prolific Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story, Raw Deal). Utilizing the lab’s reanimation machine, McNab was the one utilizing zombies to rob jewelry stores and assassinate Mortis and Bigelow. After all, an evil genius can’t have a couple cops sniffing around. In the end, he winds up succeeding on all accounts leaving both Mortis and Bigelow devoid of heartbeats.


“Mirroring Mortis‘ exponential decay, the plot continually spirals, checking off buddy cop tropes along the way.”


Despite McGavin’s truly great performance and McNab‘s insane ploy, the true star villain arrives via horror royalty. In one of his final on screen performances, Dead Heat stars none other than Vincent Price as Dante Lab owner Arthur P. Loudermilk. A stereotypical 1%er, Loudermilk pooled his vast resources to construct the reanimation machine responsible for Mortis‘ zombification. By continually extending his lifespan, Loudermilk and his fellow millionaires can continue to enjoy, hoard and build their vast wealth. Price plays the part to perfection offering a final high point for both the story and the audience as well.



Throughout Dead Heat there are a shocking number of fish tanks on full display. While some are relegated to mere set dressing, others serve as essential plot driven props. Perhaps this inclusion of domestic fish habitats is nothing more than another 80s trend or a quirky inside joke within the production. Whatever the reason, this bizarre choice in production design also, ironically, serves as a larger representation of Dead Heat‘s legacy. No matter where you try to place it, Dead Heat remains a fish out of water.

Upon its initial release, reviews were less than complimentary. “What separates life from death?” pondered the NY Times critic. “Not watching movies like this.” Even now the film holds a shaky 11% Tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And although the initial budget for the film was a reasonable $5 million, Dead Heat failed to perform at box offices and never recovered its initial investment. Despite all the proper ingredients being assembled for a delicious 80s delight, the final product didn’t quite translate.

It’s easy to look back with modern eyes and create excuses why a film like Dead Heat didn’t succeed. Perhaps it was poor marketing or the film was simply ahead of its time. Or perhaps audiences just weren’t ready for this kind of genre mash-up. Yet sometimes the most obvious fact in 1988 still stands as the best reason for the film’s relegation to cult classic. For Dead Heat, its biggest drawback comes from the performances of its lead actors. While many of its buddy cop counterparts boasted charismatic, capable and big-name leads, Dead Heat lagged in every category. Sure, Treat Williams is a perfectly competent actor, but he also lacked the grittiness or magnetism that Mortis deserved. And while Joe Piscopo crushed it on SNL alongside Eddie Murphy, as a film actor his skills fell slightly flat.


“Despite the film’s limited success and recognition over the years, Dead Heat is undoubtedly a treasure.”


This lukewarm combination of performances from its lead actors left Dead Heat holding limited appeal to mainstream audiences. Neither Williams nor Piscopo commanded enough interest from buddy-cop enthusiasts to warrant a watch. Similarly, the duo and genre combo contributed to hesitancy from the horror fans. Even though horror comedies were really starting to blossom commercially thanks to films like The Lost Boys, Gremlins and even Ghostbusters, Dead Heat was simply trying to check off too many boxes simultaneously. In its effort to straddle the lines between horror, comedy and action, the film failed to gain real traction with any of their audiences.

Despite the film’s limited success and recognition over the years, Dead Heat is undoubtedly a treasure. Within the confines of the film we see creative energy being channeled into previously uncharted territory. While so many other studios were cranking out absurd attempts at cashing in on the buddy cop boom (I’m looking at you Theodore Rex), the motives behind Dead Heat inevitably come across as genuinely sincere and unique. Although it has its issues, there is simply no denying the passion motivating the film’s existence. Even now, some 32 years later, we’ve yet to see it truly replicated. Dead Heat was a big swing at a big idea. A big, beautiful, undead cop kind of idea that I, for one, am here for.


What do you think about Dead Heat? Are you a fan of this horror infused buddy cop bonanza? Let us know over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!



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