Friday, January 16, 2009

Death Warmed Up (1984): or, Trepanation Island

Hey, remember the 80s? Remember the over-moussed hair, the bright primary-colored clothes, and the bloopy synth music? The salad days of MTV and Miami Vice? Remember Olivia Newton-John? Remember Men at Work?

Good. Keep those images in your mind.

Now add a healthy dose of mad science, a dollop of pre-code horror comics'* carnage and general disdain for logic, a dash of homoeroticism, and a villain straight out of Mad Max's The Wall, and you're almost in the brainspace to appreciate this New Zealand-produced mad movie from 1984, David Blyth's frankly mindfuckling Death Warmed Up.

*of the sort provided gratis daily by the inestimable Karswell over at MMMMMovies buddy site, The Horrors of It All! Check 'em out!

After some brightly colored collage-style credits, we open on young Michael Tucker (Michael Hurst) running like mad through a forest in full daylight. Dressed only in an AC/DC-approved school uniform, Mike seems dazzled by the sunlight falling through the branches of the trees as he keeps the knees pumping high, as if some fearful beast doth close behind him tread. Where has he been? What's he running from? These questions remain tantalizingly unanswered: within seconds the pastoral paradise gives way to a metropolitan cityscape, but Michael doesn't slow down for an instant--he sprints down the urban avenues right up the stairs of a local hospital, where the nurses seem to know him and don't think it at all odd that the sweaty schoolboy has burst in as if crossing the finish line at the Sydney Olympics.

"So...wanna get physical?"

After a short elevator ride Mike finds his way to the neurosurgery department, where his father, Professor Tucker (David Weatherley) is having a heated discussion with colleague Dr. Archer Howell (the wonderfully evil Gary Day). It appears some vaguely defined experiments of Howell's cross Tucker's ethical lines, something to do with immortality through brain surgery (?). The frank exchange of views gives way to fisticuffs, as Dr. Howell throws his puny partner against the wall and threatens bodily harm if the funding is cut off. When Howell sees Michael spying on them, the horrified youngster flees the scene.

Not fast enough, though, as a couple of dimly lit corridors over Dr. Howell catches up with him. Noticing the young man is sweaty and out of breath, the doctor--in the most menacing voice possible--suggests that Mike take a quick shower in the surgeons' locker room to "freshen up." Having just witnessed this same man roughing up his dear old dad, Micheal readily agrees!

It's here that we get our first dose of homoeroticism in the flick (if you don't count the hospital's extremely phallic edifice--which I do), as the fit young man takes a very gratuitous, red-lit shower, throwing his head back and opening his mouth for the gentle spray in the way Linnea Quigley and others have made a career of. This boy *really* enjoys his showers--so much so that he doesn't notice the wicked Dr. Howell sneaking up on him with a syringe the size of a billy-club, which he uses to PENETRATE Mike's taut buttocks and pump them full of his mysterious SCIENCE JUICE. Gripping Michael firmly from behind, the doctor drags him off into the shadows. Doubtless for a perfectly innocent purpose.

Gratuitous Butt Shot

Anyone who remembers the early days of MTV should get a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia from Blyth's visual style here--impossibly bright colors, glowing red and blue gels, and copious Venetian blind-shadows are the order of the day. The periodic synthesizer stings out of nowhere only add to the feeling that any moment Simon Le Bon and Murray Head are going to step out from behind a pillar and get the party started right. (Unfortunately, this NEVER happens.)

Later that evening Ma and Pa Tucker are undressing after a formal evening out, watching a news report on Dr. Howell's research. "He's MAD!" the professor exclaims, obviously still reeling from his office ass-whupping. Mrs. Tucker, clad in what looks like a cross between an old-fashioned slip and a Merry Widow, pulls herself away from her floor-to-ceiling closet full of shoes long enough to comfort her husband with some hot MILF action.

Meanwhile Dr. Howell is driving his obviously altered new friend back home after whatever sordid tryst followed the fade-to-black. He deposits Mike at Chez Tucker then scarpers, an evil gleam in his eye. Mike stumbles across the front lawn, cradling a shotgun.

"Mike? Is that you?"

Of course Michael creeps upstairs, interrupts his parents' first sex in years, and proceeds to go all DeFeo on them in one of the films' many excellent gore scenes. Dad gets several squibs and stark splatter, and Mom even gets a shotgun blast to the gut, right in front of her precious shoe-stash. Not sated with murdering his parents, Mike blasts the table lamp on his way out--it's always the innocents who get hurt.

Seven years later Michael is released from the world's smallest padded cell and put back out in the world, his hair gone bleached-blond from the trauma. In the intervening years Dr. Howell has taken his work to the corporate sector, founding TransCranial Applications Incorporated and purchasing a private island where he is governor and god. We get some pretty good mad science action here, as Dr. Howell performs graphic brain surgery on a hapless patient while nurses with dead eyes and mesh surgical masks stand by to assist. If you look at the expressionless cadre of medical women here and start singing "Addicted to Love," well, I won't stop you.

Blaming the Doctor's butt-juice injection for his parents' deaths, Michael rounds up his girlfriend and two other mates and sets out for revenge. The first part of the revenge plan involves getting to the island on one of the rustiest ferries imaginable. While Mike and his Olivia Newton-John-channeling girlfriend Sandy (Margaret Umbers) talk to the captain, their friends Lucas and Jeannie decide to have sex on the hood of their car. When they see a couple of Mad Max rejects getting an eyefull they retire to the relative privacy of the backseat of the same car, where Jeannie shucks out of her top and gives us some female nudity, for a change.

"The next time I see you, you'd BETTER have eyebrows!"

It's here that the movie takes its *really* hard left turn, as a hunchbacked mutant in a Devo-esque jumpsuit interrupts the lovers in flagrante de Pinto. Moments later Lucas retaliates by pissing on the baddies' van, leading to some harsh threats from their leader Spider (David Letch, subscribing to the Bob Geldof/Jess Franco's Faceless school of "shaved eyebrows == MORE EVIL" thought). A ferry brawl ensues, followed by a Mad Max-ish car chase on the mainland. Our protagonists ditch the bad guys in an actual ditch, and our story can get on its way.

Or so you would think. After an odd scene where Dr. Howell and a henchman stop into a local convenience store to buy pineapples from an incredibly offensive Indian ethnic stereotype (obviously a Kiwi "comic" in brown-face), we join Mike and his mates at a beach where they've stopped for a picnic. If you're hoping for hott bathing suit shots here, you won't be disappointed:

"No more sandwiches for me, thanks--I'm stuffed."

After some deep but confusing dialog and near oral-sex from his girlfriend, Mike decides it's time to get his friends moving to some WWII tunnels he wants to explore on the island, for some reason. Meanwhile, the good Dr. Howell is performing more surgery on the mutant from the ferry, who is suffering some rather nasty side-effects from the TransCranial Application he received. Unfortunately for him, he didn't read the the fine print that read "WARNING: May Cause Drowsiness, Retardation, Spontaneous Scoliosis, and ASPLODING HEAD SYNDROME." Of course some side-effects there's no getting to the other side of.

In the tunnels under the island, the baddies catch up with our heroes again, this time on motorcycles! There's a long chase through the tunnels--and I mean LONG, several minutes too long, really--and Jeannie is clubbed by a passing cyclist just before they escape. Enraged, Lucas goes back in, grabs a length of pipe, and succeeds in impaling one of the bikers on it--though it magically changes to a piece of rebar once it pierces the mutant's back. Versitile material, that.

Spider takes his mortally wounded friend to Dr. Howell, and the doc expresses his unconcern by shoving Spider's eyebrowless face right into his friend's exposed intestines! Harsh, but fair. A bit put out over this, Spider retaliates by going down to the basement of the clinic and releasing a roomful of slavering mutants to wreak havoc through the hospital.

A real mind-blower.

It's not long before the clinic and most of the island is in flames, and Mike finds himself face-to-face with his nemesis and ready to get some answers about Howell's motivations. No dice--Howell is a mad scientist of the pre-code horror comics mode, doing these horrible things because he's EEEVIL, and he CAN. As to what he hopes to accomplish--apparently it's destruction for destruction's sake:

"I had a vision! There are HUNDREDS out there who've undergone the's only a matter of hours before they all start to melt down! But there are others out there who HAVEN'T EVEN STARTED!"

No arguing with that logic. When Mike gets the upper hand with a carelessly unsecured scalpel the size of a butcher knife, the Doc plays his trump card: "You must realize that I must survive if this is to be stopped! Only I can make you well again!"

Unimpressed, Mike gets very stabby indeed on the good doctor, pinning him against the wall and THRUSTING his PENETRATING BLADE into Howell's EXPOSED FLESH, AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN, until THE FLUIDS HIT THE FLOOR AND...say, is it hot in here?

It all leads to a non-confrontation with spider and a bleakish non-ending that makes about as much sense as a set of Ronnie James Dio lyrics, but fortunately is just as much fun.

The Vicar's Happy Place, circa 1985

I had a blast with Death Warmed Up, but I should warn viewers that it's not without its problems. A lot of the driving and chase scenes seem to take place in real time, which slows the movie down considerably, especially against the frantic pace of many of the other scenes. The acting and dialogue are as over the top as comic book speech bubbles, which can be good or bad depending on your point of view. There are a few really out-of-nowhere video wipes that pull you right out of the film, and at least one scene where the actors are upstaged by a boom mike. But for someone like me, that's just gravy on the chips, baby.

That said, the gore is good and goopy, the plot is wilder than it needed to be (in a good way) and the wacky homoerotic undertones (in addition to the MASSIVE SYRINGES and PIPE IMPALEMENT, the guards at the clinic use MAGNIFICENT CATTLE PRODS to keep the inmates in line) and Mad Max/80s Music Video sensibilities all push the scales in the movie's favor. If you're looking for Oscar bait, look away--but if you're looking for FUN, you could do a lot worse.

A bit of an oddity and a TOTAL product of its times, Death Warmed Up is worth at least one viewing by Mad Movie fans, and thus gets an easy 2 Thumbs Up. Grab a few beers, fix up a plate of Vegemite sandwiches, put your legwarmers up on the table, and enjoy.

"You call that a knife? That's not a KNIFE..."


slizwiz said...

I love Death Warmed Up! It was one of those "where have you been all my life?" moments when I finally found it. This begs for a widescreen super deluxe edition.

Tenebrous Kate said...

I have a great affection for the deliberately wacky, surrealist films of the 80s like "Forbidden Zone" and "Dr. Caligari," but this movie seems to have the added flavor of being played as a straight (erm--so to speak) shock-flick! I've GOT to slap my eyeballs on this movie ASAP.

Also--+10 for the Murray Head reference, and +1,000,000 for the "Faceless" one ;)

Karswell said...

This appears to be yet another gem I've missed despite the fact I know I saw that box cover a thousand times at the rental shop back in da day. I'm going for it!

>a dollop of pre-code horror comics'*

Thanks for the plug!

>*a dash of homoeroticism

And another plug... tickles...

Jay Amabile said...

the boom mic makes an appearance? Was it uncredited? I'll definitely look to get a hold of this one. Shlocky '80s horror is my favorite.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Jay--thanks for stopping by!

Yes, the Boom Mic's cameo can be seen in the 3rd photo on this review. Its appearance is brief, but importat--I really think the movie would not have worked without it!

This is available on the Mill Creek "Nightmare Worlds" 50 movie set. I've sung the praises of Mill Creek's public domain offerings a lot on the site--at $20, even if most of them are bad, you still come out ahead. ;) Happy viewing!

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