Review: Death Warmed Up (1984)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #761

Also known as Death Warmed Over
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: April 25, 1985
Sub-Genre: Survival Horror
Country of Origin: New Zealand, Australia
Budget: $780,000
Running Time: 80 minutes
Director: David Blyth
Producer: Murray Newey
Screenplay: David Blyth, Michael Heath
Special Effects: Kevin Chisnall, Bryony Hurden, Rosalind McCorquodale
Cinematography: James Bartle
Score: Mark Nicholas
Editing: David Huggett
Studios: Tucker Production Company, New Zealand Film Commission
Distributor: Vestron Video
Stars: Michael Hurst, Margaret Umbers, William Upjohn, Norelle Scott, David Letch, Geoff Snell, Gary Day, Bruno Lawrence, Ian Watkin, David Weatherley, Tina Grenville, Nathaniel Lees, Karam Hau, Jonathan Hardy

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] PlutoDance Stamina”

[2] Twelve Foot Ninja “One Hand Killing”

When you think about New Zealand’s most valuable exports, the first things that traditionally spring to mind are dairy products, sheep and goat meat, wool, and the like. Horror movies don’t make it onto that list. Of course, there’s always Peter Jackson, whose journey from his 1987 debut Bad Taste to Middle Earth defied pretty much everyone’s expectations, himself inclusive. However, it’s slim pickings on the whole and, while Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm has more recently hinted at a resurgence, it would be fair to say that the kiwis are not the go-to pushers for those genre fixes.

Many people regard Bad Taste as the first ever splatter flick to have emerged from New Zealand and, though it was the first to travel well, there were a handful of horror movies doing the rounds long before Derek and pals sent the alien scum packing. Most notable of these is David Blyth’s Death Warmed Up from 1984, a curious little number that managed to find its way to the shores of the UK but floundered on VHS rental (despite a striking sleeve) and disappeared from trace soon after. That was over thirty years ago now and, aside from one bare-bones DVD release, nobody has had the good manners to lavish it with the attention it’s simply crying out for.

I’m not suggesting for a second that Death Warmed Up is some kind of hidden gem as it’s some way from singing and dancing. But it does show promise, boast an intriguing premise, a handful of colorful characters, and another of cool set-pieces. When you consider Blyth shot this baby in four weeks, with only a miniscule kitty at his disposal, what he pulled off is pretty damn impressive. Certain movies just have their own individual feel and Blyth’s petulant pot-boiler fits the criteria hand in glove. There’s something vaguely MTV about it, an offbeat new wave vibe runs directly through its core, and I dig that about it.

Teenager Michael Tucker (Michael Hurst) learns a valuable lesson about snooping into affairs that don’t concern him when eavesdropping on a conversation between his father Professor Tucker (David Weatherley) and his colleague, rogue neurosurgeon Dr. Archer Howell (Gary Day). Howell has pioneered a highly controversial technique to prolong human life and his colleague wants no part in it. Things get decidedly heated, Howell spots Michael spying, and this gives him an idea about how to resolve the situation.

Clearly distressed about witnessing this altercation, Michael decides to take a shower (?), and the deranged scientist takes the opportunity to inject his ass with possibly the longest fucking syringe I’ve ever seen in my life. Regrettably for Michael this places him under Howell’s mind control and it just so happens he has plans for the boy, which are some way outside of legal parameters.

Michael then travels to his family home, wielding a shotgun, and interrupts his parents’ after dinner lovemaking session by blowing the pair to smithereens. He is swiftly institutionalized, Howell no longer has to concern himself with meddling outside parties, and this leaves him free to continue his suspicious studies without distraction. He does this by opening a remote island clinic, dedicated to further “Transcranial Applications”, while his fall guy bounces around his padded cell, feeling thoroughly hard done by.

Fast forward to seven years later and Michael, his girlfriend Sandy (Margaret Umbers) and friends, Lucas (William Upjohn) and Jeannie (Norelle Scott) are headed off to the island for what the other three believe to be a sun and sandals vacation. However, Michael has other ideas. He plans to infiltrate Howell’s stronghold, exact his bloody revenge on his nemesis for ruining his life, and stop these sick experiments before more innocent people perish. At least he has the element of surprise on his side right?

Not exactly. You see, while travelling by ferry to this offshore location, the group manage to attract the attention of Spider (David Letch) and Jannings (Geoff Snell), a pair of unruly heathens who just so happen to be guinea pigs for Howell’s shady research. It turns out that there are certain side effects to his procedure, most notably the fact that it turns its subjects into genetically altered freaks with homicidal intentions. Michael and chums manage to overcome the bumbling pair and it appears as though crisis has been inverted. Needless to say, it hasn’t by a long shot.

You’ve got to give Howell props. While he may be out of control and his methods far from orthodox, his clinic resembles a nightclub and is staffed only by sexy nurses whose skimpy little outfits are far from standard issue. It is clear that, aside from tampering with human genetics and playing god, he is also living the dream and indulging every last one of his seedy desires in the process. However, news travels fast on a remote island, and it isn’t long before he learns of his unwanted guests’ intrusion. Time to bust out the freaks and uniques.

Speaking of which, I simply cannot go a solitary step further without making mention of one of the island’s inhabitants we are briefly introduced to, Indian store clerk Ranji Gandhi (Jonathan Hardy). To be honest, his attendance has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever, but that doesn’t make it any less mind-boggling. Sporting a faceful of sketchily applied boot polish, Gandhi embraces the Asian stereotype to such a degree that you’d think Peter Sellers has been reincarnated. It’s an utterly bizarre inclusion and betrays the straight-faced tone of the entire movie. Quite frankly, I have no idea what the fuck Blyth was thinking here but you can’t deny that our google-eyed friend makes an impression. And Jesus weeps.

Alas this also highlights the key downfall with Death Warmed Up. It seems unsure where to pitch itself and feels a little like it’s being made up on the fly. Blyth certainly has an eye for stylish and kinetic set pieces – including a breathless motorcycle chase sequence in an underground tunnel and similarly galvanizing bar ambush that calls to mind the siege mentality of the great John Carpenter. This in turn creates a level of suspense that the muddled screenplay of Blyth and Michael Heath then proceeds to fumble. That said, there’s a bona fide contemporary feel to the whole kit and caboodle, courtesy of some interesting art and production design and James Bartle’s hyper-stylized photography.

Another tip of the hat must go to Letch, whose portrayal of the film’s true tyrant, Spider, is frighteningly effective. Spidey may not possess a pair of eyebrows, but he gets his point across all the same and is never less than a delight to observe in action. Meanwhile, Hurst and all three of his back-to-the-wall battle buddies fare kindly, and this strong group dynamic serves Death Warmed Up decidedly well when it appears to be losing direction. The end result is a film that, oddly enough, feels a little too lethargic for its own good, regardless of brisk running time, but one that seldom surrenders the attention of its audience.

Apparently, a 35mm print still exists so perhaps one day Blyth’s movie will receive the Blu-Ray restoration that could benefit it greatly. Alas, a good polish up cannot mask the fact that Death Warmed Up is a deeply flawed little number and it’s easy to see why it slipped through the cracks as Blyth never seems quite sure which hip to shoot from. That said, it’s fast-paced (ish), brimming with new wave swagger, and a must-see for anyone not aware that there was life in New Zealand before Peter Jackson. Hell, if you don’t believe me, look out for Ian Watkin from Braindead as Bill the Ferryman. It’s good to know Uncle Les is on Kiwi export duties. I’ve had my eye on one of those Sumatran rat monkeys since the nineties.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Slo-mo shotgun blasts, impalement, electrocution, burning flesh, and exploding cranial pustules – not bad for a day’s work if you ask me. However, the moment most likely to stick with you after the credits roll entails a way close-up and scarily accurate depiction of emergency brain surgery, complete with drilling and slicing. 

Read Bad Taste Appraisal
Read Braindead (1992) Appraisal
Read Dead End Drive-In Appraisal
Read The Crazies (2010) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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