Back in the days before we had the Internet, cult-film forums, and esoteric DVD labels to bring obscure cinema to our attention, finding cool, little-known films for the VCR was a hit-or-miss affair. Those who were already in the loop had film fanzines and collector labels like Something Weird Video to help them in their quest, and The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was as comprehensive a guide as you could find back then. Still, you couldn’t get the fanzines at your local drugstore, SWV’s titles didn’t turn up on most neighborhood video-store shelves and the P.E. of F. was hardly even scratching the surface of weird cinema. So if you weren’t interested in renting the latest Stallone flick or Touchstone Pictures blockbuster, all you could do was scan the store shelves for something with promising display visuals and hope for a winner.
For lesser-known titles with no marketable stars, eye-catching VHS box-art was essential, something I witnessed from the other side of the video counter while slinging tapes for Average Joes. The most horrendous, unwatchable straight-to-video releases would rent night-after-night if the box had dope artwork – there just weren’t many resources where you could read reviews of these films beforehand to find out they sucked. (aren’t you glad Google changed that?) Most of the time you struck shit, fooled by garish artwork promising bold, scintillating entertainment, or at the very least some gratuitous flesh and gore. But what made the trek through the dreck worthwhile were the occasional odd gems you’d stumble upon, the one’s you’d watch three times before returning the tape, the ones you’d force your friends to sit through hoping they’d share your giddy enthusiasm. And this brings me to one such obscurity I went particularly gaga over – David Blyth’s Death Warmed Up (1984). The grindhouse-style box-art roped me in, moreso than the fact the film won the Grand Prix at the 1984 International Festival of Fantasy and Science-Fiction Films. Furthermore, it was released on VHS by Vestron Video which had introduced me to a lot of choice cult horror titles. At the time I didn’t know this was New Zealand’s first gore film, predating hobbitophile Peter Jackson’s first feature Bad Taste by three years (but most surely had a huge influence on him). In a fit of nostalgia, I decided to rewatch this rollercoater ride of a movie for the first time in 20 years. Did its raw magic still hold up?
Young Michael Tucker (Michael Hurst) is the subject of experiments to prolong life, conducted by his scientist father and his partner Dr. Archer Howell (Gary Day). When Michael’s father refuses to continue the experiments for ethical reasons, Howell sticks a huge needle in the boy’s ass (in a very homo-erotic shower scene), injecting him with a brainwashing fluid. Now under Howell’s influence, Michael murders both his parents with a shotgun, after which he’s institutionalized. Seven years later, Michael is a free man (with dyed blond hair) and takes a holiday trip with his girlfriend and another couple to a secluded island to explore WWII bunkers. Unbeknownst to his friends, the island houses the Trans-Cranial Applications Hospital where Dr. Howell continues his experiments in eradicating death on human specimens, and Michael has purposely led them here hell-bent on vengeance. Things go wrong when they run into some of Howell’s mutant henchmen in the subterranean tunnels of the island, and one of the girls suffers a nasty head wound. Needing medical attention, the girl is rushed to Howell’s clinic where Michael confronts and kills his nemesis. Meanwhile, Howell’s lobotomized patients have started ‘breaking down’ and rampage murderously throughout the hospital, ultimately taking over the island.
If the above description sounds coherent, it’s because I’ve omitted chunks of the scattershot narrative. Director Blyth takes an ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach to film-making here, making Death Warmed Up the cinematic equivalent of Dr. Howell’s mutant patients: a goo-spewing hodgepodge experiment always on the verge of a meltdown. If I were going to nitpick, there’s plenty to complain about here. We never find out why Howell is creating genetically altered freaks on the island or why Michael’s father allowed his son to be a psychiatric guinea pig. The baddies are disposed of too easily and too quickly. The showdown between Michael and Howell is a lame letdown, and the hero dies a senseless, accidental death at the end of the film –- really, in a film already so over the top they couldn’t come up with a more creative way to die than stepping on a live powerline? There’s a gay subtext to Michael and Dr. Howell’s relationship that’s never really explored (the print released in the US is cut which explains the brief running time – could it possibly be missing some backstory about their relationship?). And there’s one particularly odious scene with an Indian shopkeeper that’s obviously a white actor in brownface makeup, providing minstrel-show style comic relief playing up on embarrassing Indian stereotypes.
There’s nothing particularly innovative about Death Warmed Up, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than the sum of its derivative parts: Strange Behavior and Re-Animator meet Mad Max on The Island of Dr. Moreau. There are nods to other genre films galore: a Night of the Living Dead-style mutant attack on a pub, grubby Mad Max-type villains who mutter lines like “I love the smell of blonde pussy in the morning”, a THX-1138 style dirt-bike chase through a tunnel, Mario Bava-esque candy-colored lighting, Dr. Howell’s Herbert West-like obsession with conquering death, etc. But what it lacks in originality it makes up for in madcap spirit and creativity on a low-budget. It’s a bloody fun thrill-ride that I can’t help but love and far preferable to today’s OTT torture porn snoozefests. At 78 minutes, the film plows ahead with such reckless abandon that you can barely stop to catch a breath or notice the holes in the story, much like Peter Jackson’s early films.
Eighties’ lovers take note: DWU is so firmly planted in the 1980’s you’d think it was a retro homage to the decade: from the fashions and hairstyles (post-incarceration Michael looks like a Sting-clone) to its gore and synth score. Even Howell’s nurses look like they’ve wandered off the set of an 80’s porno film. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were shooting a Dark Brothers film back-to-back using the same sets and lighting.
Death Warmed Up has yet to be released in uncut form on Region 1 DVD though a special-edition is rumored to be out in New Zealand. Or you might be able to see it here.