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Death Warmed Up – film review

November 21, 2014

DEATH WARMED UP

New Zealand’s first splatter movie – a long lost horror gem!

death warmed up tunnel chase

Directed by David Blyth. Written by Michael Heath and David Blyth. Starring Michael Hurst, Margaret Umbers, William Upjohn, Norelle Scott, David Letch, Geoff Snell, Gary Day and Bruno Lawrence. Year of release: 1984. Running time: 80 minutes.

Teenager Michael Tucker (Michael Hurst) is subjected to mind control drugs administered by rogue neurosurgeon Dr. Archer Howell (Gary Day) and programmed to kill both his parents after his father, Professor Tucker (David Weatherley) threatens to expose Howell’s barbaric corpse re-animation experiments. Having spent seven long years incarcerated in a mental institution for his crime, Michael, now a young man; together with his girlfriend Sandy (Margaret Umbers) and two friends, Lucas (William Upjohn) and Jeannie (Norelle Scott) – makes his way to Howell’s remote island clinic for ‘Transcranial Applications’ – where he is determined to infiltrate Howell’s medical stronghold and kill the mad scientist in a brutal act of bloody revenge.

Up until the late 1970s/early 80s – with films like Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace – New Zealand never really had a local film industry to speak of. Sure, overseas productions like Battletruck, Strange Behavior and Race For The Yankee Zephyr would later utilize New Zealand locations and crews, but it was really with the unprecedented box office success of Geoff Murphy’s comedic action/road movie Goodbye Pork Pie in 1980, that locally-produced features (aimed squarely at local auds) really came into their own. It was around this time the fledgling New Zealand Film Commission sought to foster a commercial base for locally-produced films; choosing to nurture two rising young talents in particular. The first was Vincent Ward, who had shown considerable promise with his short feature A State of Siege and who would later go on to be the first Kiwi filmmaker accepted into competition at Cannes in 1984 with his feature debut Vigil. The second filmmaker was David Blyth, who had helmed the surrealist experimental film Angel Mine in 1978 – the first New Zealand feature to receive funding from the newly-formed Film Commission. Blyth would follow this up with the award-winning TV movie A Woman of Good Character     in 1980, as well as spending a year working on the indigenous TV soap-opera series Close to Home (helming a dozen episodes). He also spent time in England working (uncredited) with Jim Sharman on Sharman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show pseudo-sequel follow-up Shock Treatment in 1981. As Blyth revealed recently to this reviewer, “Jim basically invited me to hang out all day on set with him on Shock Treatment to learn how to make studio-style musical films.”

death warmed up - spider

Death Warmed Up began life as a short outline written by screenwriter Michael Heath (who had previously penned another locally-produced horror film starring John Carradine called The Scarecrow) – but it was more about the idea of cryogenics than what ultimately ended up on screen. The New Zealand Film Commission were excited by the prospect of producing a horror film – as horror was perceived at the time to be a genre whch appealed to the lucrative 15-25 age group; as well as being a genre with enormous international appeal. As it transpired, the international appeal of Death Warmed Up would indeed open doors for Blyth in the United States – as would happen later for subsequent New Zealand horror filmmakers such as Peter Jackson. Following a series of successful screenings at various film festivals around the world, including the prestigious London Film Festival and the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Death Warmed Up ultimately went on to win the Grand Prix at the 1984 French International Film Festival Of Fantasy, Horror And Science Fiction, which then led to Blyth landing himself an agent in LA. He would then go on to helm (uncredited) the troubled Lance Henriksen-starring The Horror Show (aka House 3) in 1989, followed by Red Blooded American Girl in 1990 and its sequel in 1996. While in Los Angeles, Blyth also directed four early episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Blyth has since returned to New Zealand, where he continues to make highly-personal genre fare such as the controversial Wound in 2010 and Ghost Bride in 2013.

Death Warmed Up was produced on a budget of just $780,000 and shot over a period of five weeks with a crew of forty-four. It was filmed in 16mm and blown up to 35mm and was the first film in New Zealand to be shot almost entirely using Steadicam. As Blyth revealed to journalist Alan Jones in the April ‘85 issue of Starburst Magazine, “I didn’t use any tracks at all. I had two camera crews and I would plan my master shot using the Steadicam contingent, and as we walked it through I would tell the second lot where I wanted to pick up the close-ups. We were averaging 23 to 24 set-ups a day, which is almost up to rock video standards.” This extensive use of Steadicam not only adds to the film’s overall production value, but it also contributes a palpable sense of fluidity and forward momentum to proceedings. And the shamelessly lurid color palette (recalling the works of Mario Bava) utilized in the cinematography by James Bartle (The Quiet Earth) does much to lend the film a fun comic book aesthetic which the filmmakers were clearly striving for.

death warmed up - zombie

Blyth also demonstrates a natural flare for mounting well-staged and kinetic action     set pieces – as evidenced in the underground tunnel sequence where our four young heroes are chased by mutant henchmen riding motorcycles (played by Geoff Snell and David Letch). The bar siege which follows – where the kids are holed-up in a pub while fending off an onslaught of mutant zombies, is also nicely-handled and contains a great deal of suspense – while clearly owing more than just a little nod to similar scenes in John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog. Actually, while on the subject of Carpenter – with Carpenter-style 80s retro synth scores being all the rage these days (with such films as Drive, The Guest and Cold In July) – the excellent synth-heavy score composed for Death Warmed Up by Mark Nicholas amazingly appears fresh and contemporary all these years later. Adding to the oddly contemporary feel of the movie is Michael Glock’s production design, art direction by Robert Pearson and costumes by Barbara Darragh. Although it is never specifically stated, the ‘new wave’ look inherent in the film’s art direction (particularly in terms of the look of the costumes) was clearly meant to convey a sense of it taking place in the not too distant future; thus side-stepping the usually dated look of most eighties films.

death warmed up - margaret umbers

Perhaps the best-known name in a cast of relative unknowns is New Zealand’s much-loved character actor Bruno Lawrence (The Quiet Earth, Smash Palace) – although it is difficult to recognize him under all the prosthetic makeup (as one of Howell’s hunchback mutant zombies). Lead actor Michael Hurst (who, with his bleached white hair, owes more than a passing resemblance to Roy Batty in Blade Runner) would these days be best-remembered for his recurring role as Iolaus in the New Zealand-lensed TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Here he displays a look and intensity which is very similar to Rutger Hauer’s Batty. Indeed, Michael’s final confrontation with Howell is clearly inspired by Batty’s dispatching of Tyrell in Blade Runner. There is a nice natural chemistry between all four leads and, despite their limited experience, they all seem remarkably comfortable in their roles; which is most likey due to the two week rehearsal period prior to the shoot; a technique Blyth learned during his time working with Sharman on Shock Treatment. Of the young leads in the cast, Margaret Umbers and Norelle Scott give standout performances as girlfriends Sandy and Jeannie respectively; Scott in particular eliciting considerable compassion for what her character is forced to endure until her explosive and quite shocking demise. Indeed, without giving too much away, things don’t end well for most of the major characters in this film. As Blyth reveals in an interview extra on     the DVD, “Most horror films end with evil being vanquished forever. In Death Warmed Up basically evil still survives at the end and gets to live another day – which is     how I see reality. The psychology has left Michael, our hero, as damaged as the damaged bad guys if you like.”

I first became aware of Death Warmed Up from reading the aforementioned 1985 interview with Blyth in Starburst back in the day. It was then released on VHS       here in Australia a year later on the CBS/Fox Video label; only it was heavily censored; having pretty much all the gruesome violence cut out of it (it was initially refused classification, but eventually passed after having a whole bunch of footage excised). Happily, a reconstructed version of the film finally surfaced on DVD in 2009. It features all 1 minute 12 seconds of missing footage (32 previously cut pieces in all) reincorporated back into a re-mastered theatrical print – although these reconstituted shots have clearly been sourced from an inferior VHS copy; as the original negative was destroyed by accident at the lab and all subsequent prints had been cut by censors and distributors. If ever there were a film which would benefit enormously from a full-blown digital restoration and re-mastering, utilizing the best means available, it would be this one. As Blyth recently revealed to this reviewer; there still exists a 35mm interneg somewhere in the US, so perhaps a full digital restoration may yet be a real possibility.

death warmed up - japanese poster

Japanese vintage poster

The numerous makeup effects (supervised by Kevin Chisnall) are admittedly low-rent and splattery; featuring gun shot wounds, impalings, stabbings and exploding heads. And the anatomically-correct brain surgery scenes (newly-restored here to their full gory glory) are more darkly humorous than gross; with close-ups of nurses being spattered in the face by gouts of blood only adding to the gory fun. And it’s interesting to note that although Peter Jackson’s 1987 gorefest Bad Taste is generally considered to be New Zealand’s first spaltter film – it is actually Blyth’s Death Warmed Up which proudly holds this distinction. There are also interesting parallels between Blyth’s film and another horror film released the same year; namely Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback – as they are both movies which feature hyper-kinetic pacing, highly-stylized photography and art direction and a youthful sense of irreverent fun and vigor; both films gaining a certain cult status over the years. I am also reminded of Richard Stanley’s 1990 cult splatter film Hardware for these very same reasons.

If I were to have a criticism of the film it would be that Doctor Howell’s motivation for creating his horde of zombie minions is a little murky and unclear, but there is such   a twinkle in the filmmaker’s eye, it does little to diminish the overall fun to be gained from watching Death Warmed Up. It is a solid, fast-paced low-budget sci-fi thriller and a must-see for fans of classic 80s splatter.

To purchase a DVD copy of the complete and uncut Death Warmed Up please visit:

http://www.screenline.co.nz

And I’d like to personally extend a sincere debt of gratitude to David Blyth himself for kindly supplying me with the terrific stills for this review.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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