App. # 506.88/NW3.5
Point of Origin New World Pictures
Passage Via Williams, Treat – Black, Terry
To broaden the focus from only the low-hanging fruit of badness for admission to The Island we explore a lesser offering from years back. This title was created in a time of more stunted thinking towards reanimated screen characters. The concept is used for little more than a plot device rife for cracking jokes, both verbally and visually. The result leaves you feeling as if you have been cast into cinematic purgatory.
The historical output of Hollywood is so broad that genre arrangement can become difficult. There are so many categories that an uncreative type – someone like myself – could suggest movies be organized similar to biological classifications. You could conceivably catalogue film titles with taxonomic labels. By this pained example you might breakdown films thusly:
Kingdom: Studio Release
Order: Crime Story
Family: Action Movie
Genus: Police Procedural
Extending this comparative you can have cross-pollination leading to hybrids, such as the Buddy Cop/Criminal (48 Hours, Bulletproof), Buddy Cop/Athlete (The Last Boy Scout) or even Buddy Cop/Canine (Turner & Hooch, K-9, Top Dog). This allows me to strain the metaphor to the extreme, because this example – Buddy Cop/Zombie movie – can only be described biologically as a mutation. It’s certainly accurate in describing what happens on screen.
In the 1980s the Buddy Cop formula became not only popular, but pervasive. In a very similar and ironic fashion we currently have zombies being exploited to full effect. Decades after George Romero perfected the zombie ideal we now see this motif being used extensively in films, television shows, DVD releases, and numerous video game titles. Proof they entered the mainstream: zombies are employed in commercials, such as for Starburst and Toshiba laptop computers.
But in 1988 the undead were still a bit of a fringe subject and fusing that idea with the Buddy Cop formula was rather unique. The story arrives courtesy of Terry Black, possibly hired on the strength of his family name. His brother is Shane Black, famous for creating “Lethal Weapon” and its sequel, (he appears briefly here as a patrolman) and there may have been a genetic hopefulness on the part of the studio. However rather than performing like his famous sibling, in an Eli Manning sort of way, he falls well short of his brother’s heights – in more of a Billy Ripken sort of way.
But the worst aspect is more obvious, more overt, and literally insurmountable. This would be the casting of Saturday Night Live star, Joe Piscapo. At the time of production Piscapo was in his post-steroidal career phase — which was quickly followed by his 2:00am-infomercial career phase. He is a constant drain on this film, delivering every line like he is in a comedic sketch with not a single quote approaching jocularity. The rest of the time he spends posing his HGH-morphed body, and he’s barely up to that skill.
Treat Williams is given the lead, delivering his usual decent work while reduced to two jobs – carrying the ridiculous premise, and appearing as the straight man. This means that Piscapo is the comic relief, and also the anchor. You see him coasting, confident his years as beta-dog on SNL taught him enough. All Joe does is hit his marks, deliver rejoinders, and mug for the camera. What you get is the performance of a guy who believes he IS funny, rather than working at BEING funny.
But Piscapo is not the sole blame. Black’s script is not so much a storyline than an outline, while most of the dialogue is the delivery of quips, asides, and one-liners. Nobody communicates between themselves; they all deliver plot points, retort to set-up lines, or react to staged occurrences. You might be saying that I’m missing the point, striving for realism in a movie about rejuvenated dead people — and to a degree that is valid. I mean, when you have zombie criminals operating for a nefarious company you cannot really beg for verite’. But the misfire is that by never offering up real characters we never buy into the premise; since the characters are fake we don’t see the zombies, we see people in rubber masks.
VALIDATION FOR PASSAGE
This affair kicks off with two thugs racing into a diamond merchant. The crooks bark at the patrons and fire their Uzis. Then we see cleverness when they slide the guns into their pants. I’m just saying, those recently fired barrels will be a little too warm to store in such a sensitive area.
Next we get introduced to our heroes. Treat Williams is Det. Roger Mortis. (Yes, you read that correctly.) In the passenger seat we see his partner, Doug Bigelow. It takes exactly 3.784 seconds to grasp that Doug is the lesser mind of this duo. Piscapo plays the witty . . . whoops, I meant wise-cracking . . . no, I mean the smart–ass . . . uh nope. Make that the “dumb-as-a-pipe-wrench” unfunny partner. Piscapo is drumming on the dashboard with his fists, in stark simian fashion. It feels like Roger just picked him up from a rescue shelter.
They are called to the robbery where the entire Los Angeles police force has taken position. The crooks shoot about four dozen officers, all while absorbing a constant barrage of bullets which have no effect. Roger takes over, jumping into a car and as one crook is vaporized by grenade he plows into his partner, rendering him like a raccoon on the Turnpike. Doug walks up to the neutralized hoodlum and utters the first of his endless, mirthless comments.
- You’re under arrest. You have the right to remain — disgusting.
Puzzled how the criminals were unaffected by ordinance they visit the coroner, Dr. Rebecca Smythers. Becky and Roger have a past. Becky has something else; the ability to figure out all necessary details to forward the script. Becks determined the scars on the dead man prove she previously performed an autopsy on him. The head of forensics, Dr. McNabb (an embarrassed Darrin McGavin) dismisses the idea, but Becky brings Roger in the back to reveal what she has. Er, that is, to show him more evidence.
First, we see how clever she is; she’s a coroner who smokes! Then Rebecca explains she found traces of a strange chemical – sulfathiazole – in the body tissue (even though she has yet to open the corpse.) Additionally the intrepid internist has managed to track down a large shipment of that compound, and she discovered it was sent to a local drug company, AND she has the address at the ready. And if you think this gal is remarkably helpful just you wait.
Roger and Doug arrive at Dante Pharmaceuticals (seriously????). They are greeted by a comely (by 1980s standards) PR rep named Randi. She answers to questions about the drug shipment by arbitrarily giving them a tour of the facility, during which Doug excuses himself to go to the bathroom. He comes across a secret lab and decides to break in. Dante-Pharm may need to ramp up the budget on their R-&-D division, as he shorts out the pass-key lock with his laminated VISITOR badge.
Inside Doug finds a massive piece of machinery. He approaches and sees a tarp covering something on the main slab. Removing it sees him attacked by a two-faced biker-type creature.
Hearing Doug’s gunshots Roger races to help. During the scuffle he gets tossed into a vacuum chamber then, with Doug occupied by the creature, a mysterious gloved hand hits buttons, trapping Roger in the air lock. There is high tension as the cops futilely bang on the door while Roger perishes. To measure the skill set of Doug Bigelow: shooting out the glass window is never considered. But hey, if Roger doesn’t kick it we’d have no movie.
For some reason Rebecca arrives at the company and she and Doug look glum. Rather than taking normal action – you know, like calling the paramedics – they elect to explore the research lab. Rebecca instantly understands that the sprawling machinery is a reanimation device, even intuitively understanding they can use it for Roger. As his corpse is laid out on the slab Becks easily gets it operational and Roger is soon back as his vibrant self. Just be satisfied with this good news. Do not ask how strangers can break into classified areas, start using expensive technology (to say nothing of the gunfire) without piquing curiosity of ANYBODY working at the company.
Naturally Dr. McNabb shows up at Dante as well. This is a completely innocuous, random, natural, minute detail barely worth a mention. As Becky checks out Roger she finds he is cold and has no heartbeat. McNabb belligerently declares that Roger is faking it, and declares all the fuss is nonsense. Becky then makes another announcement: she was able to “scan the lab report”, (um, how exactly???) and states that Mortis suffers from progressive decay of reanimated tissue with irreversible cell damage. She also confidently declares he has only ten to twelve hours left to live. Or is that to un-live? Or maybe to remain undead, before becoming pro-dead? Whichever, this delivers the time-tested countdown plot device. Roger meanwhile becomes properly motivated:
- The most important thing for me to do right now is to nail whoever did this to me, you understand?
Oh, I understand completely. Faced with your own mortality, told specifically how long you have to live, it’s blatantly obvious what you do. Does he check items off of his bucket list? Spend time with loved ones? Kidnap a Hooters waitress and live like a member of Motley Crue for half a day? Nuh-uh. Roger’s first thought: I NEED TO GO BACK TO WORK. I mean what the flaming hell?!?!?!
First duty involves confronting Randi at home. As they badger her for info two zombies break in and shoot up the Miami-Vice-styled home. Taking cover by the pool area Roger uses his temporary invincibility to defeat the undead at their own game. Now Randi joins forces and reveals Dante-Pharm sent a delivery of sulfathiazole to a Chinese restaurant — because they stopped using MSG in the Lo Mein, I guess. They arrive to confront the owner and this brings us the centerpiece thrill of the movie.
Despite the idiocy of the plot — and Piscapo — one area of quality is the makeup and special-effects. While interrogated the sage-like man hits a button concealed under a bloody butcher block. (Very handy location for electronics.) The place erupts with lightning effects courtesy of a smaller scale reanimation machine in the restaurant, disguised as a light fixture. As the owner beats cheeks out of there our heroes stand around – as the various prepared dishes come to life.
The chicken wings start flapping and roasted ducks start quacking. Roger becomes neutralized for a few moments by a slab of liver that attaches to his face.
Randi is attacked by marinated ducks — not thinking to step away from the rack where they were hanging — while Doug has to contend with a suckling pig.
As they begin to get a handle on the situation the door to the walk-in freezer slams open and an entire cow carcass plods out to “attack” Roger. This occurs because he stands still awaiting its arrival. I’m not exactly sure what threat a complete brisket poses, especially since its headless condition contradicts accepted zombie physiology.
After this takeout-menu takedown act-three goes into overdrive to legitimize everything. Roger and Randi leave Doug to investigate the tomb of Arthur Loudermilk (Vincent Price), former owner of Dante-Pharm. At the mausoleum they find numbers scrawled inside a lampshade, naturally. Very revealing – or, baffling. Why those digits had any connection to Loudermilk, let alone be assumed to be left by the man, is inexplicable. Randi then confesses she was in the hospital for an overdose when she became Loudermilk’s protégé’. Logically; millionaires always adopt junkies they meet in the E.R., giving them top flight professions, and a mansion! Returning to Randi’s home they are shocked to discover Doug has been murdered.
Yes! Good news!!!
This upsets the pair so much Randi decides to take a shower. In the bathroom Randi makes another confession. She was not a junkie at the hospital, she was actually D.O.A., and Loudermilk brought her back to life. Next she begins to crumble and dissolve right there on the tile. Um, okay then. Next Roger deduces the number code spells out “BODY DOC” and thus returns to the morgue to learn McNabb and the Chinese restaurateurs have killed Rebecca. They lock him inside an ambulance but he escapes in a fiery wreck and goes to Dante-Pharm to discover a collection of rich codgers being sold invincibility by the still alive Loudermilk and McNabb. So they’re in cahoots! But wait, why would Loudermilk leave the clue for Roger to — . . . NO TIME FOR THAT!!!!! Moving on!
Roger breaks up the party, then the tarp is taken off the slab and we see the bad guys brought Doug’s body over, and they have reanimated him! Because . . . well now wait, what the hell?! Why did they bring Doug’s body to Dante? And why would they kill Doug only to immediately bring him back to life??? And how did they get his body to Dante before Roger when Roger left Doug’s body and immediately went to — . . . No time for that – Piscapo has returned! This IS a horror movie!!!!!
Ugh . . . anyway – he is under the control of McNabb, who describes Doug as brain-dead and mindless. (Something logical finally appears in the script!) Roger gets through to him however, they team up and conquer, killing McNabb and destroying the machine before walking off in a smoky, “Casablanca” coda. Roger even closes with, “This can be the end of a beautiful friendship.”
The entire movie appears to have been structured for the moment that line could be uttered, you get the sense. And it took utter nonsense for us to arrive at that moment.
QUOTES FROM REFERENCES
ROGER (to security reading porn magazine): Sorry to interrupt your erection.
DOUG (after Roger was under water for 5 minutes): Can you teach my girlfriend to do that?
DOUG (To Chinese restaurant owner): You oughta write fortune cookies, pal.
ROGER (when told he is injured): I’m fuckin’ dead, lady.
Could this have been a decent, watchable affair? Could this have become something of a wry comedic hit, or at least some type of cult classic? Sure. The premise almost begs for that. However the lack of a coherent script and absent any true dialogue turns this into farcical mess. Then toss in the repellent Piscapo who grinds every scene to a halt like a safe dropped through the transom of a boat and you end up with something that should be buried 6 feet under. And toss a nice layer of quicklime on top of it, just for good measure.
Status of Passage: APPROVED