Everyone (well, horror fans) remembers when New Zealand’s Peter Jackson came barreling onto the scene and in quick order brought us Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), and Braindead (1992) before eventually settling down into Academy Award-winning fantasy films. (I forget their names. Just Google them.) But he wasn’t the first to introduce the world to his country’s nascent splattery talent: that honor goes to Death Warmed Up (1984), a loopy mash-up of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eye, Mad Max, and Looney Tunes, all spit-shined to grimy perfection in a great new Blu-ray from Severin Films.
Remastered by director David Blyth (Red Blooded American Girl) from the only existing materials, this new disc of Death Warmed Up has a ton of gooey goodies that we’ll get to, but first let’s tackle the story:
Dr. Archer Howell (Gary Day – Death Wave) plans on taking his mind control experiments to the next, insane level, but his partner (David Weatherly – Under the Mountain) is vehemently opposed; Howell takes care of this problem by brainwashing his partner’s son, Michael (Michael Hurst – Bitch Slap), to kill not only his father, but his mother, too. Seven years pass; a group of four twentysomethings (including a now peroxide blond Michael) are heading over to an island resort run by Dr. Howell.
The other three are unaware, but Michael has brought them here to exact revenge on Howell for his imprisonment and for making him kill his folks; unbeknownst to Michael and friends, Howell has a veritable army of misfits, monsters, and zombies ready and willing to protect their master. But don’t worry, our heroes will find that out soon enough…
Thanks to taut direction, fluid camerawork from James Bartle (The Quiet Earth), and groovy practical viscera, Death Warmed Up is a quasi-futuristic landmine of grindhouse grue that is never less than energetic. One can definitely see Blyth’s work here in Jackson’s early oeuvre, all swooping, manic, and supercharged. Death is missing the one thing–humor–that would make it quite as special (there’s a “brownface” segment in the film that of course plays terribly). But while the more nihilistic tone dampens its buoyancy a bit, there’s more than enough ingenuity afoot to make it a real charmer.
The Australian (not to mention Italian) spirit of Mad Max looms over the second half of the picture, once the foursome make it to the island; mutated bikers and punk rock costuming subsist below the earth in Howell’s fortress. George Miller’s vertiginous directing seems to be an influence on Blyth and Jackson’s work. As for Chain Saw and Hills, the grainy film and nature of Howell’s cavernous “family” brings to mind Hooper and Craven’s transgressive works, but without the same amount of bite. It plays like a tribute.
Which is fine unto itself; it’s great to see filmmakers pull from influences and try to create something different. Death Warms Up wears its sources and heart on its sleeve—not to mention its brain, intestines, faces, limbs, and other accouterments; it’s a crowd pleaser that needed a wider crowd to appreciate it.
This is where Severin Films comes in; this release has a bevy of boffo extras sure to please fans of this particular type of grubby gorefest:
The commentary is a little dry for my tastes, but I’ll Get You All is a great, extended feature with Letch, who plays the vengeful Spider, the heroes’ main antagonist. The interview featurette with Blyth and Heath is more fun than their commentary, and gives a good impression of what they went through to make the film. Also of note is the original New Zealand cut, as quite a bit was excised from older versions of the film floating around on VHS shelves back in the day; the deleted scenes are there for those who want to see what was left out (as it turns out in most cases, not much of note). Rounding off the disc are theatrical trailers (including one for Japan, where the film had quite a following), VHS trailers, and TV spots.
Death Warmed Up came at a time when genre fare and voices were emerging on the New Zealand scene; it sent a hot blast of colorful mess across the land, signaling others that it was time to be heard–and seen–like never before.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 4/5