Crazed scientist Doctor Archer Howell (Gary Day) has invented a serum able to reverse death itself although thus far his experiments have produced nothing except hideous mutant freaks. With the scientific community seemingly intent on shutting him down, Dr. Howell abducts young Michael (Michael Hurst), the son of his chief rival. Pumped full of serum, Michael becomes a mindless mutant killing machine and shotguns both his parents. He ends up locked away in an insane asylum, beaten and traumatized. Seven years later, the newly released, bleach blonde Michael brings girlfriend Sandy (Margaret Umbers), his buddies Lucas (William Upjohn) and Jeannie (Norelle Scott) on holiday to a remote island where, beneath an outwardly serene experimental commune, his old nemesis Dr. Howell is breeding a new race of dangerous mutants. Shortly after Michael begins investigating, the mutants run amuck, terrorizing everyone on the island.
New Zealand horror movies had a low profile before Peter Jackson came along, but Death Warmed Up drew some notice with its garish mix of punk rock, science fiction, bad taste comedy and straight sadism. Co-writer/director David Blyth attempts to reinvent the mad scientist subgenre, much as Blade Runner (1982) and The Road Warrior (1981) did with film noir and the western. In concept the film is a sort of Island of Lost Souls (1932) meets Scream and Scream Again (1969) for the MTV generation, but in execution winds up as soullessly Eighties as the stylistically similar and justly-forgotten Clive Barker adaptation Underworld (1985). Driven by a frantic, frankly awful New Wave Rock soundtrack, Blyth’s flashy rock video visuals yield sporadically eye-catching sequences like the motorbike chase through neon-lit sewers, but the film is too in-your-face for its own good.
You’ve got nurses styled like glamour girls in a Robert Palmer video, hairy homicidal freaks, storm troopers in decontamination suits, a mix of Kiwi retro and new wave industrial production design, crass dialogue (“I love the smell of blonde pussy in the morning”) and even crasser comedy (e.g. the Pakistani shopkeeper played by a white actor in brown-face straight out of a racist Seventies sitcom). It’s an ambitious, but peculiar mix that doesn’t really gel. The unorthodox approach might be acceptable if the film weren’t so witless and the characters so uniformly dull or dislikeable. Seemingly modelling his performance on Rutger Hauer, Michael Hurst (better known as Ioalus in the popular TV series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) comes across like a bovver boy spoiling for a fight. Quite how Michael’s plan for revenge was supposed to play out remains unclear. All he does is stomp around while his friends get killed. Even so (spoiler warning!), viewers may wonder why the nastiest of the homicidal mutants (David Letch) walks away unscathed, while the would-be hero pays the ultimate price for some ill-defined moral transgression. Everyone pitches their performances for maximum hysteria, but there is not a single engaging character on view, while the B-movie plot is nonsensical and unsatisfying on every level.