David Blyth’s “Death Warmed Up” (1984): Surreal art-deco punk, with dollops of action & blood

By on July 19, 2019

Kiwi filmmaker David Blyth’s Death Warmed Up — described in the September 5, 1984, edition of Variety as “surreal art-deco punk, with dollops of action and blood” — is generally regarded as New Zealand’s first official horror film entry, although it performed much better outside of Blyth’s home country.

Watch Death Warmed Up — you’ll find it our Severin Films section, and we’re tagging this as “NSFW” for some gratuitous female nudity and sizzling softcore sex scenes — on Night Flight Plus.

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Death Warmed Up — a.k.a. Brain Damaged and Doctor Death — begins with teenager “Michael Tucker” (Michael Hurst), who we see is running late for an appointment to meet his father, “Professor Tucker” (David Weatherley), at a nearby research hospital.

Michael seems lost, looking up through a dense forest of trees, right before entering the parking lot and being dwarfed by towering buildings.

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Once he’s ventured inside the hospital doors, Michael seems even more lost, now quite literally trapped within a maze of labyrinth-like corridors like a character from a Kafka novel.

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Inside, Michael is held against his will by a deranged brain surgeon named “Dr. Archer Howell” (Gary Day), who kidnaps him and shoots him in the ass with a huge hypodermic needle filled with some kind of mind-control drug.

Michael returns home, and — after killing his own father and mother in their bedroom with a sawed-off shotgun — is sent to a lunatic asylum.

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After seven years, he’s released from lock-up, and now, along his girlfriend and two other friends, he’s ready for a relaxing vacation.

The foursome travel to the remote Waiheke Island, where they end up discovering that the mad doctor now runs the Trans Cranial Applications clinic, where he’s still apparently experimenting on young people.

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Michael and his friends realize they must stop Dr. Howell from performing these hideous brain salad surgeries at his secluded lair, drilling the skulls of his patients and injecting drugs into their brain to transform them into bloodthirsty mutant zombies with exploding brains.

The fine supporting cast is rounded out by Margaret Umbers (“Sandy”), William Upjohn (“Lucas”), Norelle Scott (“Jeannie”), David Letch (“Spider”), and Bruno Lawrence (“Mr. Tex Munro”).

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Our friends at Severin Films describe this film, which launched Blyth’s genre career, as being a “relentlessly graphic — and still-intense — story of mad doctors, nude teens, psychotic mutants, shotgun murders, power drill lobotomies, explosive action and punk attitude.”

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If you’re a fan of Grade-Z B-movies with exploding heads, visceral disembowelments, splattering blood and copious amounts of other oozing bodily fluids — accompanied by wickedly cheesy one-liners and a throbbing ’80s-era electro-synth score, courtesy of composer Mark Nicholas — then Death Warmed Up is a film you’re going to simply have to add to your “Must Watch” list.

Read more about Death Warmed Up below.

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David Blyth

David Blyth studied art history and anthropology at Auckland University in the 1970s before lensing his first film, 1978’s edgy controversial social commentary Angel Mine, which was his first film to be funded by the New Zealand Film Commission.

Death Warmed Up was, we think, the first of many horror film projects also funded by the commission, pre-dating Peter Jackson’s splatter comedy Bad Taste (1989) and splat-stick zombie comedy Braindead (1992) by several years.

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Cinematographer James Bartle lensed this film’s dynamic scenery in Auckland and Waiheke Island, New Zealand, in late 1983, using Steadicam cameras to great effect.

In mid-December of 1987, the film’s co-screenwriter, Michael Heath, told the Listener: “We wanted to make a good genre film that made money, and it did. It’s totally over the top…if you see it with some kids they scream with laughter, they know it’s all fake.”

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In 1985, this film — which Blyth has said was inspired by his fascination with cryogenics, and a thematic “idea of being able to cheat death” — was banned by the Australian Classification Board due to excessive violence. A censored version was later released.

Death Warmed Up was not well received by his country’s movie critics, which likely played some part in its poor showing at the box office.

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Death Warmed Up was much more successful in Europe, however, where it won the Grand Prix at the 1984 Paris International Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Festival (cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky sat on the jury). It also had a very successful screening at the London Film Festival.

As a result of its success elsewhere, Blyth spent much of the rest of the Eighties developing film projects outside New Zealand.

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For most of the ’90s, Blyth focused on television work, including directing episodes of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” shot while he was living in Los Angeles,

He didn’t return home again until 1992, when he worked on a successful TV show, “Moonrise.”

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In 1992, Blyth also directed Grampire — originally titled Moonlight, and later changed to My Grandpa Is A Vampire for its U.S. theatrical distribution — which starred the original “Grandpa Munster” himself, Al Lewis, in the lead role.

He also directed two films for HBO, Red Blooded American Girl (1990) and its sequel, Red Blooded American Girl II (1997).

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In the 2000s, Blyth directed documentaries about war (2002’s Our Oldest Soldier), as well as Bound for Pleasure, which explored his interests in dominatrices, desire and the unconscious, and 2007’s Transfigured Nights, about masked webcam performers.

Blyth returned to horror features with 2010’s Wound — a very dark, tough film about abuse, incest, mental illness and revenge, told from a woman’s perspective — and 2013’s supernatural tale Ghost Bride.

Watch Death Warmed Up and other sicko sci-fi infused horror films from Severin Films on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.