Who made it?: Stuart Gordon (Director/Co-Writer), Dennis Paoli, William Norris (Co-Writers), Brian Yuzna (Producer), Empire Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson.
Tag-line: “Herbert West Has A Very Good Head On His Shoulders… And Another One In A Dish On His Desk.”
IMDb rating: 7.3/10.
There’s a scene late in Stuart Gordon’s hysterical homage to Frankenstein that makes it sound like a sleazy piece of trash: A decapitated mad doctor literally “gives head” to a female captive. The moment is played for laughs and somehow gets away with it. Ostensibly a horror comedy, Re-Animator doesn’t resist the temptation to get icky, making it the unsung hero of tongue-in-cheek splatter. There’s more than a few moments here that you wouldn’t find in Mary Shelley’s literary classic… we’ve entered the mind of H.P. Lovecraft.
A troubled horror writer, Lovecraft was a key influence on 20th century fiction, inspiring as many authors as Edgar Allan Poe. But he never became a household name – his ideas were truly ahead of their time. When he died aged 46 in 1937, he left behind an exhaustive compendium of novels and short stories which are praised for their radical ideas. Many of which have yet to receive the silver screen treatment.
Gordon’s film is based on 1922’s serial Herbert West – Reanimator, a thinly veiled parody of Shelley’s masterpiece that contemporary critics have called Lovecraft’s poorest work. While it was hardly the most original tome in the writer’s canon, it was ripe for reinterpretation and is notable for being one of the first stories to feature zombies as “corpses arising, through scientific means, as animalistic and uncontrollably violent creatures.” Re-Animator is only partially faithful to the text and all the better for it; an ingenious update of Universal horror pictures from the 30s when mad scientists were all the rage. But Gordon had more freedom than his predecessors, producing a series of splashy grand guignol set pieces that Hammer would have killed for.
Based around Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, the plot follows unbalanced medical student Herbert West (genre legend Jeffrey Combs), who thinks he has found the answer to conquering brain death. Moving in with fellow pupil Dan (Bruce Abbott), West proceeds to frighten his girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton), and commandeers the basement for his secret experiments. His radical ideas about the lifespan of the brain also bring him into conflict with Dr. Hill (David Gale), who discovers that West has created a serum that reanimates dead tissue. With Dan’s help, Herbert sets out to perfect his “reagent,” leaving a trail of corpses in his wake.
The opening scene of Re-Animator sets the tone perfectly, showcasing the effects of West’s serum up-front. Three years before Die Hard (1988) we have a character named Hans Gruber, a world-renowned doctor and the first to sample Herbert’s glow-in-the-dark wonder. It turns him into a gibbering mad man before his eyes burst out of his skull, splattering an unfortunate nurse. “You killed him!” she exclaims. West, defiant, replies: “No, I did not! I gave him life!” In the first 5 minutes, Combs becomes the modern-day equivalent of Peter Cushing in a thunder-lit laboratory. This segues into a crazy LSD title sequence scored to Richard Band’s verbose music that shamelessly steals from the Psycho soundtrack. It’s an imitation that has caused no end of criticism over the years, but it suits the campy nature of the movie rather well:
The rest of Re-Animator is a lot like West’s work: a collection of familiar parts that shouldn’t fit together as well as they do. The clichés never drown Gordon’s creativity and it must be said that this is one of the most sure-footed debuts in exploitation history. Costing a little under a million, the film overcomes its meagre budget due to talent greater than the material itself. Gordon got his start helming stage plays and his theatrical background clearly came in use when orchestrating Re-Animator‘s flippant tone. He has enough sense to follow each wince-inducing prosthetic with a witty quip that makes even the squeamish moments enjoyable.
Unlike a lot of 80s genre fare, the characterisation is smartly handled by the screenwriters. Take the character of Dr. Hill. An evil opportunist who attempts to steal West’s reagent, he meets the sticky end of a shovel and spends the rest of the picture as a disembodied head. The sight of him ordering his torso around is ridiculous, but the filmmakers embrace it, making the obvious under-the-table effect rather quaint in these digital times. He’s a villain of old school horror tradition and the lack of a psycho in a mask is as refreshing now as it was in 1985. Gale clearly relished the part, giving him a second career as a villain that was tragically cut-short.
Dan and Megan exist merely to lead the audience into this twisted world, but we actually care about what happens to them when they stumble into West’s machinations. Crampton positively sizzles in a male-dominated cast, especially during that climactic scene when she’s laid bare on an operating table. What happens to her isn’t pretty, but you appreciate Gordon’s commitment to giving the masses what they want.
Making this unwieldy hybrid work is Combs. A true career-making turn, his performance as West is pitch-perfect. Herbert is off-the-chart crazy, yet he somehow demands our respect. Nothing will stop him from achieving his vision, and such determination awards him anti-hero status. We can all relate to his goals, after all. One might say he’s the personification of our own inability to deal with death, but you’ll be laughing too hard to read into such subtext. Combs also relishes a dozen great lines, my favourite being this jab at Dr. Hill: “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Go get a job in a sideshow!” He is always in-sync with the material, delivering these zingers with a straight face and an undercurrent of sarcasm to suggest he’s in on the joke. He turns a great film into a genuine classic.
Make no mistake about it, Re-Animator has a sick sense of humour that will entertain as many people as it offends. But that pitch black irony is what makes it one of the finest horror comedies ever made – a truly difficult thing to accomplish. Dig this one up and check it out.
When it was released, Re-Animator became an instant underground sensation and Fangoria readers had a new classic to dissect. Even critics admitted that it was a highly original film in a moribund genre and a fitting antidote to the rash of cookie-cutter slasher movies. Today, Gordon’s debut is regularly cited as one of the best horror films of the 80s.
Inevitably, a sequel appeared five years later – the aptly titled Bride of Re-Animator (1990). Gordon chose not to return, passing the reigns to producer Brian Yuzna. It’s nowhere near the original, but is still campy fun in the right frame of mind, with Combs, Abbott and Gale reprising their roles to great effect. This time, West attempts to make the perfect woman in an unsubtle homage to a certain James Whale classic.
Bride was followed by 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator – the last in the series to date and the weakest. Herbert’s doomed experiments continue behind bars, and while the prison backdrop suits the theatrical nature of the series, it is a mere shadow of the original. Sadly, Gordon’s long-rumoured return to the franchise, House of Re-Animator, is stuck in development hell. It would have seen West summoned to the White House to use his serum on the Vice President. We’ll just have to imagine how amazing that would have been.
The SyFy Channel recently announced a TV adaptation that I hope never sees the light of day.
Re-Animator gave Gordon a long career as a genre director, and he returned to Lovecraft for follow-up From Beyond (1986), a little-seen cult oddity that is also highly recommended. Starring Combs, Crampton and Ken Foree, the film is hard to find on DVD, but worth seeking out for gorehounds. Gordon’s other directorial credits include Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), Fortress (1992), Castle Freak (1995), Space Truckers (1996) and Edmond (2005).
- The art director was Robert A. Burns, who also worked on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
- The first man who is re-animated at the morgue (who goes on to kill the dean) is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body double.
- The special effects department went through 25 gallons of fake blood during the shoot.
- Combs holds the record for playing the most roles on Star Trek, as a different race of alien each time. He can also be seen in Peter Jackson’s highly underrated The Frighteners (1996), I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998) and House on Haunted Hill (1999).
British readers may get a chuckle out of this interview with Gordon conducted by a young Jonathan Ross: