After many successful years working in theater, Stuart Gordon wanted to break into film. And a pretty good way to break into Hollywood in the eighties was to make a low-budget horror movie. “Re-Animator,” the film that would make Gordon's career, began with the suggestion that the world needed more Frankenstein movie. This led him to “Herbert West – Re-Animator,” a lurid “Frankenstein”-inspired serial H.P. Lovecraft wrote because he needed the money. Originally conceived, believe it or not, as a television series, it was quickly deduced that “Re-Animator” would be better served as a feature film. Despite being released without a rating, limiting its options, the film did well in theaters. It did even better on video, where its cult following blossomed. Surprisingly, “Re-Animator” was even well received by critics, who often turned their eyes up at horror, especially in the over-saturated eighties. Today, “Re-Animator” is widely regarded as one of the best films in the genre.
Herbert West, an ingenious young medical student, is very close to the greatest scientific breakthrough in history: Reanimating dead tissue and bringing life back to the dead. But he needs to work out a few kinks first. Yes, his glowing green reagent gets corpses up and moving again. It also turns them into mindless killers. When West comes to Miskatonic University in Massachusetts, he makes friends and enemies. Dr. Dan Cain somewhat unwillingly becomes West's primary assistant. Dr. Hill, meanwhile, immediately dislikes West and seeks to steal his research. Not even being killed stops Hill, who also desires Dan's girlfriend. Soon, West and Cain have quite a mess on their hands.
Before “Re-Animator,” H.P. Lovecraft adaptations were few and far between. Even the series of adaptations Roger Corman produced in the sixties never quite reached the level of fame as his Poe adaptations. After “Re-Animator's” success, Rhode Island's scribe of the weird became a regular fixture in film. However, not all Lovecraft fans immediately embraced “Re-Animator.” The film is full of bloody gore, in contrast to the cosmic horror Lovecraft specialized in. The film is also heavy on sex and nudity, which probably would've horrified the practically asexual Howard Philips. Yet the original “Herbert West – Re-Animator” serial was not highly regarded by Lovecraft. He wrote it as a parody of “Frankenstein” and disliked the serial format. Truthfully, by making “Re-Animator” into a bold-and-bloody horror/comedy, Gordon rescued one of Lovecraft's least praised works from obscurity. So maybe Lovecraft wouldn't have appreciated the content but the film is certainly in the spirit of the original work.
the probably atheist Lovecraft brought a different approach to the idea of overcoming death. Herbert West's attempts to revive the dead only results in more death. And it's not pretty either. In H.P.'s story and Gordon's film, the revived corpses are grisly sights. The face of death – brutish, ugly, sudden – is constantly shown to the characters. Yet Dan Cain still hopes to save lives, even if the medical setting is often casual about the facts of death. The film begins and ends with him attempting to resuscitate a dying person. But the story's thesis is clear: Attempting to conquer death is futile... Not because its against God but because the facts of life and death are too brutal to overcome.
In addition to reigniting interest in Lovecraft and launching Stuart Gordon's career, “Re-Animator” made Jeffrey Combs into an instant cult icon. On paper, Herbert West is probably not the most relatable character. He's arrogant, pompous, obsessive, and totally amoral. Combs, however, turns West into an oddly likable guy. He has a quick wit, Combs often making small lines hilarious. By making Dr. Hill a stuffy bureaucrat (and even more morally repugnant), West becomes an anti-hero, raging against a corrupt system. There's also something respectable about West's unwavering commitment to his goal. He might have a, shall we say, relaxed attitude about laws but, damn it, West has got a cause. More than anything else, Combs' funny, energetic charisma makes West into an instant fan favorite.
Oh yeah, there's another guy too. If “Re-Animator” has one serious flaw, it's that West is not technically the film's protagonist. Combs gets an “and” credit in the opening titles and on the poster. Bruce Abbott's Dan Cain, meanwhile, gets top billing. It's not that Cain is a bad guy. His horror at the moral depravity of West's actions is evident. Abbott is a solid actor, even getting a few laughs out of the audience. The problem is Cain just isn't as entertaining as West. Abbott is stuck in the part of the boring hero guy, who stands back and gets freaked out by all the cool and interesting stuff Herbert does. He's dragged along by the plot, doing more reacting than acting until the final act. There's nothing exactly wrong with Abbott or Cain but they end up being slight wet blankets on the proceeding.
Stuart Gordon's theater work was noted for its relaxed attitude towards sex and nudity. “Re-Animator” continues this approach. The film is blatantly sexual. Dan and Meg share a passionate love scene. Crampton, a good sport, is often nude. The reanimated corpses, meanwhile, are also naked, the film containing quite a bit of male frontal nudity. By the time we reach the infamous “head giving head” scenes, “Re-Animator's” winkingly naughty approach is clear. A woman molested by a decapitated zombie is a horrifying scenario but the film's approach to sex is more farcical. It's all so ridiculous, as absurd as a scientist trying to conquer death, that you can't help but laugh. Dr. Hill's lust for Megan extending beyond the grave is seemingly a comment on the foibles of human sexuality. It's not just this situation that's ridiculous, all of it – the way desire tie people into knots, the lengths they go to find love – is ridiculous.
“Re-Animator” was part of a wave of excessively gory zombie-related horror movies in the eighties. The film was quickly adopted by the same crowd that embraced “Return of the Living Dead” and the “Evil Dead” series. The film's violence is extremely grisly. The make-up on the re-animated corpses is intense. On one, we can see the blood settled in the back. Another has half its body burnt to a crisp. The writhing death throes of a half-dead cat are similarly unnerving. Yet the movie's approach to gore frequently veers over the top. Intestines exploding from an abdomen, becoming make-shift tentacles, is ridiculous in a comic-book-y manner. A decapitated head constantly needing fresh blood to function is similarly silly. So “Re-Animator's” gore is both shocking and kind of funny.
As I said, Herbert West isn't the villain of the film, even if he's directly responsible for the horde of undead killers. Instead, David Gale's Dr. Hill is the true villain. At first, he plays Hill as simply a pompous man of science, unwilling to learn or open his mind up to new things. As the film goes on, Hill develops a genuine megalomaniacal side. He wants to brainwash people, kidnap the pretty girl, and presumably take over the world. David Gale hams it up fantastically in the part, relishing the character's shift towards comic book super-villainy. I also like Robert Sampson as Dean Halsey. Considering how outright disturbing her boyfriend's behavior is, the dean's reaction is actually pretty fair. Sampson makes it clear that his actions come from a place of love for his daughter, even after he's turned into a drooling revenant.
Gordon's previous experiment with film had been a literal recorded stage show. In “Re-Animator,” he happily breaks away from the stage. The film is often characterized by a sense of movement. An early scene follows a gurney as it is wheeled through a hospital. A similar shot is repeated near the film's conclusion. Gordon's camera often peers around at his characters, mimicking the movements of his characters. This is evident even from the opening credits, where Richard Band's “Psycho” aping score is paired with images of shifting, moving anatomical sketches. Gordon also shows a decent use of light, especially once we get lights shining through smoke in the movie's final minutes.
cult following is well deserved. It's combination of gory special effects, grisly zombies, naughty sex, and sarcastic humor was destined to appeal to many horror fans. Considering how magnetic he is in the film, it's no surprise that people still line up at horror conventions to get Jeffrey Combs' autograph. With the film, Stuart Gordon would bring Lovecraft to a new audience while also cementing his own reputation as one of the fabled masters of horror. [Grade: A]