LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Abbott, , David Gale, Robert Sampson

PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.Still from Re-Animator (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.

COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that ‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films[1] to come from the golden ’80s.

With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.

Stuart Gordon was a director of an avant-garde theater troupe, and his chops helped bring these great performances to the screen. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg took the helm making the compositions work. (He was known to gently remark to Gordon, “From where you’re standing I’m sure it looks great, but from here it looks like shit.”) Brian , the producer, brought to the table two important things: the money, provided without question or compromise, and a burning desire to out-do all their gore and horror predecessors. This kind of cast and crew allows Re-Animator to go to such extremes of violence while maintaining the aura of dead-pan comedy. That so many cooks combine so many ingredients so well makes this movie stand out so weirdly.

For such a whimsical romp, Re-Animator is all about tension: build and relief. Right from the start, with the prologue in Switzerland: purposeful authorities clomping down a hallway, building to the grisly fate of West’s mentor, and culminating with the film-defining line, “No, I did not [kill him]. I gave him life!” Throughout the movie Gordon and company start scenes off with low-key quips and then ratchet things up until the situation (sometimes literally) explodes. This movie befittingly began (very weird) actor Jeffrey Combs’ screen career, and his presence alone as the smirking, coiled Herbert West would be enough to qualify the film for the List. With liberal doses of Day-glo tonic, frantic doctors and frantic undead, and an ingeniously crude visual pun just before the (*cough*) climax, Re-Animator hits all the right notes for a weird, cult horror-comedy—smacking gobs with beautiful effortlessness.

DVD INFO: Arrow Video has established itself as a viable competitor to the , giving the super-plus-supreme treatment to “genre” pictures instead of Criterion’s ostensibly more venerable films. I could go on for many pages (instead of just one) talking about all the goodies slapped on to the two discs that make up this ultimate edition of Re-Animator, but instead I’ll limit my remarks to a couple of the odder extras.

Acting as something of a feature in its own right (beyond the “Director’s” and “Integral”[2] cuts included) is Jeffrey Combs’ reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s original Herbert West: Re-Animator. Those who claim they could happily listen to Combs read from a phone book (as director Graham Skipper remarked) are in for a treat, as the entire six-part serial is on (audio) display on disc two of the box set. Unabridged, it runs roughly an hour-and-a-half, and it left me hoping that Jeffrey Combs might tackle other works of unspeakable horror from the Mythos maker.

You can also find a neat little hour-long featurette, The Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema, on disc two. The very affable host, Chris Lackey, rocks a wonderful sweater-vest-and-bow-tie combo as he discusses all known film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, from the mid-20th century through to present day—with hopeful talk about ‘s ever-in-the-works adaptation of The Mountains of Madness. Digging up relics perhaps best forgotten as well as a few worthwhile outings, Lackey maintains a cheerful attitude and seems content that, at worst, film-makers have been at least trying. (Though there were some who just used the Lovecraft name for marketing purposes; something slightly ironic considering how fairly unmarketable the author was during his lifetime). All in all, a nice little documentary spun off from the podcast “h.p.  podcraft”.

As for everything else, you can probably guess. There is a mess of commentaries (which I didn’t touch), a slew of talking-heads-style documentaries (a chat between Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna being the most charming), some interesting words from Richard Brand, the score’s composer, more documentaries, T.V. spots, the trailer and… all that jazz. The long and short of it is, if you want to get your hands on a comprehensive, beautiful, 4K version of Re-Animator, find that 40 dollars somewhere and snap up one of the limited editions of Stuart Gordon’s classic debut.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has a grisly sense of humor, and sometimes is so gross and over the top the film tips over into a bizarre comedy.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

  1. Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand. []
  2. This version sprang up in Germany in 2013 and includes all the original Director’s Cut with ancillary scenes from the R-rated and TV versions spliced in for a longer, more atmospheric film experience. []

3 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)”

  1. In what has now become an annual Halloween tradition, I have once again tried to sit through this movie in order to figure out what people see in it. I dunno, maybe my expectations were built up, maybe I’ve been jaded, maybe the movie hasn’t aged well.

    But the overall feeling this movie leaves me with is S-L-O-W. I think reviewers must remember only the actual zombie bits and forget that 90% of this movie is blah blah blah. Relationship exposition, blah blah. Student vs. teacher, blah blah. A grant, blah blah. Let’s be roommates, blah blah.

    Oh, wait, the cat is missing, could it be the weird scientist has experimented on it? No, we can’t tell you yet, we have to run around the house looking for it for another five minutes, blah blah. Hey, maybe that funny noise is the cat brought back from the dead because, you know, the NAME of the movie is “Re-Animator,” but OK, I’ll wait in “suspense” for another ten minutes, blah blah blah blah.

    FWIW, I have the same problem with The Exorcist. Yes, it’s a horror classic, but everybody forgets the first hour of that movie is endless medical tests and arguments about what’s wrong with Reagan. Which leaves me yelling at the screen because I know the name of this movie is The Exorcist, not The Exorcist Who Was Not Needed Because It Turned Out To Be ADHD.

    There must be people who appreciate the “slow-burn” story-telling style and find it hilarious to sit through campy soap opera dialogue, and I am sorry not to be one of those people. I consider Tarkovsky’s Stalker to be a short film compared to Re-Animator.

    1. Woof, that sounds like a long 84 minutes. As my review suggests, I enjoy the movie, but I can’t argue with an opinion.

      I’ll recommend, though, that if you like Tarkovsky you should check out (if you haven’t already) his contemporary, Aleksei German. “Khrustalyov, My Car!” and “Hard to be a God” might provide you some nasty, nightmarish Russian fare with which to pass your Halloween.

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