Organic Theater Company co-founder Stuart Gordon officially began his filmmaking career in 1985 with successful results in the form of Re-Animator, a darkly humorous and delightfully gory treat of a horror movie worthy of its reputation as a cult classic. Re-Animator was also the first in Gordon’s unofficial cycle of five films that were adapted (loosely or not) from stories (short or otherwise) written by literary horror author H.P. Lovecraft. As much as I adore From Beyond, Castle Freak and Dreams in the Witch-House (that last one is a Masters of Horror episode), Re-Animator stands out for me as the quintessential film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft property. Dagon was very good, but it can’t help but slightly pale both in comparison to the four other ones I mentioned and by itself.
During his time as a student studying medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) initially succeeds at bringing Dr. Hans Gruber (his dead professor) back to life, but because he injected him with such a high dosage of his own special solution, Gruber dies again and this time, it literally results in a bloody mess. Forced to find opportunities elsewhere for his medical research, West travels to America and finds one in the form of Miskatonic University, a prestigious college located in the town of Arkham in Essex County, Massachusetts. In searching for the perfect place to stay and continue his studies in his spare time, he rents a room from a medical student named Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who quickly becomes a loyal assistant to him.
In the first in a series of many attempts, West reanimates (i.e. brings back to life) Cain’s dead cat Rufus by injecting him with a glowing green reagent that gives life to the still dismembered feline. Though a little freaked out at first, Cain becomes impressed by West’s ability to revive the dead. On the other hand, Cain’s fiancee Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton) is horrified by West’s experimentation on the deceased animal and does not want any involvement in his radical activities. Subsequently, West and Cain are kicked out of the University for trying to convince the dean (and Megan’s father) Dr. Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) that the aforementioned incident took place, which he finds preposterous. Nevertheless, this does not stop the two of them from visiting a morgue and using the glowing green formula to reanimate other corpses. One of them is brought back to life (unintentionally) as a zombie and ends up killing Dr. Alan Halsey and though West reanimates him, he inevitably returns as a zombie. West’s nemesis Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) ends up discovering that Dr. Alan Halsey is now a reanimated corpse, which gives him the opportunity to find West and murder him so he can steal his work and claim it as his own. Not to spoil anything, but West gains the upper hand and kills Hill by decapitating him with a shovel and (later on) out of curiosity, he reanimates him and Hill’s head orders his own body to knock West unconscious leading to all sorts of chaos from here on out.
Stuart Gordon does for H.P. Lovecraft what legendary B-filmmaking extraordinaire Roger Corman did for Edgar Allan Poe. To put it in other words, no other directors besides those two, have adapted their material (faithfully or not) with such a high level of enthusiasm. I consider myself not only an aficionado of the horror genre as a whole (within the realm of cinema, cable/television, literature etc.), but like Gordon and Corman, I am also a huge fan of the works of both Lovecraft (like the former) and Poe (like the latter). Nevertheless, I will admit that with the exception of The Black Cat (his second Masters of Horror episode), Gordon has always been better at adapting Lovecraft than he is at adapting Poe. While his 1991 version of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum was admirable, Roger Corman’s 1961 version is still the best. Likewise, Corman’s The Haunted Palace may have gotten its title from the Poe poem of the same name, but the source originated from a Lovecraft property entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Similar to that other example, I admired Corman’s 1963 effort, but it can’t hold a candle to Gordon’s cycle of Lovecraft films. Out of Gordon’s five Lovecraft adaptations, four of them are classics (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak and Dreams in the Witch-House) and the other is a near-classic (Dagon). As much as I love the succeeding three films within that first group, neither of them can surpass the preceding Re-Animator’s unique blend of madcap humor and gruesome horror, which is what makes this one special.
Though it might not look like it on the surface, Re-Animator is not so much a homage/spoof in the mold of Young Frankenstein as it is a genuine Lovecraftian horror film with a morbidly funny sense of humor. Aside from referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo with the Saul Bass-like title sequence, director Stuart Gordon also references Bernard Herrrmann’s iconic music score for Psycho (another Hitchcock film), which plays in the background during the aforementioned opening credits. Composer Richard Band intentionally rips it off by cleverly making the overall tone of the score sound tongue-in-cheek as opposed to suspenseful and taking into account the film’s dark comedic mayhem, this mood comes off as a rather fitting one.
Since it has been cited from a few sources on one website that Stuart Gordon’s experimentation with shock value began as far back as the late 1960’s at the University of Wisconsin (read here), it only made perfect sense that Gordon would tackle the horror genre for his directorial debut. One of the many things I love about these kinds of horror movies lies in their emphasis on blood and gore and Re-Animator happily fulfills that requirement. Regardless of who commits the killing (the living humans or the reanimated corpses), each of them gets murdered with spectacularly gory results. All of it plays out in such a wonderfully over-the-top way, that viewers can’t help but laugh along at the same time.
While Stuart Gordon and his co-writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli most certainly deserve acknowledgement for writing Re-Animator’s dryly witty dialogue, I honestly feel that a significant portion of it belongs to its cast (most particularly Jeffrey Combs). Speaking of which, Combs Herbert West gets some of the best lines most notably “who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a slideshow” and “I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m very disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You’re not even a second-rate scientist!” Other times, they come in his interactions with other characters like “I was busy pushing bodies around as you well know and what would a note say, Dan? “Cat dead, details later?” or when asked by Dan about what kind of medicine he specializes in, West’s response is “death.” Some of his other quoted gems come when he is accused of killing his professor near the beginning and West’s response is “No, I did not. I gave him life” and while reanimating Dan’s dead cat, West makes a comment along the lines of “don’t expect it to tango; it has a broken back.” These are just a few samples of West’s many memorable quotes. Every single line Combs delivers is just impeccably timed. Even though he lacks Combs manic energy, Bruce Abbott convincingly portrays West’s only friend/lab assistant Dan Cain as the typical everyman that we root for every step of the way. Although she would go on to give an even better performance a year later in Gordon’s From Beyond (another Lovecraft adaptation), Barbara Crampton is still perfect in the meaty supporting role of Cain’s love interest Megan Halsey. Attractive on the outside and sweet on the inside, she perfectly defines every quality that personifies the typical girl next door type. This beautiful blonde ranks as my number one favorite scream queen of all-time. Last, but not least, the late David Gale is believable as Dr. Carl Hill, the perverted villain of the piece. I will not go into deep detail about this, but shortly after his character gets decapitated in the film, he goes on to do something deviant with his own severed head.
Along with Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and his sequel Evil Dead II, Re-Animator is one of the three wildly original horror films of the 1980’s, which like any other decade, produced a lot of great ones within that genre. I know I have said it countless times before in this review, but as satisfying as From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dreams in the Witch-House and (to an extent) Dagon are, Re-Animator is director Stuart Gordon’s only H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that not only satisfies, but leaves you energized as well.