The story centers around Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), an enigmatic medical student recently arrived at Miskatonic University, and whose liquid lunch for the dead promises a miraculous rebirth just in time for dinner. With the help of his roommate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), the two crazed, but persistent demigods syringe their languid recipients until some sign of life occurs. Unfortunately, the dead don’t always return smiling, and by some hideous defiance of natural law, they have come back with a vicious vengeance for anything and anyone in their way. This postmodern clash of the titans between the alive and the half-alive achieves epic harmony in no other battleground more appropriate than the hospital morgue, which offers an outstanding surplus of bodies and blood that would make any jaded gorehound scream for more and raised the bar on the amount of carnage depicted on-screen (until Peter Jackson’s Braindead came along, that is).
The film’s tantalizing prologue creates just the right amount of dread and mystery as a young man crouches over the body of an older man writhing in pain. The authorities come busting in only to witness the old man’s eyeballs pop out like zits. A nurse accuses the younger man of killing the other to which he denies and says, turning dramatically to face the camera, “I gave him life.” Welcome to Re-Animator and the opening credits play over Richard Band’s loving homage to Bernard Hermann’s music for the opening credits of Psycho (1960).
We meet Dan trying desperately to save a patient that’s flatlined. Even after others have given up he still tries. He takes the body to the morgue where we meet Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) for the first time as he uses a laser on a corpse’s skull. Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) introduces Dan to West who proceeds to arrogantly and openly challenge Hill’s work on the limit of life of the brain stem after death. It’s fun to see the prickly West square off against the haughty Hill as the former slams the latter’s work as being derivative to the point of plagiarism. This is only the beginning of an ongoing feud that develops between the two men. There’s clearly not enough room on campus for both of their inflated egos. West soon moves in with Dan, who is looking for a roommate to share the rent, much to the chagrin of the latter’s girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton), the Dean’s daughter who is unaware that his child is having sex with one of his students. West begins conducting experiments in the basement with his own reagent, reanimating dead animals before moving on to human cadavers at the university.
All of these ingredients are fine and dandy, but Re-Animator did not rise to cult status by special effects alone. The curse of a low budget actually fashions an intriguing cast of nobodies, and the stone-faced seriousness with which these actors engage the witty, death-induced dialogue adds a parodic twist to a sometimes melodramatic genre. Chief among them is Jeffrey Combs who plays West with just the right amount of weasely bravado, which he conveys so well with the clipped speech patterns of someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and says exactly what he means. I like the way he gives his dialogue a slightly melodramatic spin that never gets too cartoonish but chews just enough scenery to make his take on West very memorable. His character is obsessed with conquering brain death to the point of lunacy and it is fun to watch as his experiments become more ambitious and extreme.
I love the petulant way Combs’ West acts at Hill’s lecture, breaking two pencils at strategic points during the class until the exasperated professor tells him, “I suggest you get yourself a pen!” And then West lets him have it” You know, you should have stolen more of Gruber’s ideas then at least you’d have ideas.” David Gale nails the pompous Dr. Hill’s self-importance and feelings of superiority over everybody around him. He’s the bad guy you love to hate and his scenes with Combs are a lot of fun as we watch these two egotists butt heads.
Bruce Abbott has the unenviable task of playing the upstanding good guy Dan but thanks to the sharply written screenplay by Gordon, William J. Norris, and Dennis Paoli, he is given a substantial character to inhabit and we can easily relate to him. Dan becomes more conflicted as the film progresses and he finds himself caught up in West’s schemes to conquer death. Abbott may not get the most memorable dialogue to spout but he grounds the film with his everyman character caught up in extraordinary circumstances. He also plays well off Combs’ mad scientist, acting as the voice of reason in an increasingly strange world. Abbott is particularly strong in the sequence where he and West reanimate a cadaver and things go badly. While West continues to rant and rave, already looking ahead to the next experiment, Dan goes into shock after having witnessed a dead body coming back to life and go apeshit on Dean Halsey, killing him. Dan reacts like any rational human being would in that situation and Abbott’s performance grounds the film at just the right moments so that we accept the more outlandish ones.
Genre darling Barbara Crampton (From Beyond) manages to make what is basically a damsel in distress role memorable with her spunky charm and beautiful looks, not to mention her courage, which is put to the test in the film’s most infamous scene where Dr. Hill’s reanimated severed head attempts to perform a sexual act on her while she’s tied up that has to be seen to be believed. Beyond that, Crampton does a nice job of conveying the emotional breakdown of Meg after Dan tells her about her father’s death and then has to accept his reanimated resurrection.
As Re-Animator progresses, Gordon continues to up the ante in terms of gory set pieces. In the first one, West is armed with a syringe of his reagent, from there he moves on to a dead cat and then deals with an ornery human cadaver with a bone saw, culminating in the final showdown between Dan and West and Dr. Hill and his small army of reanimated corpses, which gives the film’s dazzling makeup effects quite a workout. For a low-budget film, they are surprisingly excellent and it helps that the actors do a lot to really sell it.
The idea to make Re-Animator came from a discussion Stuart Gordon had with friends one night about vampire films. He felt that there were too many Dracula movies and expressed a desire to see a Frankenstein one. Someone asked if he had read Herbert West – Re-Animator by H.P. Lovecraft. Gordon had read most of Lovecraft’s works but that book had been out of print and so he read a copy of it at the Chicago Public Library.
Originally, Gordon was going to adapt Re-Animator for his theater company the Organic Theater and then, at some point, decided to make it as a horror film using the theater as a soundstage. However, the powers that be didn’t like the idea of him making a horror film and felt that he should be making an art film instead. Then, he and writers Dennis Paoli and William Norris decided to do it as a half-hour television pilot. The story was originally set around the turn of the century and they realized that it would be too expensive to be recreated and updated it to the present day in Chicago, using actors from the Organic Theater Company of which Gordon was a member. They were told that the half-hour format was not salable and so they made it an hour, writing 13 episodes. Gordon was then told that the only market for the horror genre was in feature films. He was soon introduced to producer Brian Yuzna by mutual friend Bob Greenberg, a special effects artist who had worked on John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974).
Yuzna saw Gordon’s current play entitled, ER, about an emergency room and was impressed with the screenplay for the pilot and the 13 episodes. Greenberg and Yuzna convinced Gordon to shoot Re-Animator in Hollywood because of all the special effects involved. Once there, Yuzna made a distribution deal with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures in return for post-production services. The budget was set for just under a million dollars with Yuzna describing it as having the “sort of shock sensibility of an Evil Dead with the production values of, hopefully, The Howling.” For research, Gordon and Yuzna interviewed several pathologists and toured a morgue in Los Angeles. Once the actors were cast, Gordon took them on a tour of the Cook County morgue in Chicago to show them how the bodies were treated and how the people who worked acted. A lot of the film’s gallows humor came from the pathologists he met.
John Naulin worked on Re-Animator’s gruesome makeup effects and drew inspiration from “disgusting shots brought out from the Cook County morgue of all kinds of different lividities and different corpses.” He and Gordon also used a book of forensic pathology in order to present how a corpse looks once the blood settles in the body, creating a variety of odd skin tones. Naulin said that it was the bloodiest film he had ever worked on. In the past, he never used more than two gallons of blood on a film. On Re-Animator, he used 24 gallons of blood. The biggest makeup challenge in the film was the headless Dr. Hill zombie. Tony Doublin designed the mechanical effects and was faced with the problem of proportion once the 9-10 inches of the head were removed. Each scene had to use a different technique. For example, one involved building an upper torso that actor David Gale could bend over and stick his head through so that it appeared to be the one that the walking corpse was carrying around.
Re-Animator received positive reviews from critics back in the day. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and found it to be, “a frankly gory horror movie that finds a rhythm and a style that make it work in a cockeyed, offbeat sort of way. It's charged up by the tension between the director's desire to make a good movie, and his realization that few movies about mad scientists and dead body parts are ever likely to be very good.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt that it, “has a fast pace and a good deal of grisly vitality. It even has a sense of humor, albeit one that would be lost on 99.9 percent of any ordinary moviegoing crowd.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas praised Combs’ performance: “The big noise is Combs, a small, compact man of terrific intensity and concentration.” Pauline Kael herself raved about it: “It’s like pop Bunuel, the jokes hit you in a subterranean comic zone that the surrealists’ pranks sometimes reached, but without the surrealists’ self-consciousness.”
When Re-Animator came out there hadn’t been a good mad scientist movie in some time. The horror genre during the early to mid ‘80s had been dominated by the slasher franchises of Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street so Gordon’s film felt like a breath of fresh air. It went on to develop enough of a cult following to spawn two sequels – Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003) – and a musical proving that Lovecraft’s original story continues to fascinate people. It may also be the age-old theme of science messing with things, like death, with disastrous results. The film features a battle between two brilliant men recklessly playing God without thinking about the consequences.
Brody, Meredith. “We Killed ‘Em in Chicago.” Film Comment. February 1987.
Doughton, K.J. “Stuart Gordon: Body of Work.” Film Threat. July 17, 2002.
Fischer, Dennis. “A Moist Zombie Movie.” Fangoria. August 1985.
Thomas, Kevin. “Re-Animator” Los Angeles Times. October 25, 1985.
Williams, Ross. “Stuart Gordon: King of the Gorehounds.” Film Threat. July 9, 2003.