Review: Re-Animator (1985)

Director: Stuart Gordon

****

Of all the 1980s ultra-gory horrors, few are as giddily schlocky, shocking and bloody (i.e. none more ’80s) as Re-Animator. Out of a desire to make a modern Frankenstein tale, writer/director Stuart Gordon adapted H.P. Lovecraft’s tale of a mad scientist bringing dead tissue back to life with a self-developed green-glowing reagent. Given the resulting chaos, it’s clear that scientists (mad or otherwise) don’t watch enough horror movies.

The cult appeal of Re-Animator is due in no small part to its lead character, Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). He’s a strange little man; always well-dressed, confrontational with his superiors and secretive in his activities, he’s just arrived from Switzerland at Miskatonic University Hospital, under the watch of Dean Halsey (Roger Sampson) and the tutelage of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale). Combs’ reputation as an actor is built on this one character; given the kind of reprehensible things he does in the course of the film, his toned-down take on the character is a refreshing change from the kind of hamminess VIncent Price excelled at. Nervous tics and mania at a minimum, West relishes the (illicit) opportunity to experiment with the hospital’s supply of cadavers, with the assistance of his reluctant straightman housemate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). Another refreshment the film offers is a nice supply of characters to care about; Dan is weirded out by West at first, but grows to like him having seen the results of his experiments (a poor kitty being the unwilling first volunteer). Going deeper into West’s experiments will have unspeakable consequences for Dan, his fiancée (and the Dean’s daughter) Megan (Barbara Crampton), and Dr. Hill. Cue dismemberments.

A take on the myth of Frankenstein presents a valuable opportunity for a special effects crew, and the effects in Re-Animator are dazzling. Buckets of blood and old fashioned gore are coupled with animatronics and excellent make-up to make a horribly believeable array of patients/guinea-pigs/victims for West to work with. As various body parts are brought back to life, Gordon films proceedings with a dark sense of humour and an ability to shock (the infamous ‘head’ scene). With gallons of blood and a barbed sense of wit and reverence (the Psycho-like score, for example), Re-Animator’s tongue is buried deep in its reanimated cheek. It boasts plenty of the elements of a standard T&A bloodbath, but it also has far too many smarts and shocks to be ignored.