Re-Animator often gets forgotten when looking back at the golden age of blood-drenched, gonzo-horror zombie flicks. Your trusted reviewer is frequently aghast at the wannabe splatter-fiends who have either not heard of or not seen this grisly classic. One suspects a few factors for this lack of widespread acknowledgement. Director Stuart Gordon didn’t go on to have quite the glittering career of Evil Dead maestro Sam Raimi, nor did he develop as winning a formula as shocker-with-a-social-conscience George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead et al). There’s no obvious genre-defining, game-changing facet to Re-Animator, no high-profile modern remake, few double-page retrospectives. But take the time to discover this gem, and you’ll be rewarded with 90 minutes of gruesome thrills, belly-laugh spills and creeping chills.
Re-Animator is based on a short story, Herbert West: Re-Animator, by gothic horror legend H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s tale follows the nominal Herbert West – a classic mad scientist – and his determination to ˜re-animate’ the dead and bring to an end to the finality of death. Obviously, it all goes wrong, and obviously, West creates what can only be adequately described as a Big Fucking Mess. Stuart Gordon’s film brings this central conceit into a modern setting, then sets it rolling with gut-spilling bravado.
A pre-credit sequence introduces us to anti-hero Herbert West (albeit without explicitly identifying him): police investigating a commotion inside a Swiss laboratory force their way in, only to be showered with the bursting eyeballs of a top professor as he rather messily expires (the first of many quite literally explosive makeup effects). In the aftermath of what seems to be an experiment gone horribly wrong, a defensive young student argues with the police, the traumatised lab staff meanwhile wiping cornea-goo from their faces. The credits roll, the viewer picks up their jaw, and the film refocuses to America. Viewer: meet Re-Animator.
Our protagonist is Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), a hard-working, handsome medical student at fictional Miskatonic University. Dan’s life is already somewhat complicated by his girlfriend Megan being the daughter of the University’s Dean, but his life takes a turn into the truly bizarre when his advertisement for a room-mate is answered by the creepy new guy on his course. This new guy is – of course – Herbert West: the student from the earlier Swiss lab incident. Dan accepts the tenancy of this strange character: after all, he pays the rent early and so what if he’s a little odd, when he’s got the cash?
Peering from behind a pair of oversized science-nerd glasses, West is cold and dismissive, clearly without any respect for his peers, and quite open in his disdain for snooty senior tutor, Dr. Carl Hill. And while aloofness and arrogance is one thing, Dan is not at all prepared for what he discovers to be West’s secret hobby: raising the dead.
What quickly transpires is that West has developed a unique serum which can bring the recently-deceased to life. Unfortunately, the experimental serum doesn’t as much bring the dead to life as turn them into screaming, homicidal walking corpses. Dan first makes this discovery in a brilliantly tense scene in which he is ambushed in his own basement by his undead pet cat, a victim of Herbert’s testing process. In what is the film’s first real set-piece, handheld camerawork and torchlight is used to build up unbearable tension, with Dan suddenly attacked by the zombified feline – the action abruptly cut short when kitty is hurled point-blank into a wall. The execution of this early scare hints at the film’s grasp of a perfect balance of terror and humour, the escalating violence transforming into blood-and-guts slapstick. And escalate it does, as Dan becomes drawn into Herbert’s scheme, and the two find their experiments spiralling rapidly out of control. Dr. Hill – by now West’s professional nemesis – becomes wise to the existence of the serum, attempts to steal it for his own research, and before we know it there are double-crossings, decapitations, armies of zombies, entrails, tentacles, and, well, do excuse me for a moment. I need to go and have a lie down…
As was the norm for this era of horror nasties, Re-Animator pushes for the extremes. These are propelled with confident direction from Gordon and production values above-average for the genre. This constantly has the feel of a larger studio picture, with only the restrictive hospital setting and occasional rickety set exposing the relatively modest budget. But, as earlier mentioned, a lot of the success comes down to how well the film balances the poles of horror and hilarity. There are plenty of shocks and scares to be had, but Re-Animator also doesn’t shy away from squeezing some choice moments of farce and slapstick from the plot. One memorable scene sees the animate, headless corpse of Dr. Hill stumbling around his lab, as his disembodied head barks orders at the body. And – without wanting to give much away – there is one grimly hilarious scene involving a very unique definition of the phrase ˜to give head’.
But a mere braindead gore-fest this is not, thanks largely to an utterly triumphant central performance from Jeffrey Combs as modern-day mad scientist Herbert West. Combs is fantastically watchable, making us sympathetic to West even when he is heartlessly exploiting his flatmate and causing chaos around him. His prim, sniffy nature and cold disdain for his peers is balanced with an infectious drive for discovery, and a darkly persuasive charisma. Combs tackles this with gusto: this is his film through and through, even when faced with the scenery-chewing villainy of veteran actor David Gale. Gale’s Dr. Hill is a worthy adversary, offering ten times the bastard and none of the likeability of his younger, smarter foe. The verbal sparring between the two is simply electrifying, with one almost sneering the other right off the screen. Bruce Abbott’s performance as Dan is reliable, if hardly memorable, but his brief is to play it straight while insanity reigns supreme on all sides. That there is little to really say about his performance is a true compliment, for he is essentially the entry point for the audience. He is offering us a starting position of relative normality, as we then watch the madness and horror rip his world apart.
Re-Animator is simply a film you have no excuse not to see if you are remotely interested in horror. It is a lesson in a simple concept executed with skill, style and confidence in almost every department. In many ways, the film fits the template of the ultimate blockbuster hit, such does it balance shocks and laughs expertly. Of course, the outrageous gore and brutal violence forever cements it as a cult hit, because – let’s be honest – a naked corpse having a bonesaw pushed through its sternum is never going to feature in your average multiplex. Re-Animator prefers to sit happily, maniacally laughing to itself as it waits to be discovered. This is a film to be sought out, smuggled home with glee, and watched with friends, beers and tubs of popcorn at the ready. Just make sure the cat leaves the room first.