You get a fair amount of weird looks when you tell people one of your favorite movies is Re-Animator.
You get a lot of stuff like “Isn’t Weyoun from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in that?”. Or maybe, “That thing is…REALLY gross, right?”. Or, my personal favorite, “Doesn’t a severed head perform a sex act on Barbara Crampton in that?”
To which I usually reply “Yes.”, “Yes, isn’t it great?!”, and “Yeah, BUT IT’S ALL PRACTICAL EFFECTS!”. Which then, ultimately, garners even weirder looks. Or just altogether abandonment. There is also the matter of its source material’s author being a huge piece of shit. Springing from a popular pulp serial from author H.P. Lovecraft, his prose version bears little resemblance to Stuart Gordon and Jeffery Combs’ filmic version but we still have to wrestle with the obvious legacy of hatred, fear of the other, and bigotry Lovecraft injected into even his most seminal of stories. Even, sadly, Herbert West, Re-Animator amongst them.
But even despite ALL OF THIS. Even factoring in the bracing, ever evolving legacy of the author who started all this and the “video nasty” reputation the movie was greeted with upon its release. Re-Animator still will always mean a great deal to me. It will always be a movie I cherish and want to share with as many people as possible.
Because it was the movie that finally showed me that horror could be a whole hell of a lot of fun.
I should back up. For those unaware of the blood-soaked blast that is 1985’s Re-Animator, let me first say, why do you hate fun and welcome. First conceptualized as a stage production (and then later adapted in 2011 as a stirring and screamingly entertaining musical starring George “Norm” Wendt), Re-Animator is the bloody brainchild of writer/director Stuart Gordon, a name you’ve surely seen emblazoned and respected down the isles of any self-respecting Horror section of a video store.
A veteran of the “experimental” (read: bloody-as-fuck) theatre scene of Chicago and founder of a troupe called the Organic Theatre Company, Gordon is and was a born and bred “Horror Guy”. Until his death this last year, Gordon was always either behind the camera or behind the keyboard, cooking up some new manner of practical efx-driven horror. More often than not, these works were based on the writings of Lovecraft. Though Gordon had a healthy career away from the pulps, directing a whole gamut of non-horror stuff as well (Honey, I Blew Up The Kid! Robot Jox!), you can tell from the works (and quantity of adaptations) that making Lovecraft and his labyrinthine mythos both accessible and fun for the general horror watching audience was something of a passion of his.
Edgar Allen Poe would also take up some of his focus and attention later in his career too, bringing along frequent collaborator Jeffery Combs (more on that lovely maniac in a second), but Lovecraft always seemed to be Mr. Gordon’s true muse; both in his filmed and staged works. But it all starts here with ‘85’s Re-Animator, and holy hell is it a great fuckin’ start.
Though the original serial novellas have a somewhat stuffy and haughty tone, Gordon’s Re-Animator, from the jump, seems gleefully irreverent. We open on the idyllic University of Zurich medical center, detailed in a lush matte painting. The eminent Dr. Hans Gruber (no, not that one) has died, but suddenly screams wrack the hospital! The body has been disturbed somehow and is now…ALIVE AGAIN?! Thanks to the clandestine efforts of a little dweeb carrying a vial of Day-Glo green liquid. Gruber thrashes and moans and for a second seems to notice the dweeb when he talks to him; said dweeb being his former student. But then his eyes explode like overripe peaches and his face melts. ALL on camera and largely shot in well-lit close-ups.
“You killed him!”, the attendings scream at the dweeb.
“NO!” he retorts proudly. “I GAVE HIM LIFE!”
Smash cut to a set of immensely arresting credits and a cheeky, string-heavy score from composer Richard Brand.
And the best part is, the rest of the movie lives up to that opening! Though a…let’s say LIBERAL adaptation of the original serial, Gordon’s Re-Animator displays a confidence you can only find in a debut movie. Honed by years of stagecraft and working directly with actors, a lot of this cast brought in from his days as a Chicago theatre director, all of Gordon’s set-pieces throughout this thing just sing. Supported by some ghoulish and medically accurate makeup effects (inspired by one of the artist’s research into the Cook County morgue and medical cadavers).
More than that, it’s actually FUNNY too. And not just “horror movie” funny in that accidental way or grim way slasher movies kind of slap at occasionally. Gordon’s script, co-written with writers Dennis Paoli and William Norris, was originally intended to be a bleakly funny ½ hour comedy show, following the framework of the original serial, set in the 1920s.
Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the droll comedy of the format for sure made the transition to being a feature. Following a young couple who provide their fellow peer West a room for rent, the movie starts out as basically a comedy of errors. Our leads, played groundedly by Bruce Abbott and literal queen and genre icon Barbara Crampton, are forced to have to deal with the obvious weirdness and weaponized arrogance of West, played to the absolute hilt by Jeffery Combs. But once his resurrection experiments crash their hot-and-heavy college romance, the couple becomes a zombie-fighting throuple, fighting to both survive West’s resurrection experiments and the legions of monsters they threaten to unleash on the unsuspecting Miskatonic University.
While the makeup and cult-classic status of this movie is a major selling point, none of it would work without Jeffery Combs. An actor who always seemed one million percent dialed into whatever madness Gordon had cooked up. Whatever tone he wanted to have on the day. Re-Animator too serves as Combs’ lead debut. Though he had played a few bit parts beforehand, Herbert West is really his first time “at-bat” as it were as a major role and he absolutely nails it. From selling the terror of an undead cat to cooly facing down a villainous severed head, Combs just deftly handles every shift, every gag, like it’s the most vaunted and serious of material, which would become a hallmark of his later horror performances. And in doing so, launches a horror icon. One that sustained several sequels, a comic series, and even a whole other separate career as one of Star Trek’s hardest-working character guest stars.
But I tell y’all all this to tell you mainly that this gross, horny, and consistently hilarious movie really unlocked something in me. Something I wasn’t expecting it to be at all. You see, when I was younger, I used to be TERRIFIED of horror movies. Like, so much so, that I would have a full-on PANIC ATTACK seeing posters or seeing that my mom wanted to rent the new Halloween movie on ancient, wired Pay-Per-View.
A shift started to happen when I discovered Joe Bob Briggs and TNT’s MonsterVision. Suddenly, I wasn’t screaming with the movies, I was laughing with them. Joe Bob’s constant stream of information and his smirking attitude toward the actual “acts” of terror happening, contained well within his “Drive-In Totals”, finally gave me an edge against the movie I was about to watch. I finally knew what to expect! Better still, a fellow Texan was walking me through it! He never showed Re-Animator on MonsterVision, but he talked about it and Gordon, often and fondly. Finally, after an episode on the equally entertaining (and gross and horny) From Beyond, I sought out Re-Animator. Renting in with a double feature alongside Evil Dead II, another I had only heard of, not seen. I was TWELVE. My parents dropped some balls, for sure.
But for the first time, seeing both those blood-soaked, but irresistible films back-to-back, I felt like I GOT IT. After all those years of being scared, of hiding from the blood, I was cheering it on (in a constructive, non-DudeBro way, I promise). Instead of hiding my eyes, I was anxiously awaiting the next scare, the next effect. I was finally and gratefully “in on the joke”. And Stuart Gordon and a bunch of other weirdos who made a weirdo movie brought me into it.
From there, a whole new world opened itself up to me. A world filled with Texas Chainsaw Massacres and the Lament Configuration and dark delights from even beyond the borders of America. That summer into the fall I discovered Fulci and Argento and the sumptuousness of Bava. I walked into The Mouth of Madness and finally turned the pages on my first read of Creepshow. I kept staring fear in the face and came out smiling.
All because a bunch of theatre dorks spun a yarn, and spun it well.
Re-Animator isn’t for everyone. Loving it as I do, it’s one of the things I can instantly admit about it. It’s not a “casual” experience by any standards. It’s squishy and it’s mean and it has a few moments in it sure to shock a Wine Mom into a coma. But it’s a movie that will always hold a special place in my heart because it finally gave ME a special place in Horror. With irreverence, gallons of fake blood, and a truly game cast and crew, Re-Animator finally provided me my own perfect Horror experience. It showed me how and why people found this fun because it finally let ME have fun with it. I know it’s not for everybody, but it’s certainly for me.
I thank Jeffery Combs for that. I thank Barbara Crampton for that. But most of all, I thank Stuart Gordon for that. For showing that horror didn’t have to be needlessly cruel to be scary and didn’t have to sacrifice realism or humor for any of the blood. That horror could be theatrical and still be effective. That broadness didn’t always mean badness.
That’s why I can take weird looks when I say “Re-Animator is one of my favorite movies”. Because I know that underneath all the gore and the Day-Glo serum and casual nudity there is a movie worth more than just the sum of its parts.
It gives me, like Dr. Hans Gruber…LIFE!