If Dr. Gruber only knew the cult favorite he started back in 1985, being the guinea pig for that florescent, now-famous, antidote for death. Yes! Who can forget the screaming Dr. Gruber, with eyes bulging, spraying blood from his ocular orbs, heralding the carnage to come? Who can forget the now infamous Herbert West emerging to say in defense, ”I gave him life!” Re-Animator was directed by Stuart Gordon and based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story called “Herbert West, Re-Animator.” The result is now a cult classic, if not a classic in general. Does that glowing syringe truly cheat the reaper’s scythe?
Re-Animator opens at a university in Switzerland and moves, after its bloody beginning, to the Miskatonic Medical School in Arkham, Massachussetts, on the stomping grounds of H.P. Lovecraft himself. (Yes, I wonder how many people know that?) Everything is normal, or as normal as things get in med school, until the arrival of our main but not-so-normal character, Herbert West.
“We can achieve every doctor’s dream! You’ll be famous, and live lifetimes.” ~ Herbert West
Just who is Herbert West, nicknamed Re-Animator by Lovecraft? West (Jeffrey Combs) is just the movie misfit needed for cinematic cultdom, nerdy to extremes, ripe with our story’s onscreen insanity. Yes, medical mayhem is West’s destiny, and bringing the dead back to life is his misguided goal. “I’ve broken the six to twelve minute barrier. I’ve conquered brain death,” says Herbert. (Has he ever, and with what consequences!) Being at odds with the movie’s chief surgeon, Dr. Hill, is where the conflict begins. Can things get more bizarre than even Herbert’s twisted mind could imagine? Oh yes! Trust me! Even zombified intestines are twisted in this tale! Dr. Gruber would be proud!
As for Jeffrey Combs, isn’t he the perfect Herbert West? Oh yes! Mirroring the movie’s theme, Combs gives his character just the life it needs. In fact, “I gave him life,” is a line Combs might well use describing his performance, just as West uses it to speak of the dead. Without the personality Combs injects, Re-Animator might have been an empty syringe (pun intended) dead on arrival. Combs plays the role straight and serious with resulting levity, sternly delivering humorous lines that make viewers smile, if not laugh, creating the darkest moments in humor. He plays West as arrogant and overconfident, selfish and cynical. Combs is the undead heart and soul of Re-Animator, keeping it alive and beating again, and again…and again.
“Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow.” ~ Herbert West
Entering into our cult classic is the ever-necessary staple of the genre—an ultra-beautiful blonde (not that hair color really matters), destined to show more skin than necessary for target voyeurs. The always captivating Barbara Crampton is Megan Halsey—our damsel in distress and the daughter of the dean. She’s the girl-next-door knockout, but our neighbor only in dreams. Megan’s beauty is natural, clean, and fresh, highlighting the gore, emphasizing each even more. (Yes, I love the tension between the beautiful and the grotesque!) She’s the co-ed every guy wants in his dorm and, as we see in the unrated version, a quickie before class is a bonus in bed, with nudity not seen in the R-rated version.
Of course, what teenage boy or man could help but ogle the beautiful Megan Halsey, lying naked and helpless on Dr. Hill’s gurney, quite honestly there for ogling! Is it the most famous scene in cult cinema, with nudity made necessary? “Hell yes,” I say! Awaiting the bodiless head she’s about to receive (yes, between the legs) is a literal and figurative favorite not to miss. It’s camp-humor made intelligent with entendre times two and wit times more! Yes! What would Re-Animator be without this scene? Not as much, I say! With Barbara Crampton writhing and squirming, helpless and vulnerable, against the evil doctor, it’s the cover of a pulp comic come to life—the anti-Norman Rockwell, if ever. Nostalgia has never been more metaphorical, titilating, sexy, diabolical, and nearly cunnilingual! For those who think all this good fun is exploitation, how dare you! It wouldn’t be that, unless Dr. Hill did the deed as planned! But, would even that be exploitation? Hmmmm! Let us think, and toast. “To Megan, my esteemed colleague’s beautiful daughter, the obsession of all who fall under her spell,” says Dr. Hill!
“Dammit! It wasn’t quite fresh enough!” ~ Herbert West
Okay, okay, maybe I wrote too much about Barbara Crampton. Maybe I gave her too much attention compared to others maybe more important. Maybe I’m doing it again. Hmmmm. Let me think…briefly. NO! Encore, encore? A grand finale, perhaps? Okay, if you insist (wink, wink), here we go! Barbara is a scorching siren of nuclear pulchritude (reanimating the dead herself)! She’s “the face that launched a thousand [rockets]” and…well, you get the message! There! Case closed…for now!
Finally, what about that med-student boyfriend, the best in his class, but here passed over for Megan, his girlfriend (yes, I did that on purpose)? He’s Dan Cain, played by Bruce Abbott. Dan is the kind of Ivy-league preppie who deserves a girl like Megan (and usually gets her) with his future full of success, and yes…money that’s sure to come! (Yes, he dates the Dean’s daughter for a reason!) Dan is the type of bright but unsuspecting guy, all the more effective not being weird like his roommate, Herbert…at least not yet! Yes, every movie like this needs a counterbalance to the madness, and Dan is that–until the end, that is! Loving a girl like Megan has its consequences, especially in death! (Yes, just when you thought it was over, it’s not!)
Of course, every such movie must have an evil scientist, at odds with the hero, the anti-hero, and the world at large, causing mischief, mayhem, and danger for all. Dr. Hill (David Gale) is just the gaunt-faced, ill-tempered, misanthropic, psycho-surgeon pervert needed for the job. Yes, a surgeon who doesn’t care much for humanity is danger to all of his patients alive, or, in this case, even dead. (Did you catch that?) And, of course, as mentioned, he puts our delicious damsel in utmost distress, all to have her for himself—another job an evil scientist must certainly do! Dr. Hill believes the brain is dead six to twelve minutes after death, and West believes otherwise. If you think minutes don’t matter, consider the plot of our undead classic. If you’re reviving the dead with a serum, doing it before or after the official death of the brain can make all the difference. Zombie or human becomes the question! Add to the mix an undead doctor raising an army of like-minded (or no-minded) monsters, and what do we have? We have Re-Animator, of course!
Before Re-Animator, such horror films set in a college were more self-mocking than serious, more a parody or the subject of one to come. Re-Animator’s deadpan style is fresh and all its own, even now; serious but humorous, absurdly gross, and beyond real science, it finds its niche. An over-the-top approach to medical procedures, the behavior of the undead, as well as reanimated animals (namely a cat) are just several examples. One can’t help but smile, while being unnerved, as Dr. Hill inserts a six-inch Q-tip through a hole in a corpse’s head, amidst the sound of it sloshing inside. (Yes, it’s gratuitous and gross…but fun!) The fiasco that ensues when West reanimates a dead cat borders on slapstick, with his numerous attempts to kill it…again, finally hurling it into a wall. Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson), after being reanimated, slobbers and drools in captivity, hamming it up, more like an animal than anyone ever a human. And never to be forgotten is Dr. Hill, while decapitated, walking with a plastic head in place of his own, attempting to appear “normal” to the staff. And then, there’s endless one liners uttered by West, as cult quotes to match the movie. “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!” is one of many to remember.
Oh, and if ever there was a movie setting itself up for a sequel, here it is. Fortold it is in that serum, glowing in the dark, in desperate hands; Dan’s girlfriend is dead, and he wants her back! What could be next? A lot! Re-Animator spawned (or “gave life”) to two sequels, not as good as the first, but well worth seeing, for sure. In all fairness, they had a tall order (or big syringe) to fill, and they did their best. Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator are out there, for those addicted.
“I know your work, Dr. Hill. Quite well. Your theory on the location of the will in the brain is… interesting. Though derivative of Dr. Gruber’s research in the early 70s. So derivative in fact in Europe it’s considered plagiarized.” ~ Herbert West
And, of course, who could forget the cacophonic opening title, composed and conducted by Richard Band, accompanied by neon drawings from Grey’s Anatomy? Brains, eyeballs, and fascia spin and spiral with notes in sync. Intense and urgent, grating the nerves, unpleasant but compelling, it captures, with sound, all we know as Re-Animator. Rising and falling, with erratic pace, it sets the psycho speed–with noise and dysfunction to match.
A review of a cult classic is always challenging to write. Rather than a critique, it’s mostly a recounting or remembering of why the movie’s a classic to so many already…even the reviewer. No matter how remembered, Re-Animator is a holocaust of zombie fun, setting the high bar higher for movies of its kind–at the time, and even now. Enduring images of Megan on the gurney (oh my goodness!), homicidal zombies on steroids gone amok, and the undead cat with ten lives, at least, are visual feasts leaving fans fulfilled. Zombified intestines really can strangle a human with a life of their own! (I knew it!) And thank goodness the bone-saw-through-the-chest scene is restored in the unrated edition! Could it completely be a classic without that…and Megan on the gurney, of course (yes, I said that again)? Yes, with all this and more, Re-Animator injects itself easily in the system of cult-film junkies looking for a fix that lasts. With its tongue-in-cheek humor and gritty gore, Re-Animator works long after six to twelve minutes. As Herbert West might say to his fans, “I gave them life!”
And now for that Richard Band theme one more time!