To run a site like Malevolent Dark, one has to make sacrifices. With so many movies to review, I fail to get to some of the all-time great movies that I really love. Today is finally the day that I get talk about one of the best of the best, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985).
This came about as I was discussing classic horror films from the 1980’s with one my esteemed colleagues, Craig Wallwork at the Session 10 Podcast. Session 10 is a weekly podcast where two irregular guys talk about regular horror movies. Horror writer Craig Wallwork, and purveyor of all things strange, Boff Island, walk you through horror movies from each decade, starting with the 1970s. Session 10 is putting the finishing touches on their next season that will cover the 1980’s. Expect chills, thrills, spoilers, and hilarity. Give these guys a listen, you will not be disappointed!
As it turns out, 1985 stands as one my favorite years for horror. Some may argue that other years are better, but 1985 proved transformational this guy. For starters, I finally talked my mom into letting me buy that “disgusting” Fangoria magazine. A fantastic article graced the pages of my first issue, Fangoria #50, titled “Literary Zombies” written by David Everitt. Everitt offered a first glimpse of some of the most gruesome movie stills I had ever seen. I ravenously stalked the video rental store for months waiting for Re-Animator to hit the shelves.
For those interested, we featured Re-Animator as one of “10 Essential Films to Know Malevolent Dark (Part1)“.
Returning to the greatness of 1985, that same year Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, Lamberto Bava’s Demons and Dan O’bannon’s Return of the Living Dead. We’ll hand out honorable mentions for The Stuff, Phenomena and Silver Bullet. What a wonderful year for aspiring gore-hounds!
H.P. Lovecraft and Stuart Gordon
The story could only emerge from the mind of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. While most famous for tentacled demigods and esoteric sorcery, he also penned the tale of “Herbert West – Reanimator” in 1942. His story details the nefarious activities of medical student named Herbert West. West believes that life does not end at death and that the bodies of the recently deceased can be kickstarted back to life. Through his unsanctioned experiments, his hypothesis turns out to be true. Unfortunately, the reanimated corpses are stark raving mad. He never questions the sanity of his theory, he simply needs to get method to get it right.
The 80’s were a strong decade for director Stuart Gordon, and his frequent collaborator Brian Yuzna. He would become a prolific horror director in the top-tier “B” movie category. What’s more, he had a special affinity for H.P. Lovecraft. As a fan of much of Gordon’s work, I struggle to rank them, but Re-Animator clearly represents his masterstroke. Stuart Gordon stayed mostly faithful to the source material while making adjustments to modernize the story and calibrate it for maximum shock value.
High Power Frankenstein
The story begins at the University of Zurich. With a bellowing scream, the action cuts Herbert West holding a syringe of his glowing re-animating agent over a flailing Dr. Hans Gruber. The police try to grab West (Wonderfully portrayed by Jeffery Combs), but as if everything is normal, West explains that he MUST “record his vitals” for science. Moments later Gruber’s eyes swell and burst in a explosion of blood. As the nurse screams over the carnage, West nonchalantly explains “the dosage was too large”.
The opening credits offer an often overlooked opportunity for horror films. Far too many films unfortunately rush through the opening frames to get to their story. The opening credits of Re-Animator stand as some of the best in horror. A cascade of neon lit medical diagrams burst into frame and give way to the next diagram over the frantic sound violins and woodwind instruments composed by Richard Brand. The pacing and meter of the music combined with the psychedelic curtain of diagrams paints a picture of what it must be like in the crazy mind of Herbert
Flash forward to Miskatonic University, Arkham Massachusetts.
Dr. West somehow avoids incarceration in Switzerland and returns to the United States to continue his work. Upon landing at Miskatonic, he immediately clashes with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) over the nature of death and it permanence. Harbert West meets fellow student Dan Cain, boyfriend to the Dean Halsey’s daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton). West moves into an apartment with Cain, much to the distaste of Megan. Incidentally, Cain struggles the idea that his patients might die. West quickly drags Cain into his dark world of medical malpractice.
Over-the-top performances define the film. It starts with Jeffery Combs. His portrayal of Herbert West bubbles with black humor and sociopathic narcissism. In fact, Jeffery Combs flies so close to the sun that the audience expects him to crash back to earth; however, his relentless performance never falls off. Not even Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein was so bold. David Gale takes the proverbial cake with one of the most notorious acts of on-screen cunnilingus as he holds his own severed head between the legs of burgeoning scream queen Barbara Crampton. Barbara Crampton proved her mettle simply by keeping a straight face while it happened.
For Gore’s Sake
At the time, Re-Animator held the title for the goriest film I had seen up until that point. Stuart Gordon makes most of it gloriously gratuitous. At every corner, he creates and opportunity to spray the red-stuff. Even innocuous scenes in the morgue or in Dr. Hill’s demonstration auditorium dazzle. It’s not just about quantity. The special effects are artfully done even when completely over the top. Even the simple effect of Dr. Hill peeling the scalp and opening the skull of the medical subject are fantastic.
Stuart Gordan includes everything from exploding eyeballs, erupting bone saws through the chest cavity, animated intestines and fingers chewed to the bone. Gordan conceived a gore-fan paradise. Special Effects Supervisor John Carl Buechler performed masterful work.
Possibly the most outstanding effect involve Dr. Hill transporting his own re-animated head around the lab. To get the job done, special effects artist Tony Doublin employed a variety of techniques including replicating an entire torso above the shoulders of Dr. Hill. My favorite would have to be Dr. Hill wearing a medical model of a human head over his bleeding stump while carrying a pan with David Gale real-life face babbling in a puddle of blood.
1980’s Genre Brilliance
By 1985, the horror genre had started cleanly breaking from the slasher craze that had dominated movies screens. This break ushered in a wave of new ideas, Re-Animator representing the state-of-the-art. With Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon perfects the delicate art of combining extreme gore, dead-pan comedy and story-telling. As Gordon’s masterpiece approaches its 4th decade, it still stands out as one of the most tantalizing examples of a ridiculous film made so freaking well that it transcends the genre and rises to horror classic status.
Re-Animator is brutally fun, gratuitously gory and wonderfully executed. It represents the pinnacle of 1980’s horror and demands entry into the lexicon of even casual horror fans. Thank you Stuart Gordon, you are loved.
Be sure to check our review of the sequel, Bride of Re-Animator (1990). It’s pretty cool too!