Written by Stuart Gordon, William J. Norris & Dennis Paoli. Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft.
Directed by Stuart Gordon
An Empire Picture
Starring: Bruce Abbot (Daniel Cain); Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West); Barbara Crampton (Megan Halsey); David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill); Robert Sampson (Dean Alan Halsey); Al Berry (Dr. Hans Gruber); Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (Dr. Harrod) & Peter Kent (Melvin the Re-animated Corpse).
You will never find a fan of horror films that doesn’t have a definite opinion about the films of the 1980’s, usually a positive one. The 80s, let’s face it, was the decade when the horror film remembered, after the artistic achievements of the 70s, that they were supposed to be fun. The great horror films of the 70s (The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining and Alien to name but a tiny few) terrified audiences like none had ever done before, but genre fans smile with a wistful look of nostalgia when considering the crazy fun of the 80s films. It was the era of the film franchise (Halloween, Friday The 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Howling) and words like “slasher” and “splatter” entered the fan vocabulary. Many of these films turned away from the artiness of their predecessors and some, rather unfortunately, even sacrificed character and plot to deliver state-of-the-art gore effects (at least back then, they were state-of-the-art). The advent of home video meant that low-budget horror could actually survive in a competitive market because fans could discover new “talent” hiding amongst the more well-known titles at the local video store. More and more, smaller films were pushing themselves into the mainstream and fringe artists were making memorable films.
One of these films was Re-Animator.
Based ever-so-loosely on a tale by H.P. Lovecraft titled “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” Re-Animator is the story of Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbot), a clean-cut, hard-working medical student who is in love (and sleeping with) Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), the Dean’s daughter. Into their lives comes Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), an intense and obviously half-mad medical genius who wastes no time getting on the bad side of the college’s most celebrated surgeon, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale). West considers Dr. Hill a plagiarist (a charge that is eventually proved correct) and close-minded because he teaches that a human brain cannot live past six to twelve minutes after the heart has stopped. Unwisely, Daniel allows Herbert to room with him (after Herbert gushes over the size of the basement, which we have no doubt he will use to venture into realms where Man in not meant to go) and soon Daniel discovers that the madman has developed a serum that allows him to re-animate dead flesh. It is safe to say that, from this point onward, nothing goes right for young Daniel Cain; within twenty minutes of screen time, he has all but been drummed out of medical school, has been forbidden from seeing Megan ever again, and is warding off the ferocious blows of the strongest re-animated corpse you ever saw. And that’s nothing compared to what happens when both Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Dr. Hill try to cross the maddened Herbert West.
For years, I resisted watching Re-Animator simply because it fell right smack-dab in the middle of the period of the 80s where horror films were getting cheap and silly, and the illustration on the VHS cover didn’t help things any: crazed Herbert West holding a syringe aloft while a living, disembodied head in a pan looks on. In the years before Mystery Science Theater 3000 taught me better, this type of film held no charms for me. But I misjudged the book by the cover because, although there are some silly moments in the film (some marvelously silly moments), Re-Animator actually wants its audience to take it at face value as an honest-to-goodness horror film and to judge it against the best of its peers. For the most part, the film succeeds, mostly due to the talent of its actors and the work the script does to flesh them out. Take the character of Megan Halsey, played with sympathetic charm by Scream Queen Barbara Crampton; here is a character that didn’t have to be much more than the typical blondie who isn’t too bright, trips over her own feet and needs to be saved by the hero. And while she does get kidnapped at one point and does need to be saved, Megan is far from the usual blondes who get “offed” in horror films. She’s smart, has good character-defining dialog and displays a wide range of emotions, particularly her conflict when torn between her love for Daniel and her instinctual need to be a good daughter to her father (compare her to the character of Lynda (P.J. Soles) in Halloween (1978), who is a vapid, self-centered air-head who uses the word “Totally” as if it were punctuation). Equally good is Bruce Abbot as Daniel, as decent a guy as you could ever want to meet; his first scene shows him trying desperately hard (and failing) to resuscitate a woman. “A good doctor knows when to stop,” Doctor Harrod (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) tells him (introducing the theme of the film) but we feel some deep sympathy for a poor medical student who tried and failed to save a life. These are characters worth rooting for, which is just the thing any decent horror film needs if it’s going to have any sort of a chance of engaging the audience and getting their adrenaline going during the exciting bits.
But in order to get to all the exciting bits, we need someone to introduce a bit of conflict into our happy couple’s lives, and that someone is none other than Herbert West, our modern-day Dr. Frankenstein (the story of which Re-Animator is closely related to). With this one performance, Jeffrey Combs became to Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations what Vincent Price was to Roger Corman’s Poe films. Combs is brilliant in the part; four-eyed and intelligent without being nerdy, ambitious and driven to the point of near-madness without becoming unlikable (as Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein sometimes is), Herbert West is a would-be hero who can only ever be a villain. Despite the fact that (if his results are anything to go by) no good can ever come of his experiments, we can’t look upon him like we look at all the other mad scientists that have come before him. There’s something undeniably charismatic about West; ten minutes with him and, like Daniel, you’re ready to break into the nearest morgue to give his neon-green sludge a try. It’s odd how our attitudes change during the first two acts of the film; our first trip down to the morgue with the woman Daniel failed to save reinforces our universal fears of death – not only are we going to die someday, but we will be wheeled into a deep-freeze locker like a slab of beef by doctors who are all but numb to our humanity. As we spend more and more time in the morgue with Daniel and Herbert and the more fantastical aspects of the film emerge, we think less about the lost humanity of the dead and more about how maybe… just maybe… Herbert West just might be on to something. Maybe it will all work out… maybe just one more test… just one more corpse…. just one more jab…. just one more… just one…
Another reason why we can’t truly dislike Herbert is because the script provides him with a perfect foil, Dr. Hill. Hill has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever; he is pompous without actually having any merits to back up his attitude, he’s plagiarized all his accomplishments from other scientists (and attempts to do the same to West at one point), and is lusting after Megan, his business partner’s daughter (he even lobotomizes the re-animated Dean Halsey – after tricking Megan into giving her permission, the swine – in order to eliminate the last obstacle between the two of them). This is a guy who doesn’t even let getting beheaded stand in his way. Interestingly enough, Dr. Hill is the only one of West’s test subjects to come back from the dead relatively unchanged (not counting the fact that he has to carry his own head around); all of West’s other test subjects (Dr. Gruber, Dean Halsey, Rufus the Cat & “Melvin” the corpse) come back in a zombiefied frenzy, flailing about and attacking anything that moves, no matter how soon after death the serum is administered. Only Dr. Hill seems to have retained all his scruples, at least enough of them so that he can temporarily get the better of West and start putting his plans into action. True, he seems even more evil than before, but I don’t put this up to a side effect of West’s serum. More likely it is side effect of having been decapitated, brought back to life and realizing that you literally don’t have anything left to gain by trying to pretend to be a pillar of academic society. The gloves are quite literally off and Dr. Hill has a trick or two of his own up his sleeve: his ability to control re-animated corpses after subjecting them to an acid lobotomy. Of course, Dr. Hill really doesn’t have much of a plan that doesn’t involve getting his mouth on Megan’s flesh; he could probably take over the world with his mind-controlled zombies, but to what end? Is he really expecting to shamble into the next medical convention, head in hands, and talk about his fantastic new discovery? From a story point of view, the only reason that Dr. Hill lusts after Megan after his re-animation is because it is the only thing that a decapitated corpse can actually hope to get.
And boy, does he get it. In one of the film’s most controversial sequences, Megan is kidnapped by her zombie father, stripped naked and tied to a morgue slab so that the degenerate head can lick her breasts and eventually get thrust between her legs. If this were a simple 80’s exploitation horror picture, the moment would be merely tasteless. But those of you who have read my article on From a Whisper To A Scream will know that even the tasteless, when done right, can have that certain something that marks a fine horror film as a work of great magnitude (there are some things that should never be labeled “art” and Dr. Hill’s head between Megan’s legs is one those things). Here is Megan, a girl who has been on a horrific roller-coaster ride ever since Herbert West walked through her boyfriend’s door, who has seen her relationship with her boyfriend shattered, her father turned into a zombie, now shoved head-first (Dr. Hill’s head, anyway) into this sexual nightmare. It’s a moment to recoil, not to laugh as a disembodied head attempts oral sex with our heroine. Re-Animator has had to answer for this scene, with many viewers saying it is trying to titillate its audience in the worst possible way. I can’t speak for anyone else, but severed-head-porn doesn’t do it for me. Megan and Daniel (and to a certain degree, Herbert) are our heroes, we’ve come through too much with them to abandon Megan’s humanity for a cheap sexist laugh. It’s a disturbing moment in a film that has been – with guts and gore – trying to disturb us all along (I’ll admit that the zombie cat attacking West was pretty funny… until we saw what that cat’s corpse looked like when they finally killed it again). And we’re even more disturbed when, just a few minutes after Daniel arrives and unties his girlfriend from the slab, the entire morgue erupts with zombies and Megan is killed.
It all seems incredibly unnecessary; Dr. Harrod’s warning, “A good doctor knows when to stop,” runs all through this movie (and indeed through any movie involving a mad scientist, from Frankenstein to Strangelove). Herbert West is unable to stop; his failures (although he would see them as qualified successes) with Dr. Gruber, Rufus the Cat, Melvin and Dean Halsey cannot deter him. He is hell-bent on seeing his experiments fully succeed, and it leads to his death (until the sequel was announced, of course). Dr. Hill is even worse; unable to stop even when reduced to a head in a pan like Virginia Leith in 1962’s The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (about another doctor that went too far), he instigates a mad rush of zombies in the hospital as Miskatonic University because he must have West’s secrets and Megan’s clitoris even though he has no real long-term use for either. And finally, there is Daniel; he carts the freshly strangle Megan into the ER and frantically tries to save her life, but to no avail. Dr. Harrod doesn’t remind Daniel about what a good doctor knows, maybe because she knows how crushed Daniel is, but she should’ve said something because Daniel, like the others, doesn’t know when to stop. He has one more thing to try; he’s saved West’s bag from the carnage below and the film freezes just as he is about to inject his dead fiancé with the serum that will let her live again. Despite the results that West got with every experiment, is there any chance that Daniel will get his true-love back?
That blood-curdling scream we hear after the fade-out suggests otherwise.
Despite its occasional silliness – West getting mauled by the cat and Jeffrey Comb’s wonderfully intense performance in general – Re-Animator is a real horror film that tries and succeeds to thrill, horrify and gross its audience out. It is not a simple horror exploitation (the same came not be said of Frankenhooker from five years later, with which it shares some plot elements, but that film was always a comedy first – and not a very good one). It’s bright lighting scheme and vibrant colors, particularly the green of West’s serum, may make it look like a comedy (no midnight trips to the cemetery here), but it’s main purpose is to scare, which it does admirably. More than that, it introduced a few new faces to genre film-making such as Combs, Crampton and director Stuart Gordon, who have all continued to produce strong work throughout the years. And it is always good to have another name sit alongside those of Bava, Corman, Castle, Romero, Argento and Fulchi; Stuart Gordon is the real deal when it comes to horror films and Re-Animator never fails to raise up its rotting head and thrill its audiences one more time. As for the viewers… well… I guess they just don’t know when to stop…