RE-ANIMATOR [US 1985]
RUNNING TIME: 102 min [‘Integral’ Version], 83 min [‘Unrated’ Version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Herbert West Has a Very Good Head on His Shoulders… And Another One in a Dish on His Desk.
At the University of Zurich Institute of Medicine in Switzerland, medical student Herbert West brings his dead professor, Dr. Hans Gruber, back to life, but then has to kill him when the side-effects are horrific. Herbert arrives at the Miskatonic University in New England in order to further his studies. He rents a room from fellow student Dan Cain and converts the building’s basement into his own personal laboratory. When Herbert re-animates Dan’s dead cat, Dan joins him as his partner in his experiments to defeat death, though there is animosity between Herbert and faculty member Dr. Carl Hill, who stole the theory of ‘brain death’ from Dr. Gruber…
Last week I reviewed Theatre Of Blood, where Vincent Price’s Shakespearian ham slaughters all his nasty critics [I bet actors and filmmakers feel like doing that quite often] in a variety of gruesome ways taken from the Bard’s plays. I claimed it was one of the best films to combine horror and humour, something which loads of films attempt but often fall flat doing, partly because it’s hard to get the balance right without one element overshadowing the other, and partly because it often seems like a case of untalented filmmakers not having the skill to scare or disturb and therefore just playing it for laughs. However, there are just a few films that better Douglas Hickox’s 1973 camp fest, and one of them is Re-Animator, which joins that tiny list of near-perfect mixtures of mirth and chills that also include An American Werewolf In London and [my favourite] Bride Of Frankenstein. As long as you have a strong stomach [the level of gore was extremely strong for a Hollywood film from 1985], it’s a hugely entertaining romp that I personally find an utter laugh-riot, with a few scenes that never fail to crease me up, though of course that may also have something to do with my sense of humour. It’s also a very well constructed and, considering its budget, well made picture though and, while it has lots of laughs, it never actually mocks the type of film it is [unlike, say, Flesh For Frankenstein]. Even more importantly, the chuckles seem to come naturally. This is a film where a headless corpse knocking someone out by pushing him onto his own severed head seems like a perfectly natural turn of events.
Director Stuart Gordon, whose first film this was, wanted a make a Frankenstein film. Then he read H.P.Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West-Reanimator, which was partly a parody of Mary Shelley’s tale, and initially wanted to do it for the stage, for which he had done a number of productions. Then it was mooted as a TV series, and the episodes were written, but producer Brian Yuzna convinced him to make it as a feature film in Hollywood for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. Much research was done to make the many corpses look realistic and 24 gallons of fake blood was used. The film was just too much for the MPAA, who removed nearly all the gore. For the ‘R’ rated cut, the producers added back in lots of deleted material, mostly just extended versions of existing scenes though there’s new footage of Dr. Hill hypnotising people, to increase the running time. Some different takes were also used to reduce the gore. This was done against Gordon’s wishes though I guess he must have relented somewhat, because the ‘Integral’ version included on Second Sight’s superb Blu-ray presentation, which must surely be the definitive version of this oft-released film, has all of the extra footage used in the R’ rated version whilst keeping all the gore. A dream sequence is still missing but can be seen in the special features and I have no idea where it would have gone anyway. I’ll be honest and say that Re-Animator is one film where I prefer the pacier, punchier shorter cut, though it was many years after its release that I got to see all the gruesome stuff, because the BBFC, especially disturbed by a scene of sexual assault involving a severed head, removed around two minutes, successive versions gradually restoring more and more to the film.
Re-Animator lets you know exactly what it’s about in the opening scene. At a medical school in Zurich, Switzerland, a dean is called in to investigate a disturbance in one of the labs. When he enters with a policeman and nurse they find one of the school’s professors, Hans Gruber, screaming in agony and a medical student, Herbert West, with him. Han’s skin has turned purple and his eyes bulge until they explode, spewing blood. The stricken man falls dead and the dean asks if Herbert had killed the doctor to which Herbert replies, in the first of his many great lines made especially funny by Jeffrey Combs’s deadpan delivery: “No, I gave him life!” The film now switches to America and Herbert is the new lodger in the house of student Dan Cain. Re-Animator neatly sets up all its characters in several short, concise scenes, doing especially when showing the enmity between Herbert and faculty professor Dr. Carl Hill, who are both trying to do the same thing. However, it’s not long before Dan, like some of Peter Cushing’s assistants in the Hammer Frankenstein films, is assisting Herbert in his work, which first entails re-animating a dead cat…twice. There’s a side-splittingly ridiculous sequence which almost belongs in a Three Stooges episode where, for what seems like forever, Dan and Herbert smash up a load of stuff with baseball bats in the cellar as they search for the zombie cat which occasionally appears as a stuffed toy, one of the guys holding it onto his back so it looks like it’s attacking him until it’s thrown and splatters against a wall. “Do you agree that he’s dead now”?, asks Herbert twice to Dan as if it were a dead parrot.
I guess you have to have a love of schlock horror and humour of the slightly sick kind to find this kind of thing funny, but Re-Animator is widely regarded as a classic of its kind so that must mean many of us. There’s a surprising amount of pathos in some scenes involving Dan’s girlfriend Megan’s re-animated father, but for the most part this is just a bloody romp with a gleeful sense of the absurd that gets more and more ridiculous but never loses its narrative drive nor sight of its characters. Most of the laughs are presented in a straight-faced, low-key manner that makes them all the more funnier [how to balance a severed head in a tray], while the gore really does get strong towards the end [of course Peter Jackson would outdo this film in Braindead, though that film’s script isn’t anywhere near as good as Re-Animator’s], but it’s so ridiculous [look out for the ‘detachable spinal column snake’] it’s hard to be shocked, with I suppose one exception. The sexual assault by a severed head, like the tree rape in The Evil Dead, does almost go beyond mere bad taste into just being offensive, and ruins the movie for some, though it’s not very graphic or long and I’ve always found it so absurd that I can’t take it seriously.
Though there are occasional bits where the low budget shows [one padded cell set literally wobbles], the many special effects are superbly achieved and are often very convincing. In these days where CGI can do everything, it’s hard to appreciate how difficult in 1985 it would have been to pull off, for instance, shots where a headless zombie is carrying around his own head on a tray. They built an upper torso that actor David Gale could bend over and stick his head through so that it appeared to be the one that the walking corpse was carrying around. Sounds so primitive, but it looks fine on-screen, and is actually more convincing than it had been done with CGI, while Gale, who may have been chosen because he looks like Boris Karloff, manages the difficult task of being frightening while ordering his inept body about. He’s deliciously sinister and perverse, but then Re-Animator is one well-cast and well-acted movie, far more so than many other of its ilk. Combs, playing the creepiest nerd ever, is brilliantly vacant yet convinces us that he’s as clever as he claims, but Bruce Abbott makes quite a lot of his potentially dull straight-man hero character, and does especially well in the film’s tragic final scene. Compare him, for example, with the terribly bland Jason Barry in Beyond Re-Animator [the second of Brian Yuzna’s two sequels which, while they don’t match the original, are great fun in their own right].
Re-Animator knows that blood and gore can only take you so far and also has a decent script [though elements of the story don’t make much sense if you think about them], good acting, makes sure you’re laughing with the film rather than at it, and a true sense of artistic vision. Like many of the best horror films, it’s clearly influenced by previous work, from Terence Fisher to Lucio Fulci, but also feels like a true original. The one thing that always annoyed me, though it’s probably a minor issue in the scheme of things, is Richard Band’s theme music, which is such a rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme that they should have credited Herrmann and Psycho in the music credits. It works well of course for the film with its muted disco beat and Band does a fine job with the rest of the score. “I guess it wasn’t fresh enough”? says Herbert at one point referring to a dead body, but Re-Animator is just as fresh as it was in 1985. It’s a great example of how to do this kind of thing right.
• The ‘Unrated’ Version – brand new 4K restoration
• The ‘Integral’ Version (exclusive to Blu-ray)
• Audio commentary with director Stuart Gordon
• Audio commentary with producer Brian Yuzna and actor Jeffrey Combs, Robert
Sampson, Barbara Crampton and Bruce Abbott
• Re-Animator Resurrectus documentary
• Interviews wih Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, writer Dennis Paoli, composer
Richard Band and Fangoria editor Tony Timpone
• Extended scenes, deleted scenes and trailers