Stuart Gordon’s 1985 movie RE-ANIMATOR is based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft called “Herbert West—Re-Animator”. By all accounts it diverges drastically from the source material, clearly having accrued all types of additional reference points along the way. RE-ANIMATOR the movie is bright, colorful, poppy, pulpy, and phenomenally gory. Fans of spooky-funny gore-comedies such as EVIL DEAD 2 and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS who somehow haven’t seen this movie yet should definitely catch up on it, but here’s a recap in the meantime.
RE-ANIMATOR opens in a lab in Switzerland, where Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has been serving as apprentice to a Dr. Hans Gruber — apparently, Alan Rickman’s character in DIE HARD was using the name of a Swiss scientist all that time! Anyway, Dr. Hans Gruber isn’t feeling too well when we meet him. He’s pitching about in a mindless fit, turning purple. When other people run in to check on the commotion, they get treated to the appetizing sight of the doctor’s eyes exploding, right before he collapses in a heap. That’s when we get our first indication of what Herbert West is up to: He insists he didn’t kill him, but “I gave him life!”
The story then returns to America, where Dr. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is a promising young doctor who is involved with the pretty daughter (Barbara Crampton) of the university’s dean Halsey (Robert Samson). Herbert West shows up for work, really half on a revenge mission against the faculty member, Dr. Hill (David Gale), a spooky dead-ringer for Senator John Kerry whom West accuses of having lifted ideas from Hans Gruber — the scientist, not the international terrorist. I’m aware that I’m making this summary needlessly complicated.
Basically, West rents a room from Dan, and sets up his strange experiments in the basement. This immediately causes friction with Dan’s girlfriend Megan, who doesn’t like or trust him, rightfully so, any more than West can stand her (much less rightfully.) The script, by Stuart Gordon with William Norris and Dennis Paoli, moves impressively quickly, advancing the situation where most other movies would drag this segment out needlessly. Dan and Megan find out what West is up to when they discover their cat, Rufus, in West’s refrigerator. West half-heartedly insists that Rufus died in there, he meant to tell them, but Dan later finds out the truth, that West killed the cat so that he could bring it back to life, in a truly amazing scene:
Dan wakes in the night to the most hideous yowls. He looks through the darkened house for West, and getting no response, finally busts down the basement door, only to find West struggling desperately with the re-animated corpse of Rufus the cat. I’ve seen a lot of things in movies, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen two men fighting a zombie cat before. What’s even more awesome is the way the fight is ultimately resolved. I had to watch it three times, and I laughed loudly all three times. It’s of a piece with the tremendous tonal achievement of Gordon’s movie — it’s creepy and weird, but just as much hilarious and unpredictable.
I’m going to quit the plot recapping there, since half the fun of the movie is in the surprises and shocks, but you get the general picture: People start getting turned into zombies. West is mono-maniacally determined to pursue this discovery, and Megan is horrified, and Dan, as West’s colleague and Megan’s lover, is pulled in both directions. I may have tipped a bit of plot when I told you how much Dr. Hill resembles John Kerry, since you can see a disembodied John Kerry head up on that poster above, but even with that fore-knowledge you can have no conception of how far things go from there. It’s crazy, a total EC Comics blast.
What I loved most about RE-ANIMATOR, along with the up-for-anything performances of all of the lead actors, is Stuart Gordon’s direction. Working with cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, Gordon achieves an amazingly energetic and colorful look for a movie that can’t have had much money to work with. It’s such a nerdy film-geek thing to say, but I loved the framing of this movie. The shots are composed like comic book panels. It suits the tone, which is simultaneously sincere and hysterical. RE-ANIMATOR is literally mad about movies — and in the Mad Magazine sense, that is– right down to the score, which swipes directly, brazenly, and frequently from Bernard Hermann’s score for Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. But it’s not a parody, exactly, and it’s not just an homage either — it’s played totally straight in many aspects. Megan’s pain is acted out realistically by the underrated Barbara Crampton, as is Dan’s total confusion and Herbert’s mania. The performances are believable and frequently likable, even as the pitch of the movie’s events get whipped up into a frenzy.
The legacy of RE-ANIMATOR is surprisingly fertile. There was an unofficial, arguably even crazier follow-up, FROM BEYOND, reuniting Stuart Gordon, Jeffrey Combs, and Barbara Crampton (and adding DAWN OF THE DEAD‘s Ken Foree!) Then there were two sequels, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR and BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR, both made with Jeffrey Combs but without Stuart Gordon, and other sequels have been rumored, along with a musical adaptation (!). It’s regularly cited as one of the great cult horror movies of the past few decades, and actually enjoys a much better critical appreciation than most cult horror movies do. Jeffrey Combs made such a great impression with this break-through role that he is regarded by many horror fans in the same stratosphere as the greats like Bruce Campbell. Please believe, Jeffrey Combs and RE-ANIMATOR deserve every single member of their prodigious cult following, if not more. It’s a tremendously fun movie. And also, you know… Zombie Cat.
RE-ANIMATOR is playing tonight — in 35mm! — at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers. The show will be introduced by the great, the one, the only, Joe Bob Briggs.
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