Re-Animator Review (1985)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Re-Animator Review (1985)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on September 30th, 2018 | Movie Review | Supernatural, Sci-Fi, Lovecraftian, Back from the Dead, Medical

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It’s about a medical student who invents a serum that brings the dead back to life.

Re-Animator was directed by Stuart Gordon (who also directed Stuck and The Black Cat) and stars Jeffrey Combs (from Suburban Gothic), Bruce Abbott (from Trapped) and Barbara Crampton (from Dead Night).

Herbert West has a good head on his shoulders... and another on his desk.

Re-Animator Review

Meet H.P. Lovecraft

At long last, this movie comes up in the review schedule and we finally get to talk about H.P. Lovecraft! The aspiring horror geek, following the trail of hype and glowing endorsements to Howard Phillips Lovecraft, will eventually feel a little gypped upon discovering a few facts:

  • The man was a poop. Seriously, try to find a photo of him actually smiling. They exist, but not taken on occasions you would expect one to experience a flicker of joy, like, say, his own wedding.

  • He was racist. H.P. Lovecraft was a product of his time, and had a formal education. This meant he was exposed to crackpot science of the day that tried to use medical studies to prove certain races inferior. But even taking that into consideration, he was still more of a bigot than he had to be.

  • He was pretty sour on the whole writing-for-money thing. He considered it disgraceful, and yet his work was printed in top genre magazines of the day, albeit considered pulp then, but held as cherished classics now.

The fact that he held his own craft in disdain and cast a similarly tart gaze upon genre fiction culture at the time illuminates his motivations behind writing the serial story Herbert West - Reanimator. He intended it as a josh at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, then just past a century old. It would be like if a modern-day author retched in disgust at Twilight and decided to write their own glittery-vampire mockery as a piss-take, only to see it gain popularity with the same crowd. Welcome to the machine.

Annoying Sidebar: What Is “Lovecraftian” Horror?

If you’re looking for a good introduction to Howie Lovecraft, this ain’t it. There’s a whole body of work to explore, don’t take Re-Animator as representative. Come to that, Lovecraft himself isn’t always the best representative of Lovecraftian fiction. The thing the freshman scholars miss is that Lovecraft was diverse - he wrote of zombies, cannibal clans, ghosts, space aliens, ancient Egyptian bird-headed gods, the whole lot. And then he launched the whole Cthulhu mythos thing. You can point to nearly any random horror story and justify it as “Lovecraftian.”

This is why Lovecraft is held in such esteem today despite his flaws: He didn’t just invent a couple subgenres of horror, he originated something like one-third of the whole horror genre. Before Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft was the most prolific horror author the world had seen - a debt King himself acknowledges as his biggest influence.

Meet Re-Animator

So to our feature, Re-Animator: Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is an aspiring doctor who ends up being roomies with fellow medical student Herbert West (Jeffery Combs). West is a pain to get along with; he has the social skills and tact of a skunk, and lives solely for pure science, which he pursues with a fanatic passion. West wastes no time in confronting the chief brain researcher Dr. Hill (David Gale) at Miskatonic University, Arkham, Massachusetts, and the two get along like oil and water. Cain was living a satisfactory life with his fiance Megan (Barbara Crampton) and his black cat, Rufus, but West proves disruptive to his pet ownership, his studies, and his girlfriend in that order as the all-consuming quest to conquer death makes Cain the reluctant Watson to West’s Holmes.

What happens in due course is worth not spoiling, but suffice it to say that Herbert West is the most irresponsible mad scientist to ever cackle “It’s Alive!” He just can’t stop pushing his research forward, no matter how much trouble it causes for everyone. Hell, everyone he inadvertently kills with the last experiment just makes a fresh body for the next one! The last third of the movie is bedlam personified, chock full of people under pressure making dumb decisions.

So How’s It Play?

Re-Animator is the canonical example of a film which does not age well. The current hype around the film sets it up to be a hysterical Evil Dead installment, a vibe the movie reaches for. But it is not that funny. It’s also set up to be this irreverent, edgy film with bonkers scenes - to be sure, it was a landmark for its time. But it’s since been overshadowed by a legion of Troma films in the category of “how many sick things can we do with human body parts?” As mentioned, don’t look here for a good example of Lovecraft, because it’s a loose adaptation of what was widely considered, even by Lovecraft himself, to be one of his poorer efforts.

If you ignore the rabid fanbase and let this movie be its own cool little B-movie horror-comedy, it becomes its own cool little B-movie horror-comedy.

Jeffery Combs carries the movie as the near-autistic anti-hero, magnetic in his megalomania. His performance as Herbert West is doubtless intended to invoke Lovecraft himself, who was never what you’d call the life of the party. The rest of the cast is a treat as well. Richard Band’s soundtrack, though it copies Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score so much it’s a wonder lawsuits weren’t filed, is still fitting for a whimsically gruesome time. The special effects are satisfyingly gloopy but mid-1980s vintage.

A few bones to pick (all puns intended!): Director Stuart Gordon was more familiar with stage than screen; his direction comes off with soap-opera framing and lead-butt inertia. Surprising for a production involving a play-writer, the dialog is boringly beige. As opposed to over-the-top yuck-fests like Blood Diner, Re-Animator underplays its premise by being deadpan. On top of that, all the characters lack the common sense God gave a reanimated cat. To some, that makes it funnier. To others (like ME!), that turns every scene without a flailing spastic corpse into a big yawn.

The movie makes up for these shortcomings with a snowballing rate once the bodies start hitting the floor and, more to the point, start getting back up again. After a humble box office opening that barely made a profit from its modest budget, Re-Animator has steadily gained respect to become a cult classic.

All the more reason to caution new viewers: Discover this movie on your own terms. It’s not for everyone, and it’s been copied so much now that it seems like a pale imitation of its own style. But relax and let the green glowstick reagent wash over your brain, and you will find a cozy annual tradition for your Halloween watch-list.

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