cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Compton, David Gale, and Robert Sampson
director: Stuart Gordon
86 minutes (18) 1985
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Anchor Bay UK DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Loosely based upon the H.P. Lovecraft short story Herbert West Re-Animator, Re-Animator is widely considered to be a classic of 1980s’ horror. Revolutionary in its day for the sheer amount of gore it projects on screen and its rich vein of black humour, the film is here re-released on DVD uncut for the first time in the UK. Over 20 years after its initial release, it is easy to see why this film has endured in a way that many other cheap 1980s’ horror films have not.
Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) was a promising young doctor with a beautiful fiancée and a sparkling future ahead of him until he met up with Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). Brilliant, driven and intensely creepy, West arrives at Miskatonic hospital and immediately picks a fight with Dr Hill, not only the hospital’s leading neurosurgeon but also its chief grant-winning machine. West’s youthful arrogance is fuelled by the fact that he has discovered a serum that allows him to restart the chemical process that keeps us alive, thereby allowing him to re-animate corpses. When some clandestine experimentation in the morgue goes hideously wrong, West attempts to re-animate the corpse of the university’s dean. This brings his work to the attention of Dr Hill who tries to blackmail West into signing his work over to him. This goes predictably badly and soon Cain and West find themselves in a morgue battling undead legions commanded by the severed head of Dr Hill, but not before said severed head has sexually molested Cain’s nubile fiancée.
As an adaptation of a Lovecraft story, Re-Animator is an interesting case. Lovecraft was, by and large, an astonishingly serious and humourless writer but the story this film is based on is one of the few examples of Lovecraft sending himself up both at the level of his legendarily politically dodgy and purple prose (a black boxer is described as a gorilla of a man who conjures up thoughts of Congo secrets and distant tom-tom drums). The story is essentially of a mad scientist who defeats death but every time he re-animated a corpse, said corpse goes on a killing spree (“Most of West’s experiments were ended by his revolver”) until, in a continual search for fresher and fresher bodies, West starts killing people.
The story itself leaves a lot open to interpretation as the killings are glossed over. One minute Dr Halsey is a saintly man battling cholera, and then he’s arguing with West, and suddenly he’s a re-animated corpse. In choosing to bring the story up to date and be as explicit as possible in the portrayal of violence Dennis Paoli manages to perfectly capture not only the horror value of a scientific experiment going hay-wire but also the comedy value of Lovecraft’s failed mad scientist. The DVD extras and commentaries repeatedly stress how faithful an adaptation this is but no film adaptation that adds characters and compresses the timeline from a few decades to a few days can be called faithful. However, in matters of tone and the point of the original story, Paoli completely nails it, perfectly pitching the horror and, wisely, playing the humour completely straight.
Re-Animator is a film sustained by two very strong central performances. The first is that of a young Jeffrey Combs who genre fans will recognise from… well… pretty much every Star Trek series (particularly Deep Space Nine, in which he played Weyoun). Perfectly cast and clearly enjoying himself enormously, Comb’s West is a nerd with power. Playing opposite Combs is David Gale, a hulking giant of a man whose uncanny resemblance to horror great Boris Karloff starts off very low-key but gets progressively more grotesque as the film itself shifts up the gears. The male and female ‘leads’ are predictably insipid but this blandness works perfectly in the context of the film (the male lead is there to make the film feel vaguely human and the female lead is there to take her top off… mission accomplished on both counts).
Beautifully made, intelligent, funny and at times immensely silly, Re-Animator continues to be a real joy. The decision to release the uncut version that was originally released in the US (the original film went out unrated because they didn’t want to put up with cuts or face an X certificate) was long overdue but the long list of extras on the second DVD go some way to make this release worth the wait. The main (and very long) making-of featurette is the star of the second DVD along with a dream sequence that was justifiably cut from the final version of the film. Unfortunately, many of the secondary interviews are a bit tedious with the producer and director interviewing each other about their other projects and the editor of Fangoria coming across as a rather smug piece of work, waffling on about how he went to the premiere.
Given that, by modern standards, the extras are a bit hit and miss, the collector’s edition’s inflated price tag seems a little bit cheeky to me. Having said that, this is definitely worth a rental or a purchase if you can get it for less than recommended retail.