Appellate Judge Dave Ryan assumed this film was about the making of re-cartoons.
Our reviews of Re-Animator (published September 12th, 2000), Re-Animator (Blu-ray) (published September 14th, 2012), and Re-Animator: Millennium Edition (published August 5th, 2002) are also available.
Death…is only the beginning.
Re-Animator is generally considered a horror cult classic. Not because it's terrifying, but because it's funny. Based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, the film was, for its time, aggressively gory and sexual. Today, it's relatively tame compared to current releases, but it's lost none of its charm and humor.
Facts of the Case
Life is good for Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott, Casual Sex?). He's a promising medical student at Miskatonic University Medical School, he's studying under Miskatonic's biggest "name" doctor, Carl Hill (David Gale, Guyver), and he's banging Meg (Barbara Crampton, The Young and Restless), the cuter-than-cute daughter of the dean of the medical school, Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson, The Jerk, Too). All he needs is someone to rent out the extra bedroom in his apartment. And that's when Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) comes into his life.
Herbert West is…well, he's an odd duck. Let's just leave it at that. Brilliant doctor, not good with housecats, kind of creepy. Oh yeah—he also has a concoction that can bring dead things back to life. Well one thing leads to another, and before you can say Jack Robinson, Dean Halsey is a zombie, Dr. Hill's head is in a pan, and Meg's being molested by Hill's headless body. Life was good for Dan—but death-cheating is turning out to be a pain in the rear.
Wait—is this really a Lovecraft story???
Indeed it is. Re-Animator is based on the first two sections of H.P. Lovecraft's serialized short story Herbert West: Re-Animator. But wait, you say—where's Cthulhu? Where's Azathoth? Is this re-animation stuff covered in the Necronomicon? Where's the deep, impenetrable, evil mystery that our protagonist must unravel at the risk of insanity?
Well, all that stuff that makes Lovecraft Lovecraft isn't here. Herbert West: Re-Animator is an outlier in the Lovecraft canon. He wrote it mainly for the money, and didn't seem to consider it one of his "real" works. It's really more of a riff on Frankenstein; his over-the-top rejection of Shelley's brand of gothic horror. Since the source material isn't exactly the textbook exemplar of Lovecraftian prose, you probably assume that the screen adaptation isn't quite like your typical horror film.
Stuart Gordon's version of Re-Animator starts out like any other 80s horror film. Twenty minutes in, we've met all the main characters, had a couple of shock moments, and seen our share of creepy lighting. If you didn't know better, you'd never know you weren't watching a Stephen King adaptation, or an early Cronenberg film. But when we reach the first major turning point in the film, it's almost as if the film says, "You know, we know you all realize that this blood and guts is fake, and that none of this is real. We know you're not truly frightened by horror films—you're entertained by them. So whaddya say we just have some fun with this, okay?" From that point on, the film stops taking itself seriously, goes completely over the top, and spirals down into a vortex of preposterousness.
Re-Animator is everything a horror film wasn't supposed to be prior to the 80s—funny, clever, silly, ridiculous, and unbelievable. It has ridiculous amounts of gore, most of which is just plain gratuitous. It's so gory that you've just got to laugh at it all. Does this mean Re-Animator is a failed film, a horror film that got everything wrong and wound up a big, stinking pile of beef entrails? Absolutely, positively not. It's possibly one of the most entertaining horror films made in the last 25 years. It was both relatively successful at the box office in its time (for an unrated film) and revered as a cult film afterwards. It also was the first big success for its director, Gordon, its producer, Brian Yunza (Guyver, Dagon), and its distributor, Empire Pictures. (At the time, Empire was run by low-budget horrormaster Charlie Band. Band later formed Full Moon Pictures, which has excelled in the "horror comedy" genre. Band has produced several of Gordon's subsequent films under the Full Moon banner. And yes, I mention this just to pimp out my interview with Band, which is linked in the sidebar.)
Here's the surprising thing: for a movie that says "Hey, how do you fight a disembodied head? I know—headbutt!," Re-Animator actually stays pretty faithful to Lovecraft's source material. Spoof of Frankenstein it may be; but it's still a good story that is well-told in this adaptation. The plot moves along quickly and efficiently (it has to, given the film's runtime of 84 minutes), although it does take some time to build up a head of steam in the beginning. The film does not make reference to any of the "traditional" Lovecraftian motifs, e.g. the Elder Gods, but even with all of its humor, it still has that dark undertone that's so characteristic of a Lovecraft tale. All in all, this is a film that shouldn't be viewed as an abomination even by the purest Lovecraft fans.
In a rarity for the low-budget-horror genre, Re-Animator's biggest asset is its cast. Admittedly, you don't go into a horror film expecting performances that compare favorably to Olivier's Lear. Most of the cast of a horror film winds up being grist for the mill, after all. But there's some really decent acting here, from actors who were relatively unknown at the time. Front and center is Jeffrey Combs, who's perfectly strange as West. There are a few moments where Combs' delivery is a bit forced or excessively stylized, but for most of the film he's spot-on; weird, but not too weird. Prior to Re-Animator, Combs was a well-regarded stage actor, but had done little film work. His stage background is obvious here; there are moments when Combs is a little too dramatic in his delivery, which works on stage but tends to come off as hammy on film. On the whole, though, he does a terrific job at fleshing out West into more than just a cookie-cutter Mad Scientist. His performance is certainly well above the mean for the horror genre. Re-Animator remains Combs' main claim to fame in the world of film, but he's done a great deal of television work as well, especially in the Star Trek universe. (Although he's appeared in each of the four "next generation" Trek franchises, he's probably best known to Trek fans as Weyoun, the shape-shifting ambassador of the Dominion from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.)
Gordon, both in his commentary and his video interview, says that Bruce Abbott is really the key to the film. I think he's right. Every horror film needs a protagonist that we, the viewer, really care about. After all, if we're not emotionally interested in this person getting out of his/her jam alive, we're not going to be particularly scared by the creeps stalking them. Abbott has a unique problem with the role of Dan Cain: the character doesn't really exist in the original source material. Lovecraft's story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator; Cain fulfils that narration role in the film. But Lovecraft doesn't tell us anything about the narrator; he's just a literary device. So it was up to Abbott, with help from the film's script, to flesh out this character and make him appealing to us so that we root for him. He does a very good job—he manages to make his character interesting and appealing, but doesn't steal the spotlight from West, who's the real star of the show. His job was to be the calm center of the hurricane, and he does it well.
Then there's David Gale and Robert Sampson, both veteran character actors. Neither of them is just slumming for a paycheck here. Gale is some sort of bizarre cross between Boris Karloff and Hugh Grant, and has the perfect "look" for horror. Sampson starts out thoroughly normal, but eventually gets to really let loose in his "zombie" form. The two clearly enjoyed their work on the film; it shows in their performances.
And then…there's Barbara Crampton. In the last 20-odd years, Crampton has become a well-known soap opera actress, appearing regularly on both The Young and Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. But long before her soap days, Babs was a scream queen—and a damn good one, too. Re-Animator was her first starring role in film. As if that weren't nerve-wracking enough, the role required her to go 100% full Monty and get some implied oral action from a severed head. Not exactly your normal day at the office, even by Hollywood standards. Crampton had three things going for her here, though: (1) she really has a great deal of acting talent, (2) she's has an inherently likeable personality that comes through on the screen, and (3) my God, is she hot. And if you don't believe me, believe Pauline Kael, who described her body as being like a Botticelli painting. (Cheeky monkey, that Pauline.) Was it necessary to get Crampton naked in Re-Animator? Probably not. Is the male population of the world (and 10% of the female population, give or take) better for it? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. More importantly, she's a naked chick you can respect, because she's not a typical addle-brained blonde horror bimbo.
Fans of the film should be pleased to know that the version contained on this disc is the original unrated 84-minute cut, with all the gore (and Crampton) intact. Back when the film was released, its unrated status meant few theaters would show it. Likewise, had the film been released on video while still unrated, few video stores would have carried it (at least outside that "back room"). Therefore, an edited version was created for the ratings board (without Gordon's participation, mind you); after getting its R, the film went into video release, where it found a great deal of success. To pad out the runtime of the edited version, several uncut scenes were extended with additional footage, much of it expository in nature. (In an odd irony, the edited version wound up longer than the original.) All of these extended scenes are available as extras on the second disc here—but more on the extras later.
For a low-budget film from the mid-80s, Re-Animator looks great on this DVD release. I can't compare it to the previous editions, since I don't have any of those discs for comparison. But this disc has a high-quality 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with video quality well beyond what you'd expect from a film of this genre. There are some scenes that are under-lit—in fact, this led to the dismissal of the film's first cinematographer (at the behest of Band) after a week of filming—which comes across very poorly on DVD. But overall, colors are good, images are crisp and distortion-free, and all the glory that is Barbara Crampton is preserved. The audio track purports to be in 5.1 surround (of the Dolby and DTS varieties), but I didn't hear much of anything coming from the rear channels. It's not at all a bad track, though—it definitely avoids that hollow sound that many cheap 80s stereo film soundtracks have. (You know—the soundtracks that sound like they were dubbed off of a tape deck or something.) All in all, this is a solid, solid technical effort from Anchor Bay, who should be commended for giving this much attention to a cult title.
What about extras, you say? Well…there is a ridiculous haul of extras here; a full DVD's worth. Seriously—if you make it all the way through this extras collection, you'll know enough about the film to remake it yourself. Literally.
First off, there are the requisite commentary tracks—two of them. The first commentary is a director's commentary with Stuart Gordon; he does a good job of imparting a lot of information about the film without talking too much. There is also a commentary track with producer Brian Yuzna, joined by four of the primary cast: Abbott, Combs, Crampton, and Sampson. This commentary is more "fun," as opposed to Gordon's more informative narrative. At times, it's almost as if the cast is MSTing the film and their performances. They clearly had a great deal of fun making the film, and look upon it fondly. The commentary is, accordingly, lively and engaging, and well worth a listen for fans.
The package continues with a new 65-minute documentary, Re-Animator Resurrectus. This documentary covers every aspect of the film, from Gordon's early career in the Chicago theater scene to the present day. Pretty much everyone who held any position of significance on the Re-Animator production (except, of course, for the late David Gale) participates in the documentary, making for a truly comprehensive discussion of the film. If that doesn't give you your talking head fix, there are five video interviews, too, as follows:
• A 48-minute "interview" with Gordon and Yunza, that's really more of an extended chat between the two about their experiences on the film. Accordingly, it's less focused and direct than a true interview would be, but informative nonetheless.
• A 10-minute interview with Dennis Paoli, one of the credited screenwriters. Paoli is a professor of literature, specializing in Gothic fiction. He was brought in by Gordon to help him expand what originally was a script for an hour-long TV drama into a feature film, and to add some "authenticity" to the script—i.e. to make it sound and feel more like Lovecraft. He has some interesting things to say about the screenplay and its relationship to the original source material.
• A 15-minute interview with the film's composer, Richard Band. In the minds of some people, Band—as Desi Arnaz would say—has some splainin' to do, since he's been accused of nakedly ripping off Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho for this film's score. Here, he gets his chance to explain. Yes, he did rip off the Psycho score, but as an homage. It's an Eighties-ized version of the score, intended as both an homage to Herrmann and a satire of contemporary horror. Well…he explains it better than I do. It made sense to me.
• Sixteen more minutes with Band, this time talking about the choices he made in regard to musical cues in the film's incidental music. This is more like the typical composer interview you find in DVD extra packages.
• Finally, 5 minutes with Tony Timpone, an editor of Fangoria magazine. He contextualizes how shocking some of the film's content was for 1985, and gives some perspective about why the film has become a cult favorite.
Now how much would you pay? But wait—there's more. There is one deleted scene included—a dream sequence that Gordon briefly mentions in his video interview. It was cut, according to Gordon, because it was "too realistic;" presumably, the viewer might not realize that it was, in fact, a dream. The plot doesn't suffer for the lack of this scene—but it does have more naked Crampton. And that's a good thing.
As noted above, the extended scenes used for the rated version of the film are included as well. The scenes mostly add exposition, e.g. a scene where Megan tells Dan why West was kicked out of Switzerland. Some of these scenes explain things that simply aren't explained at all in the feature. It's interesting that I, Mr. Nitpicky Critic, didn't even notice many of these gaping information holes. That's a testament to how well-paced the finished product is. The action moves along so crisply that you're already on to the next scene before you have time to question the logic of the last one.
I'll give you all a chance to go to the bathroom or take a smoke break before we continue our trip through the extras. Dum de dum de dum…Back yet? Okay, let's move on. Next, we have five still galleries: a gallery of the formal production stills; some behind-the-scenes shots; a "fun on the set" gallery of candids (sorry, no naked Crampton); a gallery of posters, lobby cards, newspaper ads, and video/DVD covers; and a storyboard gallery. Finally (for the DVD extras), you get the theatrical trailer, a bunch of TV commercials, and a text biography of Stuart Gordon.
Oh no—we're not done. There's DVD-ROM content here, too. If you've got the drive (pun intended), you can plow through the film's complete screenplay, and the original Lovecraft story. Finally, our DVD Verdict screener was the collector's edition, featuring—I shit you not—a Re-Animator highlighter in the shape of a syringe. There may also have been a set of Ginsu steak knives in the box; I didn't really check.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So what's the bad news? Well…most of these extras were already available on the "Millennium Edition" of Re-Animator, released in 2002. In fact, the only new extra is the documentary. While the documentary is a solid added bonus, it may not justify a double-dip for owners of the 2002 edition.
There are sure to be horror fans who have issues with Re-Animator as well. As Gordon points out, you can't be funny and scary at the same time. The deeper you get into Re-Animator, the funnier it gets. There aren't a lot of jump-out-of-your-seat moments, nor is this a film that scares you with just-plausible situations that you could see yourself falling into. There is a lot of blood and gore, but much of it is tame by today's standards. It's arguable that this isn't truly a proper horror film for those reasons. Personally, I find it all highly entertaining, but the Saw crowd might find it an anachronistic 80s artifact, like parachute pants, and fail to understand why it's considered a cult classic.
Finally—like I wrote earlier, you don't watch a horror film expecting Oscar-worthy performances. In fact, much of the acting in Re-Animator is…well, honestly, it's a bit hammy. (The exception is Crampton, who is thoroughly natural at all times. Seriously. This isn't another nudity reference. She's legitimately good.) But it's a fun kind of hammy; not the "I think I'm better than I am" unintentional brand of ham. And it works within the context of the film's sense of humor. Again, I find it all entertaining—but I wouldn't be surprised if some thought the acting was atrocious. Either you enjoy your horror with a slice of fun, or you don't. Either attitude is equally valid.
Re-Animator is the tip of an iceberg. In the wake of this film and its spiritual twin, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, a new genre of "horror comedies" was born (many of them coming from Band's Full Moon Productions). Few of them are as well-executed as Re-Animator; the exceptions being Raimi's films and Wes Craven's Scream. Gordon has made other quality films since this, his debut, but none of them have been quite as much fun. It's a funny and gory romp with a solid Lovecraft story at its heart. It won't make you think (much), and it won't change your life, but Re-Animator is worth watching if you like your horror with a smile.
Did I mention that Barbara Crampton gets naked?
Dead! No…undead! No…um…semi-dead!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Director Stuart Gordon
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