Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dr. Herbert West Welcomes the Dead Back to Life in “Re-Animator”

At an institute in Switzerland, Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is discovered leaning over a man screaming in pain. Though the man dies, Dr. West tells the other doctors, “I gave him life.” West arrives at the Miskatonic Medical School in Arkham, Massachusetts, where he rents a room from med student, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). Dan’s girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton), doesn’t approve of the doctor’s presence, particularly when finding Dan’s recently missing cat’s lifeless body in a small fridge. That night, however, Dan awakens to the sounds of a cat and, breaking into West’s makeshift lab in the basement, witnesses the doctor’s work. Utilizing a luminous lime-green serum, what he calls his “reagent,” Dr. West has successfully reanimated the feline corpse, which -- in a scene that’s both macabre and comical -- has already attacked West and latched onto his back. West convinces Dan of his reagent’s efficacy, and the student decides to join West in further research. The threat of Dr. West leaving the university and Dan having his student loan rescinded (not to mention possible criminal charges) cannot keep the two men from tiptoeing into the morgue for fresh subjects.

Re-Animator (1985) was directed by Stuart Gordon, his feature film debut. The script, by Gordon, William J. Norris, and frequent Gordon collaborator, Dennis Paoli, is an adaptation of a story by H.P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West--Reanimator.” Gordon, who co-founded the Organic Theater Company in Chicago with his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (who often appears in his films and has a small role as a doctor in Re-Animator), initially intended to
adapt Lovecraft’s story for the stage. The writers then worked the story into a potential television series, writing a pilot and 12 accompanying episodes. Producer Brian Yuzna read the scripts and persuaded Gordon to make a feature film.

Upon its release, Re-Animator performed very well, earning back its small budget and garnering positive reviews. Gordon displays a flair for black comedy, creating a near perfect combination of horror and humor. The screenplay is stellar, consisting of sharp, intelligent dialogue, including this memorable line spoken by Dr. West (to a newly reanimated corpse): “Doctor, welcome back to life.” The performances are satisfactory, especially the leads: Combs, Abbott, Crampton, and David Gale as Dr. Hill, West’s nemesis. Combs in particular is outstanding. He has appeared in numerous horror films and has twice been nominated for a Saturn Award: his reprisal of Dr. West in Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and his scene-stealing role in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996).

A fan of Lovecraft, Gordon has made additional adaptations of the writer’s stories: From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995, from “The Outsider”), Dagon (2001, from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”), and an episode of the short-lived Showtime series, Masters of Horror, “Dreams in the Witch-House” (2005). He’s also adapted the work of another gothic horror author, Edgar Allan Poe, with 1991’s The Pit and the Pendulum (a composite of Poe’s story of the same name, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Premature Burial,” and other elements from his work) and another Masters of
Horror entry, “The Black Cat” (2006). Combs appeared in From Beyond and Castle Freak (both also starring Crampton), as well as “The Black Cat.”

The distribution company which produced Re-Animator, Empire Pictures, was owned by Charles Band. After handling a number of movies, including the successful Ghoulies (1985) and other films directed by Gordon, Empire Pictures collapsed. Band formed Full Moon Features in 1989, specializing in low budget productions, most notably the Puppet Master series (the first film was produced by Empire but distributed by Full Moon in 1989). Though the company was defunct in 2002, Band continued to produce films under different titles. Full Moon apparently returned around 2005, and a new Puppet Master entry, Axis of Evil, was finally released in 2010. Band’s father, Albert Band, is also a producer/director. Charles Band’s brother, Richard Band, is an accomplished composer, having provided Re-Animator with a solid score, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s work. He was nominated for a 2006 Primetime Emmy for his work on an episode of Masters of Horror -- Gordon’s “Dreams in the Witch-House.”

Producer Yuzna has worked with Gordon on a number of films. He’s also a writer and director, having co-written and directed Bride of Re-Animator, as well as directing a second sequel, Beyond Re-Animator (2003).

A third sequel, House of Re-Animator, has been rumored for some time. The plot was to deal with Dr. West being brought in to reanimate someone recently deceased at the White House (reportedly the Vice President).

In the film, above Dan’s bed, is a poster for the concert film, Stop Making Sense, featuring the band Talking Heads. This is a joke, with a literal interpretation of the band’s name later in the movie. The unrated version of Re-Animator has a running time of 86 minutes, whereas the rated R version is, interestingly, 95 minutes. The latter version includes additional scenes but has much of the gore trimmed. Some fans believe the longer running time adds depth to story and characters, while others believe it simply slows down a nicely paced film. In any case, Re-Animator is undoubtedly visceral, which may prompt some viewers to avoid it. Blood and gore notwithstanding, the movie is anything but lowbrow, an energetic cinematic draw that more than deserves its cult status.


  1. Sark, I was delighted to see your review of this cult movie gem. It is indeed a stylish, original blend of horror, comedy, and (yes) gore. Combs is wonderful as the obssessed scientist, although David Gale has a couple of hilarious scenes. I'm glad you mentioned Richard Band's score, which may be the best Herrmann soundtrack not composed by Bernard Herrmann. I can't stress how hard it is to make a movie like this. Even Stuart Gordon and many of his RE-ANIMATOR collaborators couldn't replicate it (though FROM BEYOND has a great premise...but that's courtesy of Lovecraft). RE-ANIMATOR is not the kind of movie I'd recommend to all my friends (some may be offended), but for discerning viewers, it's a hoot and your superb review does it justice.

  2. Sark, great review. I've only seen this movie once, and I didn't really like it because of all the gore. Yet, I must admit I did laugh a number of times because of its very dark humor.

  3. Sweet review of a great movie, sarkofagus. I own this one. The longer version is better. My girlfriend said she didn't like it, but sure did laugh in all the right places. I think she enjoyed it.

  4. Thanks for the compliments, all! I just watched THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM today and saw that Jeffrey Combs is also in that. This review sparked a Stuart Gordon marathon!

  5. Very interesting stuff, Sark! I'm a huge Lovecraft fan, and I can't say I have ever been satisfied with any movie or TV show based on his stories, but I did like Re-Animator. Some blood and gore never hurt anybody, well except of course the person actually being eviscerated. And small children.

    I haven't seen it in years. What Pit and the Pendulum are you talking about recently seeing? You don't mean the Vincent Price version, do you? I have never see another one.

  6. This is a good movie, Sark. I haven't seen it in several years, but I need to see it again before the end of Oct. I agree with Becky about the blood and gore isn't bad except for small children. I also like Lovecraft. This movie is tame compared to the modern day horror/sci-fi movie. Eenjoyed your review!!

  7. Becky, I was referring to Gordon's '91 version.

  8. RE-ANIMATOR is a great favorite of mine. The late David Gale looks an awful lot like Senator John Kerry. I happened to watch RE-ANIMATOR during his presidential campaign and was struck by the similarity.