December 16, 2010

Re-Animator (Review)

Re-Animator (1985)

Director: Stuart Gordon

5 / 5 zedheads


In 1985, two of my favorite zombie films were released. First, there was Return of the Living Dead, which brought us zombies that wanted brains. Then, from director Stuart Gordon, we got Re-Animator: a gory, darkly humorous, and wonderfully executed horror tale that introduced us to Jeffery Combs as Herbert West, a medical student obsessed with bringing the dead back to life.

Hebert West (Combs) is a brilliant yet antisocial medical student. After returning from the Zurich University Institute of Medicine in Switzerland, following the mysterious death of his mentor, West enrolls at Miskatonic University in New England and rents a basement room from another promising young med student, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbot). Cain has a lot going for him. He's handsome, bright, dedicated, and in a relationship with the Dean's beautiful daughter Megan (Barbra Crampton). Little does he know that meeting West will turn his life upside down.

Just a little pin prick. There'll be no more aaaaaaaah! But you may feel a little sick
First, Cain discovers that West is conducting unethical and bizarre experiments in reanimation using a fluorescent green "reagent" injected into the bodies of the dead. After seeing West reanimate a dead cat, Cain becomes seduced by the possibilities of reanimation science. He becomes West's research aid., but their illegal experiments on the dead, along with West's abrasive personality and intellectual pride, bring them into conflict with Miskatonic's top researcher, "grant-machine," and secret stalker: Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale). When all their lives intersect, Cain eventually loses his scholarship, West eventually loses his re-agent to Dr. Hill, and Dr. Hill eventually loses his head and his life but not for long; he's re-animated with powers of mind control, abducts Megan, and begins to resurrect his own zombie minions. It's a crazy tale that gets more outlandish and gory and sexually transgressive as it barrels towards its conclusion. All the way, however, Re-Animator never loses its sense of dark humor.

Herbert West never did feel comfortable in crowds.
I don't think I'd love Re-Animator as much without its black comedy. Don't get me wrong, I love Lovecraft's original text, but I think a straight adaptation of "Herbert West—Reanimator" would be too bleak. People forget how shocking and epic Lovecraft's original story is. An adaptation of the story that pulled its punches wouldn't be very good, but one that was entirely faithful would be quite a grim horror show. At one point in the story, the zombie of a black boxer that est and the narrator believe failed to reanimate shows up at the door with a baby's arm in its mouth. That's bleak stuff. Sure, Gordon's Re-Animator is full of splatter (exploding eyes, crushed heads, drills through the chest, sentient intestines turned into tentacles), but the gore and transgressive visuals are balanced with a cheeky sense of black comedy. Without this humor, a completely faithful adaptation of "Herbert West—Reanimator" would be definitely horrifying but probably less fun to watch. Gordon's Re-Animator manages to be both horrifying and fun.

You're doing the Heimlich maneuver all wrong, West!
So, the film succeeds in part by taking liberties with the text. Whether you buy into the film at all, however, depends on how much you buy the performances

Simply put, Jeffery Combs MAKES this film. Although he's the shortest man on screen, Herbert West is an intellectual giant, but an arrogant and contemptuous egoist with no respect for the living or the dead if they get in his way. As much as I love seeing all the gore, effects, and the amazingly realistic zombies that populate this climax of the film, I most enjoy watching West and Dr. Hill face off for intellectual supremacy in the class room. I've spent many hours in graduate studies classes with pompous professors, so I get a little tickle of self-satisfaction when I watch West purposely interrupt Hill's classes and belittle him for his derivative and plagiarized research. Combs embodies the role of West and I buy every second he's on screen, even if he does seem to shop only at Mormon fashion stores.

Dr. Hill, author: How to Get (a)Head with Women
Equally amazing as Combs, David Gale brings Dr. Hill to nefarious life. When Gale plays Dr. Hill, he's a man of two faces. On the surface, he must be the charming, commanding, educational professional with a strong will to dominate others. In other scenes, he must release glimpses of the same man as a sexual pervert dominated by his own barely concealed obsession with Megan. Then, when Hill is murdered and reanimated, Gale combines and exaggerates both sides of the man: Hill becomes a monster with a supernatural will -- to the point of hypnotic control -- but an equally amplified lust that leads to one of the most memorable and laugh/squirm inducing scenes in the movie: the cadaver cunnilingus scene.

It's like something out of a hardcore Girls and Corpses magazine.

And let's give Barbara Crampton and Bruce Abbot their due. I don't know why Crampton works with Gordon: he seems fixated on getting her nude and putting her into such uncomfortable positions. Aside from the fact she goes completely nude and has her nether regions menaced by a tongue-wagging head, Crampton excels at playing Megan as sweet, intuitive, and an altogether girl-next-door love interest. While everyone remembers Crampton for her nude scenes, Abbot's performance as Cain probably gets the least kudos, yet he holds the film together. It's not easy playing the straight man, but Cain delivers his own great arc that takes him from regular student to fringe scientist to hero to desperate lover. He may not be what most people remember when they think of Re-Animator, but when every other actor is permitted to play such eccentrics, it's Abbot who keeps the story grounded and does much of the heavy lifting.

Re-Animate Hard: With a Vengeance
Great gore. Great humor. Great zombies. Great performances. Re-Animator is a film I watch several times a year, and it's yet to grow old. Although I have never ventured into any of the sequels, I'm fine with that. My love for Re-Animator holds strong. And if it ever withers and dies, I can just give a good old shot of the green stuff. That'll get it pumping again.

Stay tuned for the next two weeks as I review even more zombie classics as part of my Christmas countdown: THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE