Welcome back, horror aficionados! If you’ve got an appetite for over-the-top gore, dark humor, and scientific experiments gone horrifically wrong, then boy, do I have a treat for you! I’m talking about none other than Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic, “Re-Animator,” featuring Jeffrey Combs as the unforgettably eccentric Dr. Herbert West, Bruce Abbott as his unsuspecting roommate Dan Cain, and Barbara Crampton as the damsel-not-so-in-distress, Megan Halsey.
Now, before we dissect this gem of a film (pun absolutely intended), let’s talk origins. “Re-Animator” takes inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s serialized story “Herbert West–Reanimator.” While the film pays homage to Lovecraft’s fascination with the dark corners of science and the macabre, it diverges significantly from the source material. Gone are the episodic misadventures across different settings, and in their place, the film offers a more focused narrative set predominantly within the walls of Miskatonic University’s medical school. In a departure from Lovecraft’s more serious tone, the movie injects a dose of pitch-black humor that actually works incredibly well.
So, how does “Re-Animator” stand on its own two severed legs, both as an adaptation and a horror flick? Before we answer that question, let’s start by looking at the short story that started it all…
“Herbert West – Re-Animator”
H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West–Reanimator” is a serialized story that first appeared in the amateur publication “Home Brew” in 1922. The narrative is divided into six episodes, each detailing the macabre experiments of Dr. Herbert West and his quest to conquer death. Narrated by an unnamed colleague of West, the story takes us through a series of grotesque attempts at reanimating the dead.
In the story, West is not so much concerned with the moral implications of his experiments as he is with the scientific challenge they present. Despite initial failures that produce zombie-like, incomplete revivals, West continues to refine his reanimating serum. The tale follows him from medical school to the front lines of World War I, each setting offering new opportunities and specimens for his work. His relentless pursuit of mastering death leads to horrifying outcomes, with reanimated corpses exhibiting violent tendencies and even leading to West’s ultimate demise.
Each episode provides escalating tension and horror as West’s experiments become increasingly unmanageable and the consequences grow more severe. Unlike the film adaptation, the original story has a darker tone and lacks the comedic elements. It’s a grim exploration of scientific hubris, pushing the boundaries of ethical science to a chilling extreme.
The story stands out as one of Lovecraft’s forays into science fiction and lays the groundwork for the zombie genre, although it differs significantly in tone and subject matter from the majority of his cosmic horror tales. It also happens to be The Longbox of Darkness’s second favorite HPL story, right behind “The Rats in the Walls.” It was simply inconceivable that we wouldn’t do a post about it.
And now, on to the film in question!
The film starts us off in the hallowed halls of Miskatonic University’s medical school in Arkham, Massachusetts. Here we meet Dan Cain, an earnest medical student, and his girlfriend, Megan Halsey, the daughter of the Dean of the Medical School. Their fairly ordinary lives are upended when a new student, Dr. Herbert West, arrives on the scene. West rents a room from Dan and quickly reveals that he’s been working on a revolutionary serum designed to reanimate the dead.
Despite Dan’s initial skepticism, West manages to convince him to assist in a series of increasingly risky experiments. They start with a dead cat, which they successfully reanimate, but with terrifying results—Rufus the cat comes back aggressive and distorted. Undeterred by this nightmarish outcome, West becomes increasingly obsessed with perfecting his serum and pushing the boundaries of death itself.
Their experiments soon draw the attention of Dr. Carl Hill, an instructor at the university who becomes suspicious of West’s activities. Hill, who is portrayed as a somewhat sinister figure, has his own motives for wanting to control West’s discovery. Things come to a head when West and Dan are caught in the act, leading to their expulsion from the medical school. This doesn’t stop them; they break into the morgue to conduct their most ambitious experiment yet—reanimating a human corpse.
The experiment spirals into a nightmarish sequence of events. The reanimated corpse goes on a violent rampage, leading to Dean Halsey being killed and then reanimated by West’s serum. The situation escalates further when Dr. Hill attempts to steal West’s research, leading to his own decapitation and subsequent reanimation.
The film culminates in a chaotic showdown at the morgue, where Hill, now a reanimated head, controls an army of reanimated corpses using psychic powers. West, Dan, and Megan fight for their lives in a gore-filled final act. The film closes with a cliffhanger that leaves Dan and Megan’s fate ambiguous but hints at further horrifying adventures in reanimation.
Okay, first things first—the performances. Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Herbert West is an absolute revelation. The man delivers his lines with such gleeful malevolence that you can’t help but root for him, even as he breaks every ethical rule in the book. Combs has created an iconic horror character who’s as entertaining as he is unsettling. Bruce Abbott provides a solid counterbalance as Dan Cain, the morally ambiguous medical student who gets sucked into West’s twisted experiments. And let’s not forget Barbara Crampton as Megan Halsey, who gives us a strong and sympathetic character while navigating the chaos that unfolds around her.
The film doesn’t shy away from gore, and oh boy, does it deliver on that front! Director Stuart Gordon pulls no punches in the special effects department. The infamous scene involving a reanimated head and a surgical tray is both gruesome and darkly comedic. It’s this kind of unapologetic splatter combined with humor that sets “Re-Animator” apart from other films in the zombie subgenre.
And let’s talk key horror scenes. The film cleverly builds tension, starting with smaller-scale resurrections—like the unforgettable reanimation of Rufus the cat—before escalating to the full-blown chaos of reanimated human corpses wreaking havoc in the medical lab. The climax, featuring a swarm of uncontrollable reanimated bodies, is the stuff of nightmares and makes for an unforgettable visual spectacle.
Now, let’s sprinkle in some critique. While the movie is an adrenaline-pumping ride, its pacing can feel uneven at times. For instance, the build-up to the final act feels rushed, leaving the viewer wishing for a little more narrative depth. Moreover, the movie takes certain liberties with its female characters that might not sit well with everyone. Megan Halsey’s character, although strong, often finds herself in the damsel-in-distress trope, which could’ve been subverted for a fresher take.
When it comes to the film’s musical score, composed by Richard Band, the influence of Bernard Herrmann’s work on “Psycho” is unmistakable. While some might see this as an homage, others might feel it leans a bit too close to imitation. That being said, the score effectively amplifies the film’s tension and adds a layer of urgency to the grotesque happenings on screen.
Lastly, the practical effects deserve a special mention. Long before the advent of CGI, “Re-Animator” relied on good ol’ practical effects to bring its gruesome visions to life. The result is a tactile sense of horror that modern films often lack. The blood looks real, the reanimated corpses move with unnerving realism, and the whole experience becomes all the more visceral.
From its memorable performances to its audacious gore, “Re-Animator” delivers on multiple fronts. It may have its flaws, but they’re easily overshadowed by its many, many strengths.
Ultimately, “Re-Animator” is a film that encapsulates the essence of ‘80s horror: It’s outrageous, it’s gory, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It embraces its B-movie roots, making it a delightful watch for anyone looking to take a trip down the horror memory lane. It’s a movie that’s comfortable in its own skin—or should I say, its own reanimated flesh.
Is it a perfect film? No, but its imperfections add to its unique charm. Whether you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft or just a horror enthusiast looking for a wild ride, “Re-Animator” serves up a twisted tale that’s both a product of its time and timeless in its appeal.
Jeffrey Combs’ portrayal of Dr. Herbert West has left an indelible mark on horror cinema. It’s a performance that blends arrogance, obsession, and just a dash of vulnerability, creating a complex character that’s as intriguing as the reanimation serum he wields. But let’s not forget the rest of the cast and crew, whose contributions elevate the film to its cult status.
We’ll wrap it up by saying that “Re-Animator” stands as a testament to the ingenuity and audacity of ’80s horror. It pushes boundaries and buttons, and leaves us pondering the ethical limits of science, all while delivering some of the most iconic scenes in horror history. It may not be for the faint-hearted or those seeking highbrow horror, but for those who enjoy a side of dark humor with their gore, it’s a must-watch.
So, there you have it, folks. If you haven’t already seen “Re-Animator,” I highly recommend that you do. And if you’re revisiting it, well, you’re in for a gruesomely good time… again!
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