Halloween Month: Re-Animator (1985)
This 1985 sci-fi/horror/comedy is a cult classic to modern horror audiences. Based on the H.P Lovecraft short story ‘Herbert West- Re-Animator’ written in the early 1920’s, Re-Animator was originally planned to be a stage play then a television series. That was until Director Stuart Gordon was advised by special effects co-ordinator Bob Greenberg that there was more scope for horror within the medium of film. Gordon took this on board and was then subsequently introduced to producer Brian Yuzna. Yuzna was impressed by Gordon’s vision and encouraged him to shoot the film in Hollywood as it would be beneficial for all the special effects that were to be brought to life. Ultimately that is what Re-Animator is, a spectacle of squirmworthy special effects that proves difficult to take your eyeballs off!Its a visually gory mind-blowing experience and downright entertaining. The Lovecraft story particularly held appeal to Gordon as a director; noticing a repetitive surge in vampire films, Gordon yearned to see something based on the Frankenstein tale, which is what essentially Re-Animator is a homage to. Although while originally intending to be faithful to Lovecraft’s work, the finished product greatly diverted and became its own thing. The opening scene that sees Herbert West re-animate his professor Dr. Hans Gruber is the main link between them.
Medical student Dan Cain’s (Bruce Abbott) world is turned upside down when he makes acquaintance with a strange new student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). Following his arrival from the University of Zurich, West conducts outlandish experiments on dead tissue to prove he has succeeded the research into brain death. West’s fantastical ideas cause a stir with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), a respectable brain surgeon with bizarre and dark agendas of his own as well as Cain’s clingy girlfriend Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), daughter of the dean of Miskatonic University (the film’s setting). First tested on animals, West extends his experiments to humans along with Cain’s aid as they break into the morgue in search of the perfect corpse to re-animate, however things so horribly and terribly wrong when Dr Halsey (Robert Sampson) is brutally attacked by the students creation leading to plenty of madness and mayhem to follow!
Certainly a product of its time Re-Animator was set to be an effects focused body horror in the style of the popular horror movies of the time before it, e.g. Evil Dead and The Howling, which is how Yunza pitched it. With shock value galore, the 80’s were one of the more intriguing times for the genre as the goriest effects possible were experimented with, creating a whole new tone for horror movies, how far could they go to make you squirm? While genre films before them relied on the power of suggestion to create their iconic moments, with the availability of FX, 80’s movies could be as visually graphic as possible. At the same time movies like these would have their tongue firmly planted in cheek bringing out buckets of blood with an equal amount of dark comedy. Narrowly, Re-Animator managed to avoid a place on the notorious video nasties list over in the UK however it didn’t go unscathed. Its original video format was given 2 minutes of cuts to remain ‘acceptable’. That said, the intended version has been around for some time now so viewers can enjoy Re-Animator in all its gory glory.
Overall 24 gallons of blood was used in the movie. Make-up effects artist John Naulin stated that it was “the bloodiest film he’d ever worked on”. However the most challenging effect the film would have to undertake is transforming the late David Gale’s character Dr. Hill into a headless zombie. While CGI wasn’t mastered at this time, what Re-Animator achieved here was tremendous and incredibly well-crafted. Mechanical techniques were in use to bring Dr Hill’s crazy transformation to life. Actor Gale would have to use a specially-made upper torso to stick his head through in order to achieve the effectiveness of him being a headless corpse carrying around his own decapitated head.
What’s engaging about Re-Animator is its perfect pacing. Beginning as a slow-burner it cleverly manipulates the audience into thinking Herbert West is the villain of the piece but it is soon discovered he is more of an anti-hero once Dr Carl Hill proves how power-hungry he is and attempts to grossly sexually assault Megan and become filthy rich through plagiarising West’s research, all while detached from his own body! Despite West being the creator of carnage he attempts to put things right while protecting his work, he involves a reluctant Dan Cain who’s girlfriend is in jeopardy. Cain also proves that when it comes down to it he will do whatever it takes for the one he loves even if that means putting West’s bright green serum to use! The antagonisitc relationship between West and Hill is compelling and intense viewing as its safe to say no character in this film is a true “good guy”. The build-up from a quirky science-fiction film to an explosion of blood, guts, corpses and gore is a real treat.
Jeffrey Combs generated cult stardom following his iconic performance in the film. Prior to Re-Animator, Combs made his horror film début in Frightmare (1983). But its this 1985 film and its subsequent sequels he is most remembered for. Adding to his status as a cult star, Combs has appeared in numerous episodes amongst the Star Trek franchise. He continued to act in several horror movies following his Re-Animator popularity in titles such as House on Haunted Hill (remake), I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Feardotcom, The Frightners and The Wizard of Gore. Most recently Combs lent his voice to Don Thacker’s bizarre yet intriguing debut feature Motivational Growth which toured the festival circuit last year. Combs played the mysterious Mould. Combs plays West in Re-Animator as a headstrong yet flawed character who continually builds on his experiments no matter how out of hand they get! West is calculated, manipulative and ambitious, did I mention murderous! Despite this, Combs does create a sense of likeability with this interesting horror character that allows the audience to root for him.
The film’s score composed by Richard Band is one of its most powerful assets, creating an atmospheric tone, it is said to be heavily influenced by the theme from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Without a doubt its one of the best horror movie themes delivering both tension and excitement during the innovative opening credit sequence.
Upon its release in October 1985, Re-Animator did exceptionally well. It went on to make $2 million in North America, surpassing its budget of $900,000 which was well achieved. The late, great film critic Roger Ebert who was continually vocal about his distaste for certain horror movies gave Re-Animator a thumbs up, describing it as a “pleasure” and admitted “in its own way, on its own terms, in its corrupt genre, this movie worked”. Other critics praised Combs dynamic performance and the out-of-the-box special effects. Re-Animator is now ranked at number 32 on Entertainment Weekly’s “Top 50 Cult Films”.
In 1989 Brian Yuzna directed a sequel, Bride of Re-Animator which is also incredibly well-liked among the horror community. Yuzna directed Beyond Re-Animator a number of years later in 2003 which generated mixed reactions.
2011 saw a musical adaptation, an intruging translation from screen to stage but fitting in the sense of Gordon originally planning it as a stage play. From the piece of footage before, the musical looks like a lot of fun with mind blowing effects. In 2006 Dynamite Entertainment released a crossover comic between Ash from The Evil Dead coming across Herbert West. Certainly a guilty pleasure thrill ride for fans!
It’s safe to say that Re-Animator is one to watch this Halloween. Its a true 80’s horror movie, grossly gory, compelling and a twisted update of the classic Frankenstein story that is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.
Brian Yuzna will be attending this year’s Celluloid Screams Sheffield Horror Festival here in the UK on October 24th-26th as the guest of honour, a late night screening of Bride of Re-Animator will also be on offer. Don’t miss it.
I love to read your comments, so let me know via this article, twitter (@HayleyR1989) or facebook (link below) your thoughts on Re-Animator and what you’d like to see covered on #HayleysHalloweenMonth2014
Hayley Alice Roberts