RE-ANIMATOR. A comedic Lovecraftian gem of a horror
When it comes to successful adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s prose, the list seems exceptionally short, but Stuart Gordon’s directed Re-Animator, although popular and excellent in its own right, is not such an obvious choice. It lacks the eerie atmosphere typical of the works of the recluse from Providence, instead featuring a lot of blood and exceptionally perverse scenes present in the author’s literature but not necessarily associated with him. Additionally, there is a pitch-black sense of humor that also strangely doesn’t fit with Lovecraft, who always scared seriously, right to the end – usually bathed in madness and all-encompassing horror – depriving his characters of even a glimmer of hope for the peace of their minds and bodies.
However, Gordon’s film does quite well with body horror, even beyond death. It brings to mind Frankenstein, which the creators of Re-Animator somewhat wanted to parody, but the humor in their film doesn’t stem from making fun of the classic. In truth, the laughter in this horror-comedy might pose a problem for many viewers, although, at the same time, it’s what has contributed to the well-deserved popularity of the adaptation for over thirty years.
Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), a medical student at Miskatonic University in Arkham, is looking for a roommate for his rented house when one evening, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), his new schoolmate whom he had met a few hours earlier, appears at the front door of the residence. Herbert has just returned from Switzerland, and we learn from the prologue that he had apparently reanimated his professor, resulting in a particularly bloody outcome. Now, he hopes to continue his experiments, slowly drawing Dan into them to the growing disapproval of his girlfriend and the dean’s daughter, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). Meanwhile, the talented and insane Herbert enters into a war with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who, upon learning about the experiments on reanimating corpses, decides to appropriate West’s invention.
The very opening credits already reveal the nature of the film, with colorful illustrations depicting human anatomy set to music reminiscent of the playfully treated theme from Psycho.
In the first scene, still taking place in Zurich, we get a clear signal (a warning for many) that this will be an exceptionally bloody romp that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. However, Gordon surprisingly combines horror with comedy, not relying on making fun of familiar themes, as seen in other cult classics straddling these genres like Fright Night and Return of the Living Dead, both released in 1985. While those films overtly played with the vampire and zombie myths, quoting classics at almost every turn, Re-Animator is devoid of intertextual references, focusing on telling a story that is not necessarily original but is presented in a quite fresh way
The horror here isn’t based on an obvious fear of death, but rather a fear of living death. Although the question arises of why the reanimated subjects created by West scream desperately and exhibit wild brutality, Gordon is not interested in existential (or even post-existential) contemplations. Instead, his directorial film debut in cinema is primarily characterized by gallons of blood gushing from eyes, ears, and mouths, dripping from severed heads and bitten fingers, not to mention fully perforated corpses and an exploding chest cavity from which intestines fly out, as if they know what’s about to happen.
The finale is an authentic Grand Guignol, with limbs flying, people dying in particularly gruesome ways, and West’s fluorescent serum seemingly the only glimmer of hope for the characters.
It’s so horrifying and macabre that it must elicit laughter, though I suspect not from everyone. On one hand, Re-Animator thrives on exaggeration and excess in its bloodiest scenes, while on the other hand, the actors never attempt to emphasize the film’s overall humorous tone. They deliver their lines with commitment and seriousness. But how can you take seriously a talking severed head and its attempt to assault the poor, naked Megan? You can’t.
The film’s secret weapon is Jeffrey Combs in the title role. Despite appearing unassuming, West, portrayed by him, is a well-mannered madman with his iconic glasses and an emotionless voice, even in moments of utter chaos. Unperturbed by the numerous sacrifices made in the name of science, he behaves like the head of the class whom everyone should listen to. While we are well aware that he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an individual who will bring death to all the characters just to use them as experimental guinea pigs later, it’s impossible not to love West for his sardonic and disdainful attitude towards the rest of the world, unwavering faith in the righteousness of his actions, and surprising loyalty to Dan Cain. This last fact makes the titular re-animator a character slightly more complex than just a terrifying and unlikable madman, especially when someone much worse is lurking on the horizon. Despite that, in the scene where the room is rented (especially in the basement), Gordon’s direction makes this moment feel like a true Faustian pact – the moment when Dan accepts money from Herbert, despite Megan’s clear objection, surprises with the way it’s emphasized through music, framing, and even lighting. I love the shot in which only the triumphant West and the defeated Halsey appear. In a way, Re-Animator is the story of the showdown between these two for Cain’s soul, even though it’s not a spirit but a body that lies at the heart of the plot.
The character portrayed by Abbott is suspended between love and death – a truly romantic hero who, thanks to the actor’s believable and restrained performance, provides a good counterbalance to the eccentric West. At the same time, he serves as our guide through this world, which is consistent with the literary original (in the source material, the unnamed narrator was Herbert’s partner in their experiments). Cain is an equal co-protagonist of the film, striving throughout the entire narrative to resist the temptation of succumbing to madness, entrusting himself to the dreams of people who bring chaos and horror just to tame death. Each of his decisions to reanimate another corpse carries moral doubts, although he fails to notice the moment when he becomes an instrument in the hands of his diabolical colleague. Dan Cain’s tragedy lies in the fact that his goodness and nobility, when confronted with evil and madness, must lead to the ruin of his ideals, even though ultimately it’s something they know nothing about, something that compels him to pick up the syringe with the bright green fluid.
The romantic aspect of this character is further developed in the sequel directed by the original producer, Brian Yuzna, titled Bride of Re-Animator (1989), where longer hair and an unbuttoned white shirt make him look like a character from the time of Byron. Unfortunately, the absence of Abbott in Beyond Re-Animator (2003), also directed by Yuzna, is quite palpable, even though Combs once again has fun with his role. Aside from the comics featuring the adventures of the titular character and a 2011 musical based on the first film, this was the last time we saw Herbert West.
Gordon went on to explore Lovecraft’s works on several more occasions. A year after Re-Animator, he directed From Beyond, another wacky horror film with Combs and Crampton, filled with slimy creatures, antennae sprouting from foreheads, and body and mind perversions. The trio reunited once again on the set of Castle Freak (1995), a gloomy tale filmed in Italy about an American family who moves into an old mansion inhabited by a monster. Dagon (2001), a Spanish film, is widely regarded as one of the few Lovecraft adaptations that faithfully captures not only the plot but also the atmosphere found in the author’s works. The episode Dreams in the Witch-House (2005) from the Masters of Horror series marks the director’s last encounter with the famous horror writer’s prose.
After more than three decades, Re-Animator rightfully holds its place in the pantheon of horror films. It continues to surprise with its energy and concentration of the macabre, causing some to turn away in disgust while others laugh at Gordon and his team’s bold ideas. Interestingly, its originality was already appreciated during its premiere, and especially the highly enthusiastic reviews from prominent critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, known for their often stern judgments, are noteworthy. After all, which other film features main characters fighting a resurrected cat and a severed head making plans for the future?