This film is based loosely on a H.P. Lovecraft tale. The producer and director, both, went on to be involved in several other Lovecraft projects. Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was reputed to be a sickly child, whose parents died insane. From 1908-1923, he wrote dozens of bizarre short stories for WEIRD TALES magazine, and several other pulps of the period. He is universally considered as the father of modern horror—kind of a 20th century Edgar Allen Poe. He died in abject poverty at age 47 in Providence, RI, in 1937 at the height of the Depression.
By all accounts, he was quite a character—a stirred blend of Richard Crumb and Truman Capote, who would have given birth to Stephen King --kind of a person. He was literally “cold-blooded”, due to a very rare affliction called “poikilothermism”. As a result, his skin was always cold to the touch. He wrote voraciously. He is given credit, for instance, for being one of the most prolific letter writers in history—scripting nearly 100,000 letters in his short lifetime. He often remained awake for prolonged periods of time. It is said that even after being up for more than 36 hours, he exhibited no irritability or fatigue. While writing a story, it is reported that he stayed awake for more than 60 hours. Somehow it was as if he understood that his time in this world would be short—so he was very driven to maximize each minute.
He created a fictitious “great” book, and he called it the NECRONOMICON. It is referred to in many of his stories. In his mind, this book was as important and significant as the Bible, the Koran, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, more so than even the Dead Sea Scrolls. A “Mad Arab” supposedly wrote it in the 8th century. It contained evil workings, horrendous spells, and “Dark Things Best Left Alone”. Perhaps it even influenced author J.K. Rowling as she created the HARRY POTTER series. Several people have taken his bogus book, and written elaborate full-length editions of it—like NECRONOMICON FILES: The Truth Behind Lovecraft’s Legend, by Daniel Harms.
H.P.Lovecraft also created the mythic MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY. It contains a library where one could find the Necronomicon. He was considered an atheist, yet much of his work included concepts and ideas bordered on the Metaphysical—dealing with the “Great Old Ones” from outer space who came to Earth to create havoc. So it resembled mythology more than theology, not like the Edgar Cayce variety of “ascended masters”, who have re-entered this plane of existence through human mediums— in order to further educate man, and to prepare the way for a better day.
Stuart Gordon was one of the writers, and the director of RE-ANIMATOR. He started on the project in 1983, when producer Brian Yuzna came to him and pitched the idea that they use several H.P.Lovecraft stories as a foundation—and that they could create a wonderfully grotesque, but hilarious, adaptation for a movie. Gordon created the treatment, and they sold the idea to Charles Band, and his new company—Empire Pictures.
Gordon had quite a reputation as an avante garde theatre director. He had gained some notoriety while still a senior at the University of Wisconsin, where he staged a psychedelic nude review version of PETER PAN. He formed the Organic Theatre in Chicago in 1969. They produced several important plays, including David Mamet’s, SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO. Roger Ebert, who had attended many plays at Gordon’s theatre, wrote,” Gordon’s direction (of RE-ANIMATOR), and particularly his use of special effects, will come as no surprise to anyone who saw his famous “WARP” trilogy on stage.”
Gordon has directed 16 film projects, including some television work. His directing debut, on TV, was on BLEACHER BUMS in 1979. He left the Theatre Group in 1983, to work on his first feature film, RE-ANIMATOR. Over the years, he ended up directing several Lovecraft-inspired films. [More than 41 of Lovecraft’s stories have been made into films, or television projects.] I enjoyed his film, SPACE TRUCKERS (1996), with Dennis Hopper. It was a kind of George Lucas inspired Sci-Fi version of CONVOY (1978). Later, Gordon co-wrote the script for HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS (1989). Ebert wrote further about him,
“ He borrows from the tradition of comic book art, and B-grade thrillers, using his special effects as dazzling throwaways as the action hurdles forward.” Gordon co-wrote the script with two other authors. Dennis Paoli was the first of them. He is the one most often given the sole writing credit for this film. He has been a writer on 14 films, and most of them were very active collaborations with Stuart Gordon. William Norris is the third writer. This film was his only recorded writing credit.
By 1985, when RE-ANIMATOR was released, it was leagues away from being the first horror comedic gore-fest film. Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD was released in 1981, setting up its own series. Its horror, comedy, and gore certainly must have influenced Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. The Freddy Kruger phenomenon was being created parallel to RE-ANIMATOR—but NIGHTMARE OF ELM STREET beat them to the screen, being released in 1984. Back in 1980, the graphic Slasher film was given new blood with the FRIDAY THE 13TH series—where Jason, that charmer in the hockey mask got to cut up nubile teenagers fifty ways to Sunday. RE-ANIMATOR took on a life of its own, carving out it cult status. Producer Brian Yuzna directed the first sequel, BRIDE OF THE RE-ANIMATOR, in 1990; aka, RE-ANIMATOR II. It sported many of the original cast. In 2003, Yuzna released, BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR, with only Jeffrey Combs still a small part of the cast.
For RE-ANIMATOR, the cinematographer was Mac Ahlberg. He was trained in Sweden. His first 14 films were in Swedish. He works fast, and he has a good eye for composition. In 1985 alone, four of his films were released—this one, as well as TRANCERS, GOULIES, and THE DUNGEONMASTER. In 1986, he was head lenser on another cult film, ZONE TROOPERS. He also shot BEVERLY HILLS COP III in 1994. The musical score for RE-ANIMATOR was credited to Richard Band. He is the brother to filmmaker, and Indie mogul, Charles Band. Richard has been very busy. To the present, he has completed musical scores on 63 Science Fiction and horror films. He got his start on LASERBLAST (1978), one of his brother’s films.
The cast for this movie was headed by Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, the very intelligent but quite mad medical student, who while studying in Switzerland, helped to create a mysterious fluorescent glowing green fluid—that when injected into the brain stem of a recently deceased animal—would bring the host back to life; sort of. What seemed to be missing in most of the re-animated test subjects was higher brain function. They seemed soulless, devoid of a spiritual inhabitant. It was reduced to simply being an undead primal creature—reborn with pure animal instincts only—a burning need to kill, and to feed, and then kill some more. These creatures were not shuffling zombies though—they could move fast, and strike hard. There is a book, albeit out-of-print with the used editions going for $30.00, called, RE-ANIMATOR: Tales of Herbert West, by H.P.Lovecraft. It is an adult graphics “comic” book, and it only has 48 blood-soaked pages.
In the prologue to this movie, we were introduced to a Swiss professor, whose face and eyes were swelled up red and undead. He expired in terrible pain and confusion. People rushed into the room.
Swiss Woman Doctor: You killed him!
Herbert West: No, I did not. I gave him life.
Jeffrey Combs’ career started in 1981. He has been a regular in many of the Stuart Gordon horror films. He was in both RE-ANIMATOR sequels, promoted to Dr. Herbert West. He has a very recognizable face, having completed 72 guest spots on various television series since 1983. I remember him best as a STAR TREK regular. He appeared in 23 episodes of DEEP SPACE NINE, one episode of VOYAGER, and he has been in ten episodes of ENTERPRISE. I liked him playing Montgomery Clift in HBO’s 1996 film, NORMA JEAN AND MARILYN, with Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino. Combs has facilitated a nice career as “Hero” in the horror genre, rivaling someone like Bruce Campbell with his EVIL DEAD series.
Bruce Abbott played the handsome protagonist, Dean Cain, the idealistic med student, enrolled of all places at the “Miskatonic” University. He was romancing the Dean’s daughter, and endeavoring to complete his internship and earn his medical degree before being found out. Abbott did an alright job with his “lead” role, but as often happens, the two antagonist characters—Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, and David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill—were both over-the-top parts that were played to the hilt, quite overshadowing Abbott—leaving his performance pale and barely memorable.
Abbott has appeared in 22 films since 1982, doing the bulk of his work in the 80’s. I remember him vaguely as Thomas Daggett, replacing Elias Koteas, in PROPHESY II. He seems to be best known for his marriages. He was married to actress Linda Hamilton from 1982-1989 [who was married to director James Cameron from 1997-99]. Abbott has been happily married to actress Kathleen Quinlan since 1994.
The actor that left teeth marks on the sets was David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill, the doctor in charge of teaching—a man who dishonestly appropriated many of the theories postulated by the Swiss doctor Herbert West had studied and mentored with. Hill had published his own version of the theories, and had taken full credit for it. He, also, openly lusted after Dean Halsey’s daughter, Megan.
Herbert West: I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m very disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You’re not even a second-rate scientist.
David Gale was an English actor, who had relocated in Hollywood in 1972. He had 19 film appearances, but most of them were as a regular on American Soap Operas—like THE SECRET STORM (1972-1974), THE EDGE OF NIGHT (1976-1977), and SEARCH FOR TOMORROW (1982-1983). He did appear in BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR in 1990. He died in 1991, from heart trouble. He was only 55 years old.
Barbara Crampion played Megan Halsey, Cain’s love interest, and the film’s gratuitous sex object. She spent a lot of her scenes in the nude. Her lovely body was Botticellian—rife with milk-fed curves and rosy cheeks. She was not required to create much of a back-story, or to get below the surface of her character. Her primary actions were pouting and screaming. She was in the most famous and shocking scene in the film—the Severed Head Fellatio Party. Dr. Hill’s severed head was manipulated between her thighs by its headless torso, and it was suggested that it administered oral sex to the screaming maiden—that a Head could give head. Director Gordon and producer Yuzna discussing that scene on the specialty section of the DVD, both agreed it was a totally absurd notion—and yet like so many other things in the film—it became just an integral part of a headlong plunge to complete cult status.
Ms. Crampion has had 25 film appearances. RE-ANIMATOR was her sixth movie. Like David Gale, she did a lot of work on the Soaps—DAYS OF OUR LIVES (1983), THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS (1987-2002), squeezing in THE GUIDING LIGHT (1993-1995). She worked for Stuart Gordon several more times, but she was not in either RE-ANIMATOR sequels.
The film’s plot was chaos, barely under control. Herbert West was needle-happy with a God-complex, and usually he had a back-up vial of glowing green serum to inject into anything, or anyone, that died in his presence. The salient fact that these very corpses, once re-animated, became raving behemoth killing machines, never seemed to deter West. He kept trying to get it “right”—again and again. He moved in with Dean Cain, and set up his laboratory in the cluttered basement. Jake the cat disappeared. Megan found him dead, being kept in a refrigerator by Herbert West. Perhaps West had killed it? Regardless, he re-animated it in Cain’s presence.
Herbert West: Don’t expect it to tango—it has a broken back.
Like so many other “things” that West re-animated, the cat had to be re-killed since it was transformed into a berserk combatant. A re-animated corpse that West and Cain were experimenting on in the school’s hospital morgue soon murdered Dean Alan Halsey. Later, Halsey, a raving frothing madman, murdered several others. Herbert West, rather than be blackmailed found it prudent to murder Dr. Carl Hill, decapitating him with a blunt shovel. But Hill’s strong personality allowed him to transcend mere decapitation. He became a Talking Head, who was able to control his own headless body. It carried him around in a bowling bag, while it wore a manikin’s borrowed head. Later Herbert West was himself devoured by several unnamed re-animes, and the carnage escalated to a fever pitch.
It is difficult to pinpoint how this movie has become such a cult favorite. It is currently a “Camp Classic”, rating its own midnight showings, much like THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975). What gives it its edge—the nudity, blood, humor, and gore? No, somehow, it takes those ingredients and moves them to the next level—and it works like crazy. It is a campy twist on Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, which Lovecraft stole from—yet deliciously updated, made fresh, unexpected, and ten times more intense. As a film, it seems to push to the limit, gathering momentum and shock value with every frame. Presently it is considered a “must-see” for any serious horror fan. It has been called,” A very big wet chunk of cool gore, with a great sick sense of humor, and some really gruesome sequences. In short—it is a perfect date movie.”
I recall a shocking scene in the recent SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), toward the end when the main characters are trapped at the pub. One of the characters is grabbed by the ravenous zombies, and dragged through the window—and they tear open his chest and begin to reach into the steaming mass of entrails, pulling out and gobbling his intestines like they were kosher sausages. In RE-ANIMATOR, we are served up scenes like that every few minutes. A lot of people had to avert their eyes, turn away, run away angry and screaming—or they would have to make a choice to sit there transfixed, pole-axed, gripping their seats with white knuckles, and hanging on tightly for the full bloody ride.
Roger Ebert saw the film while at Cannes, and there had been no advance publicity. The audience exploded viscerally and gleefully—shouting catcalls, eliciting shrill whistles and unearthly goat cries—clapping, yelling, and stamping their feet. Ebert later wrote,” This film chooses a disreputable genre, and then chooses to transcend the genre, to go way over the top with its artistic vision—no matter how weird.”
Much to everyone’s surprise, Pauline Kael wrote,” The movies are so rarely great art, that if we can’t appreciate great trash—there is little reason for us to go.” Another critic wrote,” By the end of this film we have been assaulted by lurid imagination, amazed by unspeakable sights, and then we are blind-sided by the movie’s dry sense of humor.” Ebert added,” Stuart Gordon wanted to make a good movie, and not fully camp the genre like say Paul Morrissey did with ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN (1973). What Gordon created was a livid, bloody, dead pan exercise in the theater of the undead.”
This film fascinated me. I was mugged by it—slapped around and left shaking in shock. I liked it much more than I did the EVIL DEAD trilogy. In the final quarter of the film, the frenetic pace of the killing, the unabashed use of total nudity—at the level of a Peter Greenaway, the pre-digital special effects, the dark humor, and the solid links to H.P. Lovecraft—all combined to coalesce into a homeostatic pleasurable experience. As of yet, I have not seen the two sequels. Perhaps now that I have been hazed and inaugurated, I will have to seek them out.
I gave this movie a rating of 3 solid stars
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)