Re-Animator (1985) (95 minutes) / aka Zombio
Directed by Stuart Gordon.
Adapted from the 1922 serial Herbert West–Reanimator, written by H.P. Lovecraft.
Written by Dennis Paoli, William Norris and Stuart Gordon.
Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton.
Followed by Bride of Re-Animator (1989)
The first time I watched Re-Animator was on HBO, late one evening. I had never heard of the film; however 95 minutes later it became one of my favorite movies of all time. Adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft novella “Herbert West, Re-Animator”, this splattery opera of a Frankenstinian attempt to conquer death is well worth multiple viewings.
Re-Animator opens with a prologue set in Switzerland where young medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Coombs) injects a solution into his mentor, Hans Gruber, in an attempt to save his life. Unfortunately, the results aren’t quite what West expected as Dr. Gruber’s head explodes. Discretion being the better part of valor, West takes both his solution (which he refers to as his reagent) and his research, then hightails it to America.
Our young mad scientist enrolls at Miskatonic University to further his studies and becomes a roommate and friend to fellow student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), using his basement room as a laboratory. Dan’s girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) who happens to be the daughter of the Dean of the Medical School, dislikes West immediately. Her opinion of him doesn’t improve when she discovers West and Dan experimenting on the pet cat, recently deceased, yet meowing, and looking none too cuddly…
When the Dean finds out about the two whacky med student’s activities, he bars them from the campus. West then manipulates Dan into breaking into the morgue and trying the reagent on a human subject. Can you say “bad idea”? The reagent doesn’t seem to work, when the Dean busts in and starts reading the boys the riot act. In a classic case bad timing, the re-animated corpse pushes the door to the morgue off its hinges and right onto the poor old Dean. This leads to the movie’s first tour de force scene. The monster then stomps on the hapless fellow a few dozen times. The corpse then picks up the Dean and bites off a few of his fingers, while squeezing him like an anaconda. West ends the scene with a perfect Grande Guignol flourish, by putting a surgical saw through the rogue dead guy’s innards. Up to this point in the movie, the action has been more subtle, so the viewer receives a nice jolt of unrestrained horror get their blood circulating.
Unfortunately, the Dean is now dead as disco, so Herbert juices the poor fellow up, leaving him a drooling, bloody, insane mess. Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), a professor of the school and erstwhile friend to the Dean, takes charge of him, pretending to be concerned about his well-being. In reality, Hill wants to steal West’s research and get busy with Megan, so he really is a bad person.
In one of the highlights of the film, Hill surprises West in his basement lab and announces his intent to steal the boy’s work. Naturally, West is unhappy with this and cuts off Hill’s head with a shovel. The brilliance of the movie comes out in the following humorous sequence. Sensing an opportunity, West inject reagent into Hill’s head and body, then impales the noggin in order to speak to it. West needs to adjust the head several times, as it keeps toppling over. West is so enthused about his own cleverness, he doesn’t notice Hill’s body approaching him from behind. As West dutifully takes down Hill’s words “…you, you, yes, you bastar…” his head gets slammed onto his work table and its lights out. Hill and his body collect the reagent and Herbert’s notes and return to the Medical School, where he commands the Dean to kidnap his daughter.
The climax of the film occurs in the morgue when Hill is performing an advanced type of lobotomy on the corpses. Megan is strapped, naked, to an autopsy table, where Hill’s head takes liberties with her lady parts. [Literally head giving head! – Editor] Dan and West arrive to save the day but it won’t be easy. Hill has re-animated a whole bunch of really gross looking dead folks that he can control telepathically. Pretty soon, our two heroes are besieged by the grotesque army, who seem mighty pissed off to be alive again.
Fortunately, Megan implores her father to snap out of it and help. He shakes himself out of his trance, grabs Hill’s head and hurls it against a wall, where it squashes like bloody cantaloupe and slowly drips down towards the floor. Nice. As a reward for his noble actions, the Dean gets ripped into pieces by the other corpses. Nice.
West figures out the only way to kill Hill’s body and end the zombie insurrection is to administer an overdose of the reagent. Before you can say Videodrome, we witness Hill’s viscera burst out of his lower GI system and start flailing around. They manage to grip West like a chitin’ octopus, but not before he throws his bag of reagent to Dan, who escapes with Megan.
As the morgue burns, the two love birds get in an elevator to escape the carnage. Unfortunately, hospital elevators being notoriously slow, a zomboid is able to reach in and clutches Megan’s throat. Dan rips the arm off, but not before the damage has been done. They go to the emergency room where doctors try to save her, but to no avail. The film fades to black as we see a grieving Dan look at West’s bag. A hypodermic filled with the fluorescent yellow reagent is the only thing we see on the screen. As the liquid is injected, all goes black, and then we hear Megan scream.
Re-Animator is one of the best horror films of the 1980s and of any era. It has an uncommon mix of horror, suspense, humor, sex and splatter to entertain the most jaded of cult and horror fans. The cast was exceptional with Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton doing the best work of their careers. I was always puzzled why Ms. Crampton never became a bigger star. She is talented, beautiful, intelligent and the camera always flattered her already incredible face and form. Combs had a face made for horror and like Ms. Crampton, continues to work in TV and film. I believe they are underrated as horror stars. Ms. Crampton certainly deserves to be recognized as one of the modern “Scream Queens”.
Gordon’s direction is taut and the cinematography crisp. If there is one criticism, some of the SFX look a bit clumsy, for instance the gigantic intestines and the decapitated corpse of Dr. Hill. I guess I’m being picky, because otherwise, the special effects are quite effective.
If the score of the film reminds you of Psycho, it’s not a mistake. The composer, Richard Band admitted he intentionally sampled Bernard Herrmann’s theme and the music most assuredly adds to Re-Animator’s feeling of dread.
There are several cuts of the film available. Try to find the “integral cut” which incorporates footage from the director’s cut and the R-rated version to make a longer, more coherent version of the film.
Some fans of H.P. Lovecraft have protested that the film wasn’t in the spirit of the author’s vision. However, the novella was an extremely obscure work and the movie was not only true to its original source, but saved the book from disappearing into history.