The Horror: ‘Re-Animator’
A "Modern" Frankenstein: Brains, Blood & Slapstick
Horror films are often forgotten and left behind to rot in the locked vault of cult appreciation. Buried so far beneath the over saturation of projects being pumped out into the genre is the struggle of production, the social stigma of fear during a film’s release, and how the critical reception may have changed over time. Searching the vault, we will examine the inner workings of the greatest films and creators the horror genre has to offer. You can check out my last installment on the David Lynch classic Eraserhead here.
Stuart Gordon & Re-Animator (1985)
Often revered as one of the greatest horror comedies of all time, Stuart Gordon’s first attempt at a feature film director struck gold with Re-Animator (1985). The film is a loosely based adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story that was interestingly first published in an “amateur publication” called Home Brew. However, other than some aspects of the source material, the film diverts from Lovecraft’s writing and Gordon’s Re-Animator offers its own interpretation; taking the violence to the extreme.
25 Gallons of Fake Blood & a First-Time Director
The film follows a medical student named Herbert West, played by Jeffrey Combs, and his assistant (and fellow student) Dan Cain, played by Bruce Abbot, as they try to bring the dead back to life; a modern adaptation of a Frankenstein story. It is rumored that Gordon was inspired to do the film as a pushback to the oversaturation of vampire films in theatres. The film takes this “Frankenstein” to a whole new level as this one-time theatre director left the stage and dove head first into a sea of fake blood.
The film opens with a crew of security and doctors attempting to break into a classroom in search of a professor. Upon opening the door, they are greeted by a convulsing and screaming Dr. Gruber with Herbert standing over him holding a needle. Soon, Dr. Gruber’s eyes are popping out of his head and spraying blood all over the nurse. The viewer quickly knows what this film is: a gross-out horror film that features a sense of shock sensibility that is necessary for portraying comedy, while also stacking a body count. This awareness of the violence is what makes the film work as it pulls no punches and draws laughs from the sheer absurdity. Using 25 gallons of fake blood in the shoot went to use as the film originally earned an X rating, later cutting footage to be moved to an R rating. The results is an observation of death that bleeds deep below the surface, and treats the absurdity with a genuine seriousness that only aids to the “cartoonish” comedy.
The Moral Treatment of Death
The film treats the idea of death very interestingly, giving three perspectives on the brutal events. Each of the three act differently towards the core idea of bringing a body back from the dead, and the violence only heightens their reaction. First comes Herbert, essentially the Victor Frankenstein of the film, giving the driving force behind the desire to “re-animate” the dead. He has no moral compass and is willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of the experiment. He acts irrationally towards the extreme violence, and also helps to provide the comic relief the film needs. His eerily calm demeanor in the face of violence contrasts nicely with Dan’s rationality. An infamous scene in the film, in which the duo battles a zombie cat, captures the instability of Herbert and the comedy of the film in one fell swoop.
Moving onto Dan, this character is the “straight” man to Herbert’s antics, but this only means so much as he also participates in the experiments. His reasoning is where we can find some redemption, driven by the loss of a patient early on and a lack of understanding of death; Dan is a middle ground to the film’s portrayal of death. The third perspective is that of the outsider (specifically Dan’s girlfriend, Megan, played by Barbara Crampton). The pair of Herbert and Dan never face consequences for their actions, and the only people really affected are those with a straightforward disapproval for the resurrection of the dead. Megan, being the only rational character in the film, of course suffers the most. This outsider in the film also comes in the form of a stack of bodies belonging to the unaware, and ultimately shows the unpredictability in life, as well as the lack of ability to understand concepts out of one’s control. This is where the ultimate fear comes from, a lack of understanding, and the film makes it a point: those who do not understand do not survive.
Re-Animator (1985) was destined to be a film hated by critics just because of its core material. Fortunately, this was not the case as even critics like Roger Ebert found the film to be oddly charming in its unforgiving portrayal of violence and his experience “being assaulted by a lurid imagination.” The film also establishes itself among cult content lovers for two reasons. The first is that it is based on a work of H.P. Lovecraft, and people tend to love his work. So, when an actually good adaptation is created, his fans will always be supportive. The other reason comes in its representation of the idea of Frankenstein and the antagonist. Fans of the film love to hate the film’s antagonist Dr. Carl Hill, who spends a majority of the film as a severed head, but without him, the cult standing of the film may cease to exist.
The importance of a good antagonist in the film is extremely understated, especially with Herbert having a questionable moral compass. Nonetheless, we still find ourselves rooting for Herbert because of the extremity of Dr. Hill. He is able to control the recently deceased as a severed head (who was killed by Herbert), and he uses that ability to try and steal Herbert’s scientific findings. Coupled with acts of sexual violence/absurdity and depravity, Dr. Hill is easy to hate and provides an effective shift in the scales to make Herbert and Dan appear more sympathetic.
This is the sort of film that only could have happened in the weird bubble that Stuart Gordon happened to find himself in. Only a first-time director, with all relatively unknown actors, would take on a project so ambitious (and with such a small budget) and turn it into a beloved film in the horror world. Reportedly using method techniques, like using a real dead cat, Gordon was able to achieve a sense of seriousness from his actors (despite the ridiculous requests) that resulted in a perfect storm of comedy and horror that will be remembered. After Re-Animator Stuart Gordon directed a few other films, but none that had the staying power of his debut feature. Leaving a trail of intestines and gore, the film is the pinnacle of 80s special effects and leaves the viewer oddly satisfied as they remember the dry humor of Herbert West; as well as his quest to resurrect the dead.