Warning: If you haven’t seen Re-Animator and don’t want key plot points given away, you should read something else.
The film’s best line: “Cat dead, details later.”
Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, Herbert West – Re-animator – is one of those notoriously entertaining darkly comic horror films. Released in theaters without a rating (like other horror staples Dawn of the Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Re-Animator pushes the boundaries of excessively violent horror. Starring Jeffrey Combs as the demented, yet brilliant Herbert West and containing a highly competent supporting cast featuring Bruce Abbott as medical student Dan Cain; David Gale as the plagiarizing professor Dr. Carl Hill; the stunning Barbara Crampton as Megan, Cain’s fiancé and the daughter of Miskatonic medical school’s dean, Alan Hasley (Robert Sampson). The story centers on West, a medical student studying independently in Switzerland with the renowned physician and scientist Dr. Hans Gruber at the film’s beginning. An experimental mishap – culminating in Gruber’s death – brings West to Miskatonic, where he immediately butts heads with Hill and shares a house with Cain. Hill asserts the brain can only survive after death for six to twelve minutes; West doesn’t concur and his research into a reanimating serum backs him up.
Eventually West recruits Cain as an assistant and carnage ensues. Winning the disapproval of Dean Hasley and his daughter Megan (who thinks West is highly creepy – a well founded assertion), Cain’s involvement with West leads to the revocation of his student loans and the dismissal of West from the university. West, overtaken by his research obsession, employs Cain to continue the experiments off the record, leading to the death and reanimation of Dean Hasley, the eventual dismemberment and resurrection of Dr. Hill (in two pieces), and a battle with the university morgue’s residents, all under Hill’s control due to his latest research result: a laser drill helpful in lobotomizing people, essentially making them Hill’s slaves. West impales a recently revived corpse with a medical saw, a head severed with a shovel is brought back (along with the accompanying body), that head is crushed, a body is torn asunder, and so much more. In addition, the film features a litany of nudity. Some is not in a sexual capacity, such as nude zombies or a hospital patient; but this doesn’t mean it’s all sterile. Megan is nude in a few scenes: a sex scene with Cain, in addition to the infamous part where Hill’s severed head attempts cunnalingus, only stopping due to West’s interruption. While Crampton appears naked in a few scenes, to those who believe nudity in a horror film discredits one’s acting ability – this is not the case. Crampton plays her part very well; the emotional response to her father’s mental condition (due to his death and resurrection) seems genuine, especially for an unknown actress in an excessive exploitation horror flick. The remainder of the cast plays their parts very well: Combs is both creepy and darkly comedic, delivering his lines with perfect wit and earnest conviction; Abbott’s portrayal of Cain is a perfect counterpart to Combs – the straight man who skeptically follows West, torn between the medical breakthrough in his midst and his desire to obey the rules; Gale is not only sinister, but also genuinely creepy and following his decapitation his character grows even more maniacal; and Sampson plays his part as the puritanical college dean and father very well.
The symbolism of West’s reanimation desires, symbolized through science as opposed to religion, are not a new theme in film or literature but Gordon’s movie explores this issue quite well – while also trying to get a cheap laugh via gore, well timed comedic lines, and nudity. Like the desire, as discussed by either Lacan or Zizek (especially in his book Looking Awry), of a character like Hamlet or Sophocles’ Antigone, the culmination of an aspiration is not the true goal but instead the quest. The fervor West exudes when experimenting with his revitalizing serum is testament to this. Instead of actually reaching his goal, West is constantly sabotaging himself – first when he kills Gruber in the film’s opening scene (it’s not revealed whether this was accidental or intentional) and later when he runs a medical saw through the chest of a reanimate test subject. The desire is the culmination of a separate fetish, one that exceeds his actual experiments and travels into the unobtainable. West wants eternal life, but will he satisfy his desires when he concludes his experiments and finds a suitable serum; a serum that doesn’t cause violent outbreaks in his subjects? According to Lacan and Zizek: no. He needs the experiments. The experiments drive him, keep him moving forward. If West concludes his experiments, achieves life eternal, and unleashes a medical breakthrough that’ll change the human life cycle, the longevity he gains has no purpose. One isn’t supposed to realize their desires, since they are a driving force, not a means to an end. Then again, I could just be talking out my ass.
Yet, I feel that the violent zealousness driving West is all he is. That doesn’t negate his incredible intelligence, but the focus of this genius is his work – without it he is nothing. West isn’t capable of ceasing his experiments, but the character demonstrates he has no idea what he’ll do once he reaches his destination. Cain is different, which makes him a great counter to West. Cain is level headed; a scientist, a logical positivist to the end. Eventually, at the end of the film, Cain embraces the empirical evidence West submits and uses the serum to revive Megan, moments earlier suffocated by one of Hill’s subservient morgue drones. As Cain injects Megan with the serum, the shot freezes and fades out, only leaving the neon green glow of the syringe containing West’s death antidote. This shot indicates Cain’s empirical mindset by focusing solely on the product of his studies with West. The logical positivist shines through: only the serum West proves through their grim research can save Megan now. Through observation and field testing Cain recognizes it as valid. However, like Hamlet, the resurrection of Megan will prove hollow (the events of the film’s second and third act prove this in an excessively violent way), just like Hamlet’s revenge.
Another issue Re-Animator discusses is the legitimacy imposed on the medical profession by so-called experts. Just like pharmaceutical and medical information as described by Dr. John Abramson in his expose on the before mentioned industries, Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine, information is controlled and relegated to a few select individuals who play by certain rules and maintain certain positions. Dean Hasley praises Dr. Hill for generating lucrative grants for the university and a paradigm shift in medical science, which West’s serum could possibly provide, could interfere with the business aspect of the medical school. The gatekeepers (a term stolen from Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent) can’t have this (in this case Dr. Hill), as it’ll negate a lifetime worth of research. Hill even tells West in a venomous exchange, “I’m looking forward to failing you.” Eventually Hill attempts to blackmail West and steal his research, an act that leads to his death and resuscitation.
Just like the pharmaceutical companies Abramson describes, independent research isn’t desirable unless it eventually leads to a favorable position for the companies. The suppression of undesirable data is paramount to keeping a stranglehold on the industry and unless this unfavorable information can eventually leads to a profitable product or a positive PR situation, it’s not for the general public. Hill follows this train of thought almost exactly: he dismisses West as a heretic and a nuisance until he discovers West’s breakthrough research can benefit him. Luckily for the audience it culminates in an absurd situation where a severed head controls his reanimated body somehow and he sinks into a psychopathic frenzy, leading to a highly entertaining bloodbath.
On a final note, the theme song and score for Re-Animator, composed by Richard Band, is excellent. I’ve had the music from the opening credits in my head all night. It complements the film perfectly – sometimes its dark when necessary and at times when the film attempts black comedy the music reflects this through haunting, yet playful melodies. For those that look for product placement in films (and this relates to music), Cain has a poster for the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense on his wall, clearly in-shot when Cain and Megan are in coitus.
According to IMDB, Re-Animator cost around $900,000 to produce and grossed almost $2 million dollars domestically – ultimately a profitable venture. There are two sequels but I’ve only seen Bride of Re-Animator, which assembles the two protagonists (Combs and Abbott) from the first film, along with David Gale as Dr. Hill, and is directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna. It’s not a very good film, although it’s better than some sequels from the same genre. I’ve only heard bad things about the third Re-Animator film, Beyond Re-Animator, but I’m sure I’ll check it out one of these days. One of the best parts about watching Re-Animator again was seeing it as a midnight movie at the Enzian. A few co-workers regard the Enzian as a snobby independent theater, only playing art films. I find this quite far from the truth. While Enzian does showcase a good deal of boring, and sometimes outright terrible, independent films, their screenings of old movies – especially the horror films presented at midnight every October – are fantastic. The ambience is always fun. Before Re-Animator an old episode of Dr. Demento was blasting throughout the theater, audible outside while I had a cigarette prior to the film. Next weekend is Child’s Play and the weekend after is Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. I’m fairly certain reviews for both will appear here soon.
But enough about the Enzian and my own inane take on Re-Animator. Here is the trailer.