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Review: Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator (1985)

Directed by: Stuart Gordon

Premise: Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. A gifted medical student invents a serum that brings the dead back to life.

What Works: In the mid-1980s the horror genre began mixing humor with gore. This was done with mixed results but quite a few cult classics came out of that experimentation and some of the better examples include Return of the Living Dead, Evil Dead II, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. 1985’s Re-Animator was also one of the cult classics to come out of that period and it remains an outrageous and fun mix of gore, science fiction, and deadpan humor. One of the outstanding things about Re-Animator is the way it is able to reimagine a familiar story and make it fresh. Reduced to its most basic elements, the story of Re-Animator is the Frankenstein formula in which a mad scientist discovers a way to defeat death but his experiments result in monsters that wreak havoc upon everyone’s lives. More particularly, Re-Animator draws upon James Whale’s masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein with the characters of Re-Animator mirroring the roles of Henry Frankenstein, Elizabeth, and Doctor Pretorius from Universal’s 1935 film. Director Stuart Gordon uses that familiar story formula but injects it with some really creative visuals and a sense of humor. The movie is very gory with people and animals getting eviscerated and then resurrected and this allows opportunities for some innovative mechanical and makeup effects. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator is a fine testament to the superiority of practical effects. Although aspects of this movie have dated, the physical effects of Re-Animator have a tangibility and even a strange, squishy charm. They also allow for the humor that makes this movie work. Re-Animator is campy but the filmmakers exercise tight control of the tone of this picture and they pitch it just right. This most apparent in the performances of Jeffrey Combs as medical student Herbert West and David Gale as his adversarial professor Dr. Carl Hill. Both of these actors clearly get the humor of the movie but they play it straight. Their deadpan delivery sells the movie but also maintains the integrity of the picture so that the audience can laugh while still engaging with the story.

What Doesn’t: Re-Animator is a movie whose appeal is not really found in the places that audiences usually find pleasure in a narrative feature. The movie has a lot of unusual characters and some very strange happenings but at the center of the story is a conventional couple, played by Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton. As the normal people in the movie they are intended to be the point of identification for the audience but the couple is conventional to the point of blandness and when the two of them are alone on screen the movie tends to go flat. This is especially true in the romantic and dramatic scenes which don’t play especially well. Fortunately, the moviemakers knew what to emphasize and the picture is never dragged to a complete halt. Re-Animator is also a low budget horror feature and in places the constraints of the production are apparent on screen. In most respects those flaws actually give the movie the charm and character that are missing from polished but soulless horror movies made recently. Re-Animator is also a very lewd movie. It has plenty of gore but it is also misogynistic in places. Without giving too much away, there is an infamous scene in the climax in which a female character is assaulted in an exceedingly horrific way and there is no denying that this moment is gratuitous. Then again, the bad taste of the movie is part of its appeal.

DVD extras: The blu-ray edition includes commentary tracks, interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Thirty years after its release, Re-Animator remains an impressive piece of sci-fi horror. It is a cult film and it is certainly flawed but it’s also got a level of energy and imagination that differentiate it from virtually any mad scientist picture made before or since.

Episode: #532 (March 8, 2015)