Re-Animator (1985) Movie Review

As a fan of American genre films, I’ve heard Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” being mentioned in the same breath as other cult films such as Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” movies. But for one reason or another, I’ve never seen Gordon’s movie. Then came “Beyond Re-Animator”, the latest (and presumably, last) “Re-Animator” sequel, which I liked tremendously, especially the franchise’s star, Jeffrey Combs. Then Gordon’s “Dagon” further piqued my interest in the man’s past works. With that in mind, I’ve searched out not just “Re-Animator”, Gordon’s 1985 original, but also its 1990 sequel “Bride of Re-Animator”.

“Re-Animator” stars Jeffrey Combs as Mad Scientist Herbert West, a nerd with a God fixation and a neverending supply of glowing green goo he keeps in — as he proudly announces at one point — unbreakable plastic bottles. After a stint at an overseas college where his professor basically blew up, West has returned home to the States and Miskatonic University. Here, he comes under the tutelage of egotistical doctor Hill (David Gale) and moves in with young handsome med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). West also meets Dan’s girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton), who is suspicious of West, and is also the Dean’s daughter — not to mention Hill’s secret crush.

After a lot of nothing happening, it’s revealed that West is experimenting in Dan’s basement with the green goo. First the good doctor kills Dan’s cat, revives it, and then with Dan’s help, begins experimenting with corpses at Hill’s lab — the hospital morgue. As the experiments of Mad Scientists are wont to do, the whole thing goes awry when the Dean (Robert Sampson) is killed by a rampaging re-animated corpse. The whole thing culminates in a 20-minute hack-em-all sequence at the morgue, where re-animated bodies battle each other, and a severed head nearly rapes Megan. I kid you not on that last part.

As with most films bearing the Brian Yuzna name (Yuzna is producer here), “Re-Animator” is gory and perverse at the same time. Poor Barbara Crampton provides the film with its nudity quotient, including the aforementioned near-rape by way of the severed head. Yes, it’s quite in poor taste; and yes, it’s also really, really funny and entertaining to watch. As for gore, the film lays it on pretty think, but there’s no real horror here. If anything, the “Re-Animator” franchise seems to take the “Evil Dead” route — that is, comedy-horror. In a nutshell, you’ll probably laugh more than you’ll be scared.

Made in 1985, “Re-Animator” looks like a movie made in the ’80s, although strangely there’s a general absence of big hair. Go figure. The film has the look and feel of a low-budget horror indie, which isn’t a bad thing but there are obvious limitations, such as West always seeming to do his super important experiments in the dark for some strange reason. The acting across the board is palatable, with Combs and Gale providing some winning and memorable tongue-in-cheek performances. On the other hand, Abbot and Crampton seems to be taking things too seriously, which only makes their characters dry and dull compared to the two opposing Mad Scientists.

“Re-Animator” certainly doesn’t have the slickness or polish of Gordon’s “Dagon”, but the absence of a sizable budget is easily to blame for that. Still, this is a good movie, with a very interesting premise that begs for sequels. The execution leans toward the absurd, with Combs and Gale embracing their respective archetypes with aplomb. The script seems to exult in its more sleazy elements, and the gore isn’t so overboard as to be indigestible by non-gorefiends. Although this version of the movie is unrated and uncut, I really can’t see anything about it that would keep it from obtaining an R rating. The gore is rather tame.

In my review of “Beyond Re-Animator” I mentioned that that sequel really didn’t tell us why West was obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. Was there a childhood trauma? Something that made him obsessed with beating death? I also mentioned that the original probably contained the answers I was looking for. After seeing the original, this proves to not be the case after all. In short, it seems that West’s only reason for the risky and highly unethical experiments is in search of fame and fortune, and not for any altruistic reasons whatsoever. One might have liked a more involved pathos for our anti-hero, but alas there is none to be had.

Like most of Stuart Gordon’s films, “Re-Animator” is based on an H.P. Lovecraft story. The script is written by longtime Gordon collaborator Dennis Paoli, Gordon himself, and William Norris. It’s a minor work of cinema, the kind that gets built up overtime by an enthusiastic and niche fan base, but really doesn’t deserve it. Is it revolutionary? No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s definitely quite entertaining, and at just barely 85 minutes, it certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome before an ending that prompts the title of the first sequel, “Bride of Re-Animator”.

It could be worst, I suppose. Movies made in the ’80s always have the potential to be much worst with age. “Re-Animator” stands the passing of time rather well. And who would have thunk it — not only is there not one big hair in the bunch, but no cheesy ’80s music!

Stuart Gordon (director) / Stuart Gordon, William Norris, Dennis Paoli (screenplay), H.P. Lovecraft (story)
CAST: Jeffrey Combs …. Herbert West
Bruce Abbott …. Dan Cain
Barbara Crampton …. Megan Halsey
David Gale …. Dr. Carl Hill
Robert Sampson …. Dean Alan Halsey

Buy Re-Animator on DVD