Re-Animator (1985)

Director: Stuart Gordon

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In a time of unbridled greed…
In a world that took itself quite seriously…
One man dared to dream his dream…

Of ETERNAL LIFE

On the
Midnight

Movie
Circuit!

The year was 1985. A lot of men were wearing power ties, and a lot of women were wearing skirted suits with running shoes. People were in a hurry to be somebody. Maybe Stuart Gordon was, too. He had been the Artistic Director at Chicago’s legendary Organic Theatre. The Organic was energetic, ballsy, and outrageously funny, and had produced such hits as Bleacher Bums, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, and Warp! Gordon was a local celebrity. But he wanted more. He wanted movies. So he left Chicago and went to Hollywood. Working with writers Dennis Paoli and Chicago theatre chum William Norris, Gordon took on the notoriously difficult-to-adapt H. P. Lovecraft. The result was Re-Animator.

I don’t honestly know what the reception was when Re-Animator first hit movie screens. I was too busy taking myself quite seriously and trying to find a power outfit that didn’t involve suitcoats and sneakers to notice. When I finally did catch up with Re-Animator, it was via videotape on the small screen. I should have made time for it in ’85. It would have shaken every uptight bolt in my body loose.

Of course, I became an instant fan of this bloody hilarious story of a mad scientist whose “reagent” reanimates the dead, with their level of mental sophistication apparently dependent on how long they’ve been dead and how fiendishly brilliant they were in life. When the opportunity to see Re-Animator on a movie screen came up this past Saturday at midnight, I joined a packed audience of mostly adults in their 20s. Sick humor done with perfect timing and semi-cheap special effects never loses its appeal.

The film couldn’t open in better fashion. When strange sounds issue from the office of the brilliant Swiss physician Dr. Gruber, medical staff and police force their way in. They see Gruber prostrate, with his student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) kneeling over him holding a syringe in his hand. Gruber rises and starts to shake. His face contorts and his eyes bulge and explode onto the white uniform of the portly nurse in front of him. West sneers, in a stage aside, that Gruber was a fool.

The scene changes to Miskatonic Medical School, which is run by Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his research grant magnet Dr. Hill (David Gale). Med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is applying chest compressions to a flatlined woman. He has to be coaxed to stop by the seasoned veteran, Dr. Harrod (the wonderful Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, the director’s wife). Deflated by his powerlessness to prevent death, he seeks comfort in hot sex with his fiancee Meg Halsey (Barbara Crampton), Dean Halsey’s daughter.

The next day in brain surgery (?) class, Dr. Hill discusses his theories of brain death while sawing the top of a cadaver’s skull off and removing and handling its brain for maximum gross-out. Herbert West, who has transferred to the school, challenges Hill’s theories and accuses him of ripping off the work of Dr. Gruber. “Just why did you leave Gruber, West?” Dr. Hill accusingly asks. “Because I had nothing more to learn,” West sneers.

Dan posts a notice for a roommate wanted. Later that night, West shows up at his door with the notice in his hand. Meg is there and takes an instant dislike to West. Nonetheless, Dan shows him around the house. West asks in a somewhat sinister manner, “Is there a basement?” When Dan takes him downstairs, West shrieks in maniacal glee that it is perfect! Although Meg tries to dissuade him, West pulls out a handful of cash. Dan appears to have no choice but to rent him the room.

The cast of characters assembled, Gordon unravels the insane experiments of West and the equally insane lust Hill has for Meg, which eventually collide in a bloodbath of reanimated corpses in the hospital morgue. In between, we have an almost surreal scene in which Dan discovers the body of his cat Rufus in West’s refrigerator and later has to go to West’s rescue as the reanimated cat claws at him ferociously. Banging around the basement, Combs wrestles with a stuffed cat fastened to his shirt back as Abbott bats at shadows. Eventually we get the money shot of the matted, bloodied corpse of Rufus twitching and mewling after he gets a dose of the reagent. Naturally, Dan gets caught up in the reanimation experiments.

Dean Halsey becomes a reanimated corpse as well, strapped in a straitjacket in a padded cell. Meg watches in horror—and we in glee at the humiliation of a father figure—through a one-way mirror as the man she calls father beats his head against the mirrored side and oozes blood out of his mouth for no apparent reason. The scene is gory and campy—as is nearly every scene in the film.

Gordon’s gift is to set up cartoon serial climaxes again and again. We see what is coming, but the actual moment—for example, when the reanimated Dr. Hill calls forth his army of reanimated corpses in the morgue and they all sit up under their sheets—is such surprising fun we can’t help cheering. Logic isn’t important in this film; only the energetic comedy and gross-out fun matter.

Combs is absolutely perfect as the sneering, superior, completely mad Herbert West. His horn-rimmed glasses and flat, ironic tone of voice create a young Dr. Frankenstein the midnight crowd can identify with. Abbott makes a believable innocent sucked in like a comic-noir victim. Crampton is more than just a pretty face and body, and brings the normally thankless job of the female lust object into greater focus as an actor in her own fate. Finally, David Gale is sheer perfection as the ruthless scientist who will stop at nothing, not even death, to get what he wants—fame by stealing West’s work and the lovely Meg. His devotion to Meg plays out in this film in a particularly sick—and oddly satisfying—way.

Midnight movies are not for everyone, but they should be. We all need a dose of the ridiculous put out by an enthusiastic film maker and company of actors who show their relish in their evil doings. I’ve seen a number of mocking midnight films with some inspired moments that thud against their own lack of imagination and joy. Their wit is borrowed and sometimes too angry. Re-Animator was made by a master storyteller, a true thespian with a crack stock company and a mission to entertain. Stuart Gordon is the real thing. So is Re-Animator. l

  • Joe Vitus spoke:
    15th/04/2006 to 9:33 pm

    I love Re-Animator. It’s hilarious, atmospheric, and wonderfully smart. It’s also, somehow, resolutely sane. To read a synopsis might lead one to think the whole thing got out of hand or became self-indulgent (and I’m not sure I’d mind even if it did), but the filmmakers always have a firm grip on what they’re doing. I think this movie is close to Theater of the Absurd. In your review, you say “Midnight movies aren’t for everyone, but they should be.” I know what you’re saying. And, in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who saw Re-Animator who didn’t like it.On a side note, there was a “second” Organic Theater in Chicago in the late 80’s. Not very good. They did a production of Rocky Horror which was about abysmal as any live theater I’ve ever attended.

  • Rod spoke:
    17th/04/2006 to 6:05 am

    Dang, Mare, you make me wonder why I, perpetual fan of trash and midnight movies, has never see Re-Animator! I have seen a Gordon film; his 1991 version of Pit and the Pendulum is worth catching – a cross between the anachronistic black comedy of Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and the pungent historical sensibility of Ken Russell’s The Devils.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/04/2006 to 9:19 am

    Ah the Organic. I mourn it still.Rod, get thee to a video store. Better yet, buy the DVD. There is a censored version floating about, and you definitely don’t want that.

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