close menu

Schlock & Awe: RE-ANIMATOR is Wild and Wacky Lovecraft

I’ve recently finished reading (most of) the complete fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, and I’m slightly obsessed. I’ve long been intrigued by him as a writer and by his seemingly unfilmable forays into alien elder gods and deep, existential dread. However, reading his work — realizing that he was a pretty bad writer with good ideas who eventually became a better writer with good ideas — makes me even more fascinated by the movies that actually did realize his work.

Inarguably, the best film based on a specific work of Lovecraft’s is Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. It’s still bloody brilliant.

The interesting thing about Re-Animator, and it being the best Lovecraft film, is that Lovecraft himself didn’t like his own story: the serialized “Herbert West – Reanimator”. It  was first published between February and July 1922 in the amateur publication Home Brew. He did it only for money — evidently getting $5 per installment — and he didn’t like the mandate from the periodical that each section end in a cliffhanger. It was a bit of a joke to him, doing a modern, 1920s riff on the Frankenstein story.

Gordon’s film (co-written with Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris) takes story elements from the first two installments of Lovecraft’s story, and heaps on great ’80s gore with a slice of very dark humor. While the movie’s situations are all horrific, the way they’re played and the bonkers-ness of the experiments get laughs. Re-Animator is also incredibly fortunate to have a star-making performance for Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West. Truly one of the best marriages of horror character and actor ever to be put to screen.

In the fictional Arkham, MA, promising medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) needs a new roommate to share his house near Miskatonic University. Dan’s dating Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), the daughter of the Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson), who only allows the relationship on a chaste level (little does he know). Cain’s ad for a housemate is answered by the creepy new transfer student, Herbert West (Combs), who just came over from Switzerland after working with a famous Swiss doctor in the field of death. West is amoral, and openly contemptuous of Miskatonic’s star professor, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), calling Hill’s assertion that brain death occurs six to 12 minutes following someone’s heart stopping preposterous.

West has, of course, been working on a serum to restore life to dead tissue, but has yet to perfect it. The subjects return as ravenous, homicidal lunatics, and Cain is brought into this madness when he hears West wrestling with his newly reanimated cat. West is quite mad, but Cain is just intrigued enough to help. Unfortunately, Meg sees the cat experiment and tells her father, and when Cain tries to explain, the Dean says he’s kicking West out of school and revoking Dan’s student loans, effectively kicking him out of school too.

Then the mad get madder. West and Cain try one last ditch effort to raise a cadaver from the hospital’s morgue, it attacks them and kills Dean Halsey, so they re-animate him as a maniacal zombie. Dr. Hill believes the re-agent works and tries to blackmail West, so West kills him and cuts his head off with a shovel. After re-animating both parts separately, he finds that somehow Hill is still coherent, and steals West’s research, serum, and Meg, whom Hill has always had leering, creepy old man lust for.

Re-Animator is one of the great ’80s horror movies, and — much like last week’s Slither — is one of only a few great horror comedies. The humor comes not from any written jokes, but from the ghastly situations. The reanimated cat attacking West is incredibly funny, but even funnier is when they kill it and West re-reanimates it. (“It won’t hurt you; it’s back’s broken.”) Combs plays everything so deadpan and haughty that you can’t help but find him amusing, even if you’d never hang out with him.

I’m constantly impressed, every time I’ve watched the movie, that it looks and sounds so good, despite its low budget. The effects work is incredibly grotesque, and the makeup on the moving corpses feels very accurate to what dead bodies in the morgue would actually look like. Toward the end, when Hill re-animates every single dead body in the morgue, we get a legitimately horrifying sight, made somewhat funny by Hill aggressive entrails and lungs. And no discussion of Re-Animator is complete without at least mentioning how disgusting Hill and the scene where he — holding his severed head — tries to go down on a naked and screaming Meg is. It’s upsetting and outrageous even today.

Gordon’s direction mixes handheld cinematography in the more manic scenes with smooth staging in the dialogue scenes. Being a theatre director, he allows the actors to perform, and doesn’t make talking scenes work in editing, the way a lot of first time film directors might. West’s basement laboratory hearkens back to Lovecraft and Shelley, lit like a spooky, Gothic castle. However, it’s still very clearly a basement full of crap a college student would have. The pallid green and purple of it all makes the bright, neon green of the re-agent particularly stand out.

There’s a brand-new 4K Blu-ray edition from Arrow which gives fans both the unrated and oringal versions of the movie, grips of new and old extras and commentary, and a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Michael Gingold and a complete reprinting of the 1991 comic book adaptation. It’s the new definitive version of the classic Lovecraftian movie.

32 years later and Re-Animator remains the high water mark of Lovecraft adaptations, and one of Stuart Gordon’s best films period. For more gore, check out my essay on Gordon’s Lovecraft follow-up, From Beyond, my look at why John Carpenter’s The Thing is more Lovecraftian than you probably thought, and another great horror comedy, James Gunn’s Slither.

Images: Empire International Pictures/Arrow Video

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

2,500-Year-Old Ancient Greek Shipwreck Was Discovered

2,500-Year-Old Ancient Greek Shipwreck Was Discovered

You Made It Weird

You Made It Weird : Aaron Rodgers

Superheroes Enjoying Girl Scout Cookies at The Oscars

Superheroes Enjoying Girl Scout Cookies at The Oscars