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Entries in Re-Animator [1985] (1)

Sunday
Oct242010

Re-Animator (1985)

Sometimes, Undead is Better

For a great time, watch Re-Animator and From Beyond back-to-back.  Both are Stuart Gordon mad-scientist films, and they share much of the same cast and screenwriters. The main difference is the control that Gordon and company exert over the narratives: From Beyond begins solidly and then deteriorates into a meta-comment on the mental state of its characters.  Re-Animator starts weird and stays weird, but never gets fully out of control; it pays homage to the best horror and comedy traditions, while also bringing a unique voice to both.

Re-Animator, which is also based on an H.P. Lovecraft tale, centers on two med students at Miskatonic University.  Bruce Abbott stars as Daniel Cain, a solid student whose girlfriend, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), is the dean’s daughter.  Daniel takes on a new roommate, the mysterious hot-shot transfer Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs).  West’s ideas about reviving dead tissue make him the laughing-stock of the faculty; but when he uses a glowing green serum to resurrect Megan’s dead cat, he makes a believer out of Cain.

This odd couple moves beyond animal experiments and focuses on bringing human beings back to life—conveniently, the university hospital has a freshly stocked morgue.  The catch is that the specimens, once revived, are mindless, savage beasts with super-human strength.  West and Cain have trouble keeping their secret under wraps, and before long, both their hard-nosed professor, Dr. Hill (David Gale), and Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) are murdered and re-animated as zombies.

Things aren’t all bad for them, though.  Somehow, Dean Halsey has managed to keep his mental faculties—even though he’s been brought back as a severed head in a metal dish.  He uses his decapitated body to steal West and Cain’s data in the hopes of hogging the spotlight in the medical community (okay, maybe his brain isn’t a hundred percent up-and-running).

The rest of the movie sees West, Cain, and Megan trying to foil Dr. Hill’s evil plan, and getting the crap knocked out of them by an army of the undead in the process.  Poor Megan gets the worst of it, as anyone familiar with Re-Animator’s most famous scene can attest (I’ll just say that Dr. Hill re-defines “giving head”).

It’s easy to write the film off as campy, but there’s so much more going on here than cheese-ball gags and gallons of blood and sinew.  The key is the Combs-and-Abbott duo.  Jeffrey Combs’s portrayal of West has made him a horror icon, and he deserves every bit of praise he enjoys.  But Bruce Abbott’s gradual un-buttoning gives Re-Animator its heart.  Cain is an earnest character with everything figured out—at the beginning of the movie.  But West’s arrival has the same effect as adding food coloring to a glass of water: the future he once envisioned so clearly is gradually clouded and then undone by his descent into madness.

Re-Animator is a perfect horror-comedy.  Stuart Gordon’s love of both genres shows in every detail, from the inventive practical makeup effects; to the bizarre sitcom relationship of West, Cain, and Megan (they’re like the cast of The Big Bang Theory—except demented and actually funny); to Richard Band’s score, which is so close to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score that the word “homage” doesn’t even apply.  The best sell, and highest compliment, I can give is that the film blends the themes of Pet Sematary with the sensibilities of Evil Dead 2—with a touch more subtlety.

Re-Animator showcases everything that’s missing in modern horror movies: big ideas; (mostly) believable, creative special effects; a cast bursting with personality; and a creative team that gives a shit about the project beyond how well it will do on opening weekend.