‘Re-Animator’ is Stuart Gordon’s loose contemporary adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1922 short story ‘Herbert West - Reanimator’, a parody of Mary Shelley’s most famous work the 1818 Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein’. An important genre work the film has deservedly achieved its legendary cult status within the horror community since its release 30 years ago at the time of writing. This is due to its extremely gory and imaginative set-pieces displaying SFX ingenuity with an abundance of offal showing us just how disgusting the human anatomy really is and because it has an exact right balance between this body horror and its black comedy elements. This is a campy and surreal experience that while is not particularly scary is shockingly disturbing in places, immensely grotesque and hilariously absurd. While Gordon’s vision perfectly gets to grips with the source material’s intended ridiculousness by Lovecraft it is hard to imagine these bat shit crazy proceedings working half as well if the filmmaker had not put together such a fantastic ensemble cast. There are also three main cuts and only one is the true version.
Herbert West (Jeffery Combs) is a medical student who has just enrolled at Miskatonic University in Essex County, Massachusetts, having just returned from Zurich, Switzerland, studying under the renowned scientist Dr. Gruber who died under mysterious circumstances while they were working on regenerative experiments. Herbert clashes with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) about his theory of the brain stem’s length of survival after death and accuses him of plagiarizing his other work from his mentor Dr. Gruber. Herbert soon involves in his continued experiments his roommate the dedicated trainee surgeon Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and as well unintentionally his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton) the daughter of the head of the university. Herbert reanimates the dead by way of injecting a glowing green serum he created into the dead tissue, Dan becomes fascinated with Herbert’s experiments after witnessing the results with his dead cat and helps to smuggle Herbert into the hospital morgue, and this is where the horror really begins.
Combs and Abbott’s onscreen chemistry is electrifying as we watch them play it straight with the dark humour; their characters take very seriously the bizarre and horrifying situations they get themselves into while still being able to induce genuine laughter - neither actor actually attempts comedy. The mad scientist Herbert West is arrogant, psychotically intense and very creepy but due to Jeffery Combs’ charisma and aided by the screenplay’s pitch-black humour he is a very likable anti-hero. His characterization does not fall into the evil villain category as he lacks any moral alignment with his obsession to achieve his goals in his research taking priority over everything else.
His partner in crime Dan Cain is impossible not to like as he is such an all-around good guy with his caring nature but is also naïve. He and Crampton’s Megan have a wonderful romantic chemistry and the gorgeous actress has no qualms giving us the full frontal nude goods. Gale as the evil Dr. Hill who has the power of hypnosis is the real villain here - a despicable human being and it is fitting he ends up the ghastly creature he becomes. These four performances along with the snappy wit of Stuart Gordon and co.’s script chock full of excellent dialogue and the tremendously well aged practical special effects are what have helped the movie gain its rightful huge cult following amongst horror fandom.
Gordon moves everything along at an energetic pace that Richard Band’s frantic score - a blatant rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s exquisite composition for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece ‘Psycho’ - perfectly complements along with the zaniness of the story. I am referring to the Unrated Cut here though. This version is the filmmaker’s definitive vision officially making it the Director’s Cut and was what was originally released into theatres in 1985. All the gore and nudity is intact and while the inferior R rated version heavily cuts back on this, it is padded out with 16 plot scenes that helps the audience understand the film's more confusing aspects that was not explained in the Unrated/Director’s Cut.
One of the most significant of these aspects elaborated upon in the R rated version is Dr. Hills’ power of hypnosis that was only prevalent in the third act of the Unrated/Director’s Cut. This also gives more reasoning to Megan’s father Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) suddenly turning on Dan who he was very fond of before. Although it is actually feasible in the Unrated/Director’s Cut that Halsey loses his temper with Dan when he goes to Halsey to tell him about his findings with Herbert’s experiments as it can be interpreted as him dismissing his claims as nonsense and infuriating him being a man of science.
Megan shows much more suspicion of Herbert in the R rated version and we the viewers also show more dislike to his character in these extra scenes as he is portrayed as a woman hater with much disdain towards her. These misogynistic character traits make him a lot less likable and it was a wise decision for this to be left on the cutting room floor, as it is hard to like an anti-hero with such foul views on females. It also makes for further testament that the Unrated version is the official Director’s Cut as this part of his personality is not passed over to his character in the two Brian Yuzna (producer here) directed sequels - the worthy ‘Bride of Re-Animator’ (1989) and the not so worthy ‘Beyond Re-Animator’ (2003). Also seen here is Herbert West's addiction to his own serum in a scene in which Dan discovers him injecting himself with a watered down version of it to battle fatigue. Again, this was not passed over to the sequels.
While it is interesting to see all this extra footage, the movie works much better as the director wanted us to see it. The R rated version zaps the energy out of the brisk pace making for a more drawn out affair running at around 9 minutes longer. It also has a more downbeat feel with all these added plot points and there is not much in the way of gore. The Unrated/Director’s Cut is far superior being much more energetic and outrageous gory fun. There is also a newer Integral Cut that includes everything running at around 1 hour and 45 minutes that is even more of a fuck up of the lean tight pacing. Oddly enough though it trims the nudity ever so slightly with one early scene taking alternative shots from the R rated version instead but other than that, we still get to see the beautiful Barbara Crampton in full naked glory in the climax. Therefore, I highly recommend newcomers watch first the true version the Unrated/Director’s Cut, then strictly as an alternative watch the Integal Cut but avoid the R rated version at all costs.
Stuart Gordon’s Unrated/Director’s Cut of ‘Re-Animator’ is a masterpiece comfortably fitting in somewhere in my horror all-time top ten. It is essential viewing and I cannot pinpoint anything that is wrong with it (I can even forgive Band for aping the shit out of Herrmann as his theme works so well). This cult genre classic deserves every bit of praise it has received these past 30 years - one of the best written, directed, acted and goriest, funniest, craziest and downright entertaining horror films of the 1980s and of any decade.
**** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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