There is a streak of wild entertainment running through the visceral mayhem of Re-Animator that sets it apart from its more difficult-to-watch peers.
“Your optimism is touching but a waste of time, a good doctor knows when to stop.”
This early admonishment from a senior nurse delivered to junior doctor Dan Cain highlights exactly what makes the characters of Cain and the unbalanced medical student Herbert West so dangerous yet so oddly heroic. They push beyond the limits of the extreme to achieve what they believe to be good, but are ultimately bad to the bone. Much like the horror movie classic Re-Animator itself.
Who’s going to believe a talking head?
Re-Animator begins as it means to carry on, with a failed yet hilariously grotesque attempt at corpse revival, West (played with macabre glee by Jeffrey Combs) unleashes his luminous green ‘re-agent’ on his deceased professor. The results are eye-popping. You can assume I’m not talking figuratively here.
The disgraced West then moves to New England where he rents the basement of all-round good guy Cain to work on his liquid reanimation potion. Cain is dating Megan (Barbara Crampton establishing herself as this website’s favourite scream queen. Also see You’re Next and We Are Still Here) who is the daughter of Doctor Carl Hill, a menacing, plagiarising sociopath, who by the end of the film will be shuffling around, carrying his own decapitated head and forcing said head on a captive Megan in one of cinema’s most squirm-inducing scenes.
After a moderately successful experiment with a dead house-cat (you can read ‘moderately successful’ as having to slam a cat into a wall to stop it eviscerating you) Cain and West take their findings to Megan’s father Doctor Halsey but end up banned from the medical school for their bastardisation of science and nature.
Thankfully this isn’t enough to stop the pair, they later break into the school and experiment on a human cadaver. The results of this experiment lead to a gruesome chain of events… the death of Halsey, his eventual resurrection into a flesh hungry zombie, the murder of Doctor Hill, the resurrection of Hill as a headless sex-criminal and countless variously rotting corpses springing to life and getting in the way of West’s scientific work. All soundtracked by a theme that is as non-litigiously close to the Psycho theme as you can possibly get.
Re-Animator wasn’t the first extreme-gore film I saw as a teenager, that honour goes to the splatter films of Herschell Gordan Lewis, but it was definitely the most fun. There is a streak of wild entertainment running through the visceral mayhem of Re-Animator that sets it apart from its more difficult-to-watch, serious minded peers.
I would even go so far to say that Re-Animator is easily the equal to Evil Dead II in the way it perfectly blends comedy and intensely inventive gore. This is body horror with a GSOH. A film that cured me of my obsession with David Cronenberg, whose films now strike me as exhaustingly pompous.
Director Stuart Gordon wouldn’t quite top this early horror, although I do have a fondness for its sequels, which are kept enormously entertaining thanks to Combs’ always watchable Herbert West. 1986’s From Beyond, which reunites Combs, Crampton and Gordon, would stray too far into queeze-inducing grotesqueness and lose much of the fun and Robot Jox… well… you’ll have to talk to Matt about Robot Jox.
Re-Animator however is pitched wonderfully, and is blessed with one of the most perfectly written final scenes, bringing everything full-circle while leaving you grimly fascinated by what could possibly happen after its final injection of luminous green goo.
For more spine-chilling thrills to watch over Halloween, check out our complete 31 days of horror movies list.