When Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator hit horror fans in 1985, there was cause for much celebration. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. It was incredibly gory and bloody and horrific, but it was also very funny—and not accidentally. It was clever, savvy and well-made. Both director Stuart Gordon and star Jeffrey Combs (who comes across as a kind of younger, diminutive Anthony Perkins) became immediate cult figures—and so, deservedly, did this twisted (and very loose) adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West, Re-Animator.”
Gordon announces that this will be no ordinary horror picture from the very opening scene—a splattery business where Herbert West’s (Combs) first reanimating experiment goes spectacularly awry with his subject’s eyeballs exploding. When a doctor (Bunny Summers) accuses him of having killed the man, Combs responds that he did not—and turns directly to tell the audience, “I gave him life!” whereupon the film goes to its flashy Vesalius’ anatomical-drawing opening credits and Richard Band’s ersatz Bernard Herrmann musical score. (OK, it’s basically a shameless rip-off of Herrmann’s Psycho theme—and it won’t be the last Hitchcock homage.)
The film—as is common with a lot of horror films—has a certain amount of trouble living up to its dynamic opening, while setting up the characters and the central story. Fortunately, it has Combs as West and David Gale as his immediate nemesis, Dr. Hill, to help punch things up till it gets to the big-cat reanimation scene. And the scene in question is more than worth the wait, since it manages to be horrific, lovably hokey, funny and a wonderful example of low-budget filmmaking at its best. (Examined closely, most of the scene consists of pursuing a cat that the actors pretend is running around a shadowy cellar with a swinging single light fixture, further obscuring what we’re not actually seeing.)
West’s interest, of course, is in reanimating dead people, not cats, so he blackmails his roommate, Dan (Bruce Abbott), into helping him get into the Miskatonic University Hospital morgue. The results are predictably disastrous, but unpredictably over-the-top in blood, gore and black humor. Here the film hits its full stride and never lets up—only becoming increasingly outrageous and gorier as it proceeds at just the right pace. How outrageous does it get? Well, this was (not surprisingly) a film that didn’t land on screens in central Florida where I lived at the time, but its 1985 review in the Village Voice promised me a scene where a decapitated head attempted a very personal oral experience with a naked Barbara Crampton, and I thought, well, I need to see this. So I waited for the VHS release—and was delighted to find it more than lived up to this and its other promises. It still does. Go and see it for yourself.