In the opening scene of this film, set at a hospital in the University of Zurich, two policemen are lead by employees of the hospital to investigate the source of crashing sounds and unearthly screams emanating from Dr. Gruber's locked office. The police break in to find Dr. Gruber seizing on the floor, with Herbert West (played with terrific zeal by Jeffrey Combs) hovering over him with an empty syringe. West is pulled off by the police, shouting that he needs to record the data of Gruber's vital signs and that a vital experiment has been interrupted. Gruber screams, squeezes his head until his eyeballs burst and then collapses on the floor, dead. One of the employees accuses West of killing him, to which he calmly responds "No I did not. I gave him life." Herbert West is a little cracked. Maybe more than a little. But with his calmly clinical attitude he’s also the man you want in your corner when the shit hits the fan, as it most assuredly does later in the film.
Re-Animator is an over the top horror film with tongue planted firmly in cheek, based on a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft but just as equally indebted to the Grand Guignol theater in its depiction of graphic horrors with very little in the way of any moralizing. Providing the film’s moral center is the couple Dan and Meg – Dan (Bruce Abbott) is a promising medical student at Miskatonic University (an invention of Lovecraft’s), an ivy-league college in New England, and Meg (Barbara Crampton) is the daughter of the dean of the school. This is our normal couple about to enter into the maelstrom and madness unleashed by Herbert West. After the tragic demise of Dr. Gruber, West relocates to Miskatonic, bringing his re-animating solution that can give new life to dead tissue – a scientific research gone awry as he pursues results further and further afield (at one point he’s hovering over a recently deceased corpse yelling at Dan’s qualms about reviving the corpse with a curt "Every moment that we spend talking about it costs us results!"). Rounding out the central characters are Meg’s father, an old-fashioned, out-of-touch fuddy-duddy, and Dr. Hill, the school’s star brain surgeon and “grant machine,” played as a perfectly arrogant, slavering creep by David Gale. Conflicts between Herbert West and Dr. Hill are set up from the get-go as West accuses Hill of stealing Dr. Gruber’s ideas, and Meg has an understandable and immediate dislike of West’s cold and creepy demeanor when he asks to move in with Dan and set up a crude laboratory in the basement of his house.
As West demonstrates the effectiveness of his re-animating serum to Dan, things quickly begin to slide downward for everyone involved and before long we get to witness a re-animated head, several severed limbs, mind control via laser brain surgery, and many other ghastly horrors, all delivered in a spirit of gleeful excess by director Gordon (a founder of the noted Organic Theater Company) and his cast, who do the film a great service by playing it completely straight. It’s to their credit that despite the film’s panoply of grotesque (and funny) horrors they also make sure that its characters read as true – too often horror films populate their casts with clichés just waiting to be bumped off so it’s always nice when one spends the time to make us believe the people we’re watching, even if we know that they’re actually going to play second fiddle to a shambling headless corpse at some point.
Along with other horror films of its time like Evil Dead 2 and Dead Alive, Re-Animator marries comedy to the horrific proceedings in a perfect mixture and would certainly be a lesser film if it merely went for scares. And though they pay homage to Lovecraft’s spirit, they take his ideas pretty far out in a way the author himself never did in his preference for horrors insinuated and alluded to rather than displayed. And that’s where it comes back to the Grand Guignol’s displays of excess and gore. And despite being very much of its time in the spirit of what other horror films were doing, there’s just something about its rootedness of Gordon’s work with his actors and his experience on stage that makes even the most outrageous effects and scenes of the film seem like they’re as natural as the characters they’ve made. It’s a spectacularly entertaining film, certainly not for everyone, but if you’ve read this far, it’s most likely a film for you.
- Patrick Brown