Monday, January 14, 2019
Reeling Backward: "Re-Animator" (1985)
If someone was kid in the 1980s or 1990s, you can tell a lot about them by their relationship to "Re-Animator." If they've never even heard of it, then you know you're talking to a more or less upstanding person. If it's one of their watershed movies, then you're dealing with a twisted, addle-brained horror film junkie who lives for bloody gross-out scenes and gratuitous nudity.
I lie firmly in the latter camp.
Based on a 1922 novella by H.P. Lovecraft, "Re-Animator" falls into the nether region of subgenres, with elements of zombie, vampire and mad scientist flicks mixing together. It's essentially a Frankenstein story, with a brilliant but morally unbound scientist conducting experiments that set off a killa-palooza of murder and dismemberment.
Directed by Stuart Gordon from a screenplay he wrote with William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli, "Re-Animator" claimed its cult film status largely based upon one truly iconic sequence. In it, a man who has been beheaded and brought back to life walks around with his body holding his head, continuing to commit dastardly deeds.
He turns the hospital morgue into his personal lair, creating other undead minions to obey his whims, including having the young feminine object of his obsession brought to him and stripped bare. His corpse holding his head in its hands, he licks her up and down her body with his bloody, dripping tongue. He's interrupted just as the head is being held hovering above her quivering loins, getting ready to do a deep dive into the holiest of holies.
It really is the purest black-or-white moment for cinephiles. You're either horrendously disgusted by that, or itching out of your skin with glee.
Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a Machiavellian medical student who has developed a reagent that will bring dead tissue back to life. After being cast out of his school in Switzerland, he shows up at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts to continue his... studies. West is peevish and creepy, immediately butting heads with the medical school's star surgeon, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who insists that irrevocable brain death occurs six to 12 minutes after the body dies.
What's interesting about this story structure is that Herbert is introduced as the villain, and he conducts himself that way through most of the movie. But when Hill learns of Herbert's discovery and tries to horn in on the credit, he becomes the true antagonist while Herbert takes on a sympathetic note.
Herbert may be a diabolical genius who brings corpses to life and, eventually, starts killing specimens himself. But the idea of another doctor stealing the credit for his invention somehow makes him more relatable.
Bruce Abbott plays Dan Cain, the bland golden boy do-gooder who gets corrupted by Herbert's influence when he moves into his spare bedroom. Dan's cat soon goes missing, turning up in Herbert's mini fridge. He insists the feline suffocated in a freak accident, but we suspect otherwise.
Dan is a typical horror movie hero, lacking much personality beyond a desire to do good, along with being susceptible to temptation. In his case, it's the possibility of conquering death once and for all.
Alas, the dead do not return to their former stable mental or physical state, but become violent killer beasts, blood pouring from their mouths as they attack those who reanimated them. It appears the longer the gap between death and the introduction of Herbert's neon green serum, the more psychotic they'll become.
The med school dean, Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson), gets choked out by a corpse from the morgue during Herbert and Dan's experiment, and gets turned into a loyal zombie henchman by Dr. Hill. It seems Hill, in addition to inventing a new laser drill, has also mastered the art of hypnosis -- which works on both the living and the dead, apparently. Even Herbert falls briefly under his spell. It underscores Hill's unmistakable Dracula vibe.
Dan's fiance, Megan (Barbara Crampton), is your standard-issue damsel in distress whose job is to make protestations against unwise actions, get attacked by loathsome beasties and drop trou on cue.
I'm curious about the metaphysics of Herbert's reagent. In the experiment on Dan's cat, the reanimated (for the second time) feline can't move because its back has been broken during the fight to kill it (again). But Dean Halsey has full range of motion despite having suffered a broken neck when he was killed.
Then there's Hill's ability to control his body after beheading. None of the other reanimated dead appear to have this power. After one or two initial stumbles, Hill's body seems able to carry out every normal function -- even when doing things where Hill does not have line of sight to be able to see where it is going or its hands are reaching.
It's suggested, though never overtly, that Hill has developed mental powers, including the hypnosis mentioned above. There's also some talk about isolating the "will" center of the brain. We're left to guess that his own research has developed far beyond what is depicted.
Perhaps this also explains why Hill retains his full intelligence while Halsey becomes a nearly mindless beast, despite the fact both men received the reanimation serum mere moments after death.
Hill's disembodied head is still able to speak, though in a breathless rasp. He has his body place it in a tray that is filled with blood taken from packs, which apparently are necessary to sustain the head's function. Prior to this, the head was becoming dizzy and on the verge of passing out. Though it apparently doesn't require oxygen, having been carried around in a duffel bag.
"Re-Animator" is generally labeled as a horror comedy, though I would argue it's more or less a straight scare picture with some funny moments -- some intentional, some not. It originally received an "X" rating from the MPAA for all the gore, and had to be trimmed down to receive an "R." Makeup effects artist John Naulin said he used 12 times the amount of fake blood on the production compared to other horror films.
As a result, there are several edits of the film available. The original R version included some material that had originally been left on the cutting room floor that was restored to bring the running time up to the respectable 90 minute range. You can still find the uncut version, and a more recent "Integral" edit includes both the R version with the gruesome stuff from the X. My most recent viewing, probably the first in 20 years, utilized the latter.
The film actually received some decent reviews from mainstream critics, and did enough business on video to result in a pair of lackluster sequels in 1990 and 2003.
"Re-Animator" is a cheap, skeezy horrowshow that's both ridiculous and riveting. I love it so.