Saturday, 12 December 2009

Re-Animator (1985)

When a chemical is fluorescent green you
know it must be full of SCIENCE!


The problem with most horror-comedies is that they are neither scary nor funny. Operating under the mantra "it's just a stupid horror film", it's a critic-proof niche of genre cinema with an endlessly forgiving audience, which is probably why it's so popular with amateur and low-budget filmmakers. Still, sometimes a talented team will succeed against all odds and strike that difficult balance between funny and frightening. For my money, American Werewolf in London gets the balance just about perfect. The Evil Dead series, early Peter Jackson and Return of the Living Dead are other good examples. And yeah, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator. I wouldn't have opened the review this way otherwise, would I?

Watching this film today it's hard to imagine the effect that it had on the horror landscape when it was released in the mid-80s. At a time when serious slasher films were all the rage, along comes a campy horror film full of gore and silliness while also being quite perverse and disturbing. It's based on one of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories, but really it's got fuck all to do with it and in terms of tone it's about as far from Lovecraft as you can get. I mean, there's hardly any racism and the word "eldritch" isn't used even once. Stuart Gordon would continue to molest Lovecraft's work throughout his career in films like From Beyond and Dagon.

In Re-Animator, Herbert West (Jeffery Combs) joins Miskatonic University as an undergraduate student, after he is disgraced following some dodgy medical research in Europe. He moves in with fellow med student (and apparently a big Talking Heads fan) Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), despite the protests of his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) who also happens to be the Dean's daughter. West manages to butt heads with top researcher Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), hilariously pissing all over his research at their first introduction and interrupting his lectures by snapping pencils. Not a smart move for an undergraduate but Hill deserves it because he's kind of a dick and is always hitting on Megan (Barbara Crampton), which is gross.

Dan gets suspicious of West when their dead cat is discovered on ice in his refrigerator, and after hearing some suspicious noises in the basement he stumbles upon West using a special reagent to bring it back to life as a vicious zombie feline (a pretty funny scene). After West threatens to reveal his relationship with the Dean's daughter to the school board (although I'm not sure why they would care; the Dean already knows about it), Dan agrees to use his access to the morgue to help West with his experiments. Naturally things start getting out of hand and soon a crazed zombie is lying on the floor with a bone saw buried in it's chest and Dean Halsey is driven straight-jacket insane by a botched re-animation.

When the security guard stumbles upon the blood-soaked aftermath, West manages to weasel out of things with the least-convincing story in history, although Dr. Hill remains suspicious. Hill puts the Dean in a turn-of-the-century-style padded cell which appears to be built adjacent to his office, complete with a large observation window in the wall. For some reason, having the Dean bashing his head against the wall and spewing blood from his mouth fails to raise any eyebrows with the staff, leaving Dr. Hill free to ogle Megan and confront West about his research. West doesn't respond well to Hill's threats and decapitates him with a shovel, but when he brings both parts of Hill back to life he steals the reagent and escapes back to the University with the goal of raising his own zombie army.

I wasn't quite able to figure out whether Hill's body and head operate independently, but I had to laugh at his disguise; attaching a dummy head to his decapitated body and carrying his own head around in a bag. Why didn't he just re-attach his severed head to his body? Anyway, after Hill's head is nestled in a blood-filled tray, he sends out the Dean, who he has lobomotised into a complacent zombie slave, to kidnap Megan to be his zombie bride. The infamous ensuing scene is super-gross and everybody who has ever talked about this film has made a joke about Hill "giving her head", so instead let's just say that Hill attempts to "perform cunnilingus" on Megan using his "severed head". Get it?

Luckily Dan and West burst into the morgue in time to prevent mouth/genital contact, but before they can rescue Megan all the bodies in the morgue spring to life. Megan's undead father shows a glimmer of humanity when she pleads for his help and he hilariously headbutts Hill's severed noggin and fights the other zombies, buying them some time to escape. West gives Hill an overdose of the reagent, which has the surprising effect of turning his viscera into prehensile tentacles, while the morgue is destroyed when a curious zombie decides to fuck about with a junction box for no good reason. Megan and Dan escape and the film ends on an interesting note that would be expanded upon in the inferior-yet-fun sequel Bride of the Re-Animator five years later.

The Re-Animator is a pretty great film, and a lot of this has to do with Jeffery Combs's performance as Herbert West. It's easy to ham it up with the mad scientist role, but Combs manages to make West arrogant, self-absorbed and clearly insane but also funny and somewhat likable. It's pretty hilarious to see this short, bespectacled nerd tearing around insulting everybody like he's king of the world. The rest of the cast are also good and David Gale is particularly enjoyable as the sleazy Dr. Hill. The effects are cheesy and the score is a naked rip-off of Psycho but it all comes together quite well under Stuart Gordon's strong direction. Definitely a horror classic.

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