Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator is an ugly, violent, tasteless, crude, campy piece of horror movie junk. That is not necessarily a criticism. Gordon's movie is so gleefully eager to cross the boundaries of good taste that it becomes almost charming... well, as charming as a movie that spends an inordinate amount of time examining a dead cat can be, anyway. It's closest in spirit to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II – another wildly violent horror movie that's more interested in outlandish special effects, gross-out gags and big laughs than in actually scaring anybody. The movie doesn't quite match Raimi's visual wit, but it certainly rivals his visual energy.
The film is loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West – Re-Animator, a tossed-off slice of serialized pulp that is widely regarded as one of the esteemed author's weakest works. The bare bones of the story are left intact, but Gordon adds plenty of his own elements into the mix in his updated version of the tale (Lovecraft's story, for instance, does not contain a scene in which a severed head attempts to perform oral sex on a terrified female victim). It's the video nasty equivalent of one of those Roger Corman/Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe adaptations – an enjoyably schlocky B-movie that leans heavily on the original text while adding lots of sensationalism.
Our tale opens at the University of Zurich, where ambitious medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners) has just pulled off the remarkable feat of bringing a dead professor back to life. Unfortunately, the professor did not return to the land of the living as his normal self, but as an angry, rage-filled beast. West realizes that he gave the professor an overdose of his experimental re-animating agent, and determines to perfect the formula. Unfortunately, he's no longer welcome in Sweden, so he enrolls at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts, where he quickly resumes his studies.
West finds a reluctant collaborator in fellow student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott, Out of Time), who has agreed to let West rent a spare bedroom in his house. Dan is currently dating Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton, Puppet Master), the daughter of the University's no-nonsense Dean (Robert Sampson, Robot Jox). When Dan discovers West's less-than-ethical experiments and threatens to expose him, West threatens to fire back by telling the Dean about Dan's relationship with Megan. So, the two become partners in crime, and soon they're resurrecting bodies left and right.
While the forward momentum of the plot requires a certain amount of stupidity from the characters (despite the fact that nearly every resurrection goes horribly wrong, no one ever seems to bother preparing for that possibility), there's a lunatic momentum to Re-Animator that proves fairly irresistible. Gordon's ultra-gory special effects are unleashed with increasing frequency, and by the film's climax we're thrown headfirst into an orgiastic display of blood, guts, nudity and murderous intestinal tracts. The film's practical effects have held up remarkably well – if nothing else, the film is an impressive feat of splattery engineering.
Most of the performances in the film are the sort of overcooked turns you'd expect from a low-budget horror movie, but Combs' turn as the psychotic Herbert West is an undeniably memorable piece of oddball camp. There's something very Anthony Perkins-esque about the performance, which may explain why composer Richard Band so shamelessly rips off Bernard Herrmann's iconic Psycho theme (without giving Herrmann proper attribution, it should be noted) throughout the score. Combs' bug-eyed focus is always commanding, and it remains the most iconic role of the actor's long, diverse career.
Re-Animator isn't a movie for everyone, but I imagine you already know whether it's likely to be your cup of tea. It's a much-celebrated work among gorehounds, Lovecraft aficionados and Combs devotees, but it's also the sort of deliberately offensive movie that feels designed to scare off casual viewers. I admire the spirit of the film more than I actually enjoy it (again, the Evil Dead flicks are my flavor of choice when it comes to this sort of thing), but it's an amusingly loony slice of no-holds-barred mayhem. However grotesque it may be, it's undeniably alive.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Year: 1985