October Horrorshow: Re-Animator

Ah, October. The time of year when the leaves change from their electric, yet uniform, green into the vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows that typify the mind’s eye view of a New England landscape, one full of hills cut by a meandering river, the sky a wonderful azure dotted here and there with the softest of clouds. The air grows crisp and the days begin to grow noticeably shorter, but the oppression that is summer is left quickly behind, only a distant memory in the pleasantness of the changing season. It was the Reverend William Newell who once wrote:

 

Changing, fading, falling, flying,
From homes that gave them birth,
Autumn leaves, in beauty dying,
Seek the mother breast of earth.

Hmm. Makes one think, doesn’t it? I believe it was also Lewis Black who said, back in the far distant days of 1999, “Fall sucks!” Yes, Lewis, yes it does.

Fall does suck. All those lily-livered poets and pansies that find beauty in a time during which, for all appearances anyway, everything is dying, need to step back and realize the only thing good about the fall is temperature. Everything else about it sucks, except for football and one other important thing. October, the first full month of autumn, is also where Halloween resides, and Halloween means, in this day and age, horror films. October is also when Missile Test devotes the entire month to watching and reviewing horror films. The last few reviews have been of either middling fare or outright dogs. But not today.

Today welcomes the classic horror film Re-Animator to the October Horrorshow. From 1985, Re-Animator, directed by Stuart Gordon, is loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story Herbert West—Reanimator. A modern update to a tale that was over sixty years old by the time the film was made, it tells the story of medical student Herbert West, portrayed by Jeffrey Combs with the perfect amount of cold calculation, as he works on horrific experiments meant to raise the dead using a phosphorescent concoction of his own brewing.

These reanimated corpses are not like you and I, however. That is, walking, talking, thinking beings with a sense of right and wrong, and a lifetime of stored experiences to further inform that knowledge. Once dead, these poor people’s minds seem to have crossed a plain, never to return. What’s left behind is the stuff that gives Re-Animator its gory juice: super-strengthened and insane zombies, lacking in human knowledge and thirsty for violence. Only frontal lobotomies are shown to control these wretches. Lest one think Re-Animator is a zombie flick, it’s important to point out that the film is more character-driven than that. There are re-animated corpses, the base definition of a zombie, but Re-Animator has more in common with Frankenstein than it does with Night of the Living Dead. Like Victor Frankenstein, Herbert West sets out specifically to develop therapies that will cheat death, whatever good intentions they may have had superseded by the vagaries of ego, obsession, and even sociopathic behavior. Yes, in Herbert West, Stuart Gordon found a character he could run for many a mile before things begin to get tired.

West is joined in the film by an at-first unwilling accomplice, fellow classmate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). He’s dating the daughter of the dean of the medical school, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). The dean (Robert Sampson) is at first enthusiastic about having West study at the school, until he gets wind that his daughter is involved in his experiments, no matter if this information is incomplete or not. Things devolve for the main characters from there, resulting in corpses being reanimated by West and Cain when they should not be. The real antagonist of the film is then revealed, after having been only hinted at earlier. He is the menacing Dr. Hill, played to Christopher Lee-like perfection by David Gale. Once he finally crosses paths with West one time too many, Re-Animator raises the stakes and becomes the horror epic that has sustained it for the last quarter-century.

At times Re-Animator feels like a cross between 1930s or ’40s Universal monster horror and an Alfred Hitchcock film. The latter perception is helped by the fact the main score is a blatant ripoff of Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho, but it’s more than just that. The misguided mad scientist confronted by his own creations gone awry pays direct homage to horror of yore, while the complexities of character and setting make it feel akin to the theater-like set pieces that were such an integral part of Hitchcock’s work.

All this aside, Re-Animator is a sickening little movie. The crew hired for the makeup and special effects did a tidy job in making the reanimated corpses disgusting, including a scene with a dead cat that got the plot rolling. Also, for this review I saw the unrated release (oddly shorter than the theatrical cut). This mostly means there is more nudity than normal, necessary since most of the reanimated corpses are in a morgue, but it also means a viewer has to endure an outrageous scene of sexual assault near the end.

Still, Re-Animator is among the best of 1980s horror. It was compelling enough to spawn a pair of sequels, and any horror fan worth their salt should see it.