Movie Review: Re-Animator

Re-Animator Trailer

What are the unintended consequences of picking up the tools of life and death? Director Stuart Gordon answers with a scary and darkly funny horror film that has gone on to become a cult classic, originally adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft.

  • Genre: Mad Scientist, Zombie Horror, Horror Comedy
  • Run time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
  • Director: Stuart Gordon
  • Writers: H.P. Lovecraft (short story); Dennis Paoli, William Norris, Stuart Gordon (screenplay)
  • Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Samson.
  • Release: October 18, 1985 by Empire Pictures
  • Re-Animator is available on most major streaming services and on home video
  • My grade: 4 Stars

Re-Animator is an example of how blending classic horror genres (Mad Scientist, Zombies) can create a sum that is greater than its parts. Director Stuart Gordon brings us a film that uses our concerns about life and death, as well as Man's capacity to manipulate these forces that are beyond our control to warn us of the madness that can ensue. It's an outstanding campy contribution to one of my favorite and perhaps under appreciated decades for horror, the 1980's. 

The film opens at a university in Zurich with our protagonist, Herbert West, portrayed with mesmerizing intensity by Jeffrey Combs. He injects his mentor, Hans Gruber (unintentionally linking it with one of the best movies ever made) with his re-animating agent. Gruber's violent and gory reaction to the serum hints at the trouble that is about to come when West arrives at Miskatonic Medical Center, a teaching hospital in Massachusetts. 

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) prepares a dose of his re-animating agent. 

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) prepares a dose of his re-animating agent. 

The script and direction are perfectly in sync. Gordon's direction of the screenplay shows that there are no wasted scenes, and many choices made in the opening act of the film are brought to gory fruition in the final act. The minimal number of locations in the film (the hospital, Dan Cain's house, the basement, and the morgue) keep the characters in an isolated world, with no escape from the terrifying consequences of their creations. There are a few small issues with the script including the re-animating agent's inconsistent effects, as well as a couple of plot holes regarding the conclusion of the story, but they do not distract from the ability to enjoy the film. 

Cinematographer Mac Ehlberg gives us plenty of jarring closeups that focus on the the character's reactions to the proceedings. The scenes with re-animated corpses work well, with plenty of movement to give the viewer a first person experience of tussling with a zombie, and the flickering light creates an extra sense of peril. Lee Percy's editing also creates a number of cuts that gradually build suspense until the full terror of the film's many fight sequences is revealed, as well the hideous intentions of West. 

But it is truly the performances that make this film special, in particular the performance of Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West. Combs's menacing facial expressions, enunciation,  and a complete disregard for his own safety as well as those of his colleagues create a terrifying character. His work not only drives the plot, but also affects all of the other characters, from his slow corruption of the compassionate Dan Cain (an emotional Bruce Abbott) to the awakening of his rival Dr. Carl Hill's (the towering David Gale) own monstrous intentions.  

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) prepare to experiment on their first human test subject. 

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) prepare to experiment on their first human test subject. 

The rest of the cast is rounded out by some solid performances. David Gale plays a sinister villain who serves as a scientific rival to West and a romantic villain for Cain. His facial features and eerie smile introduce his character with efficient exposition. Barbara Crampton's portrayal of Megan Halsey is a well done example of the storyteller's adage "Create an extremely likable character, then do the worst thing you possibly can to him or her." Bruce Abbott's performance as Dan Cain provides a conscience to the film and a contrast to the amorality of Herbert West. Finally, Robert Sampson's Dean Halsey demonstrates effective use of physicality and fearlessness. 

The set design, makeup effects, and stunt work are the last piece of the puzzle. The liberal use of fake blood, makeup, and bruises provide the viewer with unspoken effects of the plot of the film and the music and sound effects up the terror levels, which are broken by the humorous observations made by the characters. Finally, the drab gray, brown, black and white of the sets and costumes help balance out the bright red blood and bright green color of the re-animating agent.  Full disclosure: I always reward a couple extra points to filmmakers who make the choice to use makeup and practical effects due the additional ingenuity required to make them work. 

Overall, Re-Animator uses a dark campy sense of humor and horror to issue a warning about Man's limits against the Laws of Nature. It's gone on to a cult following over the years, and offers quite a bit to fans of both horror and 80's movies. Check it out! 

My grade: 4 Stars (out of 5).

Additional Observations and Trivia (Courtesy of IMDB and my own observations - possible mild spoilers)

  • David Gale was made to shave his head and wear a toupee, since it was found to be in touch with his character's vanity, and also made creating the head on the desk effect easier.
  • Melvin the  Re-Animated is portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger's long time stunt double, Peter Kent. During my research for the review, I found an image of a Re-Animator poster autographed by him that says "Watch your fingers!" 
  • In a Reddit AMA, Jeffrey Combs was asked about what still scares him, despite his work in the horror genre. Ironically, he said that he's scared of blood! He also mentioned that he lied during his audition that he was familiar with Lovecraft to get the part. 
  • If you search YouTube, there is an audio recording of Jeffery Combs reading the original Lovecraft short story, "Herbert West: Re-Animator." 
  • The film is only loosely based on the short story. The filmmakers have said that they drew much of their inspiration from the Frankenstein stories and films. 
  • The special effects team used 25 gallons (95 liters) of fake blood during the shoot. 
  • Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Robert Sampson, and Stewart Gordon visited an insane asylum and a morgue to prepare for the film
  • Hey, it's the 80's! random observations: synthesizer beats used in the film's score, as well as the suits worn by Carl Hill and Dean Halsey. You can also see a Talking Heads poster on the wall in Dan's bedroom.
  • One of the best camera shots from the film is when Melvin first wakes up, we zoom in quickly with Peter Kent making some great facial expressions!