I first saw Re-Animator on its original (heavily cut) theatrical release, and while enjoying it, I didn’t at that point consider it to be particularly exceptional. Part of that was certainly down to the censorship, which was heavy handed and crudely executed – this is a film where cuts are very damaging. But I soon realised that my initial opinion of the film underestimated it considerably. This is a movie that improves with repeated viewing, and is certainly one of the best horror movies of the 1980s, a delirious, fast-paced exercise in unashamed excess that nevertheless has a sense of style and an intellectual underpinning that lifts it far beyond the other horror comedies of the time. In fact, seen now, it’s notable that the film isn’t playing for laughs, even if it is tongue in cheek – the movie works as a straight horror film in a way that few of its contemporaries do.
It’s also the movie that introduced Jeffery Combs as a horror icon, his scene-stealing performance as the fanatical Herbert West being rather superb. We first see West in a pre-credits sequence where something very horrible happens to a professor in Zurich, and immediately, he’s up there with the best of the mad scientists – ruthless, obsessive and arrogant. Cut to Miskatonic University, where West is enrolled as a new student and immediately butts heads with Dr Carl Hill (David Gale), the seedy and plagiarising anatomy teacher who he accuses of teaching out of date information. Naturally, this riles up Hill no end, and he agitates to have West dismissed from the university. Complicating things is the fact that West has moved in with fellow student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who is is a relationship with Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton, the daughter of the Dean (Robert Sampson) and the object of Hill’s lustful desires. So far, so soap opera. But things take a twisted turn when Cain is sucked into West’s semi successful experiments in bringing the dead back to life – a technique that works, but leaves the re-animated dead as drooling idiots or violent psychopaths. When Hill discovers West’s work, he determines to steal it, only to end up decapitated by West. But of course, this isn’t going to stop him, as West decides to see if he can revive single body parts – namely, Hill’s severed head. This he does successfully, but in doing so unleashes a monster…
Deliriously mad, Re-Animator is a joyous work of bad taste and ferocious horror, a film that positively challenges the viewer to complain about the plot inconsistencies, ludicrousness (how does Hill’s head manage to talk, for instance?) and gleeful offensiveness. Although based – surprisingly faithfully – on one of H.P. Lovecraft’s pulpier works, it really owes more to EC Comics visually (this is an extraordinarily vibrant film, full of greens, blues and reds) and stylistically. Certainly, the unashamed tastelessness of the story feels like something from a comic book. And when you watch the film now, you wonder how anyone could take it so utterly seriously as to want to cut it – but the did, and it wasn’t just the BBFC – the film was unrated in the US and for a long time, uncut copies were on the UK Customs’ hit list of forbidden films.
In fact, Re-Animator challenges you to be shocked, as it throws around the gore and the gruesomeness. Whenever you think you’ve seen it all, the film pulls something new from the bad taste bag, leading to the spectacular final act that has a naked Barbara Crampton being sexually abused by Hill’s severed head – one of the finest moments of sheer unashamed offensiveness in cinema history – and a frenzy of gore, naked bodies, action and snappy dialogue (“you’ll never get credit for my discovery, who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow” surely being one of the best lines of dialogue ever written).
But to concentrate simply on the film’s deliberately transgressive elements would be to under-estimate it. This is far from being some mere splatter extravaganza. It’s actually a great film in itself. Denis Paoli’s screenplay is backed with sharp dialogue and well drawn characters, and Stuart Gordon directs the film with a real sense of style, allowing the characters to develop and the story to unfold while keeping it moving at a fast pace that never flags. He is also sensible enough to allow the ludicrous nature of events provide the humour, and so otherwise keeps the film on a straight line, never aiming for cheap laughs that it doesn’t need. He’s helped in this by a cast who play it soberly. As West, Combs is fantastic – tight-lipped, wide-eyed, driven but controlled, he resembles Anthony Perkins but thankfully avoids Perkins’ habit of going wildly over the top. It’s a tight performance that dominates the film, but he’s matched by the rest of the cast. Gale, as the true villain of the piece (at least West is trying to do something that will benefit mankind) is fantastically slimy and sleazy, making him the perfect foil for West, while Crampton is excellent in what could’ve been a fairly throwaway role – and her willingness to go all the way is admirable. Abbott has the most difficult task, of course, effectively playing straight man to to the rest of the cast, so it’s to his credit that he is able to bring a sense of character to his role.
It might seen odd to call a cult favourite like Re-Animator ‘underrated’, but as a film, I suspect it is. Loved as it is, I’m not sure people give the film enough credits for being a great movie. But it is – a glorious, witty, deranged exercise in cinema extremity that still holds up well even now.