When I was ten, I used to buy comics at this news shop called Howard’s in Marblhead, MA. They had racks upon racks of magazines and this is where I first discovered the blood soaked pages of Fangoria. My parents held a strict no r-rated movies policy but even still, I’d sunk hours into The Creature Double Feature and the 8 O’Clock Movie on WLVI, which opened me up to some downright nasty stuff. Fango was a look into a much different world, though. They had big photos of the nastiest moments in horror movies that usually spent fractions of a second on screen before cutting to close-ups of horrified reactions to avoid the dreaded X rating that was still in place in the 80’s. I felt weird as I flipped through the magazine, like I was doing something categorically wrong. Being the nerdy little kid that I was, flipping through the pages, I expected an adult to come along and snatch it out of my hands as if it were Penthouse or something. Despite my jitters, no one did and I wound up flipping to a page that would haunt my dreams for a couple of weeks.
In the foreground, a crazed man in a lab coat held a syringe at the ready over a severed head in a dish on the desk. Lurking in the shadows behind him, was a walking headless body, arms ready to grab the mad scientist. I had no idea that the movie had heavy black comedy tones throughout and that later in life I would be laughing my ass off at it. At that moment, this was the most horrifying thing my ten year old eyes could see. Riding home from the baseball games at night through the dark Marblehead streets, I imagined that the headless body was just behind the tree line, following me home. You have no idea how much that frightened me.
Re-Animator begins in Switzerland as a crazed Dr. West struggles against the authorities to complete his experiment on the writhing dead body of his mentor, Dr. Hans Gruber (name ringing a bell? “Now I haff a machine gun. Ho ho ho.”). We cut back to the states as Dan Cain, a medical student, struggles against god to revive a dead woman in a hospital. Shortly after that, we learn that he’s nailing Megan, the daughter of the Dean of the medical school and that their top gun in the faculty is Dr. Hill, an arrogant neuropathologist. Enter Dr. West into the medical curriculum of Miskatonic University. He quickly shacks up Cain and forms a rivalry against Dr. Hill. In the basement of Cain’s house, West performs a succesful experiment to revive Dan’s dead cat. Dan witnesses the results, although the cat is going apeshit in the basement, and joins West’s crusade to prove his Re-Agent on a recently dead human body. Together they break into the Hospital morgue and inject the best body they can find, which leaps off the table and runs wild in the morgue, accidentally killing Dean Hallsey in the process. With the Dean being the most fresh specimen West has had, he injects the body and finds that even though he’s crazed, he still reacts to stimulus and is more confused than berserk. Dr. Hill takes over the medical investigation of the Dean and discovers West’s serum, which he now wants for himself. Distracted by microscopic results while trying to blackmail West, West decapitates Hill with a shovel and animates the separated body parts. Hill’s headless body incapacitates West, takes his head in a dish as well as West’s Re-Agent and heads off to the morgue where he plans to take Megan Hallsey by force and ambush Dr. West with a handful of re-animated bodies in the morgue.
There have been pivotal moments in my movie viewing history. Evil Dead 2, Dawn of the Dead and Escape From New York all changed the way I watch movies. Re-Animator also makes that list. American horror in the mid-80’s was in bad shape. The slasher wave had crashed hard and was limping forward with endless sequels and quick cash ins. However, if you lived in a city, you fared better than us in the burbs. Smaller theaters were more willing to book the great shit that was happening on the independent scene. In 1985 you got the double whammy of Day of the Dead and Re-Animator, to name but a couple. Re-Animator provided an alternative to the tired slashers of the time. It was something different. It also brought together two names that would make waves, Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Together, these guys were like Romero and Savini, John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. They each had a component of a chemistry that produced great results. However, the equation was still missing one element. The secret weapon. An actor named Jeffrey Combs. This triumvirate not only provided alternatives to mainstream horror but they kicked off a new wave of gory movies happening just below the radar. Like I said in the opening, Re-Animator was the sort of movie I only heard about and saw listed at Boston theaters until several months later when it hit the horror shelves at the video store. Slimy, bloody monsters were all the rage with these guys. At the same time Yuzna and Gordon were doing their thing, Frank Hennenlotter and Troma were honing their gross-out skills as well. Re-Animator was at the head of a new horror movie monster.
I’m not going out a limb when I say that this is one of the top ten horror movies of all time. If you disagree with me, you’re wrong. So keep that in mind. What makes it so great, though? One of its trademark elements is a stubborn refusal to take itself seriously. It doesn’t want to weigh you down with attempts to generate fear. It’s almost as if Yuzna and Gordon took a long time to analyze contemporary horror movies to find that most horror directors didn’t know the first thing about scaring you and they probably realized that neither did they. Trying to be scary is a futile attempt these days. Even back in 1985 we lived in times when you just couldn’t possibly frighten us. The threat of nuclear war was at the front of everyone’s mind. How do you top that with a man in a latex makeup? Instead of trying to freak you out, they give you gallons of blood and hilariously over the top violence portrayed in the most absurd light. A guy’s headless body carries his lecherous head around in a dish for half the movie! If Combs’ mad scientist routine isn’t hitting you in the sweet spot, that body/head combo is sure to push you over the edge. The legendary naked Barbara Crampton/David Gale’s severed head scene is one of the most outrageous things ever put to film. I’m surprised no one has copied it.
It wasn’t just the humor and violence that made this movie, though. Jeffrey Combs rode this creature to cult stardom. Without him, it wouldn’t have worked. Combs has a natural awkwardness about him that makes him perfect for the morbid weirdos that he’s best known for. I met the guy at a con a few years ago and my impression of him left me feeling as if the portrayal of an ordinary guy would be the hardest thing for him to do. He ran his fingers over the slip case to that 2-disc Elite release of the movie and said in the familiar Dr. West tone, “I’ve seen a lot of these lately. Yours is different, though. It’s of a higher quality.” Then he signed it: To Bryan, You’re Next! and handed it back. Nice guy but I got the feeling I was dealing with the genuine article there. West is stuffy, arrogant and obsessed. The only thing that matters is developing his re-agent and demonstrating it to the world. Combs plays this to perfection. He’s stiff, brow constantly furrowed, lips drawn tightly over his teeth. He’s intense. Yet at the same time, Combs is keenly aware of the movie they’re trying to make and lets it all go when he tells Gale’s severed head, “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow.” It’s this balance of intensity and relaxed humor that makes West and the movie so memorable.
It doesn’t end there, though. This is a particularly gory movie. The effects are often cheap, but these guys were making attempts at dismemberment that hadn’t been done before in any convincing fashion. While you can tell that David Gale is sitting below the table when his head in the dish, or the rest of him is behind the headless body dummy, they’re done with so much love and care that you can ignore the obviousness of many of the gore gags. After I’d seen a number of slasher movies on TV back in the day, I really wanted to see something more that went the extra mile to gross me out and Re-Animator was the movie to deliver. If wanting to see a man carry his talking, severed head around in a dish is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Re-Animator raised the bar in my expectations of splatter movies. Regardless of their realism, the gore gags went places that few people went. Eventually, these guys would hook up with Screaming Mad George in the make-up department and everything would change again, but that was still a few years off.
Simply put, Re-Animator is the most bang you get for your buck with a horror movie. It’s funny, it’s completely disgusting and has one of those iconic stars of the genre. I realize that most people who visit here have seen this movie a million times but if you’re one who hasn’t, do yourself a favor and check it out.