[box cover]

Re-Animator

Elite Entertainment Home Video

Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbot, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson

Written by Stuart Gordon, William Norris and Dennis Paoli from the serialized stories Herbert West: Re-Animator by H.P. Lovecraft
Directed by Stuart Gordon


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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    


This is a qualified superlative: Re-Animator is the best horror film of the 1980s.

The Reagan decade was an important — and sort of unfortunate — era for the horror genre. As fright flicks began moving out of the dying drive-ins and into the multiplying multiplexes, slasher films became king, gore supplanted suspense, sequels were quelling creativity, and the advent of home video was making unambitiousness ubiquitous.

Of those films confined to the genre (ignoring crossover hits like The Shining, which refuses simple categorization), some were certainly culturally important. You can't argue against the impact of, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street on the popular consciousness, but neither can you defend Wes Craven's influential movie as a good film. Like most horror films of its time, its narrative is weak, performances inept, pacing stuttered, and its proceedings joyless. Horror films had, by and large, become a franchise and thereby lost their luster.

Single-handedly injecting this decomposing genre with a florescent green serum of life, Stuart Gordon's 1985 Re-Animator masterfully resurrects the gleeful deviance of 1950s monster movies and the delirious camp of mad scientist yarns, and splatters them both in a shower of inventive gore.

Re-Animator is not for the squeamish. Its subject matter — the re-animating of dead bodies — is gruesomely, and excessively, imaginatively, detailed, as is the collateral death and injury occurring in its wake. It is with some lament that I admit this seasoned horror veteran, in his old age, was made to feel queasy more than once by gnarly moments that made me squeal with delight in my formative years. Be warned.

Bruce Abbott stars as Dan Cain, a promising med student at Miskatonic University complementing his studies by romancing the Dean's daughter (comely Barbara Crampton). But things go wrong when Herbert West (the inimitable Jeffrey Combs) comes to town and rents a room in Dan's house. West is returning stateside from controversial studies in Switzerland and instantly clashes with Miskatonic's prized brain specialist, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale). West, see, has developed a re-animating agent that can overcome Hill's theorized six-to-twelve minute brain death. And now he wants to test it on humans, and he wants Dan to help.

This premise could go in a number of dull and/or uninspiring directions, but director Stuart Gordon, who co-wrote the clever script with William Norris and Dennis Paoli, always finds interesting and gruesome ways to complicate matters and escalate the tension, and it all crackles with sick wit.

Re-Animator is based on — or rather inspired by — a 1921 magazine serial by cult author H.P. Lovecraft, and although the author himself referred to Herbert West — Re-Animator as "my poorest work — stuff done to order for a vulgar magazine, and written down to the herd's level," its success as a film inspired Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna to re-team for the decade's second-best (and most bizarre) horror film, 1986's Lovecraft-inspired From Beyond.

Absolutely crucial to pulling off the delicate promise of good camp, Re-Animator's cast is flawless. Abbott, an actor three-parts Freddie Prinze, Jr. and one-part Bruce Campbell, is necessarily bland as the milquetoast Dan, and he bravely resists competing with the more eccentric characters. Likewise, Crampton is content to look naturally beautiful and scream with conviction. Most noticeably, however, is the triumvirate of creepy, full-blooded, and yet unwinking performances by Combs, Gale, and Robert Sampson (as Dean Halsey). Combs' West is a tightly wound, arrogant and sociopathic genius and is so perfectly realized that it may well have doomed the excellent Combs to a career of obscure, eccentric roles (if you haven't seen Peter Jackson's slipshod ghost story The Frighteners, it's worth enduring simply for Combs' brilliant turn as a high-strung FBI agent). The late, stone-faced Gale plays Hill as a more mature, less scrupulous West, and proves his menace with a fixed, blank stare (and later, liberated, with a nightmarish gurgle). Sampson, who spends most of the film bug-eyed and with a torrent of red goo drooling from his mouth, makes for one of cinema's most memorable zombies.

Re-Animator, with its demented tongue slicing through its cheek and gratuitous flaunting of plentiful organs and fluids, definitely isn't something that will endear itself to cineastes averse to the cheap thrills of the horror school, but genre fans should find that it enthusiastically, aggressively and cheerfully outdoes itself in pursuit of its modest genius.

Elite Entertainment's Special Widescreen Edition DVD presents the 86-minute unrated version of the film considered by Gordon and fans the superior cut. The film was also released in an R-rated version that ran, unusually, nine minutes longer. Elite also recycles the pleasing assortment of features found on their 1995 Laserdisc release: a solid, clear, digitally remastered 1.85:1 transfer; the original digital mono soundtrack; a dry but not uninteresting commentary by Gordon; a cast-party-like group commentary by Yuzna, Combs, Crampton, Abbott and Sampson; 20 minutes of deleted scenes, including the R-rated footage and a "never-before-seen" dream sequence; and trailers and TV spots.

— Gregory P. Dorr



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