Certain debut films from new filmmakers just go for broke and come up with something unique that breaks all boundaries. Re-Animator was Stuart Gordon’s first (and best) movie and bustles at the seams with that youthful energy you see in Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead and the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple. It is almost as though these filmmakers are afraid they’ll never get the chance to make another one, and Re-Animator doesn’t hesitate in being an almost operatic, larger than life comedy of splatter. While it paints with a big (red) brush, it is never boring.
Obsessed with the notion of conquering death, young medical student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) arrives at Miskatonic University with a neon-green reagent and his trusty hypodermic needle. It isn’t long before he’s revitalizing the dead cat of his roommate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and sneaking into the morgue for fresh human specimens. In his pursuit of knowledge, West is continually frustrated when his adventures with the undead result in some serious zombie mayhem. When the experiments are almost thwarted by his rival, Dr. Hill (David Gale, channeling Boris Karloff), West’s novel solution is to decapitate him, promptly reanimating his head and body as separate parts. “Herbert,” his levelheaded buddy Cain says in a moment of exasperation, “it’s gotta stop!” Re-Animator never lets up, though, as it wholeheartedly heads toward a spectacular climax of twitching entrails and pulp carnage.
Only 86 minutes long, Re-Animator is best known for its audacious handling of sex, violence, and humor. It hits the right note of cleverness without ever seeming smug or self-satisfied. But the main reason it works as well as it does is that screenwriter Dennis Paoli has such an affection for all the principal characters, unafraid of creating empathy for not only Cain, whose idealism clouds his judgment of West’s experiments, but also his blond girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton), who, before being abused as a sex toy for the disembodied head, is actually the movie’s sensible, sure-footed voice of reason. Crampton and Abbott are fresh-faced and likeable good guys, but the movie belongs to compulsive scene-stealer Combs. Like Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead series, Combs gives such an iconic self-righteous, half-nebbish, half-zealot performance as the title character that he redefined the mad scientist for a whole new generation of horror fans.
Once again, Anchor Bay gives a genre picture first-class treatment. The color timing is very clean, with a digitally remastered transfer that captures the skin tones and the nitrous green animating fluid without the colors getting muddy or acidic. The audio is cleaned up effectively and distortion-free, with clear dialogue tracks.
The commentary track by director Stuart Gordon provides a useful background on how Re-Animator came to be, and his background in Chicago theatre before venturing into genre filmmaking. He’s quite open in terms of discussing his own naïve luck as a first timer, and articulately defends the graphic pulp violence and nudity that happily, wickedly push the boundaries of good taste. The second commentary by producer Brian Yunza and several members of the cast is more about them hooting and cackling through, reminiscing on what a good time they all had. It’s all quite endearing, but when the infamous scene of the disembodied head giving head to actress Barbara Crampton shows up, all conversation awkwardly, nervously stops dead in its tracks, only to resume with a sigh of relief once that’s over with! The 70-minute documentary features interviews that cover all aspects of the film’s production and release, with surprisingly few repeats of anecdotes from the audio commentary track. It reminds viewers of the MPAA’s strict code of conduct circa 1985 and that Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael were two of the film’s champions. Special effects aficionados may enjoy some of the tricks behind how they pulled off the scenes with Dr. Hill carrying his head around, which comprise almost half of his screen time in Re-Animator. The accompanying interview footage with Stuart Gordon and Brian Yunza is basically one long take of them on video sitting across a table from each other, with the director asking the producer about the inevitable sequels he had no part of. Yunza has no pretensions about making money. Meanwhile, screenwriter Dennis Paoli gets into the challenges of updating the Herbert West, Reanimator stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and composer Richard Band aggressively defends his score is an homage rather than a rip-off of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho. Gordon explains the music sets a tone for the movie that lets the viewers know it’s really okay to laugh. Finally, there are over 20 minutes of extended scenes meant to pad out the R-rated version of the picture. Thankfully, the unrated 86-minute version of Re-Animator on the DVD comes with all its ridiculously over-the-top gore sequences as the director intended.
Packed with bonus features, Re-Animator is lovingly brought back to life by Anchor Bay.