Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator might be one of the most generous of all American horror movies—a low-budget go-for-the-guts splatter film that is simultaneously a parody and celebration of American chaos and kookiness. Many films have copied Re-Animator‘s memorable gore effects, but few have ever captured its remarkably sweet temperament.
At its simplest, the film is a mad-scientist story, and Gordon and his co-writers, working from a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, are clearly aware of the classic implications of the horror film’s prototypical mad scientist—namely, that he’s an eccentric, largely lacking the social graces necessary to getting laid, who sublimates his unmet desires with experiments designed to render the traditional sexual act moot. Creating, or in this case, re-animating life is an act of playing God, but it’s also a hostile gesture toward womankind, an attempt to rob women of their monopoly on the perpetuation of the species as well as embrace a less emotionally complicated form of coitus.
The mad-scientist story, then, is a revenge-of-the-nerd tale, and the film often plays as a well-made Revenge of the Nerds if it had featured non-traditional zombies. Third-year medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is basically the living embodiment of what used to be referred to as “all-American.” He’s good-looking, hard-working, and dating Dean Halsey’s (Robert Sampson) beautiful daughter, Meg (Barbara Crampton), who he intends to marry upon his graduation. But the recent appearance of a new classmate, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), threatens to warp Dan’s unquestioning good intentions.
The film is a love triangle between two attractive functional people and the dysfunctional genius that comes between them. West is only allowed into Dan’s life because Meg refuses to move in with her boyfriend and assume part of the rent, which allows West to move his controversial experiments into Dan’s basement and, in an effort to produce a serum that kick-starts a dead human brain, inadvertently kill everyone who matters to Dan.
Gordon, who’s since directed a number of woefully underrated and increasingly socially conscious horror films, manages a tricky tone of compassionate self-awareness. Re-Animator almost immediately reveals itself to be a parody of wounded male ego. Everything goes wrong because the dueling mad scientists, West and his twisted would-be mentor Dr. Hill (David Gale), get themselves into an escalating pissing contest that eventually manifests itself in a gory bloodbath—which culminates in the notorious pun that finds Meg getting head in more ways than one.
Combs, Sampson, and Gale are as over the top as the outrageous, deliriously inventive special effects; you can practically see a proscenium arch when they’re on screen, as they’re (necessarily) pitching their roles to the rafters. As the film’s straight man and viewer surrogate, Abbott effectively grounds the film’s quieter moments in a somewhat recognizable emotional reality.
But Crampton is the unsung hero here. Meg is the film’s emotional lynchpin—the one entirely innocent victim caught in the fellas’ crossfire—and Crampton plays her with a confident, unvarnished purity that’s reminiscent of Nancy Allen’s performance in Blow Out. The role was probably partially intended as a parody of the gorgeous horror-movie scream queen, but Crampton plays it with a playfulness and vulnerability that transcends the limitations associated with many babes of the genre. And it’s a testament to Gordon’s characteristic decency that Crampton has been afforded the opportunity to make that kind of impression (a few of Crampton’s line deliveries, such as “What about what we could do?” are authentically heartbreaking).
The film is justifiably remembered quite fondly as a rowdy and gory detonation of taboos, but it’s the quieter touches that give it a less readily resolvable texture. Let’s put it this way: Re-Animator is the splatter-comedy ode to egocentrically dashed American dreams.
Previous DVD transfers of Re-Animator have been soft on the film's blacks, which has made pivotal scare sequences somewhat difficult to see. This transfer has sharpened the blacks considerably, which may allow viewers to spot grisly little details (particularly regarding Dr. Hill's detached but quite ambulatory head) they may have previously missed. The rest of the image has also been improved while avoiding discernible edge enhancement or overt, inappropriate glossiness. The film still looks like a low-budget 1980s horror movie with the occasional blotches and image softness, but those issues preserve the context of the working conditions of making the film while also providing visual character. The original mono recording of the sound mix has been upgraded to a 5.1 track to little effect; it sounds fine, but is doesn't sport much extra dimension, which is more truthful to how the film should sound anyway.
All of the extras have previously appeared in various laserdisc or DVD incarnations of Re-Animator over the years, but they are generally enjoyable and informative. The audio commentaries and the documentary "Re-Animator Resurrectus" cover similar ground, but are still worth watching for their varying tones. The commentary with Stuart Gordon is a bit dry (he's shy and soft-spoken), but intelligent and worthwhile for his fans. The cast commentary sounds like a drunken reunion of old friends, as the participants crack affectionate jokes about the outlandishness of the film and its making. The charming "Re-Animator Resurrectus" is the best resource on the disc in terms of providing a straightforward telling of the film's inception, which is revealed to be a traditional story of low-budget horror filmmakers catching lightening in a bottle. The interview between Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna recounts a number of the same anecdotes, but Yuzna also offers additional details about the challenges to secure funding, as well as his contributions to weaning the surprisingly long 135-minute rough cut down to a manageable 86 minutes. Thirty of those deleted minutes are included here and, besides the usual nips and tucks, there are portions of the wisely discarded subplot that elaborated on Dr. Hill's ability to control people's minds. Two featurettes with composer Richard Band allow him to discuss his methods, particularly his justification for openly aping Bernard Herrmann's Psycho theme (Band is right, his inspired, jaunty work immediately sets the film's tone). TV spots, a theatrical trailer, and an interview with co-writer Dennis Paoli, the latter of which is the only entirely redundant feature, round out this package.
Years before Shaun of the Dead, Re-Animator defined the zombie romantic comedy, or zom rom-com.