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.