Sunday, October 5, 2014

Re-Animator

The "Big Three" of classic horror are Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. If you look around the modern horror genre, vampires and werewolves are still prominent and used in a variety ways, but Frankenstein's monster, himself a reanimated walking corpse, has been replaced by zombies.

Re-Animator (1985), an adaptation of a series of short stories by cosmic science-fiction horror author H.P. Lovecraft, is a zombie movie, released the same year as a number of other prominent zombie movies (The Return of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, and Lifeforce), but director Stuart Gordon, along with frequent collaborators - star Jeffrey Combs, producer Brian Yuzna, and co-writer Dennis Paoli - hearkens back to the Frankenstein tradition. Re-Animator uses a zombies to tell a story about a mad scientist who seeks to conquer death through his experiments, and this sets in motion the downfall of all around him.

At Miskatonic University, medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) takes in a new roommate, Herbert West (Combs), a brilliant but arrogant scientist who has developed a re-agent serum that can bring the dead back to life, albeit as violent and mindless. West soon recruits Cain to his experiments, over the objections of Cain's girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton), the daughter of Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson). Things go awry following an accident and an attempt by a jealous, ambitious professor, Dr. Hill (David Gale), to steal West's formula, and soon several people are killed and brought back to life.

Two elements propel Dr. Frankenstein in hiss quest to create life and conquer death. The first is the noble part, the doctor in him who would help humanity and save and preserve lives. The other part of him is his hubris, the arrogance that tells him he can tamper in God's domain and defy the laws of nature. This duality in Frankenstein, along with the tragedy that his efforts to create life ultimately result in the death of his loved ones, is what makes him one of the genre's most compelling characters.

Re-Animator splits this duality into two characters: Cain and West. Cain is a nice guy, a bright student, and someone who does his best to do the right thing; his first scene shows him futilely trying to revive a dead patient. West, to put it charitably, is an arrogant, smarmy prick, desperate not to better mankind but to prove to everyone else he's right. When Hill lectures about theories he disagrees with, West deliberately snaps a pencil in half, twice.

There is a lot of blood, viscera, severed limbs, and cat abuse showering the screen in Re-Animator, but it's not merely revolting. It's a barf-bag movie to be sure, but it's also a pitch-black dark comedy, presented with tongue-in-cheek style. West gets a number of deadpan zingers while Hill remains otherwise optimistic of chances fame and fortune, even after West decapitates him with a shovel. Hill's first gurgled words as a reanimated corpse are "Wesssssttttttt .... Youuuuuu ... basssss ..... tarrrrrrrdddddd;" meanwhile, his body sneaks up on West.

When they confront each other during the climax, West admonishes the villainous doctor for stealing his notes and formula. "You'll never get credit for my discovery. Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow." Hill has an ace of his sleeve: the reanimated bodies of the morgue, each one gruesomely disfigured in some way of another. Really, both West and Hill are insane, egomaniacs pursing a scientific breakthrough (or in Hill's case, stealing it) for the fame it will bring them.

The romance between Cain and Megan is played mostly straight. He feels guilt over what happens to her father (in a believable touch, you can see he goes into shock at that point), and she wants to hate him for it but can't override her feelings for him. Sure, it's kind of like a soap opera, but there has be some characters resembling normal human beings we can relate to. Their relationship gives the movie something to be at stake and an element of tragedy.

The blood and gore are gross but in a campy way. For sheer perversity, few things can top the site of Hill carrying around his own head in a medicine bag or West violently wrestling a pissed-off reanimated cat clinging to his back. In the film's most infamous scene, Hill has Megan tied down and naked on a slab, and he maneuvers his head between her legs and offends just about any woman who watches that part. In the realms of bad taste, Re-Animator is the cream of the crop.

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