Re-Animator (1985) ****
In some old review I donít feel like going to look for right now, I referred to Full Moon Entertainment as ďthe empire of unwarranted sequels.Ē Well, before the Empire of Unwarranted Sequels, there was just plain Empireó Empire Pictures, the first of Charles Bandís notorious B-movie production houses. If the Golan and Globus Cannon Group was the American International Pictures of the 1980ís, then Empire was that decadeís Allied Artists. All of their output was cheap and a fair proportion of it was simply terrible, but that Empire logo before the opening credits almost always meant that the movie to come would be a wild and shameless foray into one of the stranger pockets of the B-cinema universe. The general consensusó and even Iím onboard the consensus barge, for onceó is that the best of the Empire films was Stuart Gordonís Re-Animator, a nominal H. P. Lovecraft adaptation that actually plays more like an early Hammer Frankenstein flick updated for the mid-1980ís. Itís a brilliant and highly imaginative movie, striking a perfect balance between twisted humor and flat-out horror, rounded off with some excellent performances, an astonishing array of top-notch gore effects, and a clever and strangely fitting rearrangement of Bernard Herrmannís old Psycho score. For all his considerable talent, Gordon has yet to top it some twenty years later.
At Zurich University in Switzerland, several members of the staff have come late at night to see Professor Gruber of the medical department; heís obviously in his office, but for some reason he refuses to come to the door. Then the thumping, banging, and crashing begins, and the folks out in the hall become understandably worried. Upon breaking down the door, they discover Gruber lying on the floor, with one of his students, a young American doctor named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, beginning a long association with Stuart Gordon and Charles Band which would later get him cast in movies like Fortress and Doctor Mordrid), squatting over him, holding an empty hypodermic needle. The other professors naturally conclude that West killed Gruberó and maybe he didó but the situation is rather more complicated than that, because a moment later, the good doctor isnít dead anymore. Then Gruberís eyeballs explode, he collapses on the floor dead once again, and West grumbles something about the dosage being too high as the others drag him away.
An unspecified length of time later, at Miskatonic Medical School in Arkham, Massachusetts, West resurfaces to study under Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale, of The Brain and Savage Weekend), whose research is strongly derivative of Gruberís. Actually, it might be better to say that West has come to Miskatonic to show Dr. Hill up, for his attitude toward the older doctor is hostile and antagonistic from the very beginning, when he is introduced by Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson, from The Gates of Hell and The Dark Side of the Moon) and makes his first impression by telling Hill to his face that his work on brain death is ďoutdated.Ē Hill, for his part, says it will be a pleasure to flunk his arrogant new student.
But itís going to be a while before Hill will have a chance to flunk anybody, and until then, West is going to need a place to stay. As it happens, his classmate, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott, from Bad Dreams and Black Scorpion), has just begun advertising for a roommate, and once West sees the basement in the house where Dan lives, he realizes that itís exactly what heís looking for. Cainís girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton, of Chopping Mall and Castle Freak)ó who, not insignificantly, is also Dean Halseyís daughteró doesnít trust West for reasons she canít quite articulate, and she tries to talk Dan out of finalizing the arrangement, but the thick wad of cash West produces from the pocket of his overcoat outweighs anything Megan might have to say on the subject. We all know where this is going, right? West likes the house because the underground basement gives him a perfect space in which to set up a little mad lab, while the fact that the house comes complete with a cat he canít stand might be seen as a further amenityó instant lab animal, you know? In fact, it is the disappearance of Rufus the cat that alerts Dan and Megan to Westís activities. West is out of the house when they realize they havenít seen the cat all night, and while searching the house, Megan goes into Herbertís room and finds the little refrigerator which contains both his secret stash of exotic chemicals and a chilled cat carcass that unmistakably used to be Rufus. West comes home at just that moment, and though he explains that he found Rufus that morning, suffocated with his head in a jar from the kitchen trash can (ďAnd what would a note have said? ĎCat deadó details laterí?Ē), neither Megan nor Dan entirely believes him.
Theyíre smart not to, too. Many hours later, Cain is awakened by what he thinks is an intruder. Something is rummaging around in the house somewhere, making an unearthly shrieking sound while itís at it. Thereís no sign of a break-in, though, and Westís absence from his room leads Dan to try looking in the basement, where he finds his roommate locked in mortal combat with the zombified Rufus. After the two of them re-kill the cat, West silences Cainís objections to his story about raising the dead by bringing the thing to life a second time, with an injection of the luminescent green fluid Megan had found in the refrigerator earlier. Dan is still resistant to Herbertís entreaties for help in his unorthodox research, but letís face itó a viable means of reanimating the dead is much too big a deal for a doctor to turn his back on, even if it does seem to have a few rather nasty kinks (like, say, the tendency to bring back the dead as ravening, bloodthirsty fiends) to work out.
The trouble is, Dan Cain is an extremely naÔve young man. His first impulse upon seeing the incredible results of Westís work is to go straight to Dean Halsey and tell him all about it. This has the effect of getting Herbert expelled, Danís student loan rescinded, and Megan forbidden to see either of them ever again. Good going, there, Dan. In the immediate aftermath, Herbert gets the idea that theyíd better haul ass down to the Miskatonic morgue and squeeze in as much research as they can before Halseyís vengeful edicts take effect. Halsey himself finds out about this, however, setting off a chain of events which terminates in him barging in on the reanimation of the freshest cadaver in the morgue, just in time for it to seize him and beat him to death. After pureeing the zombieís heart with an electric bonesaw, West and his new accomplice try to salvage the situation by reanimating Halsey. Halsey, after all, has been dead for only a few minutes rather than several hours, and West thinks the lag-time between the onset of brain death and the application of his reagent is the main factor controlling how much will be left of the subjectís mind when it returns from the dead. This experiment goes only slightly better than the previous one, in that the dean comes back non-verbal and profoundly psychotic, even if not totally mindlessó but at least the whole mess makes it look plausible when West tells hospital security that Halsey went berserk and attacked them after storming down to the morgue.
This is where Dr. Hill comes into the picture in a big way. As Miskatonicís resident brain expert, he is the first to examine Halsey, and he quite swiftly figures out that the dean is not merely insane but actually undead. Hill tries to get Meganís permission to perform exploratory surgery on her fatherís brain, but he overplays his hand and reveals the secret letch heís had for her ever since she was a teenager. Megan splits, seriously wigged out, leaving Hill to carry out his plans even despite her refusal. Then Hill seeks out West. Having determined that Halsey, despite appearances to the contrary, is no more alive than his writing desk, the doctor figures West must really have been on to something when he said that currently accepted thinking on the subject of brain death was obsolete. Furthermore, since he knows West must either have killed Halsey himself or created the situation that led to his death, Hill also figures he can blackmail Herbert into surrendering all of his secrets. And while itís true that Hill probably didnít expect West to decapitate him with a shovel in response to this blackmail attempt, he ends up with the last laugh anyway, because Herbert is then foolish enough to reanimate him, finally getting a sufficiently fast jump on the operation to restore him to full consciousness. The temporary death of Hillís brain does just enough neural damage to upgrade him from conniving creep to murderous sociopath, and the resurrection works even though his head is no longer connected to his body. Hill knocks West out, steals all of his notes, supplies, and equipment, and returns to the morgue. Then he sends Zombie Halsey off to collect his lovely daughterÖ
Honestly, I canít imagine how any fan of 1980ís horror could fail to love Re-Animator. In it, writer/director Stuart Gordon has taken just about everything that still worked from the mad scientist movies of days gone by, and infused it with a subversive new energy. Whereas your traditional mads were pretty much content to resurrect one dead guy, or to build one of their own from whatever pieces happened to be lying around, Herbert West brings to his mad science the trial-and-error methodology of the real deal, ultimately giving rise to a whole morgue-full of reanimated stiffs. While most mad-scientist flicks limit themselves to just one Frankenstein wannabe, and must then make up their minds whether to play him as antihero or outright villain, Re-Animator gives us one of each, plus a weak-willed good guy being dragged along for the ride, by pitting West against the even more odious Dr. Hill with some reluctant assistance from his in-over-his-head roommate. The movie is also informed by that queasy mixture of laughs and aggressive shock tactics which is perhaps the most distinctive feature of mid-80ís horror films. Re-Animator is blackly hilarious, but it is also loaded with high-impact gore and boasts of some extremely unpleasant moments, including what could be the most disturbingly vile sexploitation-horror set-piece of its era. And most importantly, Gordon keeps a firm hand on the reigns at all times, never letting any one aspect of the film fall out of balance with the others, or permitting things to bog down even during the few pure character-development scenes. Throw in the performance that rightly made a minor star out of Jeffrey Combs, together with an ingeniously slimy turn from David Gale, and youíve got one of the most entertaining horror films of the 80ís. Others are noticeably better, to be sure, but only a very few are such a joy to watch.
Because you can never have too many putrescent corpses shambling about chewing on people, the B-Masters Cabal has decided to join Cold Fusion Video in dedicating the month of October to zombies, zombies, and more zombies. Click the banner below to drop in on Undead Central.