Stuart Gordon interview: Re-Animator, Pacific Rim, Fortress

With the classic Re-Animator getting its Blu-ray reissue this week, we talk to its director about this and his other genre films...

Re-Animator landed like a firecracker in the middle of 80s horror cinema. A wild, vibrant adaptation of the HP Lovecraft tale, Herbert West-Reanimator, it was both extremely funny and remarkably close to the writer’s source text. Jeffrey Combs plays the darting-eyed Herbert West, a gifted yet utterly mad young medical student who invents a serum which brings the dead back to kicking, screaming life.

A sprightly Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton play his fellow students, who can only watch in horror as their Miskatonic University campus fills up with angry revenant corpses from the morgue, while David Gale is brilliantly glowering as Dr Hill, West’s nemesis.

With glowing reviews from mainstream critics, Re-Animator quickly became a cult favourite, establishing Stuart Gordon’s reputation as a talented genre director. A slew of other horror and science fiction films followed, including From Beyond, Dolls, Robot Jox, Fortress and King Of The Ants. As Re-Animator makes its UK debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Second Sight Films, here’s our interview with Gordon, in which we cover a few of the highlights from his filmmaking career, American genre writers, plus his recent theatre work, from Re-Animator: The Musical to his cannibal drama, Taste, which has seen members of the audience fainting during some performances…

Even after almost 30 years, Re-Animator’s still incredibly anarchic. 

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Well, I’m very happy that people are still watching it, let alone that it’s getting released on Blu-Ray. It’s fantastic.

While you were shooting it, were you clear on the blackly comic tone you were going for, or did it become gradually more over-the-top as you were filming?

When we were doing the research on it, we were spending a lot of time talking to pathologists in various morgues, and they had the blackest sense of humour I’ve ever encountered! I think you have to if you’re going to do a job like that. I think that, somehow, managed to make its way into the movie.

Was there anything you’d considered doing, while you were making Re-Animator – or perhaps even at the scripting stage – that you thought, ‘nope, that’s going too far’?


How did making From Beyond compare to making Re-Animator?

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From Beyond – the difference was, Re-Animator was released unrated, which is very seldom done, but it allowed us to do anything we wanted to. With From Beyond, they insisted that it be rated R, which meant that it was more restricted in what we’d be allowed to do.

I think that the MPAA, which is the ratings board in the States, they were angry about Re-Animator, with it having gone out without a rating. They kind of took that out on From Beyond and cut it to ribbons – but luckily I was able to put it back together a few years ago. I found all the pieces that had been censored, and I was able, thanks to digital technology, to put it back together again.

Yes, I remember. I think that’s another film that’s aged well.

Well, thanks. I think it’s because Lovecraft was so far ahead of his time.

Definitely. And his writing’s become more popular, if anything. What do you think it is about his work that remains so fresh?

He’s incredibly imaginative. But also, the thing I’ve found, looking at his work, is that he’s primarily a science fiction writer. And all the science stuff that’s in his stories is fairly accurate – he did a lot of research. For example, in From Beyond, he did a lot of research into the pineal gland; in Reanimator, he almost gives you the formula for bringing the dead back to life. I think he was very interested in how things actually worked. 

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He had an analytical mind, didn’t he? He was very interested in all kinds of science and historical things.

That’s true. And astronomy.

You see Lovecraft’s influence even in films that aren’t directly adapted from his work. I don’t know if you saw Prometheus, but there’s all kinds of HP Lovecraft ideas in that.

Yeah, that’s true. I just saw today that HR Giger just passed away. Which really is just too bad.

That was such a sad loss. HP Lovecraft was a big influence on him, too.

Yeah. His first big collection of paintings was called Necronomicon.

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Was Giger an influence on you?

I loved Alien – that was the first time I saw his work. I was a friend of Dan O’Bannon’s, who was the writer of Alien, and he was the one who discovered Giger and brought him to the attention of Ridley Scott.

Would you do what Ridley Scott did with Alien, and do a prequel to Re-Animator? About a young Herbert West, perhaps?

Ha! I doubt it. I can’t imagine anyone other than Jeffrey Combs playing that part, so finding someone younger wouldn’t feel right. But I keep seeing Herbert West-type figures showing up. There’s one in the new series, Penny Dreadful – the guy playing Frankenstein [Harry Treadaway]. He reminds me a lot of Herbert West, and the cast are very young. 

Another great film of yours is Dolls. Weren’t you planning on making a sequel to that? I read somewhere that you were, but that it never happened.

We always think about making a sequel while we’re doing a movie – just noodling around with what might happen after the movie’s over. With Dolls, we did have an idea that the little girl who’s now living with Ralph and her mother, and she gets a package in the mail. She opens it up, and there are two dolls inside that look like the Toymakers – then it goes from there. But we never got around to making that film, unfortunately.

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Do you think that’s something you might return to, one day?

Oh, it would be wonderful. But it’s been so long since we made that movie, I don’t know. Plus, the actors who played those roles, the dollmakers, are no longer with us, unfortunately. They were wonderful actors, who again, I couldn’t imagine replacing with anyone else.

Robot Jox has become such a cult favourite, hasn’t it?

I know! It seemed like I was getting déjà vu with Pacific Rim. It seemed like… wow. And the thing that was interesting about it was, talking about sequels, we’d always thought that the sequel to Robot Jox would have been robots fighting aliens. 

I was going to ask you about Pacific Rim. Because when I saw it, it made me think that Robot Jox had been a good few years ahead of its time.

He borrowed so heavily from it. Including the way the robots worked. It was almost like it was a sequel.

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Were you flattered by that or annoyed?

Sort of both. You know, I would have liked it if he’d made some sort of reference to the fact that it was all taken from my film. But he never did.

Another film I liked was Daughter Of Darkness.

Oh yeah, that’s one that was seldom seen, unfortunately.

It’s a shame, because it has a great cast, including Anthony Perkins.

Yeah, and he was fantastic to work with. I really loved him. We got to be good friends.

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His style of acting reminds me a bit of Jeffrey Combs, actually.

I always thought that Jeffrey was like a young Tony Perkins. I was always hoping that there would be a way to get them both into the same movie, but it never happened.

That would have been fantastic. Was it after that you made Fortress?

Well, I did a couple of movies in between. I did a version of Pit And The Pendulum.

Ah, yes! That’s right. Jeffrey Combs gets that great line, “Go and torture some heretics!”

[Big belly laugh] Stop bothering me!

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I was wondering if you could talk about making Fortress, because that was a real fun science fiction film.

That was a lot of fun, because we shot it in Australia. We were in a place called Surfer’s Paradise, which was the most beautiful beach in the world. Turquoise water and white sand, and here we are making this movie that’s supposed to be in this dark future – you know, the deepest shit hole on Earth! The contrast was pretty incredible.

You had Kurtwood Smith in there, who’s a brilliant villain.

Ah, a terrific actor. Kurtwood, what I remember working with him was, he’d say, “Let me do another take. I can do it better.” And so I’d say, “Okay”. And he’d do another take, and it would be better. Then he’d say, “Let me do it one more time. I think I can do it even better…”

I realised after a while that we could just keep shooting for ever with him, you know? He always found a way to improve. 

Then he has that great line, “Random intestinations!”

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[Unapologetic laugh] Yeah, I know. I have a feeling he still says that from time to time.

Was that in the script, that line? It almost feels improvised.

Was it in the script? Probably. But he made it his own.

One of the films I don’t think enough people saw was King Of The Ants.

Oh, great!

It was such a different film. Even in the context of your body of work, it stood out as being quite unusual.

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It was, yeah. It was more of a crime story than a horror film. But I read the story and loved it. I really enjoyed working with Charlie Higson; he was very funny. I guess in the UK he’s best known for The Fast Show, but he writes these very dark and disturbing books.

And also the Young Bond books…

Yeah, that’s right.

Your work’s always pushed boundaries, from your stage plays to your movies. Do you think that filmmakers in general are still doing that?

Well, no I don’t. But I think that there are still people who are making movies that are still pretty interesting and disturbing. I saw A Serbian Film a few years ago and that totally knocked my socks off.

I’ve never plucked up the courage to watch that.

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Oh boy, it’s a terrific movie. Very, very strong, very well made. The Human Centipede was another one. A really great concept. An extremely disturbing film. So, you know, people are still making those kinds of films.

Are you still looking to get your Edgar Allan Poe project Nevermore made?

We tried doing a Kickstarter campaign on that and it didn’t work out. I think at some point we’ll  try to make it into a film, but I don’t think we’ll go back to the Kickstarter approach again. 

It’s an interesting subject matter.

Yeah, and Jeffrey Combs is amazing in it.

Aside from Jeffrey Combs, what other actors have you enjoyed working with?

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Well, it’s a long list. I enjoyed working with Edward James Olmos on a film called The Incredible Ice Cream Suit a few years ago. Clifton Collins Jr, who I’ve worked with twice, was also in it. It was a lot of fun, and very different from most of the other films I’ve made. It’s based on a story by Ray Bradbury.

Another great American writer.

Yeah. He was a good friend of mine, and the whole thing was such a pleasant experience. I think it was the most fun I ever had making a film. But it’s a film that not many people had the chance to see.

I keep hoping someone will try to make The Martian Chronicles again.

Yeah, I’d love it if someone did it properly. I talked to Ray about it a lot, and he was worried because it was picked up by the guys who did I, Robot, which bore so little resemblance to the original material. He was worried about what they would do to Martian Chronicles. He was hesitant in getting it made, that when they do make it, they do stick closer to the book.

Recently you did your Re-Animator stage play.

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Ah, that was fun – we did it as a musical. The musical was wonderful, and written by a guy named Mark Nutter. We took it to the Edinburgh festival two years ago, which was fun. 

It would be great if you could bring it to London.

We’d love that. We’ve been talking to some theatre owners about that, actually. It could happen – we haven’t worked out the details yet, but we’re pursuing it.

I’m doing a play right now called Taste, which is getting amazing reviews. We’ve also had people fainting in the audience during the performance – it’s really strong. It’s based on the true story about the guy who puts an ad on the internet for someone he can kill and eat. It happened in Guttenberg, Germany about 10 years ago. We actually have characters cooking on stage!

That sounds incredible! Stuart Gordon, thank you very much.

Re-Animator is out on Blu-ray on the 2nd June from Second Sight Films.

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