1985. The year Michael J Fox drove into the 50s in Back To The Future, Sylvester Stallone took on the might of communist Russia and won in a single boxing match, and a group of working class kids found pirate treasure in The Goonies.
But there’s one, far more antisocial film that leaves its bloody footprint on that year and stands as arguably one of the greatest horror pictures of the decade: Stuart Gordon’s gloriously, unapologetically bloody Re-Animator.
Where else can you see a cat with a broken spine return from the dead, or a man choked to death with a corpse’s sentient intestines? What other movie of the era had the audacity to splatter the screen with so much gore, nudity and dismemberment, while at the same time providing audiences with moments of laughter as well as gross-out horror?
With the help of writer William Norris, first-time director Stuart Gordon took one of cult writer H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser short stories (even the author himself regarded it as little more than a piece of work-for-hire hackwork) and brought it to the screen in spectacular fashion.
Jeffery Combs stars as the young scientist Doctor Herbert West, a pompous, hubristic genius whose self-concocted serum has the power to re-animate the dead, but with one distinct drawback: when awakened from their terminal slumber, the recipients of West’s potion are violently, mindlessly deranged.
Heading to the quiet halls of Miskatonic University after an unfortunate incident in Switzerland (his prototype serum caused his last professor’s head to explode), West encounters Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), an idealistic undergraduate who enjoys a blissful relationship with the Dean’s radiant daughter, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton).
Installing himself in Cain’s basement and resuming his crackpot experiments, West’s haughty air and outlandish theories soon make him the target of faculty member Dr Hill (David Gale, brilliant beneath an unfortunate, hat-like wig), and as West and his newfound friend Cain begin testing their experimental potion on first a cat, then a corpse in the university’s morgue, matters soon get completely out of control.
Ostensibly Re-Animator‘s leads and moral centre, screen couple Abbot and Crampton are completely upstaged by Jeffery Combs’ extraordinarily camp turn as West. His portrayal of a smug young genius, apparently oblivious to the death and chaos he’s creating, is one of the funniest in horror cinema and recalls Vincent Price’s hammy turns in Roger Corman’s classic run of Edgar Allan Poe movies. David Gale is almost as good, and his bickering scenes with Combs fizz with energy and charisma.
Check out the scene where, after Combs’ West petulantly snaps pencils during a lecture, Gale delivers the killer line, “Mr West, I suggest you get yourself a pen!” It’s hissed with such biblical vehemence that what would otherwise be a mildly amusing moment becomes unforgettably hilarious.
Finding an actor game enough to not only spend most of a film playing the part of a severed head, but also “trysting with a co-ed” in one of the most graphically amusing visual puns in cinema history, couldn’t have been easy, but Gale takes on these duties with lip-smacking relish. According to the excellent feature-length documentary on Anchor Bay’s special edition re-release, Gale’s wife uttered a horrified, “How could you?” when she first saw Re-Animator in the mid-80s.
Then again, Re-Animator arguably pushed the boundaries of taste and decency further than any other horror of its time. So filled with gore, sex and nudity that its makers didn’t even bother submitting it to the MPAA for a rating, effects man John Naulin once said that he used 24 gallons of blood on the film where most horror movies only called for two.
Naulin deserves a special mention, in fact, for the staggering range of practical effects he managed to create on a shoestring budget. Rubbery head decapitations aside, the scale of his achievement, considering his lack of time and funds, shouldn’t be overlooked. A moment when a revenant corpse is despatched with a bone saw through its chest cavity is ickily convincing.
From description alone, Re-Animator probably sounds like any other sensationalist gore flick made in the last 30 years. But while its premise is messy, the film itself isn’t, and its writing, acting and direction display, not only an encyclopaedic knowledge of horror cinema, but also a genuine affection for its source material, even if Lovecraft himself would perhaps have disapproved of its anarchic treatment.
That Re-Animator was well received by mainstream critics, who normally treated the horror genre with contempt, is further proof of the quality of its production. And where other genre movies released the same year, including Tobe Hooper’s weird misfire Lifeforce and turgid, derivative monster flick, Creature have been justifiably forgotten, Re-Animator retains its bloody, irreverent allure.
Like one of West’s revived corpses, Re-Animator is as biting and antisocial now as it was 25 years ago, and refuses to slumber quietly in its grave.