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Re-Animator (Blu-Ray Review)

Image Entertainment releases Stuart Gordon’s cult classic on Blu-Ray

 Details
Director : Stuart Gordon
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale
Type: Color
Year: 1985
Language: English
Length: 85 min
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Video codec: VC-1
Resolution: 1080p
Disks: 1
Region: A

One of the shifts of 80s horror was to take some of the grittier, gorier elements of the 70s, and give them high-concepts, new twists, and broader comedic undercurrents. One of the finest examples of this amalgam was Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), a gleefully gruesome and intelligent re-working of the Frankenstein concept. The metaphorical lightening bolt to create life was now a glowing green serum that could re-animate the dead. Image Entertainment has now injected this cult classic into the Blu-Ray era, and have done a rather fine job doing so.

The Film

Re-Animator is based on H.P. Lovecraft’s series of short stories called “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” published in a magazine called “Home Brew” in early 1922. Though, as is the case with much of Lovecraft’s work, the stories were ahead of their time, the author wasn’t crazy about his serial involving a mad doctor’s exploits in re-animating the dead. Lovecraft also wasn’t happy about his editor needing each story to end on a “cliffhanger,” but it paid steady. He hammered the 6-volume serial out, regardless of his dislike for the yarn. In 1984, an aspiring new director named Stuart Gordon knew the possibilities such a series of tales could hold, and, wanting to produce a modern-day Frankenstein, quickly began work on getting Re-Animator greenlit. The script, by Dennis Paoli, was eventually picked up by producer Brian Yuzna, and the tasking production began from there.

Updating the concept for modern audiences, the film centers on an eager young med student named Dan Cain (the immediately likable Bruce Abbott) renting a room out to a quirky med student named Herbert West (played in a brilliant, breakout performance by Jeffrey Combs), who has just arrived from a med school in Zurich, Germany with a glowing green serum that conquers “brain death” and re-animates the dead – even if the side-effects are dangerously violent.

Cain is amazed (and quite horrified) by West’s re-agent and its unpredictable results, but can’t deny the incredible implications of the scientific achievement. Dan is now torn between his loyalties to his girlfriend Meg (who is also the dean’s daughter) who doesn’t trust West – particularly after finding her dead cat re-animated with a twisted spine – and the opportunity to save countless lives with the serum.

Meanwhile, Miskatonic University’s Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who has been accused by West of plagiarizing his German mentor’s work, has also discovered the serum and its potential. Playing the dean against the two young doctors, the evil lobotomist attempts to bump West and Cain out of the picture and claim the invention his own.

With Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon immediately defined himself as a unique and brazen director, in much the same way Sam Raimi had with The Evil Dead a few years before. He finds an odd balance between sex and violence, humor and horror, and – most impressively – intellect and exploitation. At a glance, the film is a gruesome splatter flick with some dry humor and gratuitous nudity throughout. But that would be selling the film short; this is an unusually intelligent sci-fi/horror film with a lot of very bright ideas about life and death, as well as some pretty convincing scientific banter to back up most of the claims. The dialogue in Paoli’s script is fantastic, realistic and often quite funny. While it might be more directly influenced by James Whale’s Frankenstein films from the 30s than by Lovecraft’s story, it’s got the same sense of moral and medical ambiguity that the original source material had – which itself was quite progressive for its time.

The performances elevate the material as well. Combs and Abbott as West and Cain have great chemistry as the mad doctor and hesitant assistant. Their arguments and conflicting theories feel authentic. Combs is so convincing in his portrayal of West that in spite of his character’s egotism and overzealous drive, we kind of understand and even sympathize with him, even when he’s reached Colin Clive’s level of mad scientist mania.

David Gale is quite memorable as the sneering Dr. Hill, a wonderfully villanious role in which he would soon find himself typecast. It couldn’t have been easy to maintain the menace after his character undergoes a ghastly metamorphosis halfway through the film, but he certainly does it. Barbara Crampton as Abbott’s doting girlfriend is a welcome departure from the usual parade of disposable horror film girlfriends. She brings a feisty spirit to her role that separates her from the pack, and has one of the best screams in horror cinema (full respects to Fay Wray). Her performance during the film’s infamous finale is both gruelingly convincing in its disgust and terror, and incredibly daring, from a vulnerability standpoint.

Video

Image Entertainment has given Re-Animator a 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer that stretches the original 1.85:1 widescreen ratio to 1.78:1. This could be due to the fact that some of the original transfers from previous DVD releases contained black borders on all four sides of the screen to accommodate CRT sets with overscan. Having seen the film dozens of times, I personally didn’t see any image loss, and the HD transfer for this Blu-Ray gives the film its best presentation to date in terms of color levels and healthy film grain. A few minor specks are present, but that’s all. The original source materials for this transfer were obviously in great condition.

Audio

A DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track is provided here, and it sounds perfectly clean. A few looped bits of dialogue always stood out no matter what the edition, so there’s no change there, and frankly it’s a huge improvement over the original Mono track provided on other releases. This is a goopy movie, with lots of crunches, chops, screams and splatters, and the surround mix gives it all a great deal of texture. Richard Band’s wonderful Re-Animator theme sounds perfect this way too.

Extras

A good portion of the special features are thankfully ushered over from various discontinued prints of Re-Animator on DVD, from Elite Entertainment and Anchor Bay. For instance, the commentary tracks and deleted/extended scenes go as far back as Elite’s 10th Anniversary laserdisc from 1995. However, this Blu-Ray isn’t quite the “ultimate” edition in terms of supplements, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The first Audio Commentary is with director Stuart Gordon, who goes into the nuts-and-bolts of the production, the casting, and the reasons he and producer Brian Yuzna decided to take a gamble in releasing the film without an MPAA rating – something that limits advertising a great deal and can potentially ruin a film’s box office performance. It’s an informative track that reveals a lot about Gordon’s process and influences.

The second Audio Commentary is with producer Brian Yuzna, and actors Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton and Robert Sampson. This was and remains one of my all-time favorite commentaries. Full of anecdotes, fond memories and a big sense of pride in the entire project, Yuzna and the cast have a total blast re-watching the film for the first time in years. There are lots of jokes regarding performance quirks, character traits and special effects here – all in good-natured ribbing, and the friendship between everyone is more than evident. It’s a fun, jovial track and is a great companion to Gordon’s more production-oriented commentary.

Re-Animator: Resurrectus (1:08:37) is the most recently produced supplement, a documentary created for the 2007 Anchor Bay DVD release. The primary cast and crew all show up to recollect their experiences making the film. Like the commentaries, there are some great set anecdotes and insights into the production as well as the source Lovecraft material, from story to script. It’s a great look behind-the-scenes, and considering it was produced more than ten years since the recorded commentaries, you get a far fresher perspective on the film’s lasting impression, and the surprise by all involved at its critical and cultural success.

Next is a gallery of interviews, beginning with an Interview with Director Stuart Gordon and Producer Brian Yuzna (48:47). Both men interview each other, lobbing questions back and forth pertaining to their career origins, un-produced projects and all things Re-Animator. It’s a fun, loose conversation between two friends and is packed with information not heard in either commentary or the documentary.

Interview with Writer Dennis Paoli (10:39) is an interesting look into the screenwriter’s process in scripting Lovecraft’s serial into a film adaptation. Paoli, a teacher of gothic literature, is well-versed in the genre, and his recollection into the scripting of Re-Animator and how he injected (no pun intended) the dark humor into the classic story is fascinating stuff.

The first of two Interviews with Composer Richard Band (14:41) goes into his development of the famous (and infamous) Re-Animator theme and the film’s overall score. He addresses in great detail the elephant in the room – that of his score being misconstrued as a blatant rip-off of Bernard Hermann’s iconic Psycho theme, and not as the humorous, modern-day homage it was meant to be.

The second interview is the Music Discussion with Composer Richard Band (16:27), which gives Band a chance to deconstruct each piece of music he did for the film, his intentions for each piece and examples of how the score plays out on isolated music-only tracks playing against scenes from the film.

The final interview is with Fangoria Magazine’s Editor Tony Timpone (4:33) who fondly remembers the film being his first premier invite as a new Fangoria employee, and how it exceeded his expectations during a time when zombie films were on the rise again. He also recalls a contest Fangoria held for aspiring make-up artists to win a set prop of Dr. Hill’s severed head.

The Deleted/Extended Scenes (26:06) are the same ones from each previous DVD release. Many of the scenes removed had to do with Dr. Hill practicing hypnotism on the dean, Meg and West, so a majority of the content is an entire unused subplot. A few residual instances still remain in the film, but for the most part, these scenes are generally re-inserted in rare television broadcasts to make up time lost in editing the film’s more explicit content.

There’s also a trailer (1:56) and 5 TV Spots (2:29) that do a nice job of selling the horror/comedy of Re-Animator without spoiling anything.

As mentioned above, even with all of these wonderful supplements, Image Entertainment neglected to include a few features previously available in discontinued releases. For instance, Richard Band’s score was given its own isolated music track on Elite Entertainment’s 2004 2-Disc “Millennium Edition”, which also included a number of storyboard and behind-the-scenes galleries, as well as biographies and filmographies for the cast and filmmakers.

With the exception of the isolated music track, the Anchor Bay 2-Disc Special Edition released in 2007 contained all of the Elite Entertainment supplements, but also included some exclusive DVD-ROM content like the film’s screenplay and the original H.P. Lovecraft story “Herbert West: Re-Animator”.

These were small features, but completists who already own the “Millennium Edition” or the Anchor Bay 2007 DVD (particularly the Limited Edition that came with a nifty syringe-shaped green highlighter) may not want to dispose of those editions in lieu of this new Image release, which really only contains the HD transfer and nothing else not already available.

Bottom Line

It’s nearly impossible not to recommend Re-Animator. The film is brilliant, hilarious, over-the-top chaotic, wonderfully macabre and continues to hold up well. If every supplemental item from the previous releases were ported over and coupled with this new HD transfer, we’d have a perfect, “ultimate” edition of Re-Animator here. Still, it’s a minor strike against an otherwise fantastic release that gives a new generation of horror fans a chance to discover one of the best horror films of the 80s.

About Jason S. Marsiglia

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