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Three Ways to Re-Animate: Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator (1985) is Stuart Gordon’s loose contemporary adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s 1922 short story Herbert West – Reanimator, which was written as a parody of Mary Shelley’s most famous work, the 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Thanks to the ingenuity of its SFX, Gordon’s film features imaginative and extremely gory set-pieces that show us just how disgusting the human anatomy really is. It also has a pitch perfect balance of body horror and black comedy, which makes for a campy and surreal experience. It is not particularly scary, but it is immensely grotesque, hilariously absurd, and shockingly disturbing in places. While the director’s vision gets to grips with the source material’s intended ridiculousness by Lovecraft, it is hard to imagine this batshit craziness working half as well if he had not put together such a great ensemble cast. There are three cuts of the film, and of course, only one is the true version.

Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is a medical student who has just enrolled at Miskatonic University in Essex County, Massachusetts. He has just returned from Zurich, Switzerland, studying under the renowned scientist Dr. Gruber, who died under mysterious circumstances while they were working on regenerative experiments. Herbert clashes with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) about his theory of the brain stem’s length of survival after death and accuses him of plagiarizing his other work from Dr. Gruber. Herbert soon involves his roommate in his continued experiments, the dedicated trainee surgeon Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), and, unintentionally, Dan’s fiancée Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), who is the daughter of the dean of the university. Herbert reanimates the dead by injecting a glowing green serum he has created into the dead tissue. Dan becomes fascinated with his experiments after witnessing the results with a dead cat, and helps to smuggle him into the hospital morgue. This is where the horror really begins.

Combs and Abbott’s chemistry is electrifying, as we watch them play it straight with the screenplay’s dark humour. Their characters take the bizarre and horrifying situations they get themselves into very seriously, but while still being able to induce genuine laughter; neither actor actually attempts comedy. Mad scientist Herbert is arrogant, psychotically intense, and very creepy, but due to Combs’ charisma, and aided by the pitch-black comedic elements, he makes for an anti-hero that is impossible not to like. Herbert’s characterization does not fall into the evil villain category, as he lacks any moral alignment with his obsession to achieve his goals in his research, which takes priority over everything else. His partner in crime Dan is also hugely likable, as he is such an all-around good guy with a caring nature, but is also naive. He and Crampton’s Megan have a wonderful onscreen romance, and the gorgeous actress has no qualms giving us the full frontal nude goods. Gale as the evil Dr. Hill, who has the power of hypnosis, is the real antagonist here; a despicable human being that fittingly ends up as the ghastly creature he becomes.

Stuart Gordon moves the story along at an energetic pace. While Richard Band’s score is a blatant rip-off of Bernard Herrmann’s exquisite composition for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho, its franticness perfectly complements this along with the zaniness of proceedings. Although, I am referring to the pace of the unrated version, Gordon’s definitive vision officially makes it his director’s cut. Not only does it have the best pacing, but all the gore and nudity is intact as well, and this is what was originally released in theatres in 1985. While the inferior R-rated version cuts back heavily on the gory glory, it is padded out with 16 plot scenes that help us understand the film’s more confusing parts, but sacrifices the pacing.

Significantly elaborated upon on here is Dr. Hills’ power of hypnosis, which was only prevalent in the third act of the unrated form of the film. This also gives more reasoning to Megan’s father Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) suddenly turning on Dan, who he was very fond of before. However, when Dan goes to see Halsey to tell him about his findings with Herbert’s experiments, it can be interpreted in the unrated version that Halsey just loses his temper with Dan, dismissing his claims as nonsense that infuriate him as a man of science.

Megan shows much more suspicion of Herbert in the R-rated version, and he is a lot less likable as well in these extra scenes, as he is portrayed as a woman hater with much disdain towards her. It was a wise decision by Stuart Gordon to leave these misogynistic character traits on the cutting room floor, as it is hard to make an anti-hero work with such foul views on females. Also seen here is Herbert’s addiction to his own serum, in a scene where Dan discovers him injecting himself with a watered down concoction to battle fatigue. These characteristics of Herbert were not passed over to the two Brian Yuzna (a producer here) directed sequels – the very worthy Bride of Re-Animator (1989), and the not so worthy Beyond Re-Animator (2003). This is a further testament that the unrated version is indeed the director’s cut.  

While it is interesting to see all this extra footage, the film works much better as the director wanted us to see it, as is it is much more energetic and outrageously gory fun. The R-rated version zaps the energy out of the brisk pace, making for a more drawn out affair that runs for around nine minutes longer. All these added plot points also give it a more downbeat feel, and as there is not much in the way of gore either, it makes for a far less good time. There is also the Integral Cut that was first released in Germany on Blu-ray in 2013. It includes everything, and runs at around one hour and 45 minutes, which is obviously an even bigger fuck up of the lean pacing. Oddly enough, though, it ever so slightly trims Barbara Crampton’s nudity, as one early scene takes alternative shots from the R-rated version. Therefore, I highly recommend that newcomers to Re-Animator see it unrated first, and then watch the alternative Integal Cut, but avoid the butchered R-rated form.

Re-Animator is essential viewing. The fantastic four main performances, the snappy wit of the script that is chock full of excellent dialogue, and the tremendously well-aged practical special effects are what have helped this important genre work gain its legendary cult status. It is one of the best written, directed, and acted, funniest, goriest, craziest, and downright entertaining horror films of the 1980s, and of any decade.

About Dave J. Wilson

From London, England, Dave is an expat living in Thailand. He is a lifelong film fan of various genres, with a particular fondness for horror, exploitation, and other shocking cinema. He loves to write critique on this dark side of cinema. As well as being a contributor for Diabolique, you can also find him over at Dread Central, and at his blog Cinematic Shocks.

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