RE-ANIMATOR is one of those good old ’80s college buddy movies, you know? You got the tall, blandly handsome star student Dan (Bruce Abbott), he’s fucking the dean’s daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton), there’s an uptight professor, Dr. Hill (David Gale – the one from SAVAGE WEEKEND, who I still don’t think is the same one THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE is about), who disapproves of the relationship. Then a new student comes to Miskatonic U., the socially inept but brilliant Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who maybe got kicked out of his school in Switzerland, or maybe had to flee. A troublemaker! Double secret probation!
Dan seems like a jock, Herbert like a nerd. Dan is a normal person, Herbert a creepy weirdo. And they become roommates! It would be fun if it was about Dan trying to loosen him up, bringing him to parties and stuff, or to pledge at a fraternity, but maybe that’s in the sequels.
Megan is not happy with the living arrangement, especially when she finds Dan’s cat Rufus dead in Herbert’s mini-fridge. This creates tension between the roomies, but then Herbert blows Dan’s mind by showing him the glow-in-the-dark “re-agent” formula he can inject into the cat to turn it into a hissing PET SEMETARY type zombie cat. Not at all cuddly, but somewhat alive, at least. And then he peer-pressures Dan into helping with his research.
The experiment gets Herbert kicked out of school and Dan super busted, so they fight back with good ol’ college shenanigans like disguising Herbert as a cadaver to sneak him into the morgue and test the serum on a corpse. And this leads to some hilarious pranking of the dean: a raging naked zombie kicks a metal door onto him and jumps up and down on top of it, then lifts him by the neck, slams him against a wall and bites a couple of his fingers off. And just when you think the gag is over he dies and they revive him as a zombie and pass him off as mentally ill. Classic! Take that, Dean! It’s like it’s straight out of a POLICE ACADEMY.
Well, I guess to be frankly honest the tone is pretty different from how I’m making it sound. This is a darkly humorous movie, but the surface isn’t comedic at all. It is genuine, serious horror, the humor comes from the gleeful abandon director Stuart Gordon approaches the mayhem with. This is a movie where a decapitated doctor sneaks around a hospital by putting an anatomical bust on his shoulders and carrying his own head in a bag. Then he ties up his colleague’s daughter (the aforementioned Megan) naked, wrestles the words “I think… I’ve always… loved you” from his dangling throat, and is about to place his severed head between her legs when he gets interrupted.
I hope nobody’s grandmas are reading this right now, but I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a regular, attached head of an old man try to go down on a girl in a movie. That would be pretty unusual. So this severed head version is definitely something you haven’t seen in too many other movies.
If anybody’s grandmas are reading this, I want you ladies to know you got some great grand kids, they have been a big help around here, you should be really proud of them. Maybe stay in the other room when they watch RE-ANIMATOR though. Thanks grandmas.
Dr. Hill is such a sicko that fuckin Herbert West starts to comes across like the good guy when he shows up to stop him. It’s a battle between two creeps. These two have been at it since West’s tour of the campus, when he tells his soon-to-be-teacher to his face that his work is derivative and outdated. His first day of class ends with him yelling “How can you teach such drivel? These people are here to learn and you’re closing their minds before they even have a chance!” Not necessarily the smoothest way to kick off the school year.
Sometimes in a horror movie the bad guy turns into a monster and then he grabs the hero’s girlfriend just ’cause that’s what’s supposed to happen. I like that in this one the doctor (who looks just like John Kerry, by the way) is already secretly obsessed with Megan. You wonder what’s up when he makes a weird toast to her beauty early on, then Dan discovers the old perv has a file on her that includes newspaper clippings, napkins (?) and a lock of hair! This pathetic revelation is one of the two things that makes usually-humorless Herbert West laugh. The other is when a zombie cat is splattered dead against the wall behind Dan and he yells “Look out!”
There’s a nice simplicity to this story that you only get in a low budget movie. It makes sense that Gordon came out of theater, and that he recently revived RE-ANIMATOR as a stage musical. Most of the story takes place either in the apartment and its basement lab or in the school morgue. Within this framework the movie makes an impact by going so extreme and imaginative on the gore effects that you can’t help but laugh. One zombie gets torn apart but is so determined to get West that its large intestine coils around him like a boa constrictor and tries to suffocate him.
There’s this secret world of horrors that Herbert and Dan have unleashed, and for me the highlight is when the uninitiated unwittingly catch a glimpse of it. So I love the shot of the security guard looking in the door in terror as a severed head is hurled above him, splatters and bounces hard off the wall behind him.
This is just a unique and well-made movie, funny without being jokey, just like I like it. The only straight up joke is that Dan has a STOP MAKING SENSE poster in his room, but that’s subtle because it’s way before we’ve seen a talking head in the movie. I hadn’t seen this since the ’80s, and it’s as good as or better than I remembered.
One goofy thing: the main theme is the most blatant ripoff of the PSYCHO theme you could imagine. It works well for the movie, but how did they get away with that? And I wonder if Richard Band sent in the CD as a demo to try to get the job on Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.