Retrospective: Re-Animator — How Stuart Gordon Reanimated Lovecraft

Stuart Gordon passed away on March 24th of this year, leaving behind a long and varied career that included contributions to live theater, television, and film. He is responsible for co-creating mega-hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and its sequel, as well as B-movie classics such as Robot Jox (1990) and Fortress (1992). However, it’s Gordon’s work in the horror genre that he is largely best known and fondly remembered for.

In particular, it was the writings of H.P. Lovecraft that would fuel what would become his ultimate cult horror film Re-Animator (1985). Based off a series of short stories by Lovecraft, these were generally considered his lesser works and the author himself disliked them, especially the insistence by his publisher that every one of these stories had to end in a cliffhanger. The stories of reanimated corpses and twisted scientists wasn’t in Lovecraft’s usual wheelhouse of cosmic horror and as such were written purely with money in mind and nothing else.

Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon.

Perhaps for these reasons Re-Animator is one of the best and most well-known Lovecraft adaptation, it transfers from a schlocky series of short stories to 80s splatter flick quite smoothly. The concepts were perfect for the 1980s “the gore, the merrier” ethos towards horror films and its penchant for practical effects. In many ways it provides the blueprint for splatter flicks and horror-comedies moving forward with Evil Dead II (1987) taking the torch and setting the benchmark even higher a mere two years later.

The plot takes elements from multiple storylines and updates things to the modern day (or mid ‘80s at least). Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is a medical student at Miskatonic University (Lovecraft’s beloved fictional alma mater) who, unbeknownst to Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson), is in a relationship with his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton). Things are further complicated when mysterious transfer student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) enters the picture.

Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon.

West rents a room in their apartment and Dan stumbles into his experiments in bringing the dead back to life and becomes his accomplice. The experiments naturally go awry with the dead going berserk once they’re administered West’s iconic, neon green serum. The pair must not only deal with the undead but also a nemesis in the form of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) who not only has his sights on West’s work but also Megan as well.

Make no mistake, Re-Animator is a classic splatter flick in every sense of the word. This is a movie that is about gory, practical special effects culminating in a bloody crescendo in the final confrontation. West casually disembowels one of the freshly-made undead with a medical saw and there’s a messy decapitation later leading to one of West’s zombified specimen working its body independent from its head in a display of the film’s macabre sense of humor. The humor in the absurdity of the gore is always present even as the movie juggles its more dramatic aspects.

Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon.

What makes Re-Animator a cut above the average splatter movie at the time is the quality from behind the camera to the acting. Jeffrey Combs is superbly cast as Herbert West, who would go on to have a long career in horror and B-movies playing damaged geniuses (plus teaming up frequently with Stuart Gordon many times) and it’s easy to see why the character has continued to survive through multiple sequels. Short in stature and wearing a pair of gigantic ’80s nerd glasses, Combs’ West is a driven, emotionally-cold genius who you still can’t help but root for.

Due to West being opposed by Dr. Hill, who is portrayed as being worse than West, he becomes the film’s antihero. West might be amoral, but at least he’s not a megalomaniac and harboring a creepy crush on his friend’s young daughter. Likewise, David Gale’s tall stature, gaunt appearance and voice makes him the perfect horror movie villain well before he becomes undead and a battle between the mad doctors ensues.

Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon.

Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton (who much like Combs would have a long career in horror) play the perfect foils: two good-looking college kids well on their way to having a storybook life until West comes in and tempts Dan into becoming his assistant with the promises of fame and immortality, creating something of a love quadrangle as West takes Dan away from Megan for their nighttime experiments and Dr. Hill lusting after Megan all while her father disapproves of the relationship between her and Dan. It’s almost into the territory of soap opera, but the relationships between the characters is balanced well enough with the horror aspects that it becomes engaging rather than distracting.

Gordon also wound the horror narrative with the theme of addiction and would later revisit that same theme when From Beyond (1986) was released. West’s demeanor is that of a classic addict and cannot stop his experiments no matter how out of control they get and who they end up hurting. The image of West injecting his serum further cements the linkage, and his constant emphasis on having “fresher parts” is like an addict justifying one more hit. It’s an interesting theme to put into what is on the surface a splatter-filled horror-comedy, but between that and the drama between all the characters it all works out.

Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon.

Re-Animator went onto be a success and even got praise from a positive Roger Ebert review, and considering the previous year he had went on a rant about how offensive he found the violence in slasher sequel Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) to be in an infamous review, gave the film a greater credibility. Two sequels  would later be made (with Brian Yuzna in the director’s chair), though Stuart Gordon was set to return as director with House of Reanimator which was to be a skewering of the George W. Bush era with the not-so-good doctor reanimating the president himself.

Sadly, that project would not come to fruition, but Stuart Gordon would go on to produce a stage musical of Re-Animator which ironically is what he envisioned in the first place. Re-Animator’s place in the annals of horror has long been assured, it’s a fantastic, fun horror-comedy that has stood the test of time and even during its heyday stands tall among equally influential horror-comedies such as Fright Night (1985) and Return of the Living Dead (1985).

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