Re-Animator (1985), Rest in Peace to a Cult Horror Legend

With the passing of cult horror legend Stuart Gordon, it felt only right to finally visit his feature film debut, the iconic: Re-Animator. This was a film I’d heard about for so long, the image of Jeffrey Combs’s Herbert West and his fluorescent serum has long since been immortalised in the pop-culture canon and thus I became well aware of it just through cultural osmosis. But until today I never got around to watching the film, for no real reason in particular, it just never happened. So upon hearing about the death of Gordon, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to honour his memory by watching what I feel I can safely describe as his most famous film.

Going into Re-Animator I expected something completely different to what I received, I thought it was going to be a slow, solitary, sprawling descent into madness in the pursuit of scientific excellence. But instead the film turned out to be fast-paced, comedic, and completely drenched in exploitation…. And I loved it all the more because of this. From the very start the film juxtaposes the calm exterior of the University of Zurich with the frantic events unfolding inside, as two police officers, a doctor and a nurse attempt to get into an office just in time to see Dr. Hans Gruber’s eyes explode with blood, and a frighteningly collected West panics, not due to the situation, but at the thought of ruining his notes and losing his test subject. In this scene alone, so much is set up for the audience; West’s ominous declaration that he didn’t kill Gruber but “gave him life”, the incredible practical effects, and the sheer kineticism within the opening all set scene of what to expect for the rest of the film. It’s a brilliantly punchy opening, that raises plenty of questions while whetting the audience’s appetite.

After a wonderful title sequence that evokes memories of classic Hitchcock title sequences, we’re introduced to the straight-man to West’s fanaticism, Bruce Abbot’s Dan Cain, as a plucky, optimistic medical student. Presented in a fashion that makes him seem absolutely ideal; he goes out of his way to save the dying patient when we first meet him, he’s got a good rapport with his elders, including the Dean, and he’s got a beautiful fiancée. He’s everything the creepy and unsettling West is not, and the film illustrates this well, highlighting their similarities through these differences (ie. both are trying to prevent death in their own way). But while Cain seems to be everything West isn’t, the same goes for the reverse; West isn’t afraid to challenge his professor, specifically David Gale’s Dr. Carl Hill, on the accusations of plagiarism and narrow-mindedness regarding death. Before long the two end up living together, and the idyllic Cain is drawn into West’s controversial studies after witnessing firsthand the success of his serum. It’s this first act of the film that could, if any, be described as slow, but, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, this sequence does a great job of setting up the characters, the stakes, and most importantly the details that will become important later on. As the film progresses the plot becomes simpler and simpler, focusing in on the next experiment and aftermath thereof to carry the film to its climax, but the film relishes in this simplicity and is never hindered by it.

It would be near impossible to praise this film without touching upon the incredible special effects used. I already mentioned the explosion of blood from Dr. Gruber’s eyes in the opening scene, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this film. From the iconic severed head in the blood filled dish, to the connected headless body, to the gruesome former patients that inhabit the hospital’s morgue; all of these, and the effects used to create them, deserve to be in the conversation alongside Tom Savini or Rob Bottin’s best work, as some of the greatest (and most gruesome) practical effects. The whole film is drenched in fake blood, and it’s all utilised so well, making the film equal parts horrific and brutal. Every death, fight, or lobotomy feels equally gruesome, and it all comes together in a brilliant climax that oozes horror.

One of the main reasons I think I loved this film so much, was the way that Stuart Gordon manages to capture the gothic qualities of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, and yet merges it seamlessly with the neon-soaked, exploitation driven, vibe of the 80’s. The confined corridors and layout of the morgue and the dark and eerie basement of Cain’s house, both resonate a gothic style. You feel like these settings have been pulled straight from Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe’s works, and given a slight 80’s touch-up then used directly in this film. The way the story plays out too feels very gothic, by having Cain as the “protagonist” and encountering West, it reminds one of the framing narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Cain as the Jonathan Harker to West’s Count Dracula. Similarly the film follows traditional gothic motifs, such as the destruction of the morgue (where most of the horrific acts take place) along with the horrors inside, which emanates the gothic tradition seen in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The fact that Gordon manages to imbue these staples of the gothic genre into the then modern day setting of the film shows not only a dedication and passion for the original Lovecraft story, but also technical proficiency in its adaptation.

It’s a shame it took the tragic event of Stuart Gordon’s death for me to watch Re-Animator, and it’s bittersweet being so passionate about his work only after his passing. But I suppose for me, there’s a level of comfort knowing that Gordon will live on through his work, and that I’m sure he’d be happy knowing that even 35 years after its initial release, his work on Re-Animator is still creating new fans to this day. It’s a brilliant adaptation that matches its humour with its horror to create a deeply dark horror comedy that very much deserves its place of honour in pop culture.

 

 On a personal note: Stuart, I hope you rest in peace. 

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