Re-Animator (1985) [Arrow Video]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-08-08 19:35

Re-Animator (1985)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: August 8th, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

A detached observer of Re-Animator might note that the film represents Stuart Gordon’s directorial debut and would rightfully note what an impressive accomplishment that was, especially considering his background for the previous 15 years was in theater. But can we maybe just dispense with such formalities and instead rave about how fucking awesome it was? Not only did Gordon tackle H.P. Lovecraft for his first feature, but he arguably helmed the absolute best adaptation of the author’s work to date, starting a career long fascination with bringing Lovecraft’s work to the screen. Thirty years later, that argument still very much stands, as Re-Animator continues to reign supreme in the realm of both Lovecraftian horror and gross-out splatter movies.

While other movies (including Gordon’s own) may have tackled the more cosmic corners of Lovecraftian lore and piled on more gore, few of those films did it with the aplomb of Re-Animator. The film—which adapts Lovecraft’s self-proclaimed Frankenstein farce—is positively demented, yet hits that sweet spot where it’s still easy to revel in just how fucked up it is. There’s “comedy of errors” and then there’s “oh shit, we’ve reanimated a corpse that’s trying to rip our heads off!”

That’s one of the numerous missteps committed by Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), a couple of med school students at Miskatonic University in New England. The former is a cocksure wunderkind who’s returned to the States after a stint in Switzerland that ended with the death of mentor Hans Gruber, a doctor whose experiments specialized in bringing the dead back to life. His presence is immediately abrasive, as he challenges both Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) in his insistence that life after death is possible. Poor Dan becomes a victim of circumstance when West comes knocking at his door, looking to rent the available room he’s advertised around campus. Soon enough, Dan is drawn into West’s bizarre experiments, which spells certain doom for him at the university—especially since he’s dating Dean Hasley’s daughter, Meg (Barbara Crampton).

The splatter movie aspects rightfully garner most of the headlines with Re-Animator, but Gordon’s smartest decision is threading it all through some genuine compelling character work. Making an audience recoil or delight in horror is perhaps easy enough; making them do both is another feat altogether, and Gordon masterfully strikes this delicate balance in Re-Animator. Most crucial is his decision to couch the film from Cain’s POV, allowing title character West to function more as a deranged trickster figure who exists to upend his life by introducing gory chaos. Both Cain and Meg anchor the film, grounding it in some kind of reality before it becomes a completely unloosed display of severed heads and outsized personalities. These two are sweet, unassuming college students who don’t really deserve to have these horrors visited upon them, so much so that you almost feel bad for laughing at all the carnage. Almost.

Because let’s face it—all of those outsized personalities and the eventual splatter are too indelibly to deny. Combs’s West is one of the most unsung horror icons of all-time, bought to life here in his first outing with the singularly sociopathic bent that would become his trademark. With his lips almost perpetually pursed and his eyebrows furled, Combs sears through the screen, threatening to consume the film every time he appears. It’s a testament to Gordon’s restraint that he reins West’s presence in at first, allowing Combs to create that wry presence and let it simmer to a boil throughout the film. What’s more, you can’t help but watch him bring it to that boil: West is without a doubt an asshole, but he’s a compulsively watchable one who guides the film’s dark comic sensibilities. If Cain and Meg function as the superego keeping everything in check, then West is the unhinged id looking to indulge every grotesque whim, consequences be damned.

Gordon eventually sides with him, unleashing his own grotesque whims on viewers in a cavalcade of outrageous story developments, insane personalities, and unforgettable gore outbursts. With an 86-minute runtime, Re-Animator doesn’t waste a moment, especially once Cain discovers West’s hideous secret, which lurks in the form of his dead pet cat, now rotting away in a refrigerator. From there, Gordon stages one delirious scene after the next, with feral, undead cats dovetailing into bloodthirsty, undead humans as the two med students become increasingly ambitious. Their determination is matched only by their blatant disregard for consequence, leading to a series of misfortunes that spiral way out of control, to the point where they’re being terrorized by Dr. Hill’s disembodied head and his lobotomized legion of the undead.

Just as West and Cain are carried away with their experiments, Gordon sweeps viewers up in this gore-soaked madness, subjecting them to incredible gags and queasy unseemliness. Few films can match the delirious cacophony on display here, as Gordon and his effects crew unloose their imaginations, escalating from one impossible image to another. Somehow, the Dr. Hill’s sentient, disembodied orders is the baseline to the madness here, a sight that eventually looks tame compared to mutant intestines and the freakshow of deformed undead. Re-Animator is the splatter movie taken to its logical extreme, and Gordon embraces the era’s sense of showmanship. You sense that he’d scanned the horizon and surveyed the competition before looking to wipe them out in an utter cascade of karo syrup and latex.

He largely succeeds in doing so since only Raimi’s Evil Dead films can match this film’s demented but playful spirit. Re-Animator, however, also remains faintly disturbing since Gordon doesn’t lose sight of Dan and Meg, the two unfortunate souls whose lives are wrecked by this ordeal. The final moments here are heartbreaking, at least until the devious strains of Richard Band’s familiar-sounding score usher viewers to the credits, leaving them with one last, uncomfortable giggle at the implications. Even if Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna hadn’t followed up with a pair of sequels, there would be a sense that this madness would just go on and on, with neither West nor Cain accepting that sometimes dead is better.

The disc:

Of course, the riotously entertaining Re-Animator makes the opposite case, and it’s not surprising that this title has been resurrected over and over again on various formats. A staple of the DVD era pretty much since the format’s inception, Re-Animator is one of those movies horror hounds have purchased several times over. It’s time to make room for one more, as Arrow has delivered the definitive release, one that features a pristine, restored transfer and an “integral cut” that’s never been released in America before. While Gordon prefers the 86-minute cut we all know and love, it’s interesting to see this 105-minute version integrate scenes from the old R-rated cut and flesh the proceedings out a bit.

Arrow has also compiled the supplements from the film’s various releases over the years, including a pair of commentaries (one has Gordon flying solo, while the other features Yuzna, Combs, Crampton, Abbott, and Sampson). Feature-length retrospective Re-Animator Resurrectus resurfaces from previous releases, boasting interviews with the cast and crew. More interviews continue to litter the disc, including a pair with composer Band, one with former Fango editor Tony Timpone, another with writer Dennis Paoli, and, finally, a sit-down conversation with Gordon and Yuzna that traces the development and production of the film.

A brand-new interview with Crampton is also of interest, as the actress spends 35 minutes looking back on her career, with Re-Animator (and other Gordon collaborations) being the relevant highlights for this disc. However, the candid interview is even more interesting for Crampton’s reflections on her career, particularly her return to acting in You’re Next. Praise be to Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, as Crampton has not only returned as an on-screen presence in recent years but also one behind the scenes, where she’s become a genre advocate and helped put films (like Beyond the Gates) into production. She is very much one of us, as evidenced by her infectious enthusiasm for this genre and its new wave of talent.

Deleted scenes, various trailers and TV spots, and A Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema round out what should stand as the only Re-Animator edition you’ll ever need. It’s an exhaustive, wonderfully packaged release that boasts newly commissioned artwork, new liner notes from Michael Gingold, and a reprint of the 1991 Re-Animator comic book for good measure. Just about the only thing that could make this release even better would be an on-screen announcement from Gordon and Yuzna confirming production on House of Re-Animator, the long mooted follow-up that is at least mentioned on the disc. I’d say that ship has sailed, but I also never thought I’d see Phantasm: Ravager or Ash vs. Evil Dead ever make it to production, so who knows, right? Maybe a more realistic expectation would be for Beyond Re-Animator—the unsung, almost forgotten third entry—receive its due on Blu-ray sometime soon.
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