While working as the artistic director of a theatre company in Chicago, Stuart Gordon began to take notice of how many of his theatre friends and acquaintances were starting to become involved with the film business as well. He began to think that he should follow their lead and make a movie of his own.
It’s commonly said that the best way to break into the film business is to make a horror movie, and plenty of filmmakers have proven it to be a wise choice, so Gordon decided that was the genre to pursue. When he mentioned to a friend that horror seemed to be lacking in Frankenstein-type stories in the ’80s, the friend suggested that Gordon read the short story Herbert West – Reanimator, written by H.P. Lovecraft in the early 1920s.
Lovecraft’s Reanimator was indeed a take on Frankenstein, a story spanning seventeen years as a med student and eventually doctor named Herbert West conducts experiments in attempts to raise the dead. The story had potential to make a solid foundation for a movie, and it was public domain, so Gordon took it and ran with it. The six chapters of Herbert West – Reanimator consisted mostly of just descriptions of how his experiments repeatedly went horrifically wrong, so there was a lot of room for Gordon and co-writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli to expand the story and flesh out the characters as they developed the screenplay.
The film begins with two separate scenes introducing the characters of medical students Dan Cain and Herbert West, in which they’re both trying to beat death.
In Cain’s case, he’s doing it in the traditional manner while working in the Miskatonic Medical School university hospital in Arkham, Massachusetts, performing CPR on a woman who has flatlined. As other medical professionals and hopefuls look on, Cain desperately continues the chest compressions even when the doctor says it’s time to call time of death, not wanting to give up, he doesn’t know when to stop. It obviously disturbs him when he loses a patient.
While doing independent research on brain death with Doctor Hans Gruber in Zurich, Switzerland, Herbert West has developed another method to try to overcome death with. He has mixed up a glowing green serum that when injected into the corpse of an animal like a rabbit, a guinea pig or the like, has shown promise in bringing them back to life. When Gruber drops dead one day, West decides to use this as an opportunity to experiment on a human subject. He injects Gruber with the serum… and Gruber returns from the dead, screaming, writhing, spasming. His eyeballs explode, and he again drops dead. West gave him too large of a dosage.
With nothing left for him in Zurich, West returns to the states and starts attending Miskatonic, where one of his teachers will be Doctor Carl Hill, an expert in brain research. As West has less than zero respect for Hill, considering the doctor’s most famous bit of research to have been stolen from Gruber and his strong belief that there is a six to twelve minute limit to the life of the brain stem after death to be outdated, the interactions between the two are instantly antagonistic. While sitting in Hill’s class, West causes distraction by snapping pencils in half anytime the doctor says something he disagrees with, and even openly telling the doctor in front of other students that what he’s teaching is drivel.
Cain is dating and talking marriage with Megan Halsey, daughter of the Miskatonic Dean, but for now they have to keep their relationship outwardly low-key because of her father’s puritanical outlooks. Doctor Hill has an unhealthy interest in Megan himself, even giving a creepy toast to her during dinner with her father, saying that she is “the obsession of all who fall under her spell”, but the Dean doesn’t point out how inappropriate Hill’s leering is. Possibly because Hill provides Miskatonic with such large grants.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cain is struggling financially, so he needs to share his house with someone. West answers his ad. Agreeing to rent his guest bedroom to West and allowing him the use of the house’s basement changes Cain’s life.
When Cain’s cat Rufus turns up dead one day, Cain becomes aware of West’s experiments, as Rufus becomes a subject of them. The serum is injected into the dead cat, it springs back to life and into a violent rage. This is a side effect West hasn’t worked out, the violent reaction the dead have when re-animated… More experiments are necessary.
West is obsessed with conquering death, Cain is clearly bothered by the death of patients. The serum, once perfected, could make them rich, Cain needs money. West needs a supply of fresh human corpses, Cain has access to the Miskatonic morgue… And so, Dan Cain becomes Herbert West’s assistant in his ghoulish pursuits.
As in the short story source material, West’s experiments go horrifically wrong every single time he injects something with his serum, and yet that never slows him down or makes him hesitant to do it again. His serum tests produce raging maniacs, bloodthirsty zombies, and creates for West a monstrous adversary. He forges on. West and Cain are nearly killed by their serum zombies on multiple occasions, bystanders pay the price for their illegal activities, murder is committed, characters endure tragedy, Hill attempts to steal West’s work much like he stole Gruber’s, and his obsession with Meg culminates in one of the most famous scenes/images in horror movie history.
Like Sam Raimi with The Evil Dead, like George A. Romero with Night of the Living Dead, Stuart Gordon managed to produce a horror classic his first time making a feature film.
Although very creepy, dark, and disturbing, with some absolutely disgusting moments of gore, Re-Animator is also imbued with a nice sense of humor, with laughs coming from exchanges of dialogue, just how uncomfortable some scenarios are, and from some brief moments of slapstick and absurdity provided by the re-animated Doctor Hill, who continues on with his treacherous ways even after his head has been separated from his body.
The cast does fantastic work in their roles. With his performance as Herbert West, Jeffrey Combs (who, aside from hair and eye color, matches the description of the character in Lovecraft’s prose perfectly) became a horror icon and earned the respect of fans around the world. Bruce Abbott capably handles the role of straight man Dan Cain. While West is the brains of the film, Barbara Crampton provides it with its heart as Megan Halsey, and her character has to deal with some terrible things simply because her boyfriend got a lodger. David Gale makes Doctor Hill a wonderfully slimy villain.
When filming began, Robert Ebinger (Student Bodies, The Being) was the cinematographer, but when Charles Band, who had agreed to distribute the finished film through his company Empire Pictures, saw the dailies, he suggested that Ebinger be replaced by his frequent collaborator Mac Ahlberg (Trancers, Ghoulies, Hell Night). The look Ahlberg captured gives scenes an effectively unsettling atmosphere, and Gordon was clearly happy with him, as he went on to work with Ahlberg on several more films.
The working relationship with Charles Band also landed Gordon his composer, Band’s brother Richard. Richard Band composed a great score for the movie, with the main theme taking clear inspiration from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme. It’s nearly a duplication, which can be somewhat distracting from how good the rest of Band’s music is, the Psycho-copy theme is what gets the most attention.
While Lovecraft’s original story was, despite being considered one of his lesser works, a good and creepy read, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator is one of those rare cases when an adaptation actually elevates the material. Gordon and his co-writers took the elements Lovecraft created and assembled them into a much more dramatically satisfying, well-rounded story. They populated it with a group of characters that are a mixture of entertaining, relatable, pitiable, and repulsive, and then put them through a grotesque hell.
The list of classic and notable genre entries to come out of the ’80s is a long one, and Re-Animator is near the top of that list.