Jarv’s Schlock Vault: Re-Animator
What would a note say, Dan? “Cat dead, details later”?
Jarv’s Rating: 3 and a half Changs out of 4. A fucking absolute classic of its kind: gross, irreverent and frequently hilarious, this is an absolutely essential zombie film.
Re-Animator, or “How to get a head in medicine”, is notable for a few reasons. Firstly, it is arguably the only successful Lovecraft adaptation out there (don’t give me that shit about Dagon being anything more than worthless), although I will take Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness as a Lovecraft-inspired film. Secondly, it also spawned several sequels, the first of which: Bride of Re-Animator is a gross and hilarious reworking of Bride of Frankenstein tied in to the Re-Animator mythology. Thirdly, Re-Animator represents a career high for almost everyone involved in it, certainly Jeffrey Combs will never put in another performance even remotely in the same league as his turn here, and finally, it’s just fucking gold from start to finish, combining some midnight-black comedy with excellent practical effects, and a skyscraper high level of entertainment. This is a storming film.
I’m starting to think of the period from 1980-1986 as a bit of a golden period for zombie films, particularly those that attempt to navigate the treacherous path of horror-comedy. There’s the excellent Return of the Living Dead around this time as well, another frequently hilarious and mostly unique look at zombies. Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator, actually, have one thing in common that’s very rare for zombie films: intelligent, articulate zombies. In Return of The Living Dead, the zombies can use the radio to order up a fresh supply of paramedics, whereas here, well, the main villain is the re-animated corpse of Dr. Carl Hill, megalomaniac surgeon, plagiarist, and dirty undead cunt. I can’t think of that many films after 1986 that feature talking zombies, certainly not ones that can lay plans etc, and this does make me wonder what it was about this period that inspired this twist on the genre.
Jeffrey Combs plays Herb West. Herb has recently been expelled from a Swiss clinic for some frankly dubious and unethical practises involving a magic green syringe, corpses, and exploding heads. He’s got this crackpot theory about his magic green (and green stuff in movies featuring movie scientists is never a good thing) enzyme being the key to breaking the 6-minute barrier and effecting re-animation of dead tissue. There are, naturally, several unpleasant side effects that West hasn’t quite been able to iron out yet, not least of which is the tendency of his re-animated corpses to turn into insane and nigh-on unstoppable killing machines.
Herb didn’t start out with humans, of course, he built up to it, and in between falling out with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), getting expelled and generally being a creepy douchebag, he manages to draw his roommate Dan Cain (Bruce Abbot) and his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton) into his web of insanity leading to hilarious and tragic consequences. Shenanigans eventually ensue, Dr. Hill organises an undead rampage before Cain and West can eventually shut everything down- although it is too late for poor old Megan and her father.
Firstly, I’ll just talk about the acting for a moment or two. Herb West was a career making role- he’s Mr. October in the mad scientist calendar, but not actually that easy a role to play. West is a fanatic, and an astonishingly pompous and self-righteous one at that, and although he is blessed with a script that delivers a fair amount of comic one-liners and insane megalomania, there was the real potential for the performance to strike the wrong note and just be creepy and aggravating. Combs is on absolutely stellar form here as West, his performance carries the film for the most part- he’s charismatic, creepy and frequently comical. It’s easy to see why Combs version of West has semi-iconic status. Abbot, on the other hand, has an equally difficult task because it falls to him to play straight man to West. His version of Cain is malleable and naive, and although blessed with a decent enough brain, he’s clearly no match for the towering intellect of his nutty roommate. Abbot plays this well, being as easy to manipulate as warm clay but strangely likable. Crampton (who interestingly partially won the part due to a willingness to take her clothes off- which is awesome) is also on good form as Megan, being sweet and generally easy to like as she fends off the pervy attention of Dr. Hill. Which brings me on to Gale as the aforementioned undead cunt: he’s hilarious, spending the first 2/3 of the film sneeringly arguing with West and plotting his domination and the last third of it as a decapitated head on a tray- which allows him full rein to chew some scenery, and he doesn’t pass up the opportunity.
The script and direction here absolutely sparkle. Re-Animator is flat-out hilarious on several occasions and intentionally so. Take, for example, the cat sequence. Cain wakes up in the night because he can hear strange noises in the basement, down he goes to find West being attacked by a zombie cat. After a brief struggle, West and Cain manage to despatch said undead feline, before, instead of giving West his marching orders, they sit down so that Herb can demonstrate the effectiveness of his magic green solution. This sequence is laugh out loud funny, and this is because of the dialogue and performances and direction. West and Cain are arguing over whether or not the cat is actually an ex-cat, and to demonstrate West picks it up and drops it while repeating “would you say this cat is dead”. It’s obviously, fucking dead, by the way, as it looks completely mangled. Nevertheless, the whole scene is played with a gleeful charm- this is clearly a stupid moment, but it’s also a hilarious one and all involved know it. Stuart Gordon knows that he’s got golden material to work with here, and actors right at the top of their game. Therefore, he’s more than happy to let the camera stand back and allow events to unfold without gimmick. It’s a brave decision, but undoubtedly the correct one, as the three-stooges inspired antics in the morgue, say, demonstrate. Actually, the film Re-Animator reminds me of most is Evil Dead 2 in that there’s an awful lot of physical comedy played on-screen, and it would undoubtedly fall completely flat if it didn’t have the right personnel to perform it. It’s not as good as Evil Dead 2, but little is, and the comedy is as gross, but nevertheless, this is sterling stuff.
There are two other points of note before I sign off, the first is the score- which is derivative of earlier times. It’s also note perfect and while pleasingly cheery has a gothic note, thereby managing to nail all the facets of a complex zombie film. However, more importantly, the practical effects in this are top-notch. When Hill eventually takes centre stage, he does so as a decapitated head and body. It’s fucking priceless the antics he gets up to- with a great sight-gag involving one of those anatomy dolls you saw in biology class at school. Secondly, there’s a monumentally gross visual pun (and I think Hill makes the link verbally for those too stupid to spot it) at the climax of the film, which I am going to put a picture up of below, that is so wrong, and so funny that it’s one of the stand-out moments from any undead film. This scene, actually, sums up Re-Animator in a nutshell for me: gleeful, irreverent, sick as fuck, and downright hilarious.
Overall, this is an excellent film. In fact, it’s very nearly flawless. Re-Animator is one of the genre classics of the era, and a truly schlocky treat that is fun for all the family. There’s gore, comedy, nudity to keep the kids interested and a strong storyline allied to even stronger performances. I’ve rated it with 3 and a half out of 4, which is on the very high side, and that’s because I do really, really, really recommend this one. Re-Animator is a fantastic romp that scores in pretty much every department and if you haven’t seen it yet, then I suggest you get it and it’s sequel for an epic double-bill of zombie hi-jinks.
Until next time,