“Don’t expect it to tango. It has a broken back.”
The Scoop: R 1985, directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Jeffrey Combs, David Gale, Barbara Crampton and Bruce Abbott.
Tagline: Herbert West has a very good head on his shoulders… and another in a dish on his desk.
Summary Capsule: Mad scientist just wants to reanimate the dead in peace, but a series of events leads him into a bloody, luminescent green confrontation with all the other (many) mad scientists at his university.
Louise’s rating: 4 out of 5 ruined shirts.
Louise’s review: There is much to enjoy in Re-animator if you prefer gore to ghosts and bromance to brooding. It’s a science-gothic-horror… with heart. Yes, there are lobotomies, sexual obsession, a veritable orgy of necromancy, rivalry, and a talking head, but at the centre of it all is a nerd I just want to pet.
Herbert West is a small, slight young scientific researcher. He dresses very properly, he wears glasses, he has inherent dignity and respectability, although he can be rude when people get in his way. He could really benefit from having a good friend to help him out with social situations. He’s passionate about his subject, which happens to be… raising the dead. Poor Herbert’s problem tree has only one branch, and that is, ‘raise the dead.’ No money? Raise the dead. Too much milk in the fridge? Raise the dead. Inadvertently killed the dean of the university? Raise the dead. Loads of frickin’ dead running around the place, frightening the staff? I dunno, dude, let’s try raising the dead.
Herbert has come to study at the famous Miskatonic University, and he quickly moves in with star medical student Dan (creeping out Dan’s secret girlfriend Megan) and sparks a professional antagonism with Dr Carl Hill, the reigning brain-surgeon. Trouble comes when Dan and Megan find out about his research – Megan is horrified, while Dan is intrigued and becomes a reanimation study buddy. With Dan’s help, Herbert gets a little overambitious, and an attempt to raise just one little corpse in the hospital morgue leads to a… well, I was going to say a rising body count, but maybe ‘a chaotically fluctuating body count’ would be more accurate. Heads will roll. Blood will spurt. Quotable quotes will fly thick and fast. Security guards will decide they’re not paid nearly enough to deal with this. And it will be marvellously laughably delightfully BAD, from its ‘mysterious’ opening in Zurich to its “Noooooooo!” ending.
I should point out that this is not a traditionally ‘good quality’ film, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear. It’s not psychologically horrifying from a modern perspective. It’s from the 1980s – corn-syrup gore and nude hotties and daft storyline and all. If you don’t care about ‘quality’ and just like what you like, goshdarnit, you may well like this. I know I did. Actually, a lot of professional reviewers did. My only criticism is that there are only two female speaking roles, because realistic lady representation is what I care about when I stick in a DVD. Realistic lady representation and snappy dance sequences.
There are three things I would like to discuss further. First, the character of Herbert West. Props to Jeffrey Combs for his intense performance, and for playing this pulp caricature of a character completely straight. I absolutely adore Herbert, from his pale skin and beady eyes, his devotion (devotion to the point of stupidity) to his scientific dreams and his intelligence, to his inability to keep a shirt clean. He is a terrific anti-hero, and only partly because his diminutive stature means he can’t help but be… cute. It’s true! Herbert West is lovely. Mad, of course, but in a kittenish sort of way. This brings me onto the second thing I want to talk about, which is his relationship with Dan. These two go from reluctant housemates, to scientific partners, to something approaching friends. Dan is used to living the good student life – he has the respect of his teachers, a pretty girl, etc. The only thing that blots his existence is the fact that sometimes, no matter how much he tries, his patients die. That’s what draws him to Herbert and Herbert’s not-so-crackpot theories. Their interactions are classic jock vs. geek: snobbery on both sides, gradually melting into mutual dependence (albeit with bickering). It’s interesting to watch, and to speculate on what could happen between them once the credits roll.
The third thing I want to talk about is the bizarre place these characters live and work in. Over the course of the film, we learn that the hospital of Miskatonic University is possibly the worst hospital in the world. Why are the doctors taking bodies down to the morgue themselves? Are there no porters? Dan and Herbert are only able to raise the dead because the one security guard in the whole place decides he’d rather read a girly magazine than do his job. Dr Carl Hill has a padded cell in his office! Who on earth approved that? It becomes apparent that the whole faculty of this hospital are mad scientists who will experiment on anyone who stays still for more than five minutes, and professional rivalry is the dominant driver of behaviour. Someone please call the police on this place! Without a doubt, I would not want to be a patient there, and it’s a fantastic setting for a science-horror movie, played just straight enough to avoid Mel Brooksian spoof. Well done, writers.
Try Re-animator, guys. It’s well worth a few viewings.
Kyle’s rating: A zombie movie aHEAD of its time. See, there’s a decapitated head involved. Get it?
Kyle’s review: Being a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I had always wanted to see this film based on some of his short stories. I had heard it was scary and gross, with cool special effects, and lots of gore and blood. This has all of these things, and more!
Jeffrey Combs is Herbert West, who perhaps yearns to re-animate dead people to find fame and redeem having a doofy name. He’s not much of a hero, since a hero would probably think twice or even thrice about injecting glowing green stuff into the dead with the intent of reviving them as flesh-craving unstoppable zombies. I mean, didn’t any of these people see Night of the Living Dead? Come on, people!
I guess Bruce Abbott as Herbert’s roommate Dan functions as the hero, though he mostly just wants to hang with his hot girlfriend, who is lusted after by an older doctor who also has an eye out for Herbert’s re-animating experiments (plot point!). But by the end, everyone will either be drenched in the exploding and grabbing intestines of the re-animated dead, or they’ll be readying a syringe of the glowing green stuff for just one last re-animation project. Or maybe they’ll just be decapitated. I guess when it comes to dealing with zombies, there really are no heroes left.
But no matter. As neat a gory zombie flick this is, I am certain that this film came about for one reason and one reason alone: the filmmakers wanted to show a decapitated zombie at least try to perform oral sex on an unwilling and screaming heroine. How or why they wanted to see this, I just don’t know. But they did, and Re-animator is what they thought up to surround the scene of their dreams. Enjoy!
Shalen’s rating: This was SO not Lovecraft.
Shalen’s review: It’s been a long time since I saw a movie that actually scared me. This is probably because when Sibling 2 was watching She’s The Man, I chickened out and ran screaming from the room. This time I was able to take my courage firmly in hand and say to myself, “Don’t worry! There won’t be any anorexic shrieky blond chicks! Just horribly gory animated human corpses!”
I wasn’t completely correct, as it happens. Meg, the female protag — okay, she’s not a protagonist, she’s an Accessory Female tacked on as girlfriend/motivation who is about as convincing as a med student as Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist. But at least she’s not anorexic. I know this for sure, because we see her completely naked at least once. The scene I describe was, not by coincidence, the freakiest thing I have ever allowed myself to watch.1 I was trying to bench press and cover my eyes at the same time going “Oh PLEASE don’t let that actually happen…” Fortunately, it was interrupted. I used to think scantily clad firearm-wielding women in horror films were a patronizingly sexist concept, but that was before I realized the previous entries in the genre contained things like this. Bring on the Alice and Jill from Resident Evil! Miniskirts! Shotguns! Please! I was that close to becoming a Bloodrayne fan, too, but fortunately I came to my senses just in time.
Justin and Kyle have done a great job of giving an idea/feel for this movie, although I’d disagree with one or two things. The serum pretty much has to be injected into the brain stem (one of the few medically correct things in this movie), unless you want the writhing intestine effect that happens toward the end of the film. And the zombies aren’t so much hungry for human brains as they are just homicidally peeved at everything in general. Unlike traditional Romero zombies, they don’t seem to be contagious. There is some resemblance to the Lovecraft story on which this film is based, but the Lovecraftian not-quite-telling-everything method has been replaced with exaggerated, drippy gore.
Another thing that deserves a mention is the soundtrack. The music was one of two reasons I watched the whole thing. It has an over-the-top orchestral vibe with repetitive crashing chords, referencing Jaws and traditional horror soundtracks and taking it just that much further. The end result is a vibe akin to that one might achieve by downing six shots of espresso and running through a carnival house of horrors. It’s too hyperactive to be scary, but there’s just that edge of irrational terror trying to make itself known in the background.
The other reason I finished the movie is Jeffrey Combs’ performance as Herbert West. I have to laugh when I try to picture the interview that got him admitted to medical school in the first place. This guy is so obsessed that when (spoiler) he’s writhing in the grip of living intestines extending from the headless body of a victim, his first concern is that his partner gets away with his notes.2 Combs hits the perfect note of oscillation between absolute chill and frenetic, obsessed activity, the ideal mad scientist. I’d recommend the movie on the strength of his performance and the soundtrack alone.
Of course, it’s not exactly for the squeamish. But then, a squeamish person probably shouldn’t be reading this review, unless they were just morbidly curious or dutifully reading another mutant’s review out of loyalty despite their own revulsion.3 If that’s the case, I recommend reading the short stories about West first. They’re available online here and elsewhere.
1. I did not watch Evil Dead specifically because of that part with the tree roots.
2. And speaking of said partner, this is not a film for cat lovers, either.
3. Thanks, Lissa!
- What sort of medical students are these? No-one does CPR anywhere near hard enough. Don’t be shy. If you’re not cracking their ribs, you’re not doing it right.
- Everyone should have a bonesaw.
- For a culty zombie flick, this has a surprisingly high freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes – 92%!
- How is that head talking? HE HAS NO LUNGS!
- I have no expectation of picking up and carrying my own head, but if I ever did, I for one would use BOTH hands.
- That’s the door left open for a sequel, then! There have been two sequels featuring Jeffrey Combs as Herbert – Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-animator. Bride of Re-Animator also saw the return of Dan and Dr Carl Hill.
- Chortle during the pencil-snapping scene.
- Memo holders are good for holding heads
- Even with nerves severed, a decapitated head can communicate with its body
- You can be expelled from med school for conducting unorthodox experiments with corpses
- The first man who is re-animated at the morgue was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body double.
- The man sitting next to Meg with his jaw bandaged up is James Cameron’s father.
- Very loosely adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Re-Animator”.
- The special effects department went through 25 gallons of fake blood during the shoot.
- The “brains” in the severed head were made up of steer meat by-products, ground beef and fake blood and when they shot the scene in the autopsy room with the severed head being thrown out the door and then smashing onto the hallway wall, the crew were all behind the cameras with garbage bags over their clothes because no one knew just how much the brains would splatter.
Herbert: I gave him life!
Security guard: Don’t know why they lock the doors. Nobody wants in, ain’t nobody getting out.
Dr Carl Hill: I suggest you get yourself a pen.
Herbert: People fail. Not I.
Herbert: I am a scientist!
If you liked this movie, try:
- Evil Dead
- The Howling
- Any adaptations of Frankenstein.