Year of Release: 1985
Director: Stuart Gordon
Length: 86 mins
Starring: Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson, Jeffrey Combs
It’s been at least a couple of months now, so I think it’s about time we had another 80’s cheese fest. Re-Animator, aka H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-animator on account of being loosely based on Lovecraft’s 1922 work ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ fits the bill perfectly. Directed by Stuart Abbott, who also directed From Beyond (1986), Dolls (1987) and wrote Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and The Dentist (1995), it was originally intended to be a stage play, before given The Treatment, and that sense of intimacy has largely been preserved. With it’s a small cast, tightly-woven plot, and snappy dialogue, it’s easy to see why Re-Animator is now considered a bona fide cult classic. Shot in only 18 days, it is the first film in the Re-Animator series, and was followed by Bride of Re-Animator (1990) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), neither of which hit the heights of the original.
After leaving his last place of education under something of a cloud, medical student called Herbert West (Combs) enrols at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts (a fictional educational establishment in a fictional town in a real state), moves in with fellow student Dan Cain (Abbott), and then proceeds to turn the apartment into a laboratory. His experiments include killing and then re-animating Dan’s cat Rufus several times, much to the horror of Dan’s girlfriend, Megan (Crampton). Don’t worry, cat lovers, Rufus gets his own back. Dan tries to tell the Dean of the university (who happens to be Megan’s father) about West’s experiments but he is ridiculed, and the pair kicked out. They then hatch a plan to sneak into the morgue to use the reagent they have developed on a human subject to prove it works. It does, except the dead guy returns as a zombie-like crazed person. That’s when the Dean stumbles upon the scene, and shit gets really wild.
Producer Brian Yuzna (who played one of the hospital corpses, largely for his own amusement) described the film as having the “sort of shock sensibility of an Evil Dead with the production values of The Howling.” There are more than a few scenes to keep the gore hounds among you happy. My absolute favourite shows Dr Hill (Gale) in a role that the great Christopher Lee allegedly refused, removing skin from a corpse’s head on the way to extracting their brain, which he does with the words, “It’s very much like peeling a large orange.” According to IMDB, the special effects department went through 24-gallons of fake blood during the shoot, special-effects guru John Naulin said that Re-Animator was the bloodiest film he had ever worked on. In the past he had never used more than two gallons, which has to be some kind of compliment. Upon release, Re-Animator received an X (adults only) rating, and was later edited to obtain an R rating for video rental stores because some stores’ policies prohibited them from renting ‘unrated’ films with an MPAA rating of X. In the R-rated version, much of the gore was edited out and replaced with various scenes which had been deleted for pacing purposes, including a subplot involving Dr. Hill hypnotizing several characters to make them more suggestible to his will. A short scene was also added showing Herbert West injecting himself with small amounts of the reagent to stay awake and energized, which may have affected his thinking over the course of the film. On the other side of the pond, British Film Censors weren’t impressed with the scene where the severed head Dr. Hill attempts to rape Megan and refused to pass the film for release in the United Kingdom until the sequence had been cut. In Japan, the film is titled “ZOMBIO” though the title is dropped for the sequel because it translates as “Drifting Spirits” and makes no sense in the context of the film.
Re-Animator was received well, winning over many of the more arty critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Re-Animator has a fast pace and a good deal of grisly vitality. It even has a sense of humor, albeit one that would be lost on 99.9 percent of any ordinary movie-going crowd.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas said, “The big noise is Combs, a small, compact man of terrific intensity and concentration,” and David Edelstein, writing for Village Voice, an influential New York tabloid that closed in 2017, placed the film in his year-end Top Ten Movies list. In their book Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H. P. Lovecraft, Andrew Migliore and John Strysik write, “Re-Animator took First Prize at the Paris Festival of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, a Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and even spawned a short-lived series of comic books. Even though it was a hit with audiences, the film generated a huge amount of controversy among Lovecraft readers. Fans thought the film a desecration of Lovecraft; their literary hero would never write such obvious exploitation!”
In December 1986, the year after Re-Animator was released, Barbara Crampton did a nude pictorial in Playboy magazine under the title, “Simply Beastly. Behind every successful monster, there’s a woman.” In an October 2020 interview with Entertainment Weekly, the then 61-year revealed that she was only given a second round of auditions for the role of Meg because the girl who won the part the first time around turned it down after her mother read the script and said “Oh, no. You’re not doing this.”