|Horror is littered with characters whose names are known beyond the confines of genre fandom. There can be few in any country who are not familiar with that sharp-toothed Transylvanian chappie, and throw a stick anywhere and you'll hit someone who thinks Frankenstein is the creature's name rather than that of his creator. But if you're a horror fan, a true horror fan, there are other names that you will know by heart, or at least should if you're going to keep your membership card. It's a long list, but here are few favourites: Norman Bates, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Freddie Kruger, Herbert West. What's that? You don't know who Herbert West is? Hand your card in at the door as you leave. But if you're still discovering the delights of that the genre has to offer, or have yet to explore the full range of its varied and perverse pleasures and see all of those movies that only horror fans hold dear, then pull up a chair. Dr. Herbert West is a man you should definitely get to know.
takes inspiration from a number of sources and re-moulds
them into a largely original new. Although based on and
updated from a series of six stories by master horror writer
H.P. Lovecraft, the original inspiration was clearly Mary
Shelly's Frankenstein and its
cinematic incarnations (Terence Fisher's Hammer version
would seem to be a key influence*), focusing as it does on
the efforts of a fanatically driven scientist to reverse
the process of mortality and return the dead to life.
But whereas Victor Frankenstein used electricity to revitalise
lifeless brains and tissue, Herbert
West employs a flourescent chemical agent. Like the good
Baron before him, West fails to take into account how his
subject might react to being hauled unexpectedly back from
the dead, and where Victor got unlucky with an abnormal
brain (or a brain belonging to someone named Abbie Normal, if Marty
Feldman's Igor in Young Frankenstein is
to be believed), West is dealing with the time limits
following brain death.
West is introduced in dramatic fashion in a sequence shot late in the production when producer Brian Yuzna felt the film needed to start with more of a bang. I've become increasingly weary of this technique of quickly grabbing the attention of an impatient audience, but here it works a treat. In a Zurich university hospital, doctors and security personnel burst into a lab to find West kneeling next to the twitching body of his mentor, Dr. Gruber, who suddenly leaps to his feet, screaming in apparent agony. Seconds later his eyes explode, horrifying the onlookers. "You killed Dr. Gruber!" one of them accuses. "No," retorts West, straight to camera, "I gave him life." On my first viewing, that sold me. It wasn't just the violence, the urgency of the filmmaking or the lightning-fast introduction of its anti-hero, but something about the way West delivers that line. But I'll get to the actors, and specifically that actor, later.
location switch to the Miskatonic Medical School in Massachusetts
and we're introduced to hard working medical student Dan Cain,
who's battling to save a cardiac-arrested patient and refusing to accept that she has died. When he takes the body down
to the morgue he bumps into the Chief of the Medical School, Dean
Halsey, whose daughter Meg Dan is engaged to and secretly
sleeping with. Halsey introduces him to their newest student,
Herbert West, who all but ignores Dan to lay in to resident
neurologist Dr. Hill for plagiarising the late Dr. Gruber's
work. West continues to confront Hill in his first autopsy
class and finally finds a reason to talk to Dan when he answers the younger student's ad for
a roommate, and after delightedly discovering the apartment's sizeable
basement he immediately moves in. Meg's not happy about
it and her fears appear to be justified when she finds the
body of Dan's cat in a fridge in West's room. West's explanation is
terse but plausible, but that night Dan is woken by a loud
screeching from the basement, where he finds West under
attack from the very same animal whose corpse was in the cooler
just a few hours earlier. And believe me, we're only just
getting started here.
convinced Dan of the effectiveness of his serum by again reviving the battered remains of
his cat ("Don't expect it to tango – it has a broken
back"), West enlists his help to sneak into the morgue
and try it out on a human subject. It works, but
the revived corpse goes bugshit and kills Dean Halsey, who
has chosen the worst time imaginable to visit the morgue.
Dan is horrified, but West is quick to recognise an opportunity
when it dies in his lap – as he points out to Dan, "This
is the freshest body that we could come across, save for
killing one ourselves." You can probably guess how well this goes.
And we've yet to get to Dr. Hill's treacherous self-interest,
a reanimated corpse that carries its head around and does
its bidding, and a scene in which those Freudian horror
favourites of sex and death collide in a manner that
no genre film before would frankly have dared explore.
As you will doubtless have realised by now, this is not the serious scary horror of Ringu, The Others or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but nor is it an all-out horror-comedy per se. Everyone involved in the making of Re-Animator appears to know their way around the horror genre, and their understanding of its conventions enables them to both meet our expectations and upend and have fun them. Built around a literate, witty and incident-packed script by Dennis Paoli, William Norris and Stuart Gordon, the film builds in the busy first third and then hardly pauses for breath, fuelled by the energy of its performers, the inventive confidence of Gordon's direction (this was his first film and he freely admits he was learning on the hoof), Mac Ahlberg's lighting camerawork and expressive dolly shots,** Lee Percy's tight and waste-free editing (it was he who was responsible for bringing the film down from its two-and-a-half hour first cut) and Richard Band's lively score, whose impossibly catchy main theme is lifted straight from Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho, but twisted just enough to stand on its own jaunty feet.
Re-Animator was and remains a serious horror fan's wet dream. You want
grisly gore effects, including exploding eyeballs, a bone
saw pushed out through a chest, and fingers bitten off? You
got 'em. You want a couple of good shocks? No problem. You
want a battle between live humans and revived corpses, and
an attack by overactive, reanimated intestines? Step right
up. You want a film that's tense and horrific, but also funny
because it's genuinely witty rather than because
it's winking at the audience and endlessly referencing other
movies? Well that's one of the many reasons Re-Animator
looks as fresh now as it did on its first release twenty-two
A key reason for the success of this comic-horror balancing act lies in the casting and performances. On his commentary and in the accompanying documentary, Stuart Gordon makes a case for Bruce Abbott as the unsung hero of the film and he's right. Surrounded as he is by larger-than-life characters sporting readily quotable dialogue, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Dan is the the point of audience identification and the nearest the film has to a male voice of reason. Horror leading men come and go, and not every film can have a Bruce Campbell at its centre, but Abbott delivers, from his regression into shock after the revival of Dean Halsey (where he is wrapped in a sheet and comforted in almost maternal fashion by West – one of the film's many unexpected and effective touches), to his comical wrestling with a bedsheet when he unexpectedly encounters West at his door, and a final scene where...no, you'll have to see that for yourself. Barbara Compton gets lumbered with the nude stuff and a sequence few big name actresses would ever agree to do, but makes a far bigger impression than the standard horror female love interest (mind you, the part of Megan is also better written), and is one of the best screamers the screen has seen in years (oh where was she when De Palma needed one for Blow Out?). Veteran TV character actor Robert Sampson seems to delight in playing the revived and demented Dean Halsey, while David Gale plays Dr. Hill with the sort of relish that Stuart Gordon has rightly and fondly associated with the heyday of Hammer.
there's a reason that Herbert West is the best remembered
and most quoted character in the film, and it's not just
that he has many of the best lines – here it really is all
in the delivery. Jeffrey Combs is just divine as West, as
perfectly cast and completely in tune with his role as Richard
E. Grant was in Withnail and I. He steals almost every scene
he is in and litters the film with memorable moments: his
appearance at Dan's door bearing a reluctant grin and a "room mate wanted"
card; his pencil-breaking disapproval
of Dr. Hill's lecture and angry cry of "How can you
teach such drivel!"; the half-laugh he lets out mid-sentence
to mock Hill's work; his terse explanation of why he had
not left a note for Dan informing him of the death of his
cat ("And what would a note say, Dan? 'Cat dead. Details
later'?"), his final confrontation with Dr. Hill...
the list goes on. Combs brings the simplest of
lines to unexpected life and I mean that literally – even
his delivery of "hmmm" had me giggling with delight.
It's worth remembering, though, that West's most frequently
quoted line – it was even used in every trailer I've ever
seen – was not scripted at all but devised by actors Combs
and Abbott. It's a simple one that nonetheless captures
the spirits of the film beautifully: Dan asks "He's
dead?" to which West calmly replies, "Not
Re-Animator remains a genre favourite and it's easy to see why. It's a film made by horror fans with horror fans in mind, and one of those happy productions where every element seems to work together in a kind of unholy but delightful synergy. It's one of those rare low budget cult films that you don't have to make any excuses or allowances for (OK, you could quibble about a severed head that can still control its body or can speak and wheeze without lungs, but few are likely to care), one of the last great shouts for the pre-CGI, pre-post-modern horror films of the 80s, and one that fully deserves its reputation as a modern genre great.
The film's inevitable genre pigeonholing has meant that despite being a career launcher for many of those involved, none have made it to household name status (had this been a big budget mainstream film you can bet it would have been a different story). Bruce Abbott has since worked mainly in TV, with appearances in the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Murder She Wrote and The Net and Family Law, as has Barbara Crampton with shows that few UK viewers will have probably seen, such as The Bold and the Beautiful, Spyder Games and The Young and the Restless. Robert Sampson, who plays Dean Halsey and whose CV boasts over 123 film and TV roles, continued to mix TV and film work, as did David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill) until his untimely death in 1991. Jeffrey Combs has probably been the busiest of the lot, with a total of 78 subsequent parts to date in film and television, eventually landing an almost equally quirky and memorable role as the manipulative Vorta Weyoun in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (he also played Ferengi Liquidator Brunt in the same series).
Stuart Gordon's subsequent career as a writer and director has sadly yet to produce a work that comes close to this delicious debut (on the accompanying featurette he observes that he's still known as Stuart 'Re-Animator' Gordon), while producer Brian Yuzna, after making a genre splash with his own directorial debut Society has remained in the realms of low budget horror with works such as Return of the Living Dead II and The Dentist.
Yuzna, Combs, Abbott and Gale were re-united on this film's first sequel, Bride of Re-Animator (1990), but only Combs and Yuzna were still on board for the second sequel, Beyond Re-Animator (2003). A third sequel, House of Re-Animator, is due next year, and is to apparently star Combs, Abbott and Crampton, as well as William H. Macy and George Wendt.***
Framed approximately 1.85:1 (my screen grabs suggested some minor variance) and anamorphically enhanced, this would appear to be the same transfer as the one found on Elite's 2004 Millennium Edition US release, and I do mean the same, as the transfer looks to be an NTSC to PAL transfer, presumably from that source (the identical running times most readily give it away). It's worth noting that as such conversions go, this is a good one, with detail, colour and contrast all surviving well, although there are some noticeable compression artefacts on some areas of similar colour and some occasional digital noise on angled lines.
The three tracks from Elite disc are also included here: Dolby 2.0 stereo, Dolby 5.1 surround and DTS surround. The stereo is truer to the original release and its perfectly good, but the 5.1 definitely has more punch on the music and the DTS ups this a notch further. All are in good shape and sound fine. The isolated score track from the Elite disc is absent, however, which is a shame.
This UK region 2 two-disc special edition from Anchor Bay appears to have licensed most of its content from the US Elite release, which is no bad thing, but with one notable extra feature detailed below.
Audio Commentary with director Stuart Gordon
An engrossing and information-packed track that covers a lot of ground, including Gordon's pre-film work as director of the Organic Theatre Group in Chicago (whose members included Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz), the development of the script and film, the performances, camerawork, special effects (including West's glowing green serum), the decision to release the film unrated, and a whole load more. There are some nice anecdotes and memories, too, my favourite surrounding the "You.....bastard!" line (you'll need to see the film to understand its amusing context), which so delighted actor Jim Belushi that he would call Gordon up just to rasp it down the phone at him.
Audio commentary with producer Brian Yuzna and actors Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton and Robert Sampson
A jovial and enjoyable track in which the participants recall a few amusing stories of the shoot, but spend more time poking fun at each other and their characters. Some find this sort of track irritating, but at their best they can be a great deal of fun and on rare occasions even hilarious (the commentaries on both Dog Soldiers and Severance are an absolute scream), and it's always nice to hear actors or filmmakers not taking themselves too seriously. This one certainly had me laughing out loud in places, with Combs both funny in himself and the most popular target of ribbing from others, from Abbott's "You're a fine person to talk about sick, Jeffrey" to Crampton's more direct "You did not! You're a big fat liar!"
Re-Animator Resurectus featurette (68:37)
The only extra unique to the Anchor Bay release is a substantial one, and includes interviews with almost all of the main contributors from both sides of the camera. As a stand-alone it's informative, entertaining and well assembled, but a lot of the content is repeated elsewhere, particularly in Stuart Gordon's commentary track and the interviews detailed below. It's still well worth a look even if you're already familiar with the other extras from the Elite disc.
Interview with Director Stuart Gordon and Producer Brian Yuzna (48:45)
Actually a filmed chat between the two men shot entirely from one angle (with some smoothly done reframing) that covers Gordon's pre-film stage work and the development and making of the film. Despite their coverage elsewhere, there's a lot more detail here and the two feed each other well.
Interview with Writer Dennis Paoli (10:39)
Paoli talks about the development of the story and script, as well as fellow writer William Norris's contribution. He does confirm that both he and Gordon are huge fans of Hammer films.
Interview with Composer Richard Band (14:41)
Inevitably Band talks about the development of the score, including the borrowing from Herrmann, whom he claims was originally supposed to be thanked on the end credits. Not all of his stories seem to completely concur with those of the other contributors on the disc.
Music Discussion with Composer Richard Band (16:27)
A really interesting piece in which Band introduces a number of the tracks used in the film, which are then shown with the sequence in question but with all other sound removed, allowing you to fully appreciate how the music has been used. Good one. Does include the entire end credits sequence, though, which is no different here to how it plays on the film itself.
Interview with Fangoria Editor Tony Timpone (4:33)
Timpone recalls his first viewing of the film and his hope that it signalled a revival of the old-style horror stars (it didn't, of course). He also recalls a competition the magazine ran that featured a rather unusual prop from the film as a prize.
Deleted Scene (2:39)
The deleted dream sequence, cut in part because the filmmakers throught it didn't look like a dream at all, which until the end it doesn't. Still interesting to see it, though.
Extended Scenes (23:25)
A lot more footage here including, the hypnosis sub-plot discussed elsewhere ("Like this film needs a sub-plot!" exclaims Bruce Abbott on the second commentary track) and a further character complication that has West addicted to his own serum. It's all interesting stuff that adds character and plot information, but you can see why some of it was trimmed.
An OK trailer that doesn't sell the film quite as well as you'd hope, but a nice try.
TV Spots (2:34)
Five rather nifty TV spots
Rolling galleries of Production stills (3:56), Behind the Scenes (5:16), Fun on the set (4:31), Poster and advertising (2:56) and Storyboard (5:51).
Stuart Gordon Biography
Detailed biography and full filmography.
Original Screenplay and H.P. Lovecraft Short Story
These are included in PDF format as DVD-ROM features. Both are welcome, especially all six of H.P. Lovecraft's Herbert West, Reanimator stories, which gives you the chance to see just how much adaptation and alteration occurred in the translation from story to screenplay (a lot). It's also a fine read, thanks to Lovecraft's prose and imagination, but potential readers beware – this was written in less enlightened times, and you'd have to lean pretty far to the right not to be just a be a bit offended by Lovecraft's overtly racist description of the body of a black boxer who dies in a fist fight.
I make no apologies for my over-enthusiasm for Gordon's splendid first film, a work whose intelligent blend of traditional and modern genre elements, fine performances and keen wit have kept it as fresh as it ever was. It's likely that hardcore fans will already have Elite's Millennium Edition and all you're missing is the new retrospective documentary, which though very good has little that is not covered to some degree elsewhere on the disc. Purists may balk at the thought of an NTSC to PAL transfer, but it's better than most, and if you're OK with this then you'll be in pig heaven with the extras.
* With the story viewed from the perspective
of medical student Dan Cain, some elements more closely
resemble James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein,
particularly in Dan's role as an initially reluctant assistant
to West's determined and manipulative Pretorious.
** Some sequences were shot by an uncredited Robert Ebinger, who was replaced after the producers thought his dailies were looking too dark.
*** To this date the film has failed to materialise.