An extremely loose adaptation of a generally unloved short story by H.P. Lovecraft (“Herbert West–Reanimator”), Re-Animator is a genre miracle: a low-budget horror movie with a smart script, strong performances, genuinely nightmarish gore effects, and a wicked sense of humor that avoids smugness or condescension. Director Stuart Gordon, who co-wrote the screenplay with gothic fiction specialist Dennis Paoli (from a teleplay by William J. Norris), moderates the ghoulish overtones of Lovecraft’s Frankenstein parody by first establishing an ordinary young-doctors-in-love scenario. In this version Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), an idealistic young M.D.-in-training at Miskatonic University, is covertly romancing Meg Halsey (Barbara Crampton), the daughter of the med-school dean (Robert Sampson), when the arrival of transfer student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) starts to put a strain on their relationship. Strapped for cash, Dan takes West in as a roommate over Meg’s objections, and he proves to be a problem tenant for a few reasons. Most obviously, he is a prideful twerp who begins his studies at Miskatonic by picking a fight with one of the teachers, the towering, imperious Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), whose work West regards as derivative. (“So derivative,” he opines in the deliciously bitchy scene that introduces the characters to each other, “that in Europe, it’s considered plagiarized.”) But West is also a budding sociopath with a monomaniacal focus on developing the green-glowing serum he believes brings the dead back to life, and he’s looking to procure fresh bodies on which to experiment. The trouble really starts when goodness is corrupted–when the generally level-headed Dan decides to help him with his research.

Credit Gordon’s experience at the helm of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company with earning him the chops to balance Re-Animator‘s two modes of operation: earnest romantic drama and full-on splatstick spectacle. It’s largely a matter of performance, with Abbott and Crampton playing Dan and Meg as all-American boy and girl. Dan is That Kind of Doctor, the one who won’t stop trying to administer CPR even when the patient is well past the point of no return and the supporting players are pleading with him to give up already. Abbott gives Dan a well-scrubbed demeanor, bright, polite, and sort of hapless. Likewise Crampton, who’s presented as both sexy and serious–a smart and moderating influence on a boyish beau who should listen more. Crampton is a great screamer, but otherwise the two of them steadfastly refuse to acknowledge what kind of movie they’re really in, and that makes all the difference. Though their characters’ relationship may be wrecked by West’s arrival, Gordon is still giving them chances to rebuild their lost love well into the film’s final half-hour, having these two gaze into each other’s eyes and wonder about what might have been. Set aside its most powerful scenes of perversion and Re-Animator is at heart a romantic tragedy, fixated until its final frames on an ill-fated love affair. You could even read it, without the horror trappings, as the cautionary tale of an idealistic union ruined by its close encounter with all-consuming ambition. In contrast to the sincerity of Dan and Meg, Combs portrays West as an impatient, hilariously vituperative conversationalist with little capacity for human empathy. Dr. Hill, meanwhile, is an arrogant old lecher with a lust for youth, given spectacular form by Gale, who embodies the role in form, tone, and action. Gale is only 6′ 1″, but he towers over both Combs (5′ 7″) and Crampton (5′ 4″), amplifying the feeling that he’s always the tallest man in the room. As it turns out, Hill is a plagiarist and a creep: Not only does he seek to take credit for West’s discoveries, he also nurtures an unsavory fixation on Meg herself. In short, while West may be the villain of the piece, Hill is the real monster here.

Re-Animator has enough laughs in it, most of them driven by Combs’s now-iconic turn, that it’s often described as a comedy, yet what’s funniest about it is how cheerfully disgusting it is. In a bare 86 minutes, Re-Animator gets its kick from a sustained series of knowing transgressions that barely gives the audience room to breathe. The first of several show-stopping displays of body horror–it involves a pair of exploding eyeballs–comes before the opening credits roll, and Gordon and company don’t slow down from there. On-screen shenanigans include a queasily realistic autopsy, a dead (then alive, then dead again, then alive again) housecat, and, in a gimmick that Re-Animator boldly makes its own now and forevermore, a disembodied talking head in the tradition of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Working from the theory that it’s not a spoiler if it’s revealed on the original one-sheet, I guess it’s OK to reveal that the head is that of Dr. Hill, who surprises West in his laboratory and reveals his plans to blackmail him before West decapitates him with a spade. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Hill’s body remains ambulatory, and his brain uses the body to carry the head around. Worse, he has special plans that involve a table in the morgue and a damsel in distress.

That’s Re-Animator‘s most notorious scene, layered with different levels of discomfort. It depicts an attempted sexual assault by Dr. Hill’s bloody severed head, which his body is holding, menacingly, between Meg’s thighs. Meg has been kidnapped by a lobotomized Dean Halsey, who has fallen under the sway of Dr. Hill; in an upsetting circumstance, it’s her brain-controlled father who kidnaps Meg from her home, strips her, and straps her to the autopsy table in preparation for the attack. There’s a great moment where she looks up and sees the bizarre cutaway anatomical dummy head rig that Hill has balanced precariously atop his shambling cadaver. She manages to slap at the grotesque apparition with one hand and the pieces tumble away, revealing the even more disturbing viscera underneath. Crampton screams bloody murder. Did I mention she is nude throughout this ordeal? The camera is in close and her body’s immodestly lit as Hill’s head, held aloft, licks her face and chest. As if the idea of this violation weren’t repellent enough, it gets an extra visceral kick since the film has already made a pastime of rendering Gale’s actual face in such detail, lighting it to accent his eye sockets, which appear dark and cadaverous, the exaggerated dimples, where his skin sinks in towards his skull underneath each cheek, and his lips, which part with an asymmetry that suggests a perpetually disdainful drawl. Imagine that face closing in on your nether-regions in decidedly non-consensual fashion. Yes, Re-Animator is guilty of using rape as a device, and perhaps even as a punchline when you realize that the scene can be read as a sophomoric visual pun on the idea of “giving head.” But it’s a wilful provocation, a riotous offense against good taste, and a self-conscious culmination of the modern horror film’s oft-criticized penchant for conflating sex and death. The scene is horrifying, titillating, depressing, and elating all at once; the sheer gall of the thing is cathartic. It kicks Re-Animator into orbit because, you figure, if this film is capable of that, what else might it be willing to do?

Despite its financial success, the movie never got a proper follow-up. Gordon revisited Lovecraft twice, in From Beyond and Dagon, but producer Brian Yuzna took over for the sequels, Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator. It’s easy to wonder what would have been possible if the original writing and directing team had remained on board. (Gordon had first developed the property as a television series before revamping it as a feature film, hence Norris’s credit.) While I can’t say Re-Animator brings a lot of fresh ideas to the horror genre, at least it borrows some of the best. And Combs’s performance is something special. His Herbert West is a totally unwholesome character, but he’s also an antihero of sorts, reprehensible in the particulars yet so charismatic that the particulars aren’t a deal-breaker. It’s West we see in the prologue, his overzealousness having created, oh, let’s call it a physiological crisis in his lab partner. And it’s no coincidence that it’s West whom we see striding into the morgue in the nick of time to spare Meg from further debauchery; Dan loves her, but only West has serious beef with Dr. Hill. (Dan is seen sneaking into the morgue in the background moments after West arrives to save the day, a detail I didn’t notice until my umpteenth viewing of the film.) I also appreciate Re-Animator‘s resolutely secular take on death and dying and the finality of the grave–corpses everywhere, and nary a human soul to be found. But what really tickles me about it is how cheerfully unconcerned it is with mainstream appeal. Derivative? Yup. Exploitative? Sure thing. Gratuitously violent? Hey, we got an exploding body cavity that chokes a dude with its large intestine. Failure to conform to accepted critical standards? Well, Re-Animator was actually pretty well-received, although it did inspire Dave Kehr to gripe in the Chicago Reader that it “gives garbage a bad name.” which is good enough for me. In the annals of post-modern horror, Re-Animator stands alone as a disreputable masterpiece, a highly efficient gross-out that brings on more uneasy fun on a minute-by-minute basis than any other movie I can think of.

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