“Did you ever see that movie where that body is walking around, carrying its own head and the head goes down on that babe?” So asks American Beauty’s Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) of his neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) as they get high outside the catered event where Ricky is working as a waiter. Lester doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would have knowledge of any movie with such an extreme scene in it, but Re-Animator’s a funny sort of movie. It brought extreme gore and boundary-pushing imagery—Lester’s not misremembering that severed head-attempting-cunnilingus scene—to the masses, earning rave reviews from Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and other prominent critics in the process.
How? Nearly 30 years later, the film itself remains the best answer to that question. A deft, funny, fearless, and gloriously tasteless mix of horror and comedy, Re-Animator proves that entertainment value trumps virtually every other concern. Here’s Owen Gleiberman, reviewing the film for the Boston Phoenix in 1985:
“How far will they go? That’s what you keep asking during the wickedly droll splatterfest Re-Animator; the movie keeps answering back ‘Even farther than you imagined.’”
Unless most of Gleiberman’s readers could imagine a film in which a cat is brought back from the dead and killed again—not once but twice, to the point where he resembles less a living creature than a heaving pile of mewling viscera—he pretty much nails the experience of watching Re-Animator. It starts with a gross scene of a Swiss professor being brought back to life—or a horrible parody of life that finds him writhing in pain as his eyeballs explode—and it ends with a scene of hellish chaos that would make Hieronymus Bosch envious. Yet the shocks appear with the careful timing of a symphony. Like simpatico contemporary films, particularly Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, Re-Animator revels in excess. There’s an art behind its gore and more than a little bit of sick humor, but it’s ultimately driven by a desire to unsettle, courtesy of a filmmaker with a long history providing discomfort.
Though the work of a first-time director, Re-Animator is hardly the effort of a novice. The Chicago-born Stuart Gordon first made national news in 1968 as a University Of Wisconsin-Madison senior when he staged a production of Peter Pan that was shut down by the Dane County district attorney on the grounds of obscenity. The presence of nude dancers, described in a UPI piece as “practically hidden by a smoke machine which created a misty effect and light patterns,” provided the ostensible reason for the shutdown, but politics almost certainly played a role: Gordon staged it as a response to his experiences protesting the war in Vietnam and getting teargassed in Richard Daley’s Chicago earlier that year.
It wasn’t Gordon’s first provocation, or his last. Other Madison productions included The Game Show, a Let’s Make A Deal parody designed to end with the audience rioting. In a 2002 interview, Gordon told me that the riot always landed in the same place. “It was almost like I had written, ‘And then the audience riots.’” Parting ways with the university, Gordon founded the Broom Street Theater, a still-active theater company dedicated to staging experimental plays. The Organic Theater Company, co-founded with Gordon’s wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, followed, as did continued harassment that prompted the company to relocate to Chicago.
Then Gordon made a sizable mark on his adopted city’s theater scene. The Organic premiered David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity In Chicago, Gordon’s own science-fiction epic Warp, and provided an early home to Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Meshach Taylor, and others. It wasn’t without its frustrations, however. “All my actors in theater kept getting cast in films,” Gordon recalls on the Re-Animator audio commentary, “So it seemed like a good idea that we should make a movie ourselves.”
Re-Animator came from that notion. Gordon settled on a horror movie after being told that any horror film made for a low-enough budget couldn’t fail to make money. Sensing an absence of good Frankenstein-inspired mad-scientist stories in the 1980s marketplace, Gordon sought out a series of H.P. Lovecraft stories then so obscure that even Gordon, a Lovecraft enthusiast, had never heard of them. To read them, he had to plumb the special collections of the Chicago Public Library to page through old pulp magazines that started to fall apart in his hands.
There’s more than a touch of Lovecraft to that origin story, the lonely creator consulting an ancient, forgotten text for inspiration. But the film, which began life as a proposed TV series, doesn’t bear that close a resemblance to its source material, starting with its contemporary setting. Gordon and his co-writers, Dennis Paoli and William Norris, keep familiar Lovecraft elements like Miskatonic University and Arkham, Massachusetts, but ground the story in the unstable world of modern academia. For all the blood and guts visited upon its characters, the backstabbing of university politics provides its own sense of peril. Dan (Bruce Abbot) is an earnest med student dating Megan (Barbara Crampton), the daughter of the old-fashioned Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson). If the dean knew they were sleeping together it would put his career in jeopardy, in addition to earning the displeasure of Dr. Hill (David Gale), a powerful researcher who keeps Miskatonic Medical in grant money. (That Hill has his own designs on Megan doesn’t help.)
Into this already tense situation enters Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a brilliant, mad young scientist responsible for his mentor’s ill-fated rejuvenation in the opening scene. West scoffs at Hill’s notion that the brain can’t be revived once a six-to-12-minute timespan has elapsed after death, snapping his pencil in half during a lecture to express his displeasure. West makes Dan uncomfortable. He makes everyone uncomfortable. But Dan also has to pay the rent, so he takes West in as a roommate and gets drawn reluctantly into his basement experiments, attempts to raise the dead using injections of glowing green liquid.
As West relentlessly pursues his project, chaos mounts around him, chaos his singleminded focus doesn’t allow him to see. Sure, an experiment in the morgue that ends with Dean Halsey’s resurrection as a zombie-like shell of his former self could yield better results. But it does yield results. And while it’s not ideal that West has to decapitate Hill and then do battle with his psychically controlled torso, it does prove his theory. Combs’ deadpan performance gives the film an ideal center. As West, he never acknowledges the grotesqueness or absurdity of the situations he creates. He just presses on, undaunted and with contempt for anyone who gets in his way.
Wipe away the gore of Re-Animator, which admittedly takes a lot of wiping, and you’ll find a story of a stodgy, self-perpetuating bureaucracy clashing with the disruptive, destructive force of genius. Halsey and Hill are, respectively, clueless and corrupt. West is right, but so monomaniacal he practically sheds his humanity. In the process of restoring life, he takes more than he gives. Gordon didn’t abandon his instincts for satire and black comedy when he decided to make a horror movie, he just found a new home for them.
They fit right in. Gordon learned his new profession on the job, drawing inspiration from his favorite horror films and pairing those influences with venerable theater tricks. The devices used to make make Hill’s head appear to live on after it’s been separated from his body wouldn’t be out of place on the Victorian stage. They’re transparent, but they work, in part because the film’s effects, even the obviously cheap ones, are so physically present, and in part because the film’s mix of humor and horror makes the ridiculous and disgusting look like they belong side by side.
“One of the things that I learned on Re-Animator was that you can’t be funny and scary at the same time,” Gordon says on the DVD commentary track. “That laughter is the antidote to fear. You can build tension and then relieve it with laughter and then crank it up again. But if you do both at the same time they cancel each other out.” Re-Animator uses one to amplify the other. Hill’s torso walking around with a medical model of the human head in place of the one he lost, which his torso carries on a tray, is funny. The scene showing how he got to that headless state, on the other hand, is horrifying. Gordon alternates humor and horror so skillfully that it becomes disorienting, pushing the movie forward until it becomes impossible for viewers to get their bearings.
All the action in Re-Animator goes, to paraphrase Gleiberman, farther than most anyone could imagine. That quality forced it to play theaters without an MPAA rating—a longer, lesser, R-rated cut was later created for video chains who would not stock unrated movies—and yet it found an audience there. It found an even bigger audience on VHS and cable, sneaking into homes and roping in viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily watch this kind of transgressive movie, but found themselves unable to look away, even from the image of a decapitated head of a once-respectable professor attempting to violate a woman. Gordon takes viewers to the edge of their tolerance, only to show them there’s no edge at all. Then he goes just a little bit further. It’s as subversive in its own way as a politicized, sex-and-drugs-filled take on Peter Pan. The script might as well read, “And then the audience (almost) riots.”
Also today: Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias talk more about Re-Animator’s dark wit and Lovecraft pedigree. And on Thursday, Andrew Lapin will survey director Stuart Gordon’s other adventures in adapting Lovecraft to the screen.