Dr. Frankenstein’s legacy has cramped the style of mad scientists for generations. Creating the cliché that all mad scientists must have salt-n-pepper, flyaway hair and consistently fulfill an incessant need to maniacally cackle at all times, his name has become so synonymous with the label that, like Béla Lugosi’s Dracula, a mere mention of the title conjures a mental image of his twisted face.
We forget about the Joes who are sick in the head but aren’t so loud about it — and 1985’s Re-Animator, directed by Stuart Gordon, gives us a demented laboratory drone equally demented but quietly so. If it weren’t for the morbidly curious gleam found in his beady eyes, we’d consider him to be a prime example of the chem nerd in college happier experimenting than socializing.
He is Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a student obsessed with bringing the dead back to life after failing to achieve successful results with his Swiss professor, Dr. Hans Gruber (Al Berry), who recently passed away. As he has concocted a serum capable of re-animating the deceased, West is determined to find a way to perfect the mixture without terrible side effects (his subjects are prone to turn into batshit crazy zombie-types after just a drop of liquid).
After the questionable event in Switzerland, he moves to the East Coast and begins attending Miskatonic University, where he rooms with Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), a fellow student engaged to the daughter (Barbara Crampton) of the medical program’s president (Robert Sampson).
Before Dan has time to reject living with this Dr. Frankenstein Jr. of sorts, experiments begin running rampant — the first performed on Dan’s cat, whom Herbert kills and then, you guessed it, re-animates. Much to the objection of his fiancee, he starts aiding his new housemate with his many laboratory excursions; but when Herbert shifts his labs over to the university, it just may place everyone close to Dan in grave danger.
Adapted from a 1921 H.P. Lovecraft pulp serial, Re-Animator skirts by laughable campiness with surefire conviction. Screenwriter Brian Yuzna, aware of the indelibly silly features of the plot, turns schlock into well-timed macabre comedy, not screwball enough to mimic the frenetic The Evil Dead but similar in the way the story moves forward with a tongue sneakily in cheek. It could be seen as a straight horror movie — but with its admirable devotion to the loony effects of its Grand Guignol-style gore, there’s humor to be found among the flying body parts.
Take, for instance, the entire side plot involving the wandering head and body of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), whose severed parts are re-animated separately yet still work as a whole, the head kept confined to a blood-soaked bin, the body wreaking havoc everywhere else. Gordon defiantly sees the effect with gut-punching humor, and we can’t help but laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
But we aren’t laughing because the effect is cheesy or because it isn’t well-played — it’s a laugh embedded in slight terror, as if we can’t accept what’s in front of us so we choose to go into shock instead. One could say this is the magic of Re-Animator — sometimes, it’s hard to tell if it’s a riotous body horror comedy or if it is actually a successful horror movie too much fun to take seriously. Personally, I think it’s a terrific black comedy, but your grandma who saw Psycho in theaters might think otherwise.
And when the special effects aren’t running away with our gag reflexes, we find antagonistic solace in Jeffrey Combs’ performance, who plays Herbert with such cool we can hardly decide if he’s a slick anti-hero or a psycho killer who gets a hall pass because of his coolness and because of his scientific ego.
To find a terror train as phenomenally entertaining as Re-Animator is rare — it is, perhaps, a case of success so infectious we can only wonder just how much a repeated viewing could change our perception. For now, I figure it to be The Evil Dead’s soul sister; but if I watch it a few more times, I might see it as a unique treat too underrated for its own good. A