Reviewing a Cult Classic – Re-animator (1985)

As a tiny addition to my usual format of haphazardly tossing out a review when I feel like it or when the amphetamines wear off, along with the modern atrocities, I’d like to start reviewing films that have either achieved cult status or are themselves considered to be classics. Bear in mind that a ‘cult’ film is defined as a film that did not do so well in its initial release but has gained a substantial following through video and DVD sales. With that, lets begin.

Re-animator is the film adaptation of the classic H.P Lovecraft short story ‘Herbert West – Re-animator’, which told the story of Herbert West, a medical student who has made it his life mission to successfully reanimate the dead. The film, does much of the same. Or rather it is told from the perspective of both Herbert West, played by Jeffrey Combs and his innocent right hand man, Daniel Cain who is played by Bruce Abbott who I suspect is meant to be both the ‘straight man’ and the window through which the audience glimpses West’s madness. Speaking of madness (but in a good way), here’s some plot. It’s a zombie movie with a twist!

Top ranking and hunky medical student, Daniel Cain is a happy-go-lucky kind of chap with a squeaky girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton) who has serious daddy issues. Everything in his life seems to be heading in the right direction until he meets Herbert West, another medical student who has just moved back from a university in Switzerland after his mentor died under ‘suspicious’ circumstances. In exchange for a bit of cash, West starts renting out Dan’s spare room but mostly occupies the basement, much to Megan’s distaste. When Dan discovers that West is using his basement to conduct bizarre experiments involving reanimation requiring an injection with a remarkable, luminous green fluid, Dan is quickly manipulated into a devastating sequence of events that threatens not only his future, but also his life.

Re-animator is in itself one of those gloriously weird films that manages to entertain mostly through its strange and over-the-top characters. Top of the bill is Herbert West himself and the casting department really could not have found a better actor than Jeffrey Combs. Re-animator could arguably have been his breakout role since his only prominent role before this was in the 1983 low budget horror/comedy film, ‘Frightmare’. Mr Combs certainly showed his prowess in portraying this character since he got the little nuances just right from the suit that West wears then to the way he speaks and right the way down to his general mannerisms from mild-mannered to absolutely batshit bonkers. West himself, is complex and interesting and even when he commits the grossest of deeds, he still manages to have the audience rooting for him… or at least I was.

The next delightfully eccentric character is who I suppose would be the antagonist, Dr. Carl Hill who was played wonderfully by the late David Gale. Dr Hill immediately butts heads with West and this rivalry ends up with one of them losing their head in more ways than one. David Gale’s performance definitely gives the impression of an authority figure. Even though the list is extensive, my favourite scene in the film is when Dr Hill is giving a class on how to remove a human brain from the body. It manages to be both tense and amusing with West’s reactions to Dr Hill’s presentation.

Although it pains me to say it, I think that Dan Cain, even though he is the protagonist, might be the weakest of all the characters. He just accepts every bad thing that happens to him and very rarely takes any action. His first instinct is just to fold under any kind of pressure and it’s not surprising that West can manipulate and coerce him into doing anything he says with so much as an eyebrow being raised. A prime example is when West gets Dan to help break into the morgue and reanimate a corpse. When the corpse comes back to life, it is naturally very violent and ends up killing his father-in-law to be. After hitting it doesn’t work, Dan just shouts at the thing until West can save the
day by giving it to the zombie with the business end of a bone saw. Thankfully, this trait is not continued in the next film and Dan becomes much more involved. Don’t get me wrong, Bruce Abbott is a brilliant actor I just feel that his character gets in over his head albeit for the right reasons and doesn’t realise it until it’s too late.

This film is naturally of a low budget nature with just $900,000 to play with but anyone watching the film could be forgiven for thinking that the production had a lot more to spend. What with the film being shot in the early 80’s, CG was still in the early stages and what was available was too expensive for a low budget production so every visual effect in the film was done with perspective tricks, dodgy camera angles and gallons of fake blood to cover the joins. Another liquid that was used by the gallon was West’s ‘re-agent’ which was just the stuff that’s inside green glow sticks. It gives a nice shine though.

I am being deliberately vague when it comes to the details of this film because I really want people who haven’t seen it to actually buy it and watch it because it is one of those rare gems that just doesn’t come along anymore. However, to give an insight into how extreme the gore is, the MPAA initially gave the film an X rating so two versions were produced. There was the unrated VHS then DVD and also the R-rated theatrical version with most of the gore edited out and more scenes added to give the film more of a psychological twist. For the Blu-ray release, both versions were merged together giving the film an extended run-time from 86 minutes to 105 minutes.

When the film was released, it made $2 Million at the box office which is not bad but not great however it was enough for the film to spawn two more sequels. Bride of Re-animator was released in 1990 and definitely had a more Frankenstein-esque appearance as Herbert West becomes determined to build himself a bride from random body parts. The second sequel came 13 years later with Beyond Re-animator and no Bruce Abbott. This sequel saw Herbert West in prison for his past misdeeds but this doesn’t keep him away from his experiments. A 3rd sequel was planned in which Herbert West would be called to the White House when the President unexpectedly dies. The project involved Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott and William H Macy but was scrapped very quickly and never talked about again. However, in doing research for this piece, I did discover that a pseudo-sequel/remake type thing is in production entitled ‘Re-animator: Evolution’ but it doesn’t have Jeffrey Combs in it so I doubt it will be worth anyone’s time.

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