Lovecraft adaptations have never been better or more gruesome, even 35 years later.
Before the opening credits of Stuart Gordon’s directorial debut Re-Animator have even rolled, the film has already erupted into hideous absurdity. At the University of Zurich, unhinged medical student prodigy Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) successfully revives his dead professor, only for the reanimated corpse to suffer death once again in a convulsing heap as its eyeballs burst into blood geysers. That sets the tone perfectly for a nauseating marvel whose images only get more repulsive, and somehow more perversely hilarious: a pet cat with a broken back and half of its vital organs spilling out of its body is brought back to life; mutant intestines asphyxiate a man; and most memorably, a decapitated cadaver attempts to perform cunnilingus.
Statements of artistic intent don’t get much more grotesquely excessive than this. But then, you’d expect nothing less from the late, great Gordon, a modern master of subversion and transgression, who left behind an astonishing body of cinematic work when he passed away this year.
Gordon might’ve been a neophyte in the world of film when he unleashed Re-Animator upon the screen in 1985, but he was already a seasoned veteran in the world of lurid experimentation. During his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gordon became notorious as a dramatic provocateur, producing and directing a series of shows whose flagrancy drew outrage from audiences and authorities alike. Spectators rioted after every performance of his play The Game Show, during which they found themselves locked inside the theatre, forced to watch on as audience plants were ostensibly assaulted. And police arrested and charged Gordon with obscenity for his political production of Peter Pan, inspired by his clashes with the Chicago police while protesting the Vietnam War.
That fiendish imagination, that hatred of the comfort zone, saturates every frame of Re-Animator, which to this day remains an utterly engrossing experience in gruesome farce and a touchstone in the horror-comedy subgenre. The film is loosely based on an obscure short story by H.P. Lovecraft, but Gordon seizes ownership of the material, transporting the author’s famous Miskatonic University forwards from the turn of the century to the 1980s, and contorting the text into both a tragic romance and a corrosive satire on the treachery of the scholarly community.
Melodrama stirs within the film’s necrotic core. Lovecraft’s nameless narrator becomes Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), a promising medical student who’s dating Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), the dean’s daughter. Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) initially seems supportive of his daughter’s romance, and eager to nurture Dan’s career—but that all changes when the malignant Dr. Hill, a researcher at the university with his own lecherous fixation on Megan, begins to exert a poisonous influence on his colleague.
The arrival of Herbert West transforms lectures into scientific and egomaniacal pissing contests. Hill is unwavering in his assertion that the brain can only survive six to twelve minutes after death, a stance towards which West expresses total, pencil-snapping contempt. Dead tissue, West counters, can be rejuvenated. So begins a war between the antiquated inflexibility of Hill’s status quo and the mercurial madness of West’s new frontier. Hill sees West as a cancer whose ideas could metastasise and cause irreparable damage to the reputation of the institution. West, meanwhile, sees Hill as an unoriginal parasite and a force of prohibition, who shuts down the minds of his students in order to sustain his academic hegemony. If they can’t settle their hostilities in papers or in the lab, then they’ll have to settle them in head-shoveling, telepathic zombie-raising combat.
We know from the film’s opening salvo, of course, that the trailblazing West is the superior mind, and has already conducted experiments with injections of his neon green reagent that disprove Hill’s assertion—even if his first few resurrections fail to restore the brain to anything more than neural scrambled eggs. But as with any mad genius, there’s a transaction to be made—his soul for perfection. West isn’t a man so much as a remorseless vortex of misfortune, pulling his new roommate Dan into his grisly machinations, flattening everything in his path. He’s so laser-focused on precise dosages and vital signs that he’s utterly oblivious to the mayhem and misery that follow him wherever he goes with his fluorescent syringes.
Gordon’s vision hinges almost entirely upon the unflinching brilliance of Jeffrey Combs, to whom the film belongs in the same way that Gordon’s second Lovecraft film, From Beyond, belongs to Barbara Crampton. The obvious comedic choice would be to play West as a quirky fish out of water, but Combs plays him as an alien observer—drier than dry, disdainful of human sentiment and social decorum, a bastion of cold analysis. Even as the blood pours, the limbs fly, and all logic is obliterated, Combs never blinks, never loosens West’s composure.
…a tragic romance and a corrosive satire on the treachery of the scholarly community.
And like his star, Gordon never pauses to comment superfluously on the strangeness of his world. His film commingles horror and humour without one obstructing the other, expertly sidestepping the all too common pitfall of encumbering potent images with incessant jokes and ad-libs. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t any quips or one-liners; when they do come, they’re invariably memorable and delivered with impeccable timing by Combs. But Gordon almost exclusively lets the insanity of his images do the talking, eviscerating good taste for a laugh. There’s a pure, miasmic glee that can be distilled from undiluted visual ghastliness. After all, what’s left to say as a severed head looms hungrily over a woman’s crotch?
Re-Animator isn’t tasteful, but it’s absolutely artful, and its art refuses to decay, even if much of it seems primitive now. It’s easy to point out the blatant staginess of the practical trickery—the zombie cat puppet, the head in a tray—and claim that it hasn’t aged well. But the film in its totality is so anarchically cartoonish that if anything, that artificiality only serves to deepen both the horror and the humour of its world. Realism is overrated anyway, as corroborated by the poster of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense that adorns Dan’s bedroom wall. Re-Animator has never made sense, and will never make sense—that’s why it still shocks and sickens, and why we still cherish and celebrate it. Stuart Gordon is no longer with us, but his ludicrous creation lives on.