Re-Animator depicts a few short days in the life of Dan Cain, a medical student studying to be a brain surgeon at a local Miskatonic University. One day Dean Halsey introduces Dan to Herbert West, a new transfer student recently arrived from Switzerland, where he left under bizarre circumstances. West is a strange character; he’s obnoxiously serious, keeps to himself and, thanks to his habit of antagonizing certain teachers, had gotten the reputation of a troublemaker. None of this seems to matter to Dan too much, as he allows West to become his roommate. But after Dan’s cat turns up dead he not only finds out why West is so secretive, but also gets pulled into his new roommates unorthodox and dangerous experiments.
Especially dangerous considering the stuff in that vial actually was highly toxic.
Adapted from the early parts of a series of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator is as amusing as it is gory. It’s filled with copious amounts of dark humor, thanks in part to the filmmakers collaborating extensively with real-life pathologists in order for the look and feel of the corpses to be as accurate as possible. Most of the material is played almost completely straight, and the dry, witty banter between characters is a welcome refreshment from a lot of the more self-referential humor more commonly used today.
So tell me doctor, now that I’ve chopped your head off, how do you feel?
Considering the subject matter, the film relies on copious amounts of blood and gore. Heads are squeezed until they pop, there’s some improper use of a bone saw, heads are chopped off, zombies run amok…oh yes, here there be blood. Some of the effects used do come across as a bit ‘dated’ today, but the focus on practical effects and clever camera tricks means that many of the set pieces still pack quite a punch, and are far more visceral than most of what you’d see with today’s reliance on CGI. Add in the knowledge that the budget was limited to a little less than a million dollars, and the things they were able to pull off become even more impressive.
I mean, come on, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body double couldn’t have been cheap.
The film works so well, in part, thanks to its wonderful characters. Jeffrey Combs is impressive as West and his often serious and flat delivery meshes surprisingly well with a character so obsessed with his one overreaching goal that he’s willing to do anything to achieve it. The other characters are equally as notable. David Gale makes a wonderfully sinister villain, and Bruce Abbot is a great straight man, adding a bit of believable weight to an otherwise very quirky cast.
I’d mention the cat, but its performance fell apart a bit at the end…heh heh…heh…I’ll see myself out.
Overall, Re-Animator is quite impressive and a film that more than deserves its cult status. The film moves along at a good clip, but not so fast as to sacrifice too much of the characters, which the cast does a great job of fleshing out (heh). The practical special effects are impressive and the cinematography not only complements the films creepy atmosphere and eerie tone, but the camera also pulls double duty with slight trickery to help accentuate the effects. There’s more than enough blood to satisfy the gore hounds out there (and probably just enough sex/nudity too) and the frenzied, over the top finale ties everything together just about as perfectly as could be expected. Diehard Lovecraft fans may be upset by all the changes from the source material, but considering the caliber of other Lovecraft adaptations, Re-Animator probably preserves the spirit of its source material better than many of its contemporaries. If you in any way enjoy 80s horror films, this is not one to be missed. I’m kind of shocked it took me this long to see it.