Also known as H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator since it was based on his six-part serialized novel from 1921-22. How much it actually captures the spirit of the writer's work is debatable but it was immensely popular, getting a rather wide release despite it being released unrated (an R-rated version was produced for video later).
From the opening scene you know this is going to be different.1 It begins at a medical university in Europe where guards break into a room to find West (Jeffrey Combs) hovering over a colleague with an emptied syringe. The doctor rises, screaming, before his face reddens, veins bulge, and eyes swell up until they burst (splattering a heavy nurse as she joins in screaming). He's accused of killing the doctor. Of course, West denies it. You see, he brought him back to life (the unfortunate accident being caused by too large a dose).
From there it cuts to a wonderful credit sequence of Day-Glo (foreshadowing the fluorescent green reanimating solution2) Gray's Anatomy-style diagrams floating across a black screen. All accompanied by a great Bernard Herrmann-esque score that combines just the right amount of Cape Fear and (of course) Psycho with enough variation to make it a tribute rather than a rip-off.
Director-Producer Stuart Gordon's 1985 cult classic had a bit of an odd trip to getting the theaters. Gordon's background was in theater, not film. In fact, he was part of Chicago's Organic Theater company that has included the talents of David Mamet and Joe Montegna.
When it was decided to take a shot at making a movie, he was at a loss for an idea. Someone told him to do a horror movieeven if it was bad, it would almost certainly make up the cost. Even with the genre chosen, he had no idea what to use for the story. Someone asked if he'd heard of H. P. Lovecraft's Herbert WestReanimator. He hadn't and was able to track down the only copy in Chicago (according to him3) at the main library. A copy, he said, that was crumbling in his hands.
As Gordon notes on the DVD commentary, the story is actually a bit atypical of Lovecraft who always speaks of unnamable horrors and things too disturbing for his frightened, panicked narrators to describe. The serial is more "explicit" (not in the usual sense of the word) in its description and lends itself better to film than his other work. It was first conceived as a television movie using parts of a few stories but Gordon was told he might never get the chance again, so he should use it all. From there it became a full-blown film. It was also going to be shot at the theater, which quickly changed its mind following a look at the proposed script.
Unlike a lot of horror movies which are filmed quick and dirty, Gordon and his cast spent a lot of time rehearsing (which is normal, coming from the theater). They also spent a great deal of time looking at corpses and visiting morgues (the one in the movie is supposed to be based on the Cook County Morgue). The varied color of the corpses, the trash bags over the bodies, even the guy with the surgical tubing still attached are taken directly from their research.
The action shifts to Arkham, Massachusetts at the "famed" Miskatonic University known to all Lovecraft fans. Unlike the source story, the film is set in modern times. Even after almost seventeen years, it doesn't look too datedtoday a lot of the effects would be done digitally which often looks as fake or more than the old fashioned way they did it for the movie. In fact, the effects were not only quite good for its time (and budget), they still hold up pretty well today (the most notable exception being the "cat" scene; see below). As good as the film is, I suspect the right director could make an excellent film keeping closer to the original story. Of course, it'd be too hard to forget about Gordon's little film.
West is interested in one thing as the title suggests, his monomania is the reanimation of the dead. He's played straight, cold and emotionless, for the most part (though breaking into almost maniacal laughter following the cat incidentwait for it). Unlike Lovecraft's hero, who is "slight, blonde, blue-eyed, and spectacled" (which seems striking today, considering the somewhat racist descriptions of a certain black man used in an experiment), Combs' West is decidedly dark-haired and while not a strong physical specimen, he certainly has the strength to knock out someone with a shovel and proceed to decapitate him like he was breaking ground for a garden (and once you see the movie, it's hard to imagine West looking or sounding any other way).
On the other hand, they are both comparable to Lovecraft's description of him being "an ice-cold intellectual machine." Though Lovecraft's West goes further by the end, when his "scientific zeal degenerated to an unhealthy and fantastic mania." He also had "emerged with a soul calloused and seared, and a hardened eye which sometimes glanced with a kind of hideous and calculating appraisal at men of especially sensitive brain and especially vigorous physique," even beginning to look at his partner that way. While Combs' West isn't too "human," he never becomes quite so detached and "mad."
Having learned all he could in Europe (presumably also trying to escape other criminal charges), West hopes to continue and perfect his research in Arkham. Taking a room with Dan Cain (who lives at "666 Darkmore"), he sets up a lab in the basement. Cain is the stand-in for the narrator of the original story. But there is no storyteller here, only the audience viewing the progression of the plot before their eyes (given the subject matter, making them even more voyeurs than the cinema experience already does).
In the story, Cain is his partner and equally guilty in the goings on. In the movie, Cain (Bruce Abbott, a sort of sub-Noah Wiley-looking guy), is more of a "good enough" fellow who gets caught up in helping West. He is more of an intern type who hasn't the skill of his source character. He's first introduced failing to save the life of a woman with CPR (the doctor attending says "straight line" instead of "flat line"). While he is a fair to middling' doctor, he is quite successful in wooing the Dean's daughter Megan ("Meg;" Barbara Crampton in a brave role, given what she had to submit to later).
One night the cat goes missing. While the searching, they find it in West's dorm fridge (this was a real live dead cat), which is conveniently slightly ajar. West returns, explaining to Cain that the cat had died and he put it there so they wouldn't stumble upon it, not writing a note so he could tell them in person. At least that's what he says. Lovecraft's character (prior to the story) had gone through dozens of animal trials (the solution needing to be adjusted differently for each species), including rabbits and even dogs.
Not long after, a terrible noise is heard in the basement, accompanied by crashing furniture and equipment. Cain comes down to see West being attacked by the cat. Though it's clearly a puppet and remains so and unmoving until the "table scene," the actors play it like it's really attacking him. When they manage to throw it behind some bookcases and furniture, they continue acting like it's moving back there, hitting things with a bat to follow the implied movement (all while the hanging light source swings back and forth, alternately shadowing and illuminating the actionreally, a well edited and shot scenedespite the cat). They really sell the idea of the reanimated feline to the audience and despite it looking like it's Velcro-ed to West's back, it works.
The cat is finally batted into the wall, leaving a bloodied mass of meat trailing down. Not only is its back broken, but it's nearly been ripped in half. To show Cain that the creature was brought back he demonstrates it on the now obviously deceased cat. Still, a puppet, it writhes and hisses, and snaps demonically when injected. Sure it looks fake, but it's scarier than the cat in Pet Sematary (1989).
Of course, Meg stumbles in on them and does the appropriate screaming. This gets West in serious trouble at the universitywhere there is already friction with Doctor Carl Hill over such esoterica like the length of time the body can be dead without suffering brain damage and the possibility of going even longer, hinting at his reanimation research. In an attempt to vindicate himself, he has Cain smuggle him into the morgue to test it on a real corpse, picking a strong subject (Arnold Schwarzenegger's stunt double and it shows).
It works. Sorta. The corpse returns to life, but as a vicious killer, which while escaping crushes the Dean under the door that "he" just knocked off its hinges. West eventually kills it by shoving an electric bone saw through its torso from behind (a far cry from the revolver Lovecraft's character used). It's clear it works on humans with the proper adjustments. Unfortunately for the Dean, he died after the door incident and being thrown against the wall. They "revive" him, but he's now brain damaged and stuck in a padded room (behind Hill's office) where he beats his bloodied head against the one-way glass.
Now that West has been banished from the university, he continues to research on his own. Hill visits him in the basement lab, letting him know that he is aware that the Dean is actually "dead" and wanting to find out about the research. Fearing trouble, West knocks him out and decapitates him (hard to feel sorry for him, since besides being shown to be an arrogant jerk, later Cain and Meg find evidence in his office that he is obsessed with her).
Not one to pass up an opportunity, he decides to experiment with the head. And body. Lovecraft spent time trying come up with ways to procure corpses for his characterliving near potter's fields with the appropriate midnight disinterments, actually going to Canada to join the medical corps so he could be in the first world war where there were ample specimens, even killing someone himself (which is revealed when one of the reanimations manages to utter before dying again: "Help! Keep off, you cursed little tow-headed fiendkeep that damn needle away from me!")something the film does not do, Hill being a matter of convenience. The Herbert West of the movie has no such problem.
The head is placed in a pan with plenty of solution and, in one of the film's best comedic moments, West has to use stick the head onto a "letter spike" to keep it from tipping over.4 The first words after the return? "You bastard." Then West injects the body and manages to get it to reanimate, as well. this is in keeping with the novel, as toward the end, West seemed more interested in "vitalizing not entire human bodies but isolated parts of bodies, or parts joined to organic matter other than human").
Of course, the corpse, bid by its "master" knocks out West and then takes the notes and head and leaves.5 At his office, the head is nourished by more solution and copious amounts of blood from his dorm fridge. He puts into action his plan, which it to get Meg for himself (forgetting about his current physical limitations. He has her father go fetch her, while preparing things in the morgue (which he enters hidden in a duffel bag, the body using a plastic model head from his desk and a surgical mask to complete the "disguise"6).
There the film's most notorious/celebrated (depending on one's point of view) scene takes place. Once Meg is brought to the morgue, she is stripped and restrained on the bare metal examining table. Hill will finally have the object of his obsession. with his body holding his bleeding and oozing head, he trails from her ear to her breast to her stomach tojust as he's about to thrust between her open legs, West bursts in, chastising him for finding out the secrets of "life and death" and using it for "trysting with a bubble-headed co-ed."
At that point, the part gore hounds and effects junkies have been waiting forthe morgue erupts in reanimated corpses (most of whom died in violent, grisly ways). As the corpses surround Meg, her father, with some dim spark of humanity remaining, fights them off and takes Hill's head, squeezing it until it explodes. West gives a super-overdose to Hill's body (intending to destroy it) making it burst open and its intestine comes out to strangle him. Acid gets spilled, there's an electrical fire, the corpseswithout Hill to "control" themare mindless killing machines (more than before). As all the hell that's broken loose comes to a head and Cain and Meg rush to escape, West tosses his notes to him.
Cain fights off one in the hall but they are attacked as they reach the elevator. The "man" is strangling Meg. To save her, what does he do? He leaves her with the thing and runs about twenty meters down the hall to break the glass to retrieve an emergency fireman's axe. Then he runs back and chops off the offending arm (still twitching). One of those absurd scenes that they are able to sell because the actors are working at it and it just cool enough that you suspend belief (and there's much suspension required for the movie)with the quick moving camera following him as he rushes down the hall and the lights flickering on and off. Unfortunately he's too late.
It's come full circle for Cain as he fails trying to revive his girlfriend. Standing alone, blood-covered, after the rest of the staff have gone, he pauses a moment.
Then reaches into West's back for a syringe of the reagent. The screen fades to black with only the luminescent solution visible. Then the plunger injects it.
And she begins screaming....
1More so in 1985 in the United States, especially for those uninitiated in Euro-horror which was already exceedingly violent and bloody (and generally downbeatthe humor of the film also makes it notable and atypical of the genre at that time).
2They used the same substance that is used in those "glow sticks"which (at the time, at least) was toxic. Though the cast and crew were cautioned not to touch it, it apparently got all over everything (an additional problem after the short time they would glow).
3Given the date, I imagine it was difficult. I was a fan of the writer around then and had all the mass market paperbacksnone included the story (or Cool Air, if I recall). About the only way to get a copy was to find a specialty store (or mail order) and get one of the Arkham House editions of his work. Something I was unable to do, given my allowance. I eventually found a small press edition (Necronomicon Press) that was put out to coincide with what was "now a major motion picture." The cover is heavy paper stock, black and white art, it's saddle stitched, and the type isn't justified. It's now available more easily.
4Probably the most important thing to remember about the movie, is that, through all the gore and violence, there is a strong streak of dark humor. While describing the gore effects hardly detracts from the experience, describing the humor would. The balance makes it palatable (perhaps a poor choice of words) even for those who would normally avoid such films. On the other hand, caveats do apply.
5There was originally a subplot showing Hill to be adept at hypnosis, giving a "plausible" reason for the head to be able to control the body (in the novel, West believed that "consciousness, reason, and personality can exist independently of the brainthat man has no central connective spirit, but is merely a machine of nervous matter, each section more or less complete in itself"). It would also explain his ability to control the corpses in the morgue. It was later dropped and no explanation given. It works well enough without it.
6The idea comes from the novel. The man who is West's undoingnot a "second-rate scientist," but a surgeon colleague in the army who has learned the secrets West hasfirst releases one "experiment" from an asylum, then visits West for what will be his demise (which fittingly includes the removal of his head). The surgeon had been nearly decapitated in a plane accidentrather than action taken by West, as in the filmand West had reanimated both parts before shelling brought the hospital down on top of "him."
(Sources: the DVD and commentarythanks again to my brother for loaning itand the novel Herbert WestReanimator 1921-1922 H.P. Lovecraft)