Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator is one of a bare handful of nearly perfect horror movies. If there was any justice in the world, it would have been the biggest movie of 1985. Instead, it’s languished as something of a cult classic, beloved by people who know it while somehow managing to escape the kind of widespread acclaim that other, lesser films of its era have achieved. (I love me some Friday the 13th, but not one of the dozen films in that franchise is half as good as Re-Animator.) As its thirtieth anniversary approaches, and on the eve of a special one-time showing at the Sie FilmCenter this weekend, it's time to look back at the sublime perfection of Re-Animator.
Like any great film, we start with a good story. While the ideas aren’t totally original — is there any such thing as a truly original idea? — they were fresh enough in a time where slashers were everywhere. Yes, the “mad scientist tries to cheat death, reaps horrific consequences” trope is older than film itself, but damn, did Re-Animator execute on that premise! It helps that the film introduced audiences to one of the great mad scientists of all time, in the enterprising medical student Herbert West, and did so by adapting a lesser-known story from one of history’s great horror writers, H.P. Lovecraft. Played with intense, obsessive perfection by Jeffrey Combs (dude was born to play a mad scientist), West is the wild-eyed glue that holds the whole film together.
And that story! It starts off weird and gets progressively more and more insane, as cats die and are brought back to life, cadavers rise from the morgue, then teachers and administrators who dare to meddle in West’s increasingly deadly experiments are offed and rise again. Before it’s all over, West’s newly reanimated nemesis Dr. Hill is carrying his own head around in a tray and seeking to raise an army of the undead, giving the audience ample reason to root for West, despite the fact that he's a crazy-eyed, murderous psychopath with a disturbingly cavalier attitude toward raising the dead.
As every great horror movie must, it features some incredible gore and special effects. A reported 24 gallons of fake blood were used in the making of the film, and you can see it all on screen. Men are decapitated by shovels. Zombies get eviscerated with bone saws. There’s that horrible, transgressive, squick-inducing zombie cunnilingus scene. It’s fucking gloriously gross, in a way that most horror movies are afraid to be.
Yes, that’s right — Re-Animator is so good it scares other horror movies.
Part of what makes all that disgusting, horrible shit so great is that this is a funny movie. Too many horror movies are dark, joyless affairs, and while that has its place, it can also lead to a self-seriousness that doesn’t serve the genre well. No chance of that here. It would be a stretch to label it a horror comedy, but there are certainly plenty of laughs, even if most of the humor is pitch-black. The scene with the reanimated cat might infuriate some over-sensitive animal lovers, but that shit is funny. So is West’s increasingly cavalier attitude toward the people he has to kill to get his research done. And the scene where the zombie has to dress up to escape the morgue? Comedy gold.
Most important, all those attributes — a good story, lots of great gore and some humor — add up to one tremendously entertaining ride. Whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the thirtieth, this is a film that is enjoyable to watch from start to finish. It may make you squirm in your seat here and there, but shouldn’t every horror movie do that? That’s part of the appeal, and the fact that Re-Animator does it so well, then manages to get you laughing five minutes later, is why it deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time greats.
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The special, one-time showing of Re-Animator starts at 10 p.m. Friday, May 29 at the Sie FilmCenter. Find out more here.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.