The Tomb of Terror – Re-Animator (1985)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Zombie films are possibly the most popular sub-genre in horror. It seems that every week a new title comes out in theaters or straight-to-DVD featuring zombies as the monsters. I’m not as big of a fan of zombie films as many because they all seem a little too similar. People trapped somewhere with zombies trying to get at them. Cue the “people are the real monsters” sentiment and have the characters act like jerks to each other for an hour before the zombies rip them all apart. That’s not to say I dislike all zombie films. I’m a fan of the early works of George Romero, and The Return of the Living Dead is in my top three horror films of all time. I just get sick of low-budget filmmakers pumping out the same zombie scenarios over and over again just because it’s a cheap monster to pull off. You can’t make a convincing werewolf for anything less than a few thousand bucks, but a zombie? All you need are raggedy clothes and some red food coloring. Back in 1985, director Stuart Gordon (Stuck) made a low-budget zombie film that aimed to do something different. Instead of riffing on Romero, he set about to make a horror/comedy in the mold of Frankenstein, the original Hollywood zombie.
The film starts with a prologue set in Switzerland. As police officers move down a school corridor, we hear screaming coming from an office down the hall. An administrator pounds on the door yelling out, “Herr West!” More screams come from inside. The police break their way into the room and see Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners) standing over his mentor Dr. Gruber. West nervously drops a syringe and is pulled away from the screaming doctor by the police. Dr. Gruber stands. As he holds his head in agony, his eyes puff out and explode. “You killed him!” the witnesses say to West. “I didn’t kill him,” he answers, as he turns to look directly into the camera lens. “I gave him life.” With the over-the-top gore and knowing acknowledgment of the audience, we know immediately from the opening moments what kind of film we are in store for.
Following an impressive neon-tinted title sequence (good opening credits are something I love seeing in films), we get into the story proper. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott, Bad Dreams) is a medical student at Miskatonic University. He works hard to try to help people, but he also has problems of his own to solve. He’s in love with his unofficial fiancée Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton, Puppetmaster), but has to keep their relationship a secret. This is because her father (Robert Sampson, City of the Living Dead) is the dean of the university and very old-fashioned. Because of this, Megan won’t marry Dan until after they’ve graduated. This throws some financial problems into his life as well. He’s renting a house off campus, but can’t afford to live there alone. Without Megan to room with, he puts out an ad looking for a roommate.
Dan’s wish is granted when none other than beady-eyed weirdo Herbert West shows up at his door. West is unusually interested in the house’s basement, but he whips out a wad of cash for rent immediately upon arrival at the house. Dan doesn’t have any other option than to let the strange new Miskatonic University medical student into his life. It isn’t long before West’s behavior make Dan question his judgment. In class, West gets into a shouting match with his teacher, Dr. Hill (the late David Gale, The Brain). West labels him a plagiarist and says his theories on the function of the brain after death are stupid. Why would Herbert be so offended by Dr. Hill’s theory that the brain can only function for 6-12 minutes after death? What kind of Frankenstein movie would this be if there wasn’t someone obsessed with bringing the dead back to life?
We see the extent of Herbert’s fascination with death shortly after he moves into Dan’s place. Dan is awoken in the middle of the night by a scream emanating from the basement. He heads down into the cellar to see Herbert running around with a cat clawing at his back. As the ceiling light swings back and forth, the roommates do their best to stop the rampaging feline. Dan finally gets a hold of it and chucks it against the wall. He’s shocked to discover that the animal attacking them was his cat Rufus, who had died earlier that day! This scene perfectly encapsulates what is great about Re-Animator. There is an energy during the entire scene brought by the actors and the great choice to have one swinging light bulb provide the lighting for the scene. The cat is obviously a puppet, but the scene works in spite of the limits of the effects. We also get good insight into the character of Herbert West. In this scene, we not only learn of his re-agent formula that brings the dead back to life, but we see he is one twisted individual. As Dan looks at Herbert in shock after realizing that he just killed his previously dead cat, Herbert shouts “Look out!” Dan quickly turns back to face the cat, only to realize that it’s still lying there dead. Herbert begins to quietly laugh to himself, as if he’s just told the funniest joke he’s ever heard.
Horror comedies are a hard thing to pull off. The jokes can fall flat or diffuse the tension so much that the horror aspect is never taken seriously. One way to remedy this is with a “splatstick” movie. As the name implies, they are a combination of splatter and slapstick. Examples of this would be the Evil Dead trilogy and the early films of Peter Jackson, such as Dead-Alive. Re-Animator knows how to do splatstick and is my favorite example of the sub-genre. The characters are a little over the top, the gore is plentiful, and although there never is a strong sense of dread, you are always concerned with what might happen to them, since it seems that anything can happen.
The biggest surprise is that such an entertaining comedy effect could come from the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was never one for comedy, instead focusing more on what can drive men insane. His stories were full of dark minds and ancient monsters. It takes a certain kind of genius to make one of his stories into a comedy. Director/co-writer Stuart Gordon was just the right person to make this film. Not only did he greatly respect Lovecraft (he would go on to direct three more films based on Lovecraft’s stories), but he has a strong sense of humor that is evidenced in all of his work. He creates a nearly perfect balance of an absurd tone. Everything is handled so well that we never question how a severed head can talk without lungs or how the zombies get from place to place on campus.