Forbidden Treat for Halloween.
In the fall of 1985, I remember watching famed TV movie critics Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel reviewing a new horror movie called “Re-Animator” (based very loosely on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 serialized story, “Herbert West, Re-Animator”) which was apparently so grisly they could only show a couple of very short, innocuous clips from it for their broadcast. This, of course, piqued my then-18 year old interest no end. My sisters and I rushed to see the film at our local mall multiplex around Halloween of that year, and I immediately saw just why the critics had to pick such nondescript scenes from the film for their review. Defying the traditional R (or even X) rating for restricted films in the US, “Re-Animator” was the first ‘Unrated’ movie I ever attended theatrically. It had a lot of imagery one didn’t see too often in the buttoned-up, conservative 1980s. Even teen sex comedies, a very popular subgenre in those days, usually just flashed an occasional boob or two. The hype surrounding this movie’s gore approached “Exorcist” levels in those days.
But if you can get past the over-the-top gore, nudity, sex and body horror, “Re-Animator” is both hilarious and wildly entertaining. The movie is more a viscera-laden remake of 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” than anything written by H.P. Lovecraft (despite a few minor references made to the original Herbert West stories). My then-18 year old self didn’t care at all about the movie’s relations to its literary source material. All I knew was that I needed to see this ‘forbidden’ unrated horror movie as soon as possible. Giving it an unrated certification was, to quote Roy Scheider in JAWS, “like ringing the dinner bell.”
*****UNDEAD SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
“Start the damn recorder.”
The movie opens at a hospital in Switzerland, where a young medical student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) has been experimenting on reanimating dead subjects with a phosphorescent green liquid he has created. We hear anguished screams down a hallway, as police and another doctor (Bunny Summers) rush to force their way into the locked room…
Once inside, they see that West has just reanimated his dead mentor, Dr. Hans Gruber (Al Berry) whose face is now contorting in anguish as veins bulge over his gray, dead skin. The police apprehend West just as the agonized Gruber-zombie drops dead…again. Overdose. The traumatized doctor cries accusingly at West, “You killed him!” To which a bloodied West replies (into the camera), “No, I did not! I gave him life!”
Note: The reanimated Swiss doctor’s name, Hans Gruber, would become famous in film geek circles just a few years later as the same-named villain from the first (and best) “Die Hard” (1988) movie, as played by the incomparable Alan Rickman (1946-2016).
The credits are then played over neon-lit Gray’s Anatomy style illustrations of human physiology. One thing my then-18 year old self caught (even then) was how incredibly similar the main title music was to Bernard Hermann’s classic, all-strings theme for 1960’s “Psycho”. Composer Richard Band has often said in interviews that this was an intentional ‘homage’ to Herrmann’s work, but this isn’t homage–it’s plagiarism. Oh well–if you’re going to steal? Steal from the best.
Cut to the fictional Miskatonic University medical center, in the equally fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts, where third year med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is working tirelessly to revive a middle-aged obese woman whose heart has flatlined. His supervisor, Dr. Harrod (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), orders him to stop, stating that “a good doctor knows when to quit.” She then orders Cain to take the woman’s body down to the morgue. At the morgue’s security desk, Cain greets porn mag-obsessed Mace (Gerry Black), better known as Worst Security Guard Ever. Mace’s only function in the film seems to be running off and leaving his desk unattended during emergencies.
Note: Interestingly, Cain and his supervisor Dr. Harrod, both ‘good’ characters, are both given names of Biblical ‘villains.’ Sadly, the character of Mace, a.k.a Worst Security Guard Ever, is a terrible reinforcement of ‘lazy’ black stereotypes. Mace is one of the few criticisms I have with this otherwise very entertaining horror-comedy flick; it’s utter lack of diverse characters would be another. This was set in 1985, not 1945.
Once inside the morgue, Dan meets Miskatonic’s famed Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who is testing his new laser drill on a corpse. Dan’s reverie with Hill’s device is broken by dean Allan Halsey (Robert Sampson), who introduces Cain to Miskatonic’s newest transfer student, Herbert West, whose departure from Switzerland under mysterious circumstances is never questioned for some reason. The antisocial West doesn’t return gregarious Dan’s outstretched hand, and immediately begins taunting the overrated Dr. Hill about the quality of his work, telling the elder doctor that in Europe his work is considered plagiarized (see: composer Richard Band’s theme…hehe). The scene tells you everything you need to know about the core characters in short order; Cain is our young hero, Dr. Hill is an influential hack, Halsey is the bureaucrat, and the brilliant West is the snake in paradise.
Later that evening, Dan is on a study date with his super-perky girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton), who’s also the dean’s daughter, of course. As their study date gets decidedly horizontal, Dan’s cat Rufus breaks it up by jumping onto Dan’s bare back. Taking Rufus’ interruption as her cue for getting dressed, Megan expresses concerns to Dan about her father (“the world’s last puritan”) getting wind of how serious their relationship is becoming. Dan doesn’t care.
Note: Using my home projector and 6 ft. screen, I noticed a little detail I’d never noticed before on smaller screens–the poster on Dan’s bedroom wall is for the rock group Talking Heads, foreshadowing something that future-roomie Herbert would literally create in Dan’s basement.
After a bit of post-coital teasing, the two lovebirds are interrupted by a knock at the door. The deeply creepy Herbert West is answering Dan’s ad for a roommate. As Dan shows Herbert around the house, Herbert immediately falls in love with the spacious basement–a perfect place for his work. Over Megan’s silent objections, Dan takes Herbert’s readily available-cash, and a deal with the devil is made.
Note: The character of Herbert West recalls his cinematic predecessor, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) from 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein.” Pretorius’ offer of ‘partnership’ to Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) had a ‘corrupting’ influence on the young surgeon. Both Pretorius and Herbert West are clearly queer-coded. Each sees their lab partner’s involvement with the women in their lives (Megan Halsey, Elizabeth) as little more than a frivolous distraction to the purity of their “research.” West and Pretorius can be seen as the stereotypical gay interlopers who offer ‘alternatives’ to the domestic bliss of the lead characters (Dan Cain, Dr. Frankenstein). That said, it’s still difficult to imagine the decidedly asexual West in a relationship with any gender. Personally, I think West is more ‘married to his work,’ and sees Cain merely as an advantageous partner more than anything else. But the subtext is there, nevertheless.
The next day, Cain and West are sitting in the morgue, listening to Dr. Hill’s lecture about brain death. The scene is less about the other students, and more about the silent head-butting between Herbert and Dr. Hill, as the class is forced to listen to Hill’s reinforcement of the six-minute rule for brain death, which is at direct odds with Herbert’s own research in Switzerland.
As Dr. Hill reinforces tired medical dogma, an irked West repeatedly snaps pencils in nonverbal protest. The flustered Hill dismisses the class right before suggesting that West gets himself a pen. As the students file out, Herbert directly confronts Dr. Hill, accusing him of being a conformist hack who’s teaching disproven drivel to his students. Seething with anger, Hill tells Herbert it’ll be a pleasure to fail him as Dan is rendered speechless by Herbert’s audacity.
Later that evening over another ‘study date’ which quickly devolves into a make-out session, Megan notices Rufus the cat is curiously absent. Searching around the house, Megan sneaks into Herbert’s rented room and finds the poor dead creature in his mini fridge. An angry Herbert storms in on them, as Megan accuses him of killing Rufus. Dan, in quiet grief over his dead cat, asks Herbert what happened. Herbert tells Dan he found the cat dead after getting its head stuck in a jar. Megan doesn’t believe him, of course. Later that night, after Megan leaves, Dan is startled awake by the screeching sound of an agonized cat. Rushing down to the basement, Dan finds the ‘dead’ Rufus violently hissing and clinging to Herbert’s back! After ‘re-killing’ Rufus, Herbert finally comes clean and lets Dan in on the secret of reanimation–that same secret that got him kicked out of Switzerland. Using the glowing green reagent, Herbert brings the zombie cat back to life… again.
The following morning, Dan tells the dean about Herbert’s revolutionary discovery. The dean reacts with outrage and disappointment, immediately rescinding Cain’s student loan and expelling Herbert from the school. Dan correctly (and pleadingly) points out that Halsey is being blinded by his emotions, but his appeal falls on deaf ears.
Dan and Herbert secretly continue their work with reanimating the dead by using a busy night at the hospital to sneak back into the morgue. Herbert, with Dan recording their sessions on cassette, successfully reanimates a musclebound brute who died of heart failure. The beefy zombie then goes on a rampage, causing utter chaos. Dean Halsey, getting word that the duo’s illicit research is continuing within his hospital, heads down to the morgue, where he is instantly murdered by the undead brute. Herbert grabs a bone saw and dispatches the zombie by drilling through its chest. Trying to minimize the damage caused by his work, Herbert readies another dose of reagent in a desperate attempt to revive the freshly-dead Halsey. Like the others, Halsey reanimates, but is little more than a screaming, deranged, undead monster. Megan arrives on this grisly scene and screams at the sight of her bloodied father, sobbing hideously in the corner. The Worst Security Guard Ever finally returns from another break, only to witness a scene of total carnage. Herbert tells Mace that the dean became “irrational” when he barged in on them, and he proceeded to ram the bone saw through a corpse in anger (!?). In his undead state, Halsey lacks the presence of mind to refute West’s outrageous claim. Meanwhile, Dan collapses in utter shock as Herbert wraps him in a blanket.
The raving reanimated zombie-Halsey is remanded to Dr. Hill’s ‘care’ (which will include an undisclosed lobotomy with his laser drill). The sleazy Hill tries to “comfort” Megan, who observes her undead dad through one-way glass. As Hill stares into Megan’s face, he tries to mind-trick her (Star Wars-style) into seduction, but his creepy moves are interrupted by zombie-Halsey, who head-butts the one-way mirror and snaps his daughter out of Hill’s dastardly ‘spell.’ As a teary-eyed Megan storms out, Hill angrily pounds his fist on the glass, his creepy advances thwarted.
Note: Both Dr. Hill and even Megan’s own father express a deeply unhealthy interest in Megan’s sex life. Dr. Hill’s reasons are obviously lecherous, but even the dean can barely control his own white-hot jealousy over the young man with whom his daughter fell in love. The character of Megan Halsey is, sadly, the damsel-in-distress stereotype so common in horror movies, despite breakthrough characters of that era such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in 1979’s “ALIEN” or Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in 1978’s “Halloween.” Megan Halsey is definitely a throwback to the defenseless scream queens of horror movies past.
Herbert is working alone in his basement lab when he is interrupted by an intruding Dr. Hill, who confronts Herbert with the truth; Megan’s father is clearly dead, despite his ‘appearance’ of life. Herbert retorts that he has indeed brought Halsey back to life. Dr. Hill mind-tricks Herbert into showing him the reagent responsible for this miracle, boasting that he intends to steal Herbert’s invention for himself. Hill tells Herbert that if he tries to stop him, he will have West locked up as a madman… or a murderer. Peering through a microscope at the reagent in action, he is oblivious to Herbert sneaking up behind him with a shovel, which he uses to knock him senseless. With Hill lying helpless on the basement floor, Herbert chops his head off with the business end of the shovel (“Plagiarist!”). After the murder, Herbert gets the not-so-swift idea of using his potion to revive the separate parts of Dr. Hill. Resting Hill’s bloody reanimated head in a stainless steel tray, Herbert fails to notice Hill’s headless body creeping up from behind to knock him senseless…!
Note: This scene, as well as the earlier scene between Dr. Hill and Megan, allude to the (wisely) nixed subplot involving Dr. Hill’s mystical powers of hypnosis. This ability of Dr. Hill’s is only hinted in the theatrical cut. Several extended scenes of Hill Jedi mind-tricking people to do his bidding were added back into the less-gory TV version to pad out the shortened running time. These deleted scenes are also included as a bonus feature on the Anchor Bay double-disc DVD, as well as the Blu Ray version. Personally, I think the hypnosis mumbo-jumbo feels very out place with the rest of the movie–like something from Bela Lugosi’s “White Zombie” (1932).
From there, everything begins to unravel. The dismembered Dr. Hill sticks his living severed head into a duffle bag, and gets creative with an anatomy dummy to er, ‘disguise’ his nagging lack of a head. With surgical mask, cap and gown, he bluffs his way back into the hospital, walking right past Worst Security Guard Ever (of course), who also conveniently “goes on break” with his copy of Boudoir magazine. Hill also exerts his will over the now lobotomized zombie-Halsey to kidnap Megan for his own twisted pleasure. Zombie-Halsey knocks on the rear entrance to the morgue, and Dr. Hill’s clumsy headless body lets him in. Dear undead daddy then drops Megan onto the table and rips her clothes off. What follows is one of the most repulsive moments I have ever witnessed in a movie. Dr. Hill’s body takes its own severed head and slathers his bloody tongue across her ear, neck and then betwixt her nether reaches… until he’s mercifully interrupted by Herbert and Dan, in the nick of time. Herbert pooh-poohs the perverted head’s advances on the bound young woman; “I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m VERY disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You’re not even a second-rate scientist.” As the surprised head of Dr. Hill is spun around, he threatens to report Herbert to the authorities. West calmly retorts, “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow.”
Note: When I first saw this movie, my brain took a while to fully process the horror of what Megan went through in this scene; her undead father kidnaps her and rips her clothes off, which is followed by her sexual assault from a headless corpse. If you can somehow overlook the avalanche of absolutely horrific s#!t this scene throws at you, Herbert uses it to get some of the funniest lines of the entire movie. The movie’s gallows’ humor, personified by Jeffrey Combs’ Herbert West, is its biggest saving grace. If it didn’t have the humor to act as a safety valve, I honestly don’t think I could’ve made it through “Re-Animator.”
Just as Dan frees Megan from the table (draping his shirt over her as well), the headless Hill’s ‘plan’ springs into action–the freshly reanimated bodies in the morgue all tear out of their body bags in unison, each with laser-drilled lobotomies, like zombie-Halsey, in order to be controlled by the severed head of Hill. As Hill’s army of the undead take on Dan and Herbert, Herbert directs his counterattack to the source by plunging two full syringes of his green elixir into the headless body of Dr. Hill, causing an explosive overdose! As the undead army closes in, Megan screams at her zombie-dad, begging him to recognize her… and he does. Zombie-Halsey then grabs the lecherous Dr. Hill’s head and squishes it like an oversized grape, breaking the head’s control of its zombie army.
Note: The head-squishing really should’ve been the end of Dr. Hill, but the 1990 sequel “Bride of Re-Animator” would (somehow?) see Hill’s crushed head survive miraculously intact. This is a blatant retcon, of course, but no worse than the return of Emperor Palpatine in “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.”
As the zombie army all begin to experience Hill’s overdose, their bodies explode, with separate organs going on individual attacks. A section of large intestine begins to constrict Herbert like a wild anaconda, as he throws the duffle bag with his formula towards the escaping Dan and Megan, who flee the horrific scene. We don’t see Herbert’s fate as smoke from spilled acid fills the room. As Megan and Dan run into an open elevator, a burned zombie appears from nowhere and grabs Megan by the throat. Unable to pull the crispy creature off, Dan quickly returns with a fire axe, and chops its arm off. Megan, however, is asphyxiated and unconscious…
Back in the upper floors of the hospital, a blood-spattered Dan carries Megan into the ER. Immediately, doctors and nurses feverishly try to revive the young woman. She remains flatlined. Megan is pronounced dead. Alone with her body, and Herbert’s duffle bag, the obsessed Dan pulls out a syringe filled with the glowing green reagent. Before injecting it into Megan’s neck, he says, “I love you.” As the screen fades to black, we hear Megan scream…
Note: In the 1990 sequel, we learn that Megan’s heart survived, but it’s not entirely clear what happened to the rest of her.
The Sequels: Life after Death…?
“Re-Animator” spawned a couple of sequels, but the only continuing character in all three films is Herbert West, as played by Jeffrey Combs. Jeffrey Combs is to this trilogy of films what Anthony Perkins was to the “Psycho” movies. It’s very difficult to imagine this series without his wonderfully uptight, downright sociopathic mad scientist. The character is black humor incarnate, often breaking tension with a well-aimed bon mot. I’m also glad that none of the Re-Animator films ever tried to ‘soften’ (i.e. straighten) the queer coded West by giving him an uncharacteristic love interest from out of nowhere–as Psycho attempted, with varying degrees of success. While the character’s integrity remained firmly intact (largely due to Combs’ airtight performance), the sequels themselves were a series of diminishing returns… an all-too-common fate in most horror franchises.
In the fall of 1990, I drove my motorcycle to the only theater in my city playing “Bride of Re-Animator” (rated R, unlike its unrated predecessor). Once there, I found I was one of only three people in that spacious auditorium (usually not a good sign), so I lowered my expectations accordingly. Directed by the previous film’s producer, Brian Yuzna, and featuring most of the original’s cast (Combs, Abbott, Gale), “Bride…” opens mere months after the “Miskatonic Massacre” of the first film, with Cain and West (surviving his strangulation by Dr. Hill’s bowels) now serving as medics in a Peruvian civil war. The war promises the two scientists many freshly dead subjects for their ghoulish ‘research.’ Returning to the US, the two evade a vengeful cop (Claude Earl Jones) and begin experiments on reanimating conjoined parts to create new life forms (including a as a pair of bat-wings fused to Dr. Hill’s somehow surviving head). Meanwhile, Cain becomes involved with a sexy Italian journalist named Francesca (Fabiana Udenio) just as West creates a new woman (Kathleen Kinmont) for him, using the late Megan’s surviving heart (as well as pieces of other women). Sporting a few genuinely hilarious and interesting moments, “Bride…” lacks the crisper pacing and laser-scalpel focus of its predecessor while still offering a decent continuation. Could’ve been much worse.
Note: Sadly, actor David Gale, who played the plagiaristic Dr. Hill in the first and second movies, died of complications from open heart surgery a year later in 1991.
Brian Yuzna returned to direct the last (to date) in the Re-Animator series, 2003’s “Beyond Re-Animator,” which was shot in Spain and takes place within a prison. Herbert West is serving a sentence for a murder committed by one of his reanimated undead, which killed the sister of young Dr. Howard Philips (Jason Barry). Philips initially comes to the prison in order to avenge his sister, but later comes to appreciate the scientist’s work. As with the previous two movies, a love interest (i.e. distraction) for the good doctor arrives in the form of journalist Laura Olney (Elsa Pataky), who is savagely murdered by the corrupt warden, whose advances she rebuffed. A heartbroken Philips then asks for West’s help in bringing the murdered Laura back to life. Lots of slick new digital FX don’t quite replace the more tactile prosthetic horrors of the first two movies. Jeffrey Combs’ performance is the one true bright spot in this otherwise lackluster sequel, which owes some debt to 1974’s “Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell” (in that film, Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein continued his experiments in a barbaric mental asylum where he himself was a prisoner). If your sense of humor is warped enough, you might want to stick around for the end credits, which are played over a shadow fight between a reanimated bit of male genitalia and a sewer rat.
Note: I wish someone had the courage & fiscal means to produce the unmade sequel idea (proposed around the time “Bride…” was made) called “House of Re-Animator,” which would’ve seen Herbert West going to the White House on a top secret mission to reanimate the freshly dead US president. This sequel could’ve been comedic gold, especially in today’s hyper-politicized climate. If the current COVID-19 pandemic ever passes, and if Jeffrey Combs were willing, I still think this should be a go project.
Going West: Meeting Jeffrey Combs.
At a 2013 sci-fi convention in Burbank, California, I had the opportunity to meet Jeffrey Combs, the star of “Re-Animator” himself. While Combs has received a lot of well-deserved praise within sci-fi fandom for his multiple roles within the Star Trek franchise, he was, is, and always will be Dr. Herbert West as well. So, I brought my old 1986-issue Vestron Video laserdisc of “Re-Animator” along for an autograph.
When Combs arrived at the booth, he took an approving look at the old laserdisc, and we got into a nice little chat about laserdiscs and LPs. Like myself, Combs had an affinity for vinyl (“they sound better,” he quipped). I got a good laugh when I saw the inscription on his autograph, “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow.” Combs definitely has the sharp wit of Herbert West, but I’m glad to say, he’s also a lot nicer.
I’ve since seen Combs at other conventions since, most recently at the famed “Star Trek Las Vegas” convention, which (like all conventions I normally attend) has been postponed until at least mid-2021. In addition to his multiple roles within Star Trek (“Weyoun,” “Shran”, and many others) Combs also does a Rat Pack-style singing act with some of his “Deep Space Nine” costars, and has also appeared as Edgar Allan Poe in the one-man stage show, “An Evening With Edgar Allan Poe.” I would love to see his interpretation of Poe someday.
COVID-19 Safe Viewing.
“Re-Animator” can be watched/streamed via Showtime, Tubi and Prime Video/YouTube rental from $ .99-$3.99). Blu-Rays & DVDs of “Re-Animator” and its sequels can also be purchased contact-free on Amazon.com as well (prices vary by sellers). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now nearing 220,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no widely available vaccine or proven effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!