31 Days of Fright: Re-Animator

Like ‘Scrubs,’ but with more zombies.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night’s feature film was Re-Animator, directed by Stuart Gordon (From Beyond, Robot Jox), and requested by donor Martha Hunter. Though I’ve only met Hunter a few times in person, we are good Twitter friends, and she has the most excellent taste in movies. She was, frankly, pretty astonished I had never seen Re-Animator. And she has good reason: it’s widely regarded as something of a horror-comedy cult classic. I picked up Re-Animator, which came in a two-disc DVD set, at Queen Video.

What happens:

Based on an H. P. Lovecraft novella, but bearing little resemblance to the source material, Re-Animator is a darkly funny tale – along the lines of, say, an Evil Dead II – of reanimated corpses at a New England medical school. Re-Animator begins at the University of Zurich, as a doctor beckons for a university official and two guards to come assist Dr. Hans Gruber (no relation to the villain from Die Hard). They knock at his locked office door and hear cries of pain. The guards smash open the door and find a man – one we will later know as Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) – standing over the convulsing Dr. Gruber. The old doctor looks greyer than usual and leaking blood from his mouth. “You idiots!”" West cries. “I need to record his vitals!” Gruber’s eyes bug and soon begin to spurt blood. The old man collapses and the female doctor accuses West of killing Gruber. “No I didn’t. I gave him life!” he yells.

What's German for "Everything's cool"?

What’s German for “Everything’s cool”?

Following a Bernard-Hermann-esque opening title song, the film re-opens across the Atlantic, at the very fictional Miskatonic Medical School in Arkham, Massachusetts. Young medical student Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) desperately tries to resuscitate a flatlining woman to no avail. The supervising physician, Dr. Harrod (Carolyn Purdy-Gorond), tells him to give up. “A good doctor knows when to stop,” she advises. The now extremely sweaty Cain wheels the dead woman down to the morgue, where the security guard, Mace (Gerry Black) trades witticisms with him. Inside the morgue, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) is busy testing out his new neurosurgery invention, a laser drill, on a corpse’s head. He dips a Q-tip into the circular wound to plumb the head’s depths. Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) arrives in the morgue – it’s like Grand Central Station down there – to introduce new Miskatonic student, the bespectacled and tightly wound Herbert West.

Dean Halsey introduces Cain to West as one of the school’s brightest med students, and Hill as one of the world’s top brain researchers. Dr. Hill cocks his eyebrow when he learns that West had studied with Gruber. West makes a great first impression by dismissing Hill’s papers, which he says are derivative of Dr. Gruber’s. He also disbelieves Hill’s assertion that there’s a six-to-twelve-minute gap between death and total brain death. Neuroscientist fights are the cattiest, you guys.

Next we see Cain, he’s lovingly knocking boots with his fiancee, Megan (Barbara Crampton), in his apartment. His troublesome cat, Rufus, leaps on them in the middle of the act. Megan dresses to leave immediately after sex, noting, “Daddy knows I’m here.” Her daddy is, in fact, Dean Halsey, and he disapproves of premarital sex. “He’s the last living Puritan,” Megan laments. But Cain is fast becoming tired of sneaking around. He starts joking around with Megan, donning a bedsheet and pretending to be a corpse risen from the dead. He chases Megan out the front door, where the playful couple runs straight into the intense Herbert West. West has come to inquire about the apartment for rent in Cain’s house.

Cain gives West a tour of what would be his living quarters, but West is only interested in the size of the house’s basement. Once he sees how expansive it is, he asks to move in immediately. Megan, unwilling to accept the unsettling Herbert West as her fiancé’s new roommate, tries to convince Cain to take time to consider it, but Cain is swayed by West’s cash-in-hand-offer. The next day in class, Dr. Hill demonstrates some basic brain surgery on a cadaver. “Like peeling a large orange,” he jokes as he pulls the corpse’s scalp from the skull. West and Hill’s battle of the wills continues into the lab, with West snapping a pencil every time Dr. Hill makes a statement he disagrees with. They argue in front of the class about – what else? – the maximum time the dead human body can last before total brain death.

So many study dates are ruined by the revivification of the dead.

So many study dates are ruined by the revivification of the dead.

Dean Halsey invites Dr. Carl Hill over for dinner at his house – Hill, after all, is responsible for securing the medical school its largest grants. The sexagenarian Hill skeevily toasts Halsey’s daughter, Meg: “the obsession of all who fall under her spell.” Dan Cain arrives to whisk Meg away for a “study date” and they retire to his apartment. He tries to put the moves on his ladyfriend, but she’s not in the mood, mainly because Herbert West is in the very next room. Megan is uncomfortable around West, and she notes that even the cat, Rufus, is scared by Dan’s roommate. In fact, Rufus hasn’t been seen in quite a while. Dan and Meg go searching for the black cat, a search that brings Meg slinking into Herbert West’s room. She finds Rufus in the slightly ajar fridge – that’s not how refrigeration works, West – dead.

West barges in and complains that Meg has no respect for his privacy. Cain, arriving late to the party, initially agrees with West until he sees his cat in his roommate’s fridge. West assures him that the cat was dead when he found it. Rufus suffocated by getting his head stuck in a jar, and West was merely making sure the cat wouldn’t rot or smell before he had the chance to tell Dan. Dan is also alarmed by a vial of neon green liquid in West’s fridge. West notes that the green fluid is none of Dan’s business, “just like it’s none of my business you’re sleeping with the dean’s daughter.” Feeling thoroughly blackmailed, Dan lets the issue drop. Until that evening.

Late at night, Dan is awakened by an unholy screeching. He grabs a baseball bat from the closet and goes to investigate. He knocks on Herbert’s door, but he doesn’t answer. Hearing sounds in the basement, Dan rushes through the basement entrance, nearly falling down the steps. What he finds is his roommate Herbert, face scratched, being attacked by an angry black cat. West squirms and flails and finally tosses the cat off his back. He arms himself with a croquet mallet and tries to hunt it down. Dan joins him with his bat. The black cat leaps at Dan’s face, and with his quick reflexes, Dan tosses the cat into the wall, where it crumples to the floor in a bloody mess. Dan recognizes it as his own (supposedly dead) cat, Rufus. West begins to laugh hysterically.

Once things have calmed down, West reveals to Cain that he’s uncovered the secret to reanimation. He’s developed a new “re-agent” (the glowing green liquid) and broken the six-to-twelve-minute brain death barrier. But, he notes, when he’s reanimated larger animals, they have become violent. Having confided in Cain, West requests his help. Cain is a bright student with access to the morgue and the tacit endorsement of the dean. He could be very valuable to West. Together they can defeat death. Cain doesn’t believe West reanimated Rufus, so West runs another experiment. He injects more re-agent into the brain of the now-mangled cat. “Don’t expect it to tango; it has a broken back,” he warns. But Rufus does begin to howl and twitch again. Meg walks in and heads to the basement, where she sees the twisted Rufus and is understandably horrified. (I mean, she never liked West to begin with.)

Cain and West solve the dilemma of Schrodinger's cat by removing the box from the equation.

Cain and West solve the dilemma of Schrodinger’s cat by removing the box from the equation.

The next day, Cain goes to Dean Halsey to tell him what West has done. Rather than be intrigued by a medical marvel or appreciative that this student has been honest with him, Halsey becomes outraged that Cain has befriended West and participated with him on his unsanctioned experiments. (Which he hasn’t, really.) Rather impulsively, the Dean rescinds Cain’s student loan and expels Herbert West. (I guess school administrators had a lot more power in those days.) Undeterred, or perhaps emboldened, by the Dean’s actions, Cain sneaks West into the morgue, having his roommate pose as a dead body. Security guard Mace sneaks out to grab a coffee, and while he does, Cain and West act like selective shoppers, looking over the various dead bodies to find the best one for their experiment. They settle on a young John Doe who died of heart failure.

West injects the re-agent into the John Doe’s brain but nothing happens. Meanwhile, upstairs in the part of the hospital where (still) living people recuperate, Dean Halsey and Megan arrive. Halsey demands to know from Dr. Harrod if Cain is in the building. Harrod says that he’s downstairs in the morgue. West injects another dose of re-agent into the corpse and waits for it to take effect. The P.A. system calls for Daniel Cain, and Dean Halsey rushes downstairs. Cain and West, realizing the authorities (or the Dean, at least) are on their way to the morgue, cover up the John Doe, ready to write the experiment off as a failure. That’s when the dead man leaps up from his shiny metal gurney.

The big, naked, dead dude begins to run around the room, tossing Cain and West every which way but loose. Halsey arrives at the morgue door just as the dead man smashes it down, crushing the Dean beneath it. He lifts up the door and hoists the Dean into the air, then chews off a few of Halsey’s fingers. West acts quickly and breaks out the bone saw from the cabinet, using the tool to drill through the reanimated corpse’s back all the way out through his chest. The John Doe collapses, dead again, but West and Cain were too late: Dean Halsey has expired. But more importantly, his death was recent. “Let’s revive him!” West gleefully suggests.

Given a fresh corpse, West’s re-agent works wonders. Dean Halsey revives in a mere 17 seconds, though he does now have a problem with mumbling and constant bleeding from the mouth. Meg calls from the other side of the morgue door and West curses her arrival. The zombie Halsey starts choking West and Cain just as Meg enters the room. She freaks out and the guard, Mace, having been on the longest coffee break in history, returns, horrified by the scene. West hastily explains that Dean Halsey showed up in the morgue and seemed to go insane, desecrating a corpse, then choking them. (And given the Dean’s current state of mind, the guard is inclined to believe him.) Dean Halsey is promptly committed to a padded room in – for reasons never explained – Dr. Hill’s office (?).

In time, Dr. Hill tries to convince Meg to sign a release that would allow him to operate on her father: he wants to do exploratory brain surgery to see if he can figure out what’s gone wrong. Meg eventually grants permission and, not content to just cut open her father’s head, Hill creeps on Meg, telling her to call him if ever she’s lonely. Cain goes to apologize to Meg, and she demands to know what he did to her father. She slaps him a couple times, and when Cain declares that her father is dead, Meg cries and pounds on his chest. She doesn’t believe him. (The wedding may be off, folks.) Back in the makeshift basement lab, Herbert West is busy microscoping when Dr. Hill enters unseen and surprises him. Hill wants to know from West why Dean Halsey’s body responds as if it’s alive, when both of them know he’s very much dead. West tells him about his reanimation process and Hill demands to take credit for West’s discovery.

Hill, holding most of the cards, blackmails West for his discovery – he’ll have West arrested for murder unless he gives him his notes and re-agent. West reluctantly passes Dr. Hill his composition book, which Hill reads with grudging respect: “Your extension of that old fool Gruber’s work is quite … brilliant.” West demonstrates the re-agent on a microscope slide for Hill, using dead cat tissue as an example. While Hill eyes the microscope, West quietly backs up and retrieves a shovel. He then smashes Hill across the head with it, and drives the shovel through the doctor’s neck, again and again, until he decapitates him. West then lifts up the gory severed head and places it in a metal tray. Scientifically curious, he injects the brain with the re-agent, as well as the heart of the headless body. The revived two-part Dr. Hill is the most successful experiment yet. The head is capable of basic speech – “You … bastard …” he moans – and the body is capable of shoving West’s head into the table, knocking him out cold.

Told you one day Dr. Hill would be *head* of the department.

Told you one day Dr. Hill would be *head* of the department.

Back at Dr. Hill’s office, Dan and Meg are riffling through Hill’s files for information on her father’s treatment. Dan then makes a chilling discovery: a file folder full of used napkins and locks of Meg’s hair. Meg, oblivious to the depths of Hill’s obsessions, has meanwhile snuck into the padded cell where her father is being kept. She takes a closer look and sees that he’s been lobotomized! When West comes to with a monster headache in his basement lab, he can’t find Hill’s head, his body, or any of his notes! Cain arrives to find West in the midst of a panic, and he suggests that Hill must have lobotomized the Dean so he wouldn’t reveal that West was the one who reanimated him. (Not that Dean Halsey is doing much talking these days.) Hill’s body, meanwhile, has brought the tray containing his head back to his office, where the body injects the head with some re-agent, and fills the metal tray with a fresh blood supply. The head looks at the Dean and says, “Alan, it’s time for you to come out now …”

Dan runs to check on Meg, obviously concerned that a reanimated corpse who lusts for his fiancee is on the loose. (Not that he ever tells her about this crucial info.) Megan, obviously wrecked by the past several hours, suggests that Dan go away, transfer to another school. But she can’t bring herself to hate Dan, no matter how horribly he violated her father. She leans in to kiss Dan when her zombified father busts in the front door and smacks Dan’s head against the wall. He grabs his daughter and drags her screaming from the house. Dr. Hill, meanwhile, has made a very convincing “normal human” suit by placing an anatomical model of the human head on top of his headless body, then dressing it all in scrubs and a face mask. (Dr. Hill’s head rests in the medical bag that the body carries, ‘natch.) It’s convincing enough for Mace, the worst security guard in the world. Unobstructed, Dr. Hill’s body sets his real head back into a tray and gets to work lobotomizing a random corpse with the laser drill.

How come my ER doctor never looks like George Clooney or Eriq La Salle?

How come my ER doctor never looks like George Clooney or Eriq La Salle?

Before long, zombie Dean Halsey arrives, carrying an unconscious Megan in his arms. He sets his daughter down on a metal table, strips her naked, and straps her down. (Umm…) The leering head of Dr. Hill becomes quite visibly excited by this turn of events. Across town, Dan awakens to the grim visage of Herbert West and announces that they have to find Meg. Speaking of Meg, Hill’s body has begun to manhandle the poor woman, fondling her breasts. She wakes mid-assault and screams. Kicking wildly, she knocks off the body’s false head. The body then lifts Dr. Hill’s head to hang, dripping blood over Megan’s vulnerable body. Hill then begins to lick her all over (yes, all over) as she protests. HIll is interrupted by the a-bit-too-late arrival of Dan Cain and Herbert West.

West makes some disparaging remarks about Dr. Hill wasting his time on some “bubble-headed coed” (which is awful for so many reasons), effectively distracting the zombie neurosurgeon. Dan frees his once-fiancee while West and Hill verbally spar, and gives her his shirt. Dr. Hill threatens West, but West isn’t worried. “I have a plan,” he says. “So do I!” Dr. Hill retorts, and all the other corpses in the morgue spring to life and begin to attack. Pandemonium erupts. Hill, he reveals, has mastered a new form of lobotomy with the laser drill, which allows him total control of the human will. (I don’t think that’s how lobotomies work.) He doesn’t seem to be bluffing: the zombies go wild, attacking our heroes. West tries to inject an overdose of re-agent into Hill’s body, but the body wrests the syringe out of his hand. Things start to look grim for the living characters in the film.

Meg begins to plead with her zombie father, and she seems to make a breakthrough. Halsey stops attacking her, and instead strikes out at the other corpses. He rescues West from Hill’s body and grabs Hill’s head. Halsey then begins to squeeze, gouging out his favourite grant-winner’s eyes. West recovers and stabs Halsey with two syringes, then the former dean totally crushes Hill’s noggin and throws it into the hallway, to the mild confusion of the ever-oblivious security guard. Also confusing: Hill’s headless body opens up like rusty gates and his intestines shoot out at Herbert West, throttling him like a boa contractor. Cain reaches out for West’s hand, but he can’t get a solid grip. West is slowly being pulled into Hill’s body (it would seem). Dean Halsey, still protective of his daughter, tries to fend off some of the zombies and is quickly torn into pieces. Dan cuts his losses and takes Meg by the arm. They run into the hallway, taking a medical bag of West’s notes and re-agent refills with them.

They are attacked in the hallway – first by a man with a serious facial wound, and then, in the elevator, by a burn victim. The burn victim chokes Meg, but Dan runs to retrieve a fire axe, a weapon he uses to lop off the burn victim’s arm. However, it looks like he may be too late: Meg isn’t breathing! When the elevator ascends to the floor of the emergency room, he rushes her onto a bed. Paralleling one of the opening scenes, Dan desperately tries to resuscitate Meg, again and again. Dr. Harrod, ever the grim messenger of death, shakes her head “no.” Meg has not survived the climax of the film. Daniel Cain begins to sob as the assembled doctors and nurses leave to give the med student his space. Dan kisses his dead fiancee’s mouth, then … he has an idea. Dan opens the medical bag left on the floor and retrieves a syringe filled with re-agent. “I love you,” he says, and begins to inject her neck with the bright green fluid.

Herbert West and Dan Cain will return in Re-Animator 2: The Secret of the Ooze.

Herbert West and Dan Cain will return in Re-Animator 2: The Secret of the Ooze.

Takeaway points:

  • The film is very loosely based on a novella by H. P. Lovecraft, that xenophobic master of unnamed dread. Though Lovecraft is perhaps better known for his stories about forbidden knowledge and squid-like ancient entities known as Cthulhu, the novella “Herbert West – Reanimator” is atypical and was allegedly written as a sort of parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which makes sense – given the reviving of dead tissue and all). Though the original novella was set in the Victorian era, it does feature a Dean Halsey and a Miskatonic University, though many of the other aspects of the stories differ. Funnily enough, Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi calls the novella Lovecraft’s poorest work, yet it provides the basis for his best-known film adaptation.
  • Re-Animator works as a horror-comedy not because there are a lot of jokes. There aren’t. (Though Herbert West gets a few good lines.) It works as a horror comedy because of its commitment to excess, its willingness to go further than you believe it will go. Everyone plays it straight: they dedicate themselves to this depraved exercise in horror. Re-Animator doesn’t care how tasteless it is to show someone’s eyeballs explode or a father strip his daughter or a cat turned inside out: they’re going to do it. One is reminded of the Grand Guignol tradition of French theatre, so over-the-top (and impressive) is the gore. Re-Animator commits to taking the scene to its logical death, then – fittingly – takes it even further. It is the Will Ferrell of horror movies.
  • The viewer content advisory for Re-Animator notes, under “Frightening/Intense Scenes,” “a scene involving a woman being sexually assaulted by a severed head, which will no doubt upset several viewers.” At least five. While Re-Animator is mostly good, not-clean fun, the creep-tastic sexual assault by Dr. Hill’s headless body and severed head has to be dissected, as it exists mostly for shock value and (sadly) laughs. The entire uncomfortable scene is literally just a visual gag about “giving head.” This seems to be a common problem of over-the-top horror-comedies (think of the infamous tree rape scene in Evil Dead and Evil Dead II). As much as I enjoyed Re-Animator, the film has a problem with women. Herbert West, though creepy, is ultimately shown to be some kind of misunderstood hero. So how are we to take our hero who routinely calls Megan a “bitch,” or, when interrupting her sexual assault, chides the assaulter. Not for his horrible, criminal act, but for his low-mindedness: “You steal the secret of life, and here you are, trysting with a bubble-headed coed.” Herbert: (a) that is not a “tryst,” and (b) Megan is no bubble-head. Some ickiness mars an otherwise pretty excellent film.
  • This may be a stretch, but it’s easy to read Herbert West’s intense personality, unperturbed by social graces, as an early representation of Asperger’s in pop culture. He is unapologetic about his fights with his professors, shows little knowledge of social cues in his interactions with his roommate and his fiancee, and a devout single-mindedness to his one cause: defeating death. That said, I don’t wish to diagnose a fictional character with Asperger’s, especially in such reductive terms. And especially one who is a mad scientist.
  • Admit it, that synopsis made you think of Dean Cain.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Given that Re-Animator is more a horror-comedy along the lines of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, it’s not terrifying. Certainly some of the gory images are indelible, but it’s not a movie that had me checking the locks before I went to bed. That said, it’s an impressively bonkers story that somehow maintains its own bizarre logic through its duration and remains a really effective film.

Daniel Cain, getting back to fashion basics, accessorizing with a fire axe that matches the bloodstain.

Daniel Cain, getting back to fashion basics, accessorizing with a fire axe that matches the bloodstain.

Best outfit: When Dan Cain sheds his shirt to help out the very naked Meg Halsey, he suddenly transforms into Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and it’s pretty excellent.

Best line: “I was busy pushing bodies around – as you well know – and what would a note say, Dan? ‘Cat dead; details later’?” – Herbert West, outlining the little irritations that can arise between roommates

Best kill: Re-Animator is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to inventive, memorable, and gory kills. I have a particular fondness for Herbert West drilling through the muscular zombie John Doe with an electric bone saw.

Unexpected cameo: He’s kind of the star of the movie, but Jeffrey Combs deserves special mention because he also portrays the best character in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, the singular FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers. Also, the first corpse that West and Cain reanimate – the John Doe – is played by Peter Kent. You probably don’t know his name, but you know his body: he was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunt double from 1984 to 1996.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: This should have been obvious to me, but a lifetime of watching people apply defibrillator paddles on network television did not prepare me for the notion that female cardiac arrest patients must be defibrillated topless.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Brain Death

Next up: Lemora (1973).

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