I’m a big fan of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, so it was with a feeling of shock and shame that I realized that I had not seen what’s often considered the greatest adaptation of a Lovecraft story ever: Re-Animator, from 1985. So I queued up my Netflix, popped my popcorn, and settled down for what was sure to be a 1980s schlock-extravaganza.
What had I done? I’d been warned about the grossness of Re-Animator, but I did not expect…this. Granted that Lovecraft adores indulging in oozing viscosity and putrid terrors from the beyond, I still did not expect to be translated so very literally to the screen. But my word it was! Re-Animator is one of the grosser, funnier horror films I’ve seen, and I enjoyed every overblown, overheated minute of it.
Re-Animator tells the story of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a brilliant but quite insane medical student who has created a serum capable of bringing the dead back to life. The problem is that the serum mostly just brings back the primitive instincts, not the higher brain functions, effectively turning reanimated corpses into hyper-strong atavistic zombies. It’s a combination of Frankenstein and a zombie movie by way of Lovecraft.
West goes to Miskatonic University (the site of most of Lovecraft’s educational based narrative), where he connects with fellow medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Halsey). He also runs afoul of Dr. Hill (David Gale), a doctor whose work on brain death West directly challenged. But all the plot machinations are largely excuses for West and Dan to make some zombies, re-animate some corpses, and explode some body parts in a hail of blood and guts.
The first half of Re-Animator plays like a typical camp 80s horror film; the second half is pure insanity. Staff members are murdered, college deans are turned into zombie slaves, Megan (predictably) loses all her clothes, and severed heads return to life in some of the most hilarious, ridiculous and disgusting ways imaginable. It’s nearly impossible to describe what happens in Re-Animator without resorting to noises of shock and horror, not to mention insane laughter.
There are moments in Re-Animator that would be offensive if they did not take place in such an insane film to begin with. The lengths the film goes to get Megan naked is quite remarkable, but it never quite crosses the line into offensive exploitation. The whole film is so mad that it would be impossible to claim that any one scene goes too far. Props to actress Barbara Halsey, though, for being willing to go the extra mile for … art, I guess.
Jeffrey Combs is the mad center of this mad film, his Herbert West fascinating and repellant and, by the end of it, strangely likable. He’s Dr. Frankenstein on acid, dedicated to his cause and completely without morals. I loved him.
No everyone will love this film. Many will be repelled by the sheer amount of blood and gore, or the sight of a headless man attempting to fellate a girl tied to a morgue slab. But it is, indeed, one of the best, maddest Lovecraft adaptations ever likely to be made. Mr. Lovecraft would be incredibly proud.