Don’t bring things back from the dead. If I’ve learned anything from horror movies, beyond the importance of not going to that creepy campground on the tenth anniversary of the night all those counselors died, it’s that trying to bring people back from the dead is a recipe for inevitable disaster. Ever since the days of Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein novel, scientists meddling in the process of resurrecting the deceased has always resulted in tragedy rather than Nobel Peace prizes. Nobody seems to realize this in the world of movie scientists but at least their inability to learn yields some fun movies like Re-Animator.
Directed by Stuart Gordon and based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, Re-Animator concerns Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), a student at a medical university currently dating the dean’s daughter, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). Cain’s life is going pretty swimmingly until the arrival of new student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who eagerly answers Cain’s public listing asking for a new roommate. The blatantly creepy West moves into Cain’s home right away, where his very presence incurs the wrath of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), who convinces Megan’s father that Megan being around Dan and Herbert is bad news. Hill is right that West is trouble but he has no idea about the real reason why.
West has figured out a serum to bring dead things back to life and he’s coerced Dan Cain to help him in his experiments to bring dead humans back to the land of the living. Does anything go according to plan? Of course not. But the character’s misfortune is the audiences gain since Re-Animator becomes a horror of errors where nobody’s plans go even remotely like they should. Everybody’s follies typically result in consequences that are a mixture of horrifying and darkly comical. This is particularly true of Dr. Carl Hill, who ends up being the main villain of the piece yet still ends up with a lurching decapitated body for a sidekick that can’t take two steps without engaging in some sort of Three Stooges-esque slapstick.
No failure is able to put a dent in Herbert West’s determination, though. As played by Jeffrey Combs, West is a guy with only one thing on his mind: perfecting his experiment. Anything that gets in his way needs to be pushed aside for the greater scientific good. Jeffrey Combs portrays the character as a hoity-toity figure refusing to mask his contempt for the people around him from the first scene onward. There’s a comically exaggerated quality to the entire performance Combs delivers that proves to be extremely fun to watch. Even when there aren’t murderous corpses attacking people, you still get entertainment bang for your buck thanks to a number of memorable line deliveries from Combs.
For those coming to Re-Animator for the murderous corpses attacking people, fear not, there’s plenty of that to go around and it’s all rendered in some pretty impressive practical effects work that doesn’t skimp on the gooey blood. Produced for $900,000, the VFX used to bring the undead to life in Re-Animator still register as commendable even in 2019 and look much better than modern-day CGI takes on the living dead in films like I Am Legend. All of this VFX work is primarily used in service of a third-act where all hell breaks loose. Like fellow Brian Yuzna horror film Society (though Yuzna directed that film whereas he only produced Re-Animator), the home stretch is where Re-Animator really lets its horror freak flag fly and the results are brain-meltingly fun.
Every time you think Re-Animator is done throwing new weird gross-out imagery at the viewer, it comes back with something brand new and unsettling. There’s lots of imagination to be found in here and, even better, Stuart Gordon and company allow much of the creepy shenanigans to speak for themselves visually rather than pause the plot to explain the mechanics of how everything works. Making chilling scenes is more important than exposition in not just the third act of Re-Animator, but its whole as well. Just look at how Dr. Carl Hill has hypnotic powers that never get explained. Why should they be explained? This is a horror movie where people come back to life, weird things like that can happen in a delightfully unhinged and unnerving movie such as Re-Animator.