By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: The dead come back.
Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) is a student at a nearby medical college who decides to take in as a roommate a foreign student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). West seems a bit anti-social and very intense about his work. He sets up a lab in Cain’s basement where he does experiments to bring back the dead by injecting them with his specially formulated serum. He starts with animals, which makes it intriguing enough for Cain to get in on it, but when they start to move onto cadavers at the school’s medical lab things spiral out of control.
Compared to most low-budget horror films of the 80’s, and I have seen many, this thing is nicely compact and well-paced. There is none of that extraneous dialogue and needlessly slow, drawn out scenes before you can get to any type of action, or horror. It grabs your attention right away with a clever, whimsical opening sequence and a musical score that although does sound similar to the one used in Psycho is still quite effective.
The gory special effects are excellent even when compared by today’s standards. Normally I have no problem watching these things no matter how high the gore factor is, but the scene where the instructor peels the skin off the head of one his cadavers during a class lecture and then cuts through the bone of the skull and takes out his brain had me feeling a bit queasy. The best part comes when Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) gets his head chopped off at the end of a shovel, which is again well-done, and then has both his body and head injected with the serum. The scenes involving the headless body walking around while carrying this talking head are creepy, hilarious, and highly effective. It is realistically enough looking during a couple of sequences that it had me sitting there wondering how they pulled it off. My only quibble in this area would be the part where West reincarnates a cat that comes back to life and turns homicidal. It is very clear that this ‘killer cat’ is nothing more than a stuffed animal as its fur looks fake and the body is unrealistically thin.
The film is directed by first-timer Stuart Gordon whose only claim to fame before this was when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969 and he brought in an audience into an auditorium to watch a play he had written and then locked the doors so they couldn’t get out. He intentionally made the play as boring and annoying as possible just to see how long it would take them to rise from their seats and clamor to be let out. Although this was enough to get him expelled I still admire the guy’s panache. That same type of snarky humor is evident here and woven in, in a way that nicely balances the horror. My favorite scene here, and one that I remember most distinctly from when I first saw it back in the 80’s, is when Dan meets his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) in the school’s hallway. He starts to kiss her passionately and she feels embarrassed and tells him ‘no, no, no’ and then it quickly cuts to show them in bed where she is saying ‘yes, yes, yes’.
Another thing that differentiates this from other low-budget horror films is the fact that the lead characters are not as bland as usual. I liked the way Dan has a moral quandary and teams up with West on some of his experiments. Both Dan and Megan are better fleshed out as characters and believable. Crampton also looks gorgeous and has a good nude sequence at the end.
Kudos must also go to Robert Sampson an actor who has worked steadily since the 1950’s, but has never become a household name. He plays Dean Halsey father of Meagan and his part takes off after he is accidently killed and brought back to life with Herbert’s serum where he turns into a mumbling, crazed lunatic. This isn’t as easy to pull off as you may think and his catatonic stares are fabulous.
David Gale deserves mention as well playing the evil doctor. His pale skin and sullen face make him look like he is dead from the very beginning and he has the perfect look for a horror film. He clearly relishes his role and hams it up nicely. He started to garner a large cult following after his performance here and offers to play similar roles in other horror films began to pour in when he unexpectedly died in 1991.
The only performance I really didn’t like was that of Jeffrey Combs. I know he has pretty much become the face of the Re-Animator franchise, but this guy seemed hammy without ever being amusing, or funny with it. I didn’t like the square, metal rim glasses that he wore as they were much too typical. An eccentric character should wear eccentric looking glasses and attire to help accentuate his off-beat personality. I also didn’t dig his accent that seemed to waver between Bavarian, German, Russian, and some weird variant in between.
If you are looking for something different this Halloween then I suggest checking this one out. It has just the right amount of ingredients to be both entertaining and scary at the same time and it can still easily hold-up with today’s jaded viewers.
My Rating 7 out of 10
Released: October 18, 1985
Runtime: 1Hour 26Minutes
Director: Stuart Gordon
Studio: Empire Pictures
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray