Blu-ray Review: Re-Animator

re-animator 1

Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott
Director: Stuart Gordon
Rating: 10/10

Stuart Gordon has helmed many brilliant horror films over his career, but his inspired first feature set a benchmark for gleeful goriness that even he has found it hard to match. Culled from H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West stories, the movie sees West (Jeffrey Combs) transferring to Miskatonic Medical School in order to continue his researches into conquering brain death. To this end, he builds a laboratory in a basement and goes about revivifying anything he can lay his hands on with injections of glowing green reagent, starting with a cat and working his way up to human cadavers and then various members of the faculty. His mild-mannered flatmate Dan (Bruce Abbott) is drawn into his macabre researches, but given that the revived subjects are prone to fits of violent behaviour, you just know that things are going to get messy.

The tone is set with Robert Dawson’s Day-Glo title sequence and Richard Band’s propulsive, Psycho-esque score. Re-Animator is a ’50s EC comic brought to life for the video age, with lashings of grue and nudity. It’s one of those films where all of the elements are a joy. There’s the rock solid and darkly sardonic script by Dennis Paoli (“Don’t expect it to tango. It has a broken back,” West remarks of the poor moggy he restores to life for the umpteenth time). There are some wonderfully lurid gross-out set-pieces, backed up by simple yet startingly effective FX and make-up. And don’t overlook the lovely supporting performances from veteran TV actor Robert Sampson as the mild-mannered Dean who experiences West’s experiments at first-hand, and David Gale as the hospital’s arrogant brain specialist, Dr Hill (there’s a story that Gale’s wife walked out on him at the premiere after seeing him on screen with his head between Barbara Crampton’s legs).

But what really distinguishes Re-Animator, though, is the third act. Just when most horror movies run out of ideas, Re-Animator takes off into realms of delirious Grand Guignol where few if any films have followed. Heads without bodies, bodies without heads, a lab full of zombies, all caught up in manic, blackly farcical goings-on – the word ‘shocking’ hardly begins to cover it: it’s like the horror genre has been thrown on its back and a set of defibrillator paddles rammed against its chest. In its dark way, it’s also extremely funny, and there’s a sort of wholesome unsqueamishness to the movie’s attitude towards matters of sexuality and death which is, in the end, strangely uplifting.

This two-disc Blu-ray set offers two versions of Re-Animator – the Unrated, which is the one we know and love, and the Integral version, which has an additional 15 minutes of material. No extra gore, alas, but the love affair between Dan and Megan is more prominent, as are various plot points which were dispensed with in the final cut. So, for instance, you get a long pillow-talk scene between Dan and Megan (Barbara Crampton) in which Rufus the cat makes an appearance alive, and there’s a whole subplot to do with Dr Hill having mesmeric powers (it’s he who turns Dean Halsey against Dan and gets him to suspend his grant). What’s so fascinating is that by comparing the two versions you can see how the cuts improved the finished product by establishing a more vigorous rhythm and removing unnecessary and fiddly plot beats which, in the words of Dennis Paoli, “gummed up the works”.

Turning to the HD transfers, the Unrated version doesn’t quite receive the amazing transformation that we saw with the Blu-ray of Gordon and Yuzna’s violet-hued, weird science follow-up From Beyond, but it’s still very nice. There’s some grain to the film stock, as you would expect with a low budget movie of this era, yet in general the transfer serves the film’s high key, comic booky visuals well. The Integral version seems just a little more soft and speckly.

Once you’ve watched both versions of the film, that still leaves hours of extras to keep you entertained. As well as audio commentaries with the director, the producer and the stars, there’s a slick, well-crafted 1 hour, 8 minute documentary packed full of fascinating insights. For instance, we learn that, to get the actors in the mood, producer Brian Yuzna arranged a visit to the LA county morgue; that the bright green reagent which is such a signature of the film was glow stick juice, and that they used up 900 sticks over the course of the shoot; and that the big revived cadaver who tangles with Dean Halsey was played by a man called Peter Kent who was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s double in The Terminator.

Gordon and Yuzna return for a 48-minute Q&A, which is a bit meandering but which offers up some interesting nuggets of info, especially to do with the editing process. Apparently, Gordon had gone home to Chicago by then, and it was up to Yuzna and his editor Lee Percy to reduce Gordon’s 2 ½ hour cut to a lean, mean 1 hour, 29 minutes, in the process shifting the dramatic focus away from the everyman character, Dan, and his love interest Megan onto what they had by then decided was the undoubted star of the show, West. Thanks to this Blu-ray set, we can now see how much Re-Animator gained from Percy’s sure touch and his ability to cut to the chase – a reminder to anyone inclined to think of this as “Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator” just what a collaborative medium cinema is.

There’s a 10-minute interview with Dennis Paoli, in which he talks about the fun of taking Re-Animator through various scripts, also various extended scenes, and an eye-catching deleted scene – a dream sequence in which Barbara Crampton is naked on a gurney. With strong HD transfers and a battery of lovingly collated extras, this two-disc steelbook offers you everything you need to turn yourself into a total Re-Animator head.

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