Given that 1985 saw the release of both Re-Animator and Dan O’Bannon’s The Return Of The Living Dead, it’s a shame to reflect that the splatter horror has never really enjoyed a sustained level of output. Periodic stops and starts have whetted the appetite but have usually been followed by a series of sequels of decreasing quality and all too infrequent original output. I think this is a real shame, as splatter horror as a sub-genre naturally lends itself to a cross between the niche and general viewer. As well as being great for horror output in itself, this realisation of a duel market is also why splatter horrors, when done properly, can be among the most original, inventive and damned well enjoyable films going.
Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator ticks all of those boxes. I confess here that I haven’t yet read H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator”, but I don’t think it’s too essential. One of the beauties of good splatter horror is that the means are as important as the ends, and on every level Re-Animator is a joy to experience.
That is not to say that Gordon ever takes the attention of the viewer for granted, nor is he content in offering the film equivalent of junk food. The premise of the deliberate re-animation of the recently deceased is a worthy a subject for discussion as any you will find. Where I think Gordon is especially canny is in framing his story such without ever letting such deep and sombre themes act as a drag on viewer enjoyment.
This is especially obvious in the development of the central character, Dr. Herbert West, who is beautifully brought to life by Jeffrey Combs. When we first encounter Herbert he is styled as your typical creepy mad scientist, just returning to the USA from Europe where some level of mystery surrounded his activities. We are first expected to view him as the outcast, whose gory machinations are being pursued with an utter disregard for the moral and physical consequence. About mid-way through there is something of a gear change though, and in his disregard for the moral questions surrounding his work are hints that he wants to conquer death either because he fears it or to help those who do fear it. This was deftly handled by having the utterly likeable, all-American Dan Cain befriend Herbert. By providing the viewer with the reassuring moral compass of Dan we don’t get too bogged down.
That is as well, because when Gordon opens the throttle Re-Animator descends into some of the most manic, memorable and thoroughly enjoyable gore I think you’ll see. At times, his imagery practically jumps off the screen at you. You realise what a complete package Gordon offers when this violence is tied into a fantastically dark comedy script. He keeps the cast on something of a tight leash in terms of direction, and to excellent effect. By having them play it straight, it retains its artistic integrity and retains the freedom to really push the boat out in it terms of its visuals. The headless Dr. Carl Hill is one example of many.
There is no shame in a film choosing to deliver its message by going down the splatter horror route. When it is done badly, it should rightly be dismissed as pointless exhibitionism. When it is done properly, it offers up an utterly refreshing experience on every level of viewer engagement. Re-Animator could serve as a master class in getting it right, and I only hope that the upcoming House of Re-Animator brings it to the attention of a new generation of viewers.