RE-ANIMATOR ***** USA 1985 Dir: Stuart Gordon. 86 mins
In the great zombie movie year of 1985, debut director Stuart Gordon offered a full-blown Grand Guignol take on Lovecraft and old-school mad-scientist horror that more than held its own against Romero’s gruelling DAY OF THE DEAD and O’Bannon’s spirited RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. Never diluting the horror or forcing the comedy, its genius was to find the humour in the escalating absurdity of its ever-more extreme situations. Following a marvelously gaudy Switzerland-set prologue and Richard Band’s memorably toe-tapping pastiche of Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score, the film follows Jeffrey Combs’ splendidly unscrupulous med student Herbert West as he determines to conquer brain death via a miraculous reanimation fluid destined to end in much bloodshed.
Channeling Anthony Perkins with his meek appearance and (barely) controlled twitchiness, Combs excels as the increasingly psychopathic intellectual, and he is rewarded with the witty script’s best lines (“Who’s gonna believe a talking head? Get a job in the sideshow!”). Combs’ growing ruthlessness is also neatly over-shadowed by the even more nefarious actions of the malevolent Dr Hill (the incomparable David Gale) who, in a delicious twist, only gets to be a potent villain after he’s been beheaded. It’s Dr Hill who oversees a small army of rampaging, reanimated corpses and, of course, it is Hill who participates in the film’s show-stopping bad-taste set piece in which drugged, naked heroine Barbara Crampton wakes up just in time to see his severed head going down on her (“That’s it, my dearest Meg, more passion!”). Often overlooked, Bruce Abbott does an excellent job giving this often outrageous movie a sincere human centre – a refreshingly untypical hero who lapses into catatonic shock during a traumatic moment and sobs openly when losing his beloved during the climactic carnage. RE-ANIMATOR is a rare example of many disparate elements coming together beautifully: three-dimensional characters, broad slapstick, gruesome practical FX and no-holds-barred plotting capped by a genuinely grim ending allegedly inspired by Stephen King’s novel “Pet Sematary”.
BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR Aka: RE-ANIMATOR 2. *** USA 1990 97 mins Dir: Brian Yuzna.
With bizarrely loyal chum Dan (Bruce Abbott), the obsessive Herbert West is now eager to progress from re-animating the dead to creating life itself, vowing to use the heart of Dan’s beloved Meg in the creation process. Set eight months after RE-ANIMATOR (a deleted scene on the DVD bridged the gap via unused footage of Barbara Crampton’s Meg), this sequel suffers from cluttered scripting that clumsily contrives a way for Dr Hill’s severed head to be re-animated again, simply because David Gale’s raspy bastard was a popular character in the earlier movie. Jeffrey Combs enjoyably amps up the cackling madman routine, relishing the dialogue (“I will not be shackled by the failings of your God!”) and crafting surrealistic combos of stolen body parts, including a scuttling stop-motion eyeball with fingers for legs. Director Yuzna, who made SOCIETY around the same time, doesn’t try to match the more outrageous elements of RE-ANIMATOR, instead emphasising physical mutation, even giving Dr Hill bat wings for easier mobility. The movie credits five separate FX teams / artists (including Screaming Mad George) and the design highlight is Kathleen Kinmont’s big-haired, wide-eyed “Bride”, prefiguring Mindy Clarke’s iconic turn as the reanimated babe in Yuzna’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III with a disarming combination of eroticism, revulsion and melancholia. It lacks the momentum of its predecessor and isn’t nearly as gruesome, though some of the incidental gags are very funny, notably the moment exposing Dr Hill’s weakness as a villain by revealing how easy it is to simply wrap him in a towel and hurl him in a bin. Combs’ dismissal of Dan’s new love interest in the midst of all the grisly mayhem (“She’s hysterical!”) is matched only his gleeful enthusiasm at describing the assembly of the “Bride”: amongst other features, she boasts the womb of a virgin (!) and the legs of a dead hooker (!!).
BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR *** Spain 2003 Dir: Brian Yuzna. 96 mins
Realising that the kind of boundary-pushing sick humour relished by the original RE-ANIMATOR had now crossed over into the mainstream (IDLE HANDS, SCARY MOVIE etc.), returning director Brian Yuzna takes the easy option for the belated third movie and delivers a straight-forward, escalating series of gore gags. Incarcerated after one of his grotesque experiments-gone-wrong kills a babysitter, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) continues his work in prison (“The Shawshank Re-animation”?!) where he uses the familiar green serum to revive the shapely love interest (Elsa Pataky) of his assistant (Jason Barry). Pataky returns as a drooling, murderous zombie, cheerfully biting the dick off the film’s obligatory sadistic warden (Simon Andreu), who returns from death as a man-rat hybrid. The pace suffers the burden of the bland Barry’s drippy romance with Pataky, and some of the set pieces are overly cartoonish, but the second half pays off with breast-munching, prisoner-bisecting mayhem and Screaming Mad George’s practical FX are often inventive. Returning to his signature role with a permanent scowl and the familiar deadpan line-delivery, Combs is hugely enjoyable to watch as always, even if the genuine wit and heart of RE-ANIMATOR is even more noticeably absent than in BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR. Stay tuned for the silly but hilarious end-credits sequence involving a battle between a living, severed penis and a rat. It’s not something you see every day. Unless you make a living breeding rats to fight with re-animated dicks.
Reviews by Steven West