[27 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There are two important stories surrounding the 1985 Stuart Gordon film Re-Animator (or if you go for the full blown ballyhoo treatment – H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator). The first one is the narrative up on the screen, a balls-to-the-wall horror comedy which redefined both the gore film, and the outsider cult classic. But the second, and equally endearing tale, is the one involving a Chicago theatrical director, his decision to make movies, and the uphill battle he faced bringing his vision to the silver screen. In the days before DVD, this latter saga would have been saved for an extensive print interview, or a several article series in which various members of the cast and crew were interviewed to get their side of the story. Now, thanks to the digital revolution, we don’t need endless column inches to learn how junior mad scientist Herbert West became a genre icon. We just need to wait for the eventual merchandising concept called the ‘special edition’.
Re-Animator definitely remains a doorway film. It argued that horror and comedy could coincide effortlessly, and that the nastiness of gore could easily be sidestepped by keeping one’s vivisected tongue firmly in cheek. The outrageous and frequently over the top narrative, centering around medical school students (and lovers) Dan Cain and Megan Halsey and the terrors they experience at the hands of haunted newcomer Herbert West, was bloated with unbelievable moments of sheer cinematic audacity. Yet thanks to fresh faces Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and Jeffrey Combs, director Gordon managed to balance the insane with the scientific rather well. He also tried to keep things as physiologically realistic as possible. When you consider that the main storyline centers on using an experimental formula to revive the dead – and the zombie zaniness that eventually occurs, - there are also a lot of super schlock theatrics as well. Pouring every ounce of his energies into pushing the limits of acceptable arterial spray, Gordon gave bloodhounds voluminous vein juice the likes of which they hadn’t seen before.
And it is indeed these moments of corpse grinding that maintain Re-Animator‘s current mythical status. From exploding eyeballs to carved up cats and a finale with more naked members of the living dead than in any alt-porn title, Gordon explored every parameter of his anarchic autopsy based atrocities. One sequence in particular still gives geek show fans the giggles. While describing it in mixed company would be quite unfair (as well as spoiling one of the film’s best ‘gags’), let’s just say that a headless ghoul with a co-ed crush tries to get busy with a certain decapitated body part. It’s sexual splatter at its tastiest. Yet there are those who find the claret and comic asides much ado about nothing - new. In fact, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 would eventually trump Re-Animator in most film fans minds. The narrative weight and cinematic invention of Raimi’s gonzo gorefest surpasses anything this Lovecraftian lunacy has to offer. There are even those who prefer Gordon’s far more serious take on the author, his follow-up film From Beyond.
But that’s the beauty of a film like Re-Animator – and a perfect illustration of the value of DVD. In a format that proposes the possibility of contextualizing each release, to supplement and complement any film with a wealth of additional information, even those who are only slightly smitten with a particular motion picture can find reasons to rejoice. In the case of this latest Anchor Bay version of the title – there have been at least two other repackagings previously – the must-own moment is a brand new documentary, a talking head retrospective that finds almost all involved back to discuss their participation in what has become a fervent cult phenomenon. Indeed, the great thing about Re-Animator Resurrectus is that the entire cast is present, including all three leads - and that’s a real rarity in the world of digital distribution. Most reviews you read make a point of noting who decided not to participate in a bonus feature reunion. But in the case of this latest home video reincarnation, all are present and accounted for.
So is Gordon, and his big burly teddy bear appearance belies a past overflowing with hubris and misguided principles. All throughout the interview, we hear a man remembering his overblown conceits, his desire to use the experimental theater he ran in Chicago as a stepping off point for this new kind of horror experience. Wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon is on hand to keep things in perspective, explaining the reactions people had to her husband’s ideas, and making sure to note when Gordon got a little out of control. For balance, the cast then comes along and argues for the filmmaker’s fascinating connection to the material. They praise his care and concern, his desire for rehearsal time and his mischievous personality on set. It’s a delicious dichotomy, and one that enhances what many would still consider to be a standard, if slightly unhinged, horror film experience.
In fact, what most DVD manufacturers fail to understand is that, aside from an ardent fanbase desperate for a specific title, newcomers to something like Re-Animator will base their interest level solely on the extras and bonuses provided. Even with its regal reputation and obsessive devotees spouting its magnificence all over the web, with messageboard debates heating up and taking sides, when it comes to spending that hard earned green stuff, most people react with their head first, and their gut second. So if they really aren’t interested in a whacked out comedy centering on a group of doctors experimenting with corpses, you’ve got to give them some kind of value for their fiscal confidence.
And nothing cements a shill more successfully than getting two tales for the price of one – in this case, the film itself, and the story behind it. Certainly, those in the know will argue that reissuing a movie several times – also known as the notorious industry practice of ‘double dipping’ – lessens the overall worth to a targeted audience. But with new fans flocking to the medium every year, choice keeps a title alive and viable for anyone unfamiliar with its entertainment elements.
The same could be said for Re-Animator‘s enduring qualities. People love it because it defies expectations, tweaks the standards we except in a horror film, and puts the living dead into scenarios only the sickest of fans have ever dreamed of. It barrels backwards into its terror commitments and uses slapstick and satire to lessen the blow of its unbelievable gruesome extravagances. In a time when the MPAA was asking movies to moderate their levels of violence, Re-Animator went whole hog (and unrated), filling the screen with more body parts and killer intestines (???) than a dozen of the more derivative slasher epics. Love it, loathe it, like it, or merely shrug your shoulders and wonder what the big bloodletting deal is, but there is do denying that as a symbol of why some films endure while others quietly fade away, Re-Animator has a couple of significant stories to tell. And thanks to the dimensions of DVD, we now have access to both fascinating tales.