Year 1985
Studio Re-Animated
Producer Brian Yuzna
Director Stuart Gordon

Stuart Gordon

William Norris

Dennis Paoli

Music Richard Band

Bruce Abbot

Jeffrey Combs

Barbara Crampton

Length 86 mins


‘‘ This need for very fresh corpses had been West's moral undoing. ’’

In 1921 at the age of thirty-one, Lovecraft officially became a professional writer by agreeing to pen a short horror serial for a new weird fiction magazine called Home Brew. "Herbert West—Reanimator" was a series of six gruesome tales obviously inspired by Frankenstein (with titles like "The Plague-Daemon" and "The Scream of the Dead"), a group of stories Lovecraft considered to be "my poorest work—stuff done to order for a vulgar magazine, & written down to the herd's level."

Howard made a grand total of thirty dollars for these little grotesqueries he considered total failures, yet some sixty-four years later, they created a kind of cottage industry of low-budget Lovecraftian cinema.

After a fifteen-year drought of no honest-to-gosh Lovecraft feature-film adaptations, Re-Animator launched a cinematic revival of HPL while simultaneously starting the careers of director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, and last but not least, that "languid Elagabalus of the tombs," Mr. Herbert West himself—actor Jeffrey Combs.

The film begins with a bloody Swiss prologue, an afterthought by producer Yuzna to punch up the opening, which leads into a nifty title sequence ripped from the pages of Gray's Anatomy. Gruesome drawings dance to composer Richard Band's very funny interpretation of Bernard Hermann's classic Psycho theme.

After the titles, we are transported to the Miskatonic Medical School in Arkham, Massachusetts. ("Herbert West—Reanimator" was the first story to feature HPL's mythical Miskatonic University, a school based on Providence's Brown University.) Young Miskatonic intern Dan Cain, earnestly essayed by Bruce Abbott, is seen obsessively trying to shock an obese heart-attack victim back to life even though it's clear that the fat lady has, indeed, sung.

With this failure, Dan is chastised by his superior (played by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) and is exiled to the morgue where he meets all the major characters: Herbert West, Dean Halsey, and Dr. Carl Hill.

Jeffrey Combs is perfectly cast as Herbert West, described by Lovecraft as a "small, slender spectacled youth with delicate features." Combs plays West as a misunderstood but unhealthily obsessed genius, researching the field of "death." Allen Halsey, played by Robert Sampson, is the fumbling dean of the medical school whose best acting occurs after he's been killed. Dr. Carl Hill, Miskatonic's eminent brain surgeon and fund-raising machine, is played by David Gale, whose lantern-jawed face could have easily spouted from some obscure branch on Lovecraft's family tree.

With introductions over, director Stuart Gordon takes us out of the morgue and into Dan Cain's bedroom where we meet the very lovely and very naked Barbara Crampton as Megan Halsey, the dean's daughter. A smirking Herbert West, looking to rent a room, catches them with their pants down and uses it as a negotiation point on his lease.

A few days later, Dan and Megan are on the couch fully clothed and cracking the books when Meg notices that Rufus, Dan's cat, is missing. After a search of the house, they find Dan's kitty dead in a small refrigerator in Herbert's bedroom; Herbert explains that the cat got his head caught in a jar and suffocated. (Yeah, right!)

That night Dan wakes to weird screams coming from the basement and finds West being cat-handled by the supposedly dead Rufus! Kitty is killed again, this time by an unbelieving Cain and, in a scene taken right from the original, hears West explain how he has been re-animating dead cats and rabbits with a "re-agent" (more affectionately known as re-animator juice).

Having exhausted the cat, the boys move into the morgue and experiment on human dead. It takes a while for the juice to work but a muscular corpse is violently re-animated and kills Dean Halsey with as much gore as Gordon and company can muster, forcing West to bone-saw his way through the dead man's re-animated heart just to get his attention.

Halsey's death becomes what scientists and actors call a happy accident. West needs fresh corpses to experiment on, and none could be fresher than Halsey, so they strap the Dean down and give him a healthy dose of re-agent—stat! The dean comes back as a blood-drooling raving thing that gets a one-way ticket to a padded cell, much the way Lovecraft described him in the original stories as "beating his head against the walls."

Cain, ever the thoughtful boyfriend, tries cheering up a distraught Megan by telling her that her father isn't really insane—he's just dead. (Thanks, bub.)

Dr. Hill also discovers that Halsey isn't quite alive and confronts West looking for the secret of Halsey's re-animation, wanting to claim the discovery as his own. Hill coerces West (through his not-really-explained hypnotic powers) to give up his re-agent notes. While the good doctor is examining them, West sneaks up from behind, knocks Hill unconscious, and slices off his head with a shovel, literally drooling the word "plagiarist!"

With the help of a paper spike, Hill's severed head is placed upright in a pan. West decides to use the re-agent to do "parts," re-animating both severed head and headless body much as described in a "Herbert West" installment called "The Horror From The Shadows," a wartime tale destined to become the opening of Bride Of Re-Animator a few years later.

Hill's body knocks Herbert out and escapes with both gawking head and glowing serum, and the film spirals into the far reaches of black humor—and as far away from Lovecraft's original plans as possible. Hill the Head gets his body to feed him blood and psychically directs the demented Dean Halsey to stretch out his unconscious daughter on a morgue table, where he strips and straps her as a prelude to the infamous head-giving-head scene, an image that has become indelibly etched on the retinas of horror filmgoers worldwide. (Who says art is dead?)

Hill's re-animated cunnilingus is interrupted as West suggests that the doctor "get a job in a sideshow." But West's wonderfully snide one-liners are cut short as he's attacked by Hill's naked, re-animated minions as they jump out of soggy body bags.

Dean Halsey suddenly has a change of re-animated heart and decides to save his screaming daughter, causing the morgue to erupt in an orgy of blood, mayhem, and naked bodies. The finale occurs when a re-animated large intestine erupts from the gut of Hill's headless body—a pale version of HPL's dearly loved interdimensional tentacles—coiling around a squealing Herbert West. The young scholar disappears into a body cavity too loathsome to contemplate and his fate is obscured by smoke, luckily for the sequel.

Sadly, Megan Halsey is killed by one of Hill's minions and the film ends in a circular fashion. Dan once again attempts to resuscitate a dead woman, but this time he's not ready to give up, for between his fingers a hypo is balanced, a needle filled with the green and glowing re-agent of Herbert West—Re-Animator!

Re-Animator took First Prize at the Paris Festival of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, a Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and even inspired a short-lived series of comic books—not to mention an obscure novelization of the film's story.

Even though it was a hit with audiences, the film generated a huge amount of controversy among Lovecraft readers. Some fans thought the film a desecration of Lovecraft; their literary hero would never write such obvious exploitation!

But this criticism of the film might have been a bit more muted if they had actually read the originals. The "West" stories are pure exploitation, Lovecraft himself acknowledged as much, and, female love interest and morbid sex-humor aside, Re-Animator really is one of the more faithful and effective adaptations. For better or worse, Re-Animator was a seminal film that put Lovecraft's stories of "atmosphere, not action" back on the silver screen.