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
WestReanimator" 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 workstuff 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
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 himselfactor Jeffrey Combs.
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 WestReanimator"
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,
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
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.
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-agentstat! 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
insanehe'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 humorand 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
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 bodya pale version of HPL's
dearly loved interdimensional tentaclescoiling 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
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
booksnot to mention an obscure novelization of the film's
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.