Home » A Very Good Head on His Shoulders: Revisiting Re-Animator

A Very Good Head on His Shoulders: Revisiting Re-Animator

The best adaptation of the works of H.P. Lovecraft to date and simply one of the best horror comedies ever made, Re-Animator is classic splatter movie cinema. It’s quirky, gorgeous splatter slapstick. It is campy and goofy and it has no right not to be. Everything in Re-Animator works, everything achieves the desired effect. It embraces its own insanity in a way that few horror features ever do.

Jeffrey Combs stars as Herbert West, who leaves college in Switzerland to continue his unorthodox study of reanimating the dead and defeating brain death at Miskatonic University. He moves in with Dan Cain, who is dating the dean’s daughter, Meghan, and quickly begins to involve Dan in his experiments. Cain is much less comfortable with what they’re doing than West is, though, and does not share West’s obsession–at least not to the same degree. Also interested in West’s research is Dr. Carl Hill, who plans to steal it and publish it as his own.

When Hill makes that plan clear, West kills him but (being West) then brings him back to life. Hill’s decapitated head becomes the primary antagonist, controlling the recently reanimated until the film boils over to its explosive and extremely messy conclusion.

Related: Dolls is a Modern Fairy Tale for Adults  

Herbert West from 1985's Re-Animator.

Bruce Abbot as Dan Cain provides us with our emotional center. He is sensitive, smart, and completely smitten with Meg. Our introduction to him is Dan, in surgery, failing to save the life of a patient. This is the best introduction to the character that we could have. This one moment showcases that when West reveals his discoveries to Dan, Dan does not go along with it to become famous or simply to see if they can, but instead agrees to help West because he wants to save lives. Of course, the Faustian twist here is that even though he goes into these experiments with good intentions, they cost him the life of the woman he loves.

Meg, played by Stuart Gordon’s muse actress Barbara Crampton, is the only true innocent in the entire film. She suffers for it, of course, but that’s just how these things work out. Meg is a very intuitive character, she knows something is off with West right away and even immediately knows when Dan’s cat goes missing.

She doesn’t want to move in with Dan, despite her love for him, because of how much it will upset her father and thus West shows up to take her place. And that really is the root of the issue between the two characters. She’s afraid less of of West than how much time Dan is spending with him. The feeling is mutual, too, as West is equally jealous of her. Dan spends much of the movie forced to choose between the two of them and ultimately it’s Herbert who wins out.

The infamous head scene in Re-AnimatorThe late David Gale provides a great villain in Carl Hill. Herbert West may not be a great human being, but he is one of our chief protagonists and we do definitely find ourselves rooting for him. West represents a hunger for the pursuit of knowledge. He doesn’t care so much about the ramifications of what he’s doing or what he’s going to do with the discovery once all the experiments are done, he simply wants to prove that he can do it. Hill is the other side of the coin, representing the hunger for power. He wants to steal West’s work, publish it under his own name and make a fortune – until West decapitates him with a shovel, of course.

Still, Dr. Hill is a great foil for the Re-Animator, even after he himself is reanimated. Hill’s decapitated zombie head provides the movie with some of its funniest and most memorable moments. The head is carried around by the body in a dish and develops a telepathic link with the dead to keep them under his control. This was going to originally be explained a bit better as Hill was a talented hypnotist in the original script. Initially, he was going to even use hypnosis to manipulate Dan and Meg before becoming a zombie. In one scene in the early script, before the whole subplot was cut out, Hill’s decapitated head returned to teach his class by appearing on a TV monitor.

The ultimate success of Re-Animator is its tone. It achieves a perfect mixture of genuine scares and jet-black humor. The comic timing of the film is perfect. While the movie seems at first to take itself very seriously (although later viewings reveal how tongue in cheek even these scenes are) the tone is made crystal clear during the scene in which Dan and West search the basement for Dan’s dead cat Rufus.

Hill gets the drop on West in Re-AnimatorIt’s lit in the most classical horror style possible. There are long, dark shadows bouncing across the walls, swinging lights on bare bulbs… yet the scene itself is hilarious. It still looks like an old-school horror film, but it’s having as much fun as possible. After a struggle with the undead cat, West proves to Dan that his reagent formula works and it is this completely off the wall moment that sets the plot in motion.

The other, even more infamous scene comes at the end. Director Stuart Gordon has said that the “head giving head” sequence was inspired by old monster movies, in which you always see the monster carry the girl off to his lair, but never see what he does with her once he gets there. In Re-Animator, they decided to show just that. While very little is actually shown, it’s the concept by itself that has made the scene stick out in people’s minds for thirty years.

Re-Animator is insanely gory, but it takes absolute delight in its free-flowing use of carnage that makes the picture impossible not to have fun with no matter how messy it is. It may have been a low-budget movie made by a bunch of first-time filmmakers, but Re-Animator worked. Everything about it worked. It’s stunningly funny, with dry wit and gross out humor all in the same scene.

It’s also very character centric and at times even almost tragic. The whole package is simply amazing, one of the most revered cult classics of all time. Despite the full-circle ending and the deaths of nearly all the characters, the film spawned two sequels, both directed by producer Brian Yuzna. Jeffrey Combs returned for both and that alone makes them worth watching, but it’s impossible to recapture the lightning in a bottle success of the first. Read our interview with Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon here.

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Written by Nat Brehmer
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Nathaniel Brehmer has also written for Horror Bid, HorrorDomain, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, We Got This Covered, and more. He has also had fiction published in Sanitarium Magazine, Hello Horror, Bloodbond and more. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and his black cat, Poe.
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