Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Re-Animator”

Re-Animator

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog’s two week spotlight on the works and career of Stuart Gordon! Today, I’m taking a look at the most acclaimed and beloved of Stuart Gordon’s movies, 1985’s cult classic “Re-Animator.”

“Re-Animator” marked the first film directing work for Stuart Gordon, and was additionally the first writing collaboration for Gordon and Dennis Paoli, which would prove to be a long-running partnership. A third writing partner was present in William Norris, who never worked on any other films.

Before “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon was working for the Organic Theater Company in Chicago. He noticed that many of his actors were doing movies, and decided he wanted to try his hand at one as well. He decided to go with the horror genre because of the low budget required, and the generally high profitability of genre movies.

The source material, “Herbert West: Re-Animator” by H. P. Lovecraft, was published in parts over multiple issues of “Weird Tales” magazine. It was long out of print when Stuart Gordon got the idea of doing a movie, meaning that in order to read it, he had to request access to an original copy in the Chicago Public Library. The movie essentially “re-animated” the story from obscurity, and renewed popular interest in Lovecraft’s works.

reanimator1The screenplay of the “Re-Animator” film differs greatly from the content of “Herbert West: Re-Animator.” Ultimately, the original story only provided the characters and some details for the screenplay, which significantly altered the plot to make it more cinematic.

Brian Yuzna and Bob Greenberg both acted as producers on the picture, and would go on to collaborate extensively with Stuart Gordon on future projects. Yuzna even helmed two sequels to “Re-Animator”: “Bride of Re-Animator” in 1989, and “Beyond Re-Animator” in 2003.

The cinematography on “Re-Animator” was provided by Mac Ahlberg, who would go on to frequently collaborate with Stuart Gordon on films like “Dolls,” “Robot Jox,” and “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.” A handful of shots were completed by Robert Ebinger, who was dismissed after only a week of shooting on the behest of Charles Band, whose Empire Pictures was backing the movie.

The music on “Re-Animator,” which drew significant influence from the score of “Psycho,” was composed by Richard Band, brother of Charles Band and ultimately a frequent member of Stuart Gordon’s movie team.

The effects on “Re-Animator” were all done as simply as possible to keep the budget low, meaning that no optical special effects were used. There are a number of shots that appear to be done with special effects, but were actually executed with the creative use of lighting, camera angles, and practical effects. It has been estimated that the production used 30 gallons of take blood in total, which was used creatively in tandem with raw meat to do most of the gore in the film. Stuart Gordon has a fantastic quote about the use of cheap effects, taken from the “Re-Animator” DVD commentary:

“The audience will accept very simple special effects if they like the story and are involved.”

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The cast of “Re-Animator” features a handful of actors who would return to work with Stuart Gordon again in the future. Of course, Jeffrey Combs leads the way as Herbert West, who would become one of the most consistent figures in Stuart Gordon’s later films. Barbara Crampton later popped up in “From Beyond” and “Castle Freak,” and Robert Sampson appeared in 1989’s “Robot Jox.” Bruce Abbott returned for the first sequel to the film, but never reunited with Stuart Gordon on any of his later movies. David Gale would unfortunately die only a few years after “Re-Animator,” though he also appeared in Yuzna’s sequel, “Bride of Re-Animator.”

A number of notable actors appear in the background of “Re-Animator,” such as Stuart Gordon’s wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, as an ER doctor. The first reanimated corpse is played by Peter Kent, who is best known as a frequent stunt double and stand in for Arnold Schwarzenegger in films like “The Terminator,” “Total Recall,” “The Running Man,” “Predator,” “Last Action Hero,” and “Jingle All The Way.” Also in the background is Ian Patrick Williams, a member of the Organic Theater in Chicago with Gordon at the time, who would later appear in the Stuart Gordon films “Dolls” and “Robot Jox.”

“Re-Animator” follows the story of a medical student who becomes embroiled in experimentation on the re-animation of corpses after a mysterious new student transfers into the school and leases a room in his home. This relationship winds up causing significant problems for the pair as they are forced to butt heads with the school administration and simultaneously have to deal with the violent, erratic behavior of their creations.

reanimator4Notably, the creative team behind “Re-Animator” decided to release the movie unrated after getting an NC-17 from Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating board. Amazingly, the movie still managed to get advertised widely and booked in theaters, a major accomplishment for a film without a stamp of approval from the MPAA, and something that is unlikely to happen nowadays.

The infamously radiant reanimation fluid used in the film was made up of a chemical mixture used for certain kinds of road flairs, and was apparently highly toxic. Given the short life span of its luminosity, it had to be frequently replaced in order to maintain a consistent glow from shot to shot.

reanimator2All of the dead bodies were meticulously made up based on professional input from forensic pathologists in the Chicago area. Specifically, the coloration of the makeup was done using direct comparisons to actual autopsy photos of corpses. The vivid coloration on the bodies is meant to imitate the actual coloration effects that occur after death.

The humor in “Re-Animator” was something that wasn’t initially planned, but has wound up being a defining aspect of the film. Stuart Gordon has said that it was added in party due to his experiences working with forensic pathologists while doing research for the film, noting that they had some of the darkest senses of humor of any people he had ever met. In many ways, this integration of humor into horror influenced what would eventually define Stuart Gordon’s style. Here is another relevant quote from the director about what he learned about humor and horror from making “Re-Animator”:

“Laughter is the antidote for fear…you can build tension and then relieve it with laughter…but if you do both at the same time they cancel each other out.”

“Re-Animator” interestingly used many of the same locations and crew as “The Terminator.” The movie was eventually screened for Arnold Schwarzenegger himself, on the recommendation of his body double, who plays the first revived corpse in “Re-Animator.” Arnold apparently loved it, enough so that he later recommended Stuart Gordon for the directing job on “Fortress.”

The inclusion of the “laser drill” in the movie was a bit of science fiction when “Re-Animator” was made, but today laser surgery is standard practice in medicine in general, and specifically in autopsies (as is depicted in the film).

The most infamous scene in the movie is undoubtedly the decapitated head attempted rape sequence, and is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing Stuart Gordon has ever filmed. The original actress cast for Barbara Crampton’s role apparently dropped out due to the inclusion of the scene, and it caused David Gale’s wife to walk out of an early screening of the movie in shock.

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“Re-Animator” was highly regarded by critics at the time, and still holds an impressive 94% Rotten Tomatoes critical aggregate rating. Audiences have been a little less receptive to the film, giving is a 7.3 on IMDb and a 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is regarded as both a horror classic and a cult classic regardless.

Personally, I think that one of the most fantastic aspects of “Re-Animator” is the ending, in which Bruce Abbot’s character revives Barbara Crampton over a black screen, with only the reanimating agent in a syringe visible. It then closes on an iconic scream from Crampton. I have mentioned this ending before, way back when I covered Uwe Boll’s “House of the Dead,” which manages to botch a very similar concept for the ending.

“Re-Animator” is now regarded as a classic of the horror genre, and has influenced many other films since its release. On top of the eventual sequels, “Re-Animator” also inspired a musical adaptation, which was apparently pretty highly acclaimed.

Overall, “The Re-Animator” is more than deserving of the reputation that it has garnered. The effects are fantastic, the performances are great, and it has set the tone for the careers of both Stuart Gordon and star Jeffrey Combs. It is a must watch for horror movie fans, b-movie aficionados, and arguably film buffs in general. For fans of the genre, this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.

However, I think it is hit-or-miss for people not already ingratiated into the genre: particularly, the infamous “head” sequence is likely to turn a subset of people off who might otherwise enjoy the movie. As effective as the scene is at disturbing the audience and drawing a reaction, that has to be weighed against the potential for the effect to turn people away: you want an audience to cringe and turn their head, but you don’t want to go so far as to push them out the door.

So, as far as a recommendation goes, it is an emphatic ‘yes’ for horror fans, and an indecisive ‘maybe’ for general audiences, with a clear caveat of the content that pops up in the film. If you think you can handle it, give the film a shot.

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