Director: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, David Gale
Runtime: 95 minutes/86 minutes (unrated cut)
Although H. P. Lovecraft’s stories don’t adapt well to film, the best attempts at adaptation use the materially very liberally. (Although a straightforward adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness would be pretty awesome, I think, if done well. Director Guillermo del Toro has been trying to make a film version for years, and apparently James Cameron was interested in being producer at some point, but the project unfortunately seems to be stuck in Hollywood limbo.) The basic premise of Lovecraft’s novella Herbert West—Reanimator, originally serialized in 1922, is retained: a brilliant but mad scientist named Herbert West reanimates several corpses that run amok. But there are major differences, and this is one of the few cases, especially for Lovecraft, in which the film version is better than the original.
For one thing, it eliminates the racism that taints the original story, in which part of the horror is supposed to be evoked by an ungainly African American zombie. It also puts a more humorous spin on the story. Lovecraft himself thought poorly of the work because of the demands serialization placed on him (ending with a cliffhanger, starting with a recap of the last episode). However, it is notable as being one of the first depictions of zombies as animalistic killing machines, reanimated by science rather than magic.
One of the strengths of this film is Jeffrey Combs, who plays West, a character whose monomaniacal and ruthless pursuits leave us few reasons to sympathize with, yet Combs somehow makes the character endearing, perhaps in his nerdy brashness, and striking the right balance between pathos and camp. (Combs would go on to play similar roles: West in two sequels, another scientist in a Lovecraft adaptation, Brian Yunza-directed From Beyond; he would play Lovecraft himself in the horror anthology Necronomicon; and had several Star Trek roles.) The other actors do a tolerable job; his friend Dan (Bruce Abbott), who helps with West’s experiments, is the unnamed narrator from the Lovecraft story. At least he gets to have a girlfriend in the film, Megan (Barbara Crampton), although she is put through hell in the movie.
But the only other presence rivaling Combs is David Gale, playing a professor and West’s enemy. He is perhaps even more ruthless, certainly more malign, than West, and when he becomes a reanimated headless corpse, things only get worse. (In the sequel, his role gets crazier, batty even.) He recruits a zombie army to lead against West, similar to the character in Lovecraft’s story, but instead of an army major bent on revenge (in the story), he is in the film a megalomaniac who perhaps helps us to root for the obsessive West.
Producer Brian Yunza produced this and directed the sequels, and has served as director, producer, and writer for a number of campy low-budget horror and sci-fi films. Although fairly low-budget effects, and done with a campy feel, they are nonetheless entertaining. John Naulin, who did the makeup effects, studied actual photographs of cadavers, and said they used the ridiculous amount of 24 gallons of fake blood. The sequels, Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator only amp up the absurdist gore-inflected horror comedy.