by RICHARD WINTERS
Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) is a student at a nearby medical college who decides to take in as a roommate a foreign student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). West seems a bit anti-social and very intense about his work. He sets up a lab in Cain’s basement where he does experiments to bring back the dead by injecting them with his specially formulated serum. He starts with animals, which makes it intriguing enough for Cain to get in on it, but when they move on to cadavers at the school’s medical lab things spiral out of control.
Compared to most low-budget horror films of the ’80s, and I have seen many, this thing is nicely compact and well-paced. There is none of that extraneous dialogue and needlessly slow, drawn out scenes before you can get to any type of action or horror. It grabs your attention right away with a clever, whimsical opening sequence and a musical score that although it does sound similar to the one used in Psycho is still quite effective.
The gory special effects are excellent even by today’s standards. Normally I have no problem watching these things no matter how high the gore factor is, but the scene where the instructor peels off the skin of one of the heads of his cadavers during a class lecture and then cuts through the bone of the skull and takes out his brain had me feeling a bit queasy. The best part comes when a character gets his head cut off by the end of a shovel and then has both his body and head injected with the serum. The scenes involving the headless body walking around while carrying this talking head are creepy, hilarious, and highly effective. It looks realistic enough during a couple of sequences that it had me sitting there wondering how they pulled it off. My only quibble in this area would be the part where West reincarnates a cat that comes back to life and turns homicidal. It is very clear that this “killer cat” is nothing more than a stuffed animal as its fur looks fake and the body is unrealistically thin.
The film is directed by first-timer Stuart Gordon, whose only claim to fame before this came when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969 and he brought in an audience to watch a play he had written and locked the doors so they couldn’t get out. He then made the play as boring and annoying as he possibly could just to see how long it would take the people to jump from their seats and clamor to be let out. Although this was enough to get him expelled I still have to admire the guy’s panache. That same type of snarky humor is evident here and woven in in a way that nicely balances the horror. My favorite scene here, and one that I remember most distinctly from when I first saw it back in the ’80s, is when Dan meets his gorgeous girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) in the school’s hallway. He starts to kiss her passionately and she feels embarrassed and tells him “no, no, no” then it quickly cuts to show them in bed where she is going “yes, yes, yes.”
Another thing that differentiates this from other low-budget horror films is the fact that the lead characters are fortunately not quite as bland as usual. I liked the way Dan has a moral quandary and teams up with West on some of his experiments. Both Dan and Megan seemed to be better fleshed out as characters and believable.
Kudos must also go to Robert Sampson, an actor who has worked steadily since the 1950s but never become a household name. He plays Dean Halsey, father of Meagan, and his part takes off after he is accidently killed and brought back to life with Herbert’s serum where he turns into a mumbling, crazed lunatic. This isn’t as easy to pull off as you may think and his catatonic stares are fabulous.
David Gale deserves mention as well playing the evil doctor. His pale skin and sullen face make him look like he is dead from the very beginning and he has the perfect look for a horror film. He clearly relishes his role and hams it up nicely. He started to garner a large cult following his performance here and offers to play similar roles began to pour in before he unexpectedly died in 1991.
The only performance I really didn’t like was that of Jeffrey Combs. I know he has pretty much become the face of the “Re-Animator” franchise, but this guy seemed hammy without ever amusing. I didn’t like the square, metal rim glasses that he wore as they were much too typical. An eccentric character should wear eccentric looking glasses and attire to help accentuate his offbeat personality. I also didn’t dig his accent that seemed to waver between Bavarian, German, Russian, and some weird variant in between.
If you are looking for something different this Halloween then I suggest checking out Re-Animator. It has just the right amount of ingredients to be both entertaining and scary at the same time and it can still easily hold up with today’s jaded viewers.
My Rating: 7 out of 10 stars
Last Time on Rewind: The Bedroom Window (1987)
Coming Up Next: The Eiger Sanction (1975)