Welcome to ScreamFish; the latest imprint of our humble little movie review site. Here, on Fridays, we will explore all things horrific and just like those old late night shows, we’ll cover the shock and the schlock. We won’t shy away from the blood and guts, but we’ll try to get the meat of what lies beneath the squishy epidermis of each film and see if we can mine a little faith-based commentary from the gooey innards. And hopefully we’ll have a few laughs along the way.
For our maiden voyage into mayhem, we’ll examine that bastion of late night royalty, Re-Animator. A terrifying Little Train That Could, Re-Animator’s tasty blend of creepy and kooky have turned it into a decades-old pop culture franchise that shows no sign of flatlining. It’s a gaudy commentary on man’s eternal struggles with mortality, the perils of ambition and the age-old conundrum of dismembered cephalic sarcasm. And as Dr. Herbert West soon learns, sometimes to get ahead, you have to take one.
Grab your lab coats kids; this could get messy.
If the showstopper scene in your low-budget horror flick features a decapitated body playing wingman for its own severed head, so that it can take indecent liberties with a bound co-ed, chances are, the Academy probably isn’t going to smile on you come Oscar season. But if that same little film with that same little scene are referenced in a Best Picture winner fifteen years later and go on to inspire two sequels, multiple comic book series, merchandise across numerous platforms, a Broadway musical, and a worldwide, cult following…Well, thanks but no thanks, Academy, you can keep your shiny bauble.
It’s likely that the late great H.P. Lovecraft never envisioned his serial short story inspiring such a legacy; he lived and died near penniless. The 1985 film adaptation is more “inspired by” than “based upon” Lovecraft’s original work, and is a campy reinterpretation of the source material. But that silliness fueled its shelf life. And if you’ve ever seen it, you likely remember the gore, but it’s the goofiness of it all that keeps coming back.
Dismissed from Zurich University after getting caught bloody-red-handed bringing his quite dead professor back to life (for a few minutes, anyway), med student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, who could out-over-the-top William Shatner and Bruce Campbell in a handicap match) relocates to Massachusetts and enrolls at Miskatonic University. It isn’t long before he runs afoul of Dr. Carl Hill (John Kerry double David Gale), the school’s brain expert, when he criticizes Hill’s work as derivative and plagiaristic. But Hill is a grant machine, and is well-protected by the university’s dean, Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson). Hill begins a vendetta against West, vowing to make sure that West never passes one of his classes.
West begins rooming with fellow student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) and converts their basement into a makeshift lab, reviving his fanatical quest to engineer a serum that will permanently reanimate the dead. When Dan’s cat dies, West uses his glowing formula to revive it. Dan’s fiancée, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), the dean’s daughter, gets even more creeped out by the creepy West when she walks in on the experiment.
Cain reports the cat resurrection story to Dean Halsey, imploring him to back West’s research. Halsey refuses, suggesting that both students are going mad before barring them from Miskatonic. Undeterred, West and Cain sneak into the school morgue to try to reanimate a corpse. The corpse goes berserk once it is revived. West asserts this rage to the staleness of the corpse. When Halsey happens upon the spectacle, the reanimated corpse attacks and kills him. Despite Cain’s objections, West injects Halsey with the serum, insisting that the freshness of his corpse will give the most accurate data about the serum’s effectiveness.
Halsey returns to life, but is left as a brain-dead zombie. Hill appoints himself Halsey’s custodian, and, thinking him insane, places him in a padded room at the school. Dan and Megan break into Hill’s office and find evidence that Hill is obsessed with Megan, and then learn that Hill has lobotomized the dean. During the operation, Hill learns that Halsey had in fact been reanimated. He confronts West at his apartment lab, threatening blackmail if West doesn’t reveal the secrets of his serum. West retaliates, beheading Hill with a shovel. He then uses the serum to reanimate Hill’s body and his head—carrying the latter around in a lab tray. When the head strikes up a conversation, West gets distracted, and the headless body knocks him unconscious. Hill’s two parts then steal West’s serum, return to Miskatonic and convince the zombified Halsey to kidnap Megan and bring her to him/them.
What follows is one of the most outrageous, disgustingly absurd scenes in all of horror moviedom, but it is the iconic, goofy image that every viewer who has experienced the lunacy that is Re-Animator never seems to forget. It’s the opening salvo for the showdown between West, Hill, Cain and a slew of naked, decomposing near-dead…and a tenatacled slime-thing that is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Lovecraft, the granddaddy of squid-trope horror. Throw in a banshee wail twist ending and you have the makings of a rib-tickling, stomach-turning classic.
But does Re-Animator have any heart?
As a matter of fact, it does.
Beyond the obvious allegorical warning against man’s attempt to play God (hearkening to the Tower of Babel narrative in Genesis), Re-Animator reminds us of the dangers of obsession.
Obsession can compel us to compromise our own morality (David’s obsession with Bathsheba) or our own mortality (Saul’s obsession with David). In Re-Animator, West not only loses his propensity for compassion (he shows no remorse at Halsey’s death, preferring to only use him as a test subject for his serum) but seemingly his life (it’s his serum that turns Hill into the creature that eventually kills him).
In the book of Judges, in between battling and fraternizing with the Philistines, Samson becomes obsessed with the temptress, Delilah. Unbeknownst to him, Delilah has been hired by the Philistines to find out the secret of Samson’s supernatural strength. And once she eventually discovers that his strength comes from his hair, she has someone shave his head as he sleeps and turns him over to his enemies. Scripture notes then that “the Lord had left him” but nonetheless, his hair begins to grow back immediately (Judges 16:20).
After gouging out his eyes, Samson’s captors mock and taunt him during a temple festival to honor their sea-god, Dagon. Samson prays for the strength to route his enemies once and for all. Bolstering himself between two great stone pillars that support the temple, Samson resolves to “die among the Philistines” (Judges 16:30). With a great shove, he brings the house down, killing thousands of their number… and himself.
Because of his obsession with Delilah, Samson eventually found himself graveyard dead in the Old Testament version of the OK Corral. Herbert West’s fate is not that much different. His obsession to perfect his serum leaves him dead amongst his enemies (until the sequels reveal otherwise). But his sin damns not only himself, but Dan and Megan as well. (After Megan is killed in the finale, Dan attempts to use the serum on her to apparently, horrid results, if her blackscreen/credits shrieks are any indication.)
It’s probably a fairly safe bet that screenwriter Dennis Paoli wasn’t thinking about the Old Testament when he penned the Re-Animator script. And it’s doubtful that most audiences were replaying Sunday school narratives in their head while cringing and laughing their way through its 104 minutes. The movie is certainly enjoyable enough on its own (if you’re into resurrected cats, professors and brain surgeons). But pry a little further into the viscera and the deeper stories are there.
And they always deserve to be reanimated.