If there's one thing I love more than vampires, it's zombies, but unfortunately the genre tends to lose its freshness relatively quickly. After the Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead revived the genre in 2004, the undead have shambled onto screens non-stop, and its gotten old. But that doesn't mean I can't sit in the dark with a bowl of buttery popcorn and enjoy one of the classics from what is unquestionably the genre's heyday.
Long before George A. Romero taught us to fear the "Night," there was H.P. Lovecraft, best known for his Cthulhu mythos. In 1921, Lovecraft penned a novellette in six parts called Herbert West - Reanimator, serialized over several issues of the amateur 'zine Home Brew. While Lovecraft himself despised the story and many fans of his work find it to be his poorest work, to this day it remains my favorite of his tales. Today's film is based upon that story, so let's not waste any time. It's not getting fresher. Let's revive 1985's Re-Animator!
The film opens with police and medical staff breaking into the office of Dr. Hans Gruber (yippee ki yay, motherfucker) to find the doctor screaming in pain while a medical student named Herbert West holds an empty syringe. Gruber dies horribly, and when a nurse accuses West of murder, he cryptically responds "I gave him life." West transfers to the Miskatonic Medical School in Arkham, where he meets another student named Dan Cain. West rents a room in Dan house despite Dan's girlfriend Meg Halsey's (daughter of the Dean) protests.
When Dan's cat dies under suspicious circumstances, West uses his reagent to revive the cat, with disastrous albeit impressive results. Dan tells Dean Halsey of West's experiments, but the Dean is outraged and expels both of the men from the school. Determined to continue their research, West and Dan break into the morgue, but their experiment brings ruin upon them when Dean Halsey interrupts, is killed, and subsequently revived by West. The events attract the attention of West's rival, Dr. Hill, and while Dan struggles to remain in school and salvage his relationship with Meg, West fights to retain control of his discovery as Hill seeks to take credit for himself.
1985 was a fantastic year for zombie movies. It also gave us Romero's Day of the Dead and the dark comedy Return of the Living Dead. Sadly, I think Re-Animator is often forgotten among those two giants, but all three are equally deserving of the praise. I think this is when zombie movies peaked. I mean, how does one top the infamous "head giving head" scene? The movie's only real failing is that it doesn't tell Lovecraft's entire story, and for that reason, I think this movie is best viewed back to back with its sequel Bride of Re-Animator.
Some of the effects are unimpressive by today's standards, the twice reanimated cat, in particular. The human zombie effects, however, are top-notch, and subtle things like bulging veins really help to sell the terrible processes brought on by West's unstable reagent. Aside from a crouching David Gale's shoulders giving the headless Dr. Hill the appearance of having some rather impressive child-bearing hips, the effects are really quite... well... effective. The prosthetics employed in the film's gruesome climax are on par with those of the movie's two major competitors, and in some ways far superior.
In the years since Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs has become "that guy from that thing" in science fiction and horror, a staple of B-movies and television guest spots. It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Herbert West, and what few attempts there have been have been utterly dreadful. The way he goes from an emotionless, droning delivery to giggles of macabre delight is fantastic. Herbert West is batshit insane, and Jeffrey Combs sells it stupendously. If you want a truly fantastic experience, I recommend listening to the audio version of Herbert West - Reanimator, narrated by Combs himself.
My verdict should come as no surprise to anyone with a pulse, whether natural or otherwise. If you like a little science in your reanimation, or if you're looking to dip your toe into H.P. Lovecraft's daunting body of work and aren't sure where to begin, then give Re-Animator a watch. Just don't let your fear go to your head.