[Digging Up the Dead] Resurrecting Stuart Gordon's 'Re-Animator' 35 Years Later

The horror genre is alive, well, and ever evolving, so it’s impossible to see everything out there. Beyond that, there are wonderful films of yesteryear that people may not have seen either from lack of awareness or lack of time. To that end, I bring you "Digging Up the Dead," where I will be revisiting classic and indie horror films and evaluating if they have stood the test of time or if they are merely an artifact of what was.

Of course, one of the best parts of movie fandom is discussing and debating movies, so feel free to comment whether you agree with my assessments or where you feel I got it wrong. I look forward to, hopefully, exposing you to movies you haven’t seen, or just haven’t seen in years. With that, I will grab my shovel and get to digging!

2020 marks thirty-five years since Re-Animator took the horror genre to a whole new level and subsequently went on to become the cult hit and classic that most horror connoisseurs have come to know and love. Also, we unfortunately lost director Stuart Gordon earlier this year, so I figured this was the perfect time to reexamine this classic and look into what has made it such an enduring and beloved pillar of the horror genre.

The plot of Re-Animator is based off of a H.P. Lovecraft story and is fairly straightforward, despite all the tropes it manages to pack in. Dan Cain is a medical student who hates to lose a patient and who is engaged to the dean’s daughter, Megan. Herbert West, a medical student with a compound that can bring people back from the dead and who is obsessed with his own re-animation research, transfers to the school Dan is attending and ends up becoming his roommate. West clashes with Dr. Carl Hill, a teacher and plagiarist who doesn’t like to be challenged and who has an infatuation with Megan. West ends up using Dan’s basement as a lab and before long Dan is drawn into West’s experiments to bring the dead back to life, and Megan is horrified by what they are doing. Things start to get out of control once the Dean finds out, and even more so once Dr Hill discovers what is going on, and it all eventually builds into a terrific, zombie filled finale.

Akira Kurosawa redefined the action genre with Seven Samurai by combining multiple elements for the first time into one film, and Re-Animator does something similar. The mad scientist is as old as Frankenstein, the infatuation obsessed villain has been around since Nosferatu, and medical horror has been common since at least Doctor X, but Re-Animator took all those tropes and more and perfectly blended them into a story that not only works, but hooks you and takes you on a swift ride down an increasingly freaky rabbit hole. What’s more, Re-Animator manages to blend so many tropes in a shockingly short amount of time, a mere 86 minutes, while still delivering a comprehensive story with characters that are wholly believable.

Another area where Re-Animator really stands out is in the production. While the camera work isn’t flashy, it is effective and careful choice of angles does a great job of enhancing the film’s tone. Speaking of tone, the film score by Richard Band is perfect at creating atmosphere and ratcheting up the intensity of the film while not being so overbearing that it distracts you, which is a difficult, but noteworthy, balance to achieve.

One of the most impressive things about Re-Animator is that most of the effects hold up remarkably well for a movie that came out in 1985. Obviously, the cat doesn’t look great, as most fake cats don’t look great unless you use CGI, which was still a long way away from that kind of realism at the time. However, the human effects are excellent, with most of the gore looking quite realistic, even by today’s standards which just goes to show how important and effective practical effects are. I’m particularly fond of how the separated head and body of Dr. Hill are portrayed, as they are almost exactly how I would imagine a beheading crudely done with a shovel would look, meaning messy and jagged, and they maintain that level of realism throughout the film.

Director Stuart Gordon spent a lot of his early career acting and in theater, so it is no surprise that he and casting director Anthony Barnao found a great group of underrated actors to star in this movie.

Jeffery Combs takes on the role of Herbert West and he plays him calm, cold, and obsessive, which is perfect for a scientist obsessed with his work above all else. One of the most nuanced performances comes from Bruce Abbott as Dan Cain. Dan is often conflicted about what he is doing while also being highly compassionate, and Bruce effortlessly brings Dan’s emotional swings to life and gives them the necessary depth to effectively sell the story. The overriding emotions for Megan are love and trauma, and to that end Barbara Crampton delivers a solid performance, but as she is mostly a victim rather than a participant she doesn’t get as much to work with as her male counterparts in this film. Lastly, I have to mention David Gale who delivers an outstanding performance as Dr. Carl Hill. Dr. Hill is as creepy and smarmy as they come, but while still maintaining a veneer of respectability, and Gale nails this performance, creating a remarkably memorable villain that may just remind you of an overly friendly teacher you may have once had.

Thanks to its great story, fast pacing, enduring effects, and noteworthy performances, Re-Animator has stood the test of time and remains one of the absolute best horror movies ever created. Whether you’re a long-time fan of the genre or a newbie looking to delve into the classics, this movie is well worth revisiting and will forever be a shining example of what creative, independent filmmakers can achieve.


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