Second Sight have injected Stuart Gordon's eighties classic with some fluorescent green tonic and brought its shambling corpse back to life in pristine 4K glory. Re-Animator was part of a wave of horrors, such as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead sequel and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, that realised you could up the gore and violence to unprecedented levels and still get a mainstream release if the blood was undercut with a knowing wink and a gag here and there. When done correctly, you honour a tradition used since the old dark house pictures of the forties and the pitch black morality tales of EC’s Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror. When done badly, you get the cinematic monstrosity that is the Scary Movie franchise.
Gordon, in his never bettered debut, takes a short HP Lovecraft story, ramps up the blood, modernises it and mixes in comedy and nudity to create a formula that transcends a limited budget that, even now reaching it’s 30th Anniversary, still feels fresh.
The bones of the story may be pretty basic - mad scientist Herbert West (Combs) develops a serum that can revive the recently deceased, only to find his hubris not only creates dangerously unstable zombies but also provokes the wrath and jealousy of all too human monster Dr Carl Hill (Gale) - but its familiarity and understanding of genre conventions is what makes this so much fun. What turns this from a serviceable gore-com into so much more is the performance of Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, a role that fits him so perfectly. By turns awkward and socially maladroit, and yet at the same time so arrogant, vain and insufferably superior, Combs pitches his performance big, but always with an undercurrent of human vulnerability that makes Herbert West one of the great anti-heroes of modern horror.
If Bruce Abbot registers less as West’s unwilling accomplice Dan, he helps ground the more outre Combs. Barbara Crampton is a perky presence straight out of a fifties sci-fi as Megan, the Dean's daughter and girlfriend of Dan, with a spirited commitment to nudity that allows for one of the best visual gags in modern horror history. In acting terms though, this is a double header (or is that severed header?) between West and the devious Dr Hill. Why have one mad scientist when you can have two? Both play their roles with relish, with some ham on the side. Gory though Re-Animator is (and at times it is very gory) it is done in such a harmless, joyous fashion, it is tough to take offence. Like a fairground ride, it is the anticipation and the exuberance of being frightened that is so much fun. Unlike most fairground rides though, this delivers the spooks, the fun and the horror.
Gordon, like his producer Brian Yuzna, never surpassed their debut features. Yuzna may have been a hack who got lucky once, but Gordon always seemed to be just out of step with current trends. Robot-Jox and Space Truckers are nothing if not small scale precursors to Pacific Rim and Serenity. Later films have seen him channel pitch black nihilistic ripped-from-the-headlines horrors in King of the Ants and Stuck, or going back to his Chicago theatre roots with his film adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmond, to limited success.
Re-Animator is great fun but just misses out on classic status; nevertheless it is a remarkable achievement for a film made for less than a million dollars. This is in no small part to the amazing work of the late great cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, whose work here has never looked better on this amazing restoration, and the music of Richard Band, whose riffing on the Psycho theme must have had Bernard Hermann’s estate seeking legal representation.
Blu-Ray has pumped new life into the bloated corpse of eighties horror. Now uncut and with a remixed DTS soundtrack, you owe it to yourself to track this down, as it's one of the finest pictures from Charles Band’s Empire Studios. Fingers crossed for Zone Troopers and Trancers to be restored with such care.
If the 4k restoration isn’t enough of a lure to buy, then the extras should seal the deal. This two disc edition is jammed packed with both uncut and integral versions of the film, and two separate commentaries, one with Stuart Gordon, the other with producers and actors, plus a feature length documentary, extended interviews with all the main players, extended scenes, deleted scenes, a gallery and trailers. To call this comprehensive is an understatement. Second Sight have given this release an almost Criterion level of respect; this is a reissue that no self respecting gore-hound should miss.
Review by Jason Abbey
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