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Film / Re-Animator

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"I must say, Dr. Hill, I'm VERY disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You're not even a second-rate scientist!"
Herbert West

A 1985 Sci-Fi Horror and Horror Comedy film directed and co-written by Stuart Gordon, starring the inimitable Jeffrey Combs, and based on the short serial Herbert West–Reanimator by H. P. Lovecraft.

The story involves an idealistic medical student named Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), a student at the Miskatonic University of Medicine in Arkham, Massachusetts. Dan rents a room to Herbert West (Combs), who has discovered a way to revive the dead, and reluctantly becomes his assistant. Soon their activities cause a rift between Dan and his girlfriend Meg Halsey (Barbara Crampton), daughter of the university's dean, and draw down the wrath of university higher-up Dr. Hill (David Gale). Then West decapitates Hill. Then he revives him. And then things get crazy.

Re-Animator is remembered for its dark humor, gruesome gore effects, transgressive sexuality, and violence against an undead cat. Less well-remembered, but more poignant, is the sweet, wholesome quality of the relationship between Dan and Meg. Others gravitate to the Homoerotic Subtext between Herbert and Dan. Basically, there's something for everyone.

Of all the film adaptations of Lovecraft's work, Re-Animator is probably the most famous. It spawned a wave of imitators and Spiritual Successors including From Beyond, Lurking Fear, and Castle Freak (1995) (all starring Combs, with From Beyond and Castle Freak also being directed by Gordon and co-starring Crampton) and 2001's Dagon (directed by Gordon). In 2023, these were joined by Suitable Flesh, an adaptation of The Thing on the Doorstep set in the same universe as Re-Animator and also starring Crampton (though not as Meg).

Naturally also spawned the official sequels Bride of Re-Animator (1990), directed by Brian Yuzna (a frequent collaborator of Stuart Gordon who was a producer on the first film), and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), also directed by Yuzna.

Besides the films, there are several other adaptations. In the early 1990's, Malibu Comics published two tie-in miniseries, one an adaptation of the first film and Dawn Of The Re-Animator, a prequel explaining West's transition from Switzerland to the United States. Re-Animator has also had crossover comic books with Hack/Slash and Army of Darkness. There is also a critically acclaimed musical.

The film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Apparently, the notion of Dr. Hill having a creepy obsession with Megan is amusing enough to West to make him chuckle. This pretty much sums up his character.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The first two movies contain many parts of the book and remain faithful with the character portrayals in the book, but play up the story for Black Comedy and lots of sexual weirdness. The original was also set over several decades, with each short story portraying one or more notable events in Herbert West's attempt to bring the dead back. The first two movies play out over the span of days and are set only months apart.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: In Lovecraft's original story, Herbert West was described as blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Every subsequent depiction of West anywhere else since the Re-Animator film has been closer to Jeffrey Combs' appearance.
  • Adaptation Title Change: The movie shortens the title of the original story which was known as Herbert West-Reanimator.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's unclear whether Herbert killed Dan's cat for use in an experiment or if he really did find the cat dead like he claimed he did, although it's pretty heavily implied that West killed it when later in the basement he outright states how many animals he's killed and re-animated.
  • Animals Hate Him: Dan's cat Rufus is said to have hated Herbert. It's unclear if Rufus sensed something unusual about Herbert or if he was just being an ordinary cat. It's also unclear whether or not Herbert killed Rufus to use in an experiment.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: The Re-Agent, the miraculous chemical that brings the dead back to life. Mr. West has already created it by the time the movie begins so the story doesn't have to explain how it works, even if it's the most important part of West's endeavors, or why it glows such an unnatural color.
  • Arch-Enemy: Dr. Hill to West.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
    • West and Dan checking out bodies in the morgue for a suitable test subject, citing their causes of death:
    West: Burn victim... [next body] Here's your meatballnote ... [next body] Shotgun wound to the head...
    Dan: [next body] Ugh, god! He's rotten!
    West: [next body] ...Malpractice.
  • Artistic License – Biology:
    • Of course. For one example, Hill's severed head still manages to talk despite a lack of lungs to push air through his vocal chords.
    • The intestine that rips free of Hill's body and encoils West is as thick as a large intestine, but too long to be anything but a small intestine.
  • Asshole Victim: Nobody is arguing that Dr. Hill is a good guy, but being stuck as a sentient, yet unmoving, head for an unspecified amount of time, who is largely unable to either do anything of value or take its own life borders on And I Must Scream levels of torture.
  • Big Bad: Dr. Carl Hill, who tries to steal West's notes and ends up leading a zombie army against him.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: West is about 5'6, so he looks short next to nearly everyone, especially considering that Dr. Hill and Dan are both north of 6 feet.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Or just plain Evil vs. Evil, considering everyone the Villain Protagonist knocks off intentionally or otherwise is also an Asshole Victim. There's not a whole lot of gray among the black here.
  • Black Comedy Rape: A severed head attempts oral sex on a captured girl in one of the most outrageous scenes.
  • Bloody Hilarious: The Movie
  • Body Horror: Lots of creative examples appear, given that this film revolves heavily around zombies and hospital morgues. Highlights include Dr. Gruber's eyes exploding at the start of the film, and the decapitated yet successfully reanimated Dr. Hill.
  • Bodybag Trick: Dan smuggles West into the morgue to do re-animation experiments with this trick.
  • Book Ends: The film begins with Dan failing to resuscitate a dead woman despite all his efforts. It tragically ends the same way when he is unable to revive Megan no matter what he does, which makes him use the Re-Agent on her corpse out of desperation...
    • The film also begins with West's attempt to revive his dying mentor Dr. Gruber ending with rather grotesque and horrific failure. And as noted above it ends with Dan trying to do the same with Megan, with apparently similar results.
  • Byronic Hero: The most positive interpretation of Herbert West is that he genuinely doesn't want to hurt anyone, but his blind pursuit of science leads to him doing some REALLY dreadful stuff in its name. He also has many flaws, including bluntness and lack of social skills.
  • Came Back Wrong: EVERYBODY who comes back is off in at least some way.
  • Cartwright Curse: Being Dan Cain's love interest seriously counts against your life expectancy. You'll probably be horribly traumatized before dying, too.
  • Cat Scare: The film has a sequence at the start when Rufus, Dan's cat, leaps on Dan and Meg as they are relaxing post-coitus. Then there's the more famous sequence about midway through the movie when Dan and West must hunt for the homicidal zombie of Rufus in the Creepy Basement...
  • Cigar Chomper: Mace, the morgue guard, is always chewing on a cigar.
  • Comicbook Adaptation: In 1991, Malibu Comics released a three-issue adaptation of the film, and later followed it with the Prequel miniseries Dawn of the Re-Animator.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Well, maybe not so much on the reliable, but the CPR scenes are fairly clean and neat.
  • Creepy Basement: Dan Cain's house comes with an ominous-looking basement, which West immediately appropriates for his personal lab.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: West re-animates nearly every dead person and animal he comes across For Science!, despite the fact that they keep trying to kill him.
  • Deadly Doctor: Herbert West has shades of this.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • West. Sometimes it isn't even verbal, like when he keeps snapping his pencils to interrupt a professor he doesn't agree with.
    "You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed."
    • Also:
    "Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!"
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Just when it looks like Dan and Meg have escaped the re-animated when they reach the elevator, one of them pops into the closing elevator and chokes Meg to death.
  • Disney Death: West meets his apparent fate when he is caught by Dr. Hill's hyper-reanimated intestinal tract, which binds him like a living lasso and drags him into the mist as other zombies wildly flail around in the morgue. We never see him get killed, but the inference is that he's met a Karmic Death.
  • Downer Ending: After Hill is seemingly killed, his zombies go on a complete rampage, with one lassoing West with its own intestines — which is also the last we see of him. A zombie manages to kill Meg, whose desperate boyfriend Dan tries to inject her with Re-Agent. The film fades to black in the middle of the zombie rampage, as we hear Meg's sudden scream.
  • Eye Scream: Doctor Gruber in the intro has his eyes burst in their sockets, spraying an unfortunate woman with gore.
  • Fan Disservice: The infamous "head giving head" scene. A beautiful young woman is strapped naked to an operating table as a decapitated zombie gropes her and then holds its own severed head between her legs so it can try to perform oral sex on her. She of course finds it inexplicably horrifying.
  • Fanservice: Meg spends a lot of time naked in this movie.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Dan's Talking Heads poster. His teacher Dr. Hill later becomes one.
    • The opening scene where Dan fails to resuscitate a dead patient and is told by one of his peers that he needs to know when to quit. He's faced with the the same scenario at the very end—this time the dead person his own girlfriend, making it much more personal—and becomes so desperate not to lose her that it drives him to use West's re-agent on her.
  • Forgets to Eat: Meg points out that Dan has never seen Herbert West eat or sleep when she tries to convince him that his new border is creepy. After Dean Halsey's death and re-animation, it's shown that West injects a diluted version of his Reagent instead of "wasting time" in that way.
  • For Science!: Herbert West is dead serious about his dedication to this trope. He has no motivation for any of his experiments beyond his need to know. He's not interested in fame, money, helping others, or even immortality. He just wants to go past the mysteries of life and death. As far as he's concerned, any other thing is superfluous.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Most of the re-animated during the climax, since they were naked corpses lying on slabs before their re-animation.
  • Gallows Humor: Aside from the film itself, Dr. West is a master of doing this...or just does this because of his lack of social skills.
  • Genre Blindness: Everyone in this film is somehow surprisingly oblivious to the dangers of messing around with scientifically reanimating the dead — especially West, despite the fact that his experiments always try to kill him.
  • A Glass in the Hand: West does the pencil variant multiple times to show his Tranquil Fury during Hill's lecture. Halsey also squeezes his glass until it breaks in a deleted scene where Hill hypnotizes him.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: Pretty much every use of Re-Agent backfires horrifically. Aside from the whole "it re-animates the dead as killer zombies" thing, at the film's climax, West injects two full syringes into Dr. Hill's body, hoping to induce it to "melt down" the way Dr. Gruber did at the start of the film. Instead, its intestines erupt from its body and grab West, holding him down and dragging him through the fog to his apparent Disney Death.
  • Gorn: Probably the goriest film of all time.
  • Heel–Face Turn: The re-animated Alan Halsey regains some semblance of recognition and turns against Dr. Hill in order to save his daughter.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Herbert and Dan. They live together, Dan is the only person who can stand him, and likewise is the only person Herbert seems to be genuinely fond of (though Herbert is asexual according to Combs).
  • Hulk Speak: The re-animated Dr. Hill can only hiss and groan in short, terse sentences due to the damage done by severing his head with a shovel.
  • The Igor: Dan Cain serves as this to Herbert West, being West's cowed and ultimately loyal (despite his protests) sidekick in West's transgressive experiments.
  • I Love the Dead:
    • Inverted with the zombie of Dr. Hill attempting to sexually assault the living Meg, moaning about how he loves her.
    • Played straight(ish) when Dan tries to revive his dead girlfriend as a zombie with West's Re-agent.
  • Informed Flaw:
    • Dr. Hill is declared to be a scientific hack who can only steal the ideas of others. However, he is able to use his laser drill to control reanimated corpses and he understands the reagent well enough to successfully use it on bodies that West had given up on.
    • West's opinion of Hill is due to the latter's disbelief in West's theories and West's knowledge that Hill plagiarized their mutual former teacher Dr. Gruber, and Hill's opinion of West is due to West's own considerable ego and the fact that he publicly calls him out for his plagiarism, on top of thinking West's theories are ridiculous. Doctor Hill revises his own negative opinion of West later in the movie...but by that point, he's trying to steal the re-animation agent.
  • The Insomniac: Herbert West is two of the listed subtypes, an Obsessive Insomniac and a Superpowered Insomniac. A deleted scene shows that West injects himself with a solution of his re-agent to keep himself from sleeping. This "keeps his mind sharp" but is also implied to be the cause of his insanity.
  • Insufferable Genius: West's brash personality leads to a rocky relationship with a certain faculty member.
  • Job Title: The film is called "Re-Animator" and West sees his job as being...well, exactly that: a Re-Animator of the dead.
  • Large Ham: Apparently Stuart Gordon, the director, encouraged this kind of acting style. Jeffrey Combs as West and David Gale as Doctor Hill in particular seem to have really gone for it.
  • Losing Your Head: "You're a nobody!"
  • Mad Doctor:
    • Herbert West, of course. It goes without saying that anyone who wants to break the laws of life and death is a little nuts. That he persists in his experiments despite the constant result of this being homicidal monsters shows he's completely out of his mind. He's only a medical student and not a fully accredited doctor however.
    • Dr. Hill is a less than morally savory individual who is nursing a crush on his friend Dean Halsey's daughter. When he learns about West's reagent, he becomes obsessed with claiming it for himself.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. West. Surprisingly he's also the most level-headed individual in the entire series— by the end of the film, everyone left alive except West is going through some manner of hysterics, while West continues like everything is just another experiment. In fact, his dispassionate indifference to the chaos around him is in many ways an indication of just how insane he is.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: West sets this up in Dan's basement once he moves in.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr. Hill.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Meg's main role in the movie is to be sexy, complete with the occasional flashed nipple.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Dan Cain. In the original novella, West's reluctant sidekick is the narrator and never gets around to mentioning his own name.
    • In the film's Novelization by Jeff Rovin, the characters credited only as "Swiss Professor" and "Swiss Woman Doctor" are named Dr. Willet and Dr. Margot Koslik respectively.
  • Nice Guy: As opposed to Herbert West's perpetual amorality, Dan genuinely appears to be a decent man and a good-hearted doctor, at least before West gets in the picture.
  • Not Quite Dead: Everyone who seemingly dies ends up as this in one way or another.
  • Off with His Head!: Dr. Hill is decapitated with a shovel by an enraged Herbert West due to his plans to plagiarize West's work and dispose of Dan Cain.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: To begin with, they're artificial zombies brought back by injections of glowstick fluid rather than by gnawing on each other. Unlike in the original novel, their status as flesh eating zombies is more ambiguous. The first zombie that West animates does bite off two of Dean Halsey's fingers, but none of the others seem interested in eating people so much as killing them.
  • Papa Wolf: Dean Halsey is incredibly protective of Meg. When Cain lets it slip that Meg has gotten involved with his and West's experiments, he immediately rescinds his loan and forbids Meg from seeing him again (Though this might be at least partly due to him being hypnotized into turning against Dan by Dr. Hill in a deleted scene.). Not even being re-animated, or even being controlled, is enough to curb these instincts, as Hill finds out the hard way.
  • Playing with Syringes: Rather literally. West has to deliver the reagent by hypodermic syringe, and so is usually carrying around a syringe with a Sickly Green Glow.
  • Police Are Useless: The security guard for the morgue entrance falls for Dr. Hill's fake head disguise and runs away as soon as he sees the re-animated zombies.
  • Professor Guinea Pig: West is shown shooting up the re-agent himself to stay awake indefinitely in a deleted scene.
    • In the novelization, Gruber insists that West test the re-agent on him. West was hesitant, but Gruber insisted.
  • Psychic Powers: Dr. Hill has these, although how or why is never explained. He is shown hypnotizing Dean Halsey to turn him against Meg's boyfriend, Dan Cain, early in the film, and is later able to subdue West (temporarily) with merely a focused stare and a fierce declaration. This seems to be the reason Hill's headless body can see what it's doing and knows how to tend to his head. More directly, he is also able to control other zombies with his powers if he first lobotomizes them.
  • Psycho Serum: The re-agent, which transforms those it revives into homicidal killers.
  • Raising the Steaks: The first reanimated creature we see in the movie is Dan's cat, poor Rufus. West also mentions having experimented with his re-agent on animals before.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The morgue guard Mace, after witnessing the reanimated shenanigans first-hand, wisely decides to bail out.
  • Screaming Woman: If a woman shows up at the same time as the gory stuff starts, she's going to be screaming.
  • Shades of Conflict: Of the black-and-gray kind, as whilst Herbert is by no means a saint, his moral ambiguity pales in comparison to the demented Big Bad Dr. Carl Hill.
  • Shovel Strike: After Dr. Hill declares that he is going to take credit for the re-agent, West distracts him by showing him a sample under a microscope, hits him over the head with a shovel, and then cuts through Hill's neck with the shovel's edge.
  • Skewed Priorities: All Herbert West cares about is continuing his experiments. It doesn't matter how badly this works out, he continues his attempts to play God for the sheer sake of proving he's right.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Played with, in the fact that West gets a Disney Death, with his literary counterpart's demise — being torn limb from limb by a crowd of zombies — being given to the re-animated Dean Halsey instead.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Dr. Hill for Meg. It's implied that he's been obsessed with her ever since she was a child.
  • Technicolor Science: Re-Agent is actually the stuff inside your average glowstick.
  • The Undead: The creatures created by West are neither fully dead nor fully alive, although they also have some traits of flesh golems.
  • Villain-Based Franchise: Herbert West, the titular Re-Animator.
  • Villain Protagonist: Herbert West again.
  • Visual Pun: Either supremely funny or supremely horrifying: Dr. Hill giving Meg in, giving her oral sex as a disembodied head.
  • The Watson: Dan Cain. Although, to be fair, more important to his role than asking questions on the audience's behalf is expressing disbelief at the fact that he's still living with West.
  • Zombie Gait: The zombies created by West's re-agent lurch around without much grace or agility.