Movie Discussion: Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985)

  • Monthly Theme: Splatterre-animator-movie-poster-1985-1020200561
  • The Film: Re-Animator
  • Alternate titles: n/a
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: October 18, 1985
  • Studio: Empire Pictures
  • Distributer: Empire Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: $2 million
  • Budget: $900,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Stuart Gordon
  • Producers: Michael Avery, Bruce William Curtis, Bob Greenberg, Charles Donald Story & Brian Yunza
  • Screenwriters: Stuart Gordon, William Norris & Dennis Paoli
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1922 short story “Herbert West – Reanimator” by H.P. Lovecraft
  • Cinematographer: Mac Ahlberg
  • Make-Up/FX: Bret Culpepper & Richard N. McGuire; Anthony Doublin & John Naulin
  • Music: Richard Band
  • Part of a series? Yes, the first film in a trilogy. Followed by Bride of Re-Animator in 1990 and Beyond Re-Animator in 2003.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Scream queen Barbara Crampton (From Beyond, Castle Freak). Genre stalwart Jeffrey Combs (From Beyond, Cellar Dweller). Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, character actress and wife of director Stuart Gordon.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: Special Mention at the 1986 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. Best Film and Best Special Effects at the 1986 Fantafestival. Best Film at the Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.
  • Tagline: “Death is just the beginning…”
  • The Lowdown: Re-Animator was the most exciting directorial debut in the world of horror since Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead in 1981, and it put director Stuart Gordon on the horror map in a big way. Combining the manic intensity of H.P. Lovecraft’s original story with a pitch-black sense of humor, Re-Animator became an instant cult classic. It was well-received (even horror-hater Roger Ebert sung its praises) and has maintained legendary status ever since its debut.  Gordon went on to direct other Lovecraft adaptations on both the big screen (1986’s excellent From Beyond, 1995’s twisted Castle Freak, and 2001’s strange and unsettling Dagon) and the small (his Masters of Horror adaptation of “Dreams in the Witch-House”), but Re-Animator has always remained his signature film. The movie concerns Herbert West, a medical student at Miskatonic University in Arkham, MA (the setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories and novellas), who has developed a serum for reanimating the dead. He falls in with a handsome, jock-ish fellow student named Dan Cain, whom unwittingly begins to help West experiment on bringing the dead back to life. But when the megalomaniacal Dr. Hill gets involved in the story (a man already obsessed with Cain’s beautiful girlfriend, Megan), West and Cain are soon caught up in an escalating series of gory set-pieces.

If you haven’t seen Re-Animator our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Kristine: Okay, I have two things I want to discuss. First off, I want you to know that the “horror comedy” genre is something I’ve always thought was dumb, and of all the subgenres it has been the one I have most dreaded getting to since we started this project (alongside torture porn and anything sci-fi). The kind of movies I associate with that label are amongst the ones I was least excited to watch.

Sean: Why?

Kristine: Because of my association of them with teenage boy horror nerds, midnight screenings, lowbrow humor, etc. They always struck me as movies that seemed to be high on dumb FX and low on story and character-building. Just… they’re not my thing!

Sean: What are some movies that, from the outside looking in, you have rolled your eyes about?

Kristine: I don’t know – things like Idle Hands and Zombie Strippers and that ridiculous killer chicken movie…

Sean: Poultreygeist?

Kristine:  Sure. Like, I would always picture some incel with acne drinking Mountain Dew through a Twizzler and being all, “Remember the scene when that guy’s eyeball explodes and it’s just like… Oh man!” Like that.

Sean: Like “Comic Book Store Owner” on The Simpsons?

Kristine: Yes, exactly. Some evil nerd all spouting minutia about the FX. Like, “Most people don’t realize that so-and-so got his start waxing balls on the set of such-and-such.”

“Testicle Eyes”

Sean: But you are obsessed with Face Off, that special effects reality show!

Kristine: Well, I liked the first season. The second season wasn’t so good. I watched it because of our project and then got sucked in by the techniques used and the interpersonal drama (of course!).

Sean: I see.

Kristine: So, all of this is to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I really liked Re-Animator.

Sean: I thought you were winding this up to say you hated it.

Kristine: Nope. It was strangely…. joyous? And hilarious.

Sean: Did you laugh?

Kristine: Yes. I was dying (especially during the oral sex scene). I thought that the Herbert West character was ridiculous in the best way.

Sean: That cunnilingus scene is like… hallowed in the halls of horror.

Kristine: That scene.

Sean: Had you never heard of it by reputation?

Kristine: I knew nothing about it.

Sean: Ok…

Kristine: Nothing. Zero.

Sean: I can’t imagine watching that scene again for the first time, not knowing it was coming.

Kristine: This movie is one of the few that is beloved both by horror nerds and by reputable critics, including your nemesis, Ebert.

Sean: Ebert! [shakes fist]

Kristine: In fact, here’s what Stuart Gordon had to say about the film’s positive critical reception: “I was amazed, because I made a film that I thought the critics would hate. In a way, the fact that I took that approach is one of the reasons why I think it worked out as well as it did. I wasn’t worrying about the critics and I really didn’t expect the critical success, because what I had set out to do was: first, to make a film that I wanted to make; and second, to make a film that I thought the fans wanted to see. I think it was Roger Ebert who discovered the movie at Cannes and his review wound up creating buzz for the film that resulted in other critics reviewing the film, so I was pleasantly surprised at the responses that the film was getting. I have always been an avid reader of Pauline Kael, so when I read that she liked the movie, I just loved what she had to say, especially about Barbara Crampton’s character.”

Sean: Ha!

Kristine: The Pauline Kael quote he is talking about is this one (and it is great): “Barbara Crampton is the dean’s creamy-pink daughter, who’s at her loveliest when she’s being defiled.” Isn’t that great? [Editor’s note: We tried to find a link to Kael’s writing about the movie, but couldn’t find one]

Sean: Love it.

Kristine: So, my question for you is this: Why do you think the critics love this movie?

Sean: I would be much more curious to hear why you think they loved it… But I will answer first if you like.

Kristine: I do like.

Don’t get a head of yourself, Doc!

Sean: Ok. Well, first of all I think the horror-comedy blend only works when the movie plays the horror elements straight. When they take the horror part of the equation “seriously.”

Kristine: Yes, what West is doing is horrific. No doubt about it.

Sean: Like, the first corpse that West and Cain reanimate (the one that kills the dean) is legitimately scary and upsetting to look at. So, Gordon manages to combine real tense situations with campy manic intensity.

Kristine: Sean, the cat made me sick to my stomach. Because it looked and sounded exactly like a run-over-but-still-alive cat that I encountered on the streets of Tucson. Still one of the most traumatic moments of my life.

Sean: A good barometer for the film’s seriousness is the performance Bruce Abbott gives as Dan Cain. He is legitimately shell-shocked and horrified for much of the movie.

Kristine: Agreed.

Sean: But then you have Jeffrey Combs as West being over the top campy. And of course, Headless Dr. Hill is one of cinema’s greatest visual gags. So I think critics responded to that mixture of truly horrific elements and Technicolor camp insanity. The movie is tongue-in-cheek, but I could imagine a certain kind of viewer could watch it and not get the jokes or the humor. It can play straight, but it’s not entirely meant to. It is in on the silliness. The movie is gross and bizarre without feeling mean-spirited.

Kristine: I love West with his syringe all held aloft. But I think you’re right, if you didn’t have normal Cain to contrast with West, it would have been way too much.

Sean: Right? Or if Bruce Abbott had played Cain like he knew the movie was funny. He’s not acting in a comedy, he’s playing the situations “real,” while the characters of West and Hill are chewing the scenery.

Kristine: Yes, you need Cain as the foil. I also thought there were some classic conventions being used that kept the movie “grounded” despite it’s batshit insanity.

Sean: Which conventions?

Kristine: Like, the conflict between the establishment and the upstarts, The Man (rich patriarch) and Youth (free love, exploration). Remember, Cain only goes along with West because his scholarship is yanked and he can’t afford med school.

Sean: Yes, true. The movie has a lot going on, lots of thematic concerns, lots of ideas….

Kristine: And the whole “dating the dean’s daughter” thing is an old school Shakespearean concept, right?

Sean: Oh, for sure. Like Leonato, the governor of Messina in Much Ado About Nothing, and his daughter Hero. Re-Animator is not a stupid movie. It is smart but also over the top and insane.

Kristine: I agree. Also the idea of the old establishment leaching off the ideas and innovations of the youth is a classic dramatic tension. Let me now say that Dr. Hill is such a great villain.

Nursing shoe commercial, take three

Sean: Dr. Hill is Mitt Romney and he is fabulous.

Kristine: He is sooooo Mitt. You need to start a meme now.

Sean: The scene where West is snapping pencils during Hill’s lecture?

Kristine: Ha!

Sean: I mean, West is kind of a punk, a misfit, an anarchist. He’s a very 1980s American take on the great mad scientist character.

Kristine: So, remember when we were watching, and I pointed out the Talking Heads poster in Dan’s room?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: So remember I knew nothing about this movie! So later, when Dr. Hill’s head becomes a main character, and someone, I think West, says something like, “Who will they believe? Me? Or a talking head?” I literally screamed in delight.

Sean: The Talking Heads poster is a great joke and great foreshadowing.

Kristine: Great joke. I think also the Stop Making Sense directive applies to this movie. West seems like a character who is dictated by logic, but his drive is actually more instinctual than that. Just like the characters do, you have to let go and give in to the insanity.

Sean: I just want you to know is that all that comedy and wit and over-the-top ridiculousness is all brought by Stuart Gordon, the director. Lovecraft’s fiction has no wit and no sense of humor to it. It takes itself deadly seriously.

Kristine: I was going to ask you if you’d ever read the story and how it measures up to the film.

Sean: Lovecraft is infamous for his purple prose. His stuff is overwritten and melodramatic, but deadly “serious” in a way that is not charming. Gordon’s stroke of genius was to adapt Lovecraft with this hysterical melodramatic flair that befits his prose but also refuses to take it too seriously. I mean, the story is classic melodrama, especially the father/daughter stuff. And that ending. Just fyi, the sequel is called Bride of Re-Animator.

Kristine: Before we get into that. One thing I really like is how the reanimated beings were severely damaged. I feel like that is totally standard for today’s zombie’s stuff, that they bear the injuries they sustained during death and lose their personalities, but I feel like maybe it was a newer concept in the 1980s.

Blood-wrestling has replaced oil-wrestling by those in the know

Sean: I think Re-Animator definitely upped the ante for the zombie movie, combining Romero’s trademark gore (remember that Day of the Dead, the third movie in Romero’s zombie trilogy, came out the same year) with a really wild, comic-book sensibility. When Hill’s body splits open at the end and the intestines wind around West like a giant squid, that’s a big moment in the zombie/splatter tradition. It makes you realize that Romero approached his zombies with a certain kind of “realism” in mind, and that Gordon helped kick off a whole new crop of zombie movies that just threw plausibility (within the narrative) out the window and fully embraced a more cartoonish, gore-soaked aesthetic (Dead Alive, which we’ll watch later this month, might be the epitome of this kind of movie). Like Looney Tunes-on-acid gorefest – a deceptively difficult to tone to get right, and this one might be the movie that gets it the right-est. With all due respect to The Evil Dead which predates this and Evil Dead II which comes a few years after.

Kristine: Well, one of the things that’s so cool about Re-Animator and that, like I said earlier, I did not expect to find in this kind of movie, was a real interest in the psychology of the characters. I really liked how Cain and West’s motivations for reanimating bodies were so different, and that even though Cain knew better, he had to try.

Sean: Well, right. Dan is a naïf because he keeps expecting a better outcome even when all the evidence points to the contrary. He’s enthralled by the idea of innovation and medical advancement. He’s also set up as the character who is the real humanist, the one who truly values human life and sees it as sacred. That’s the purpose of the very first scene, where Cain won’t give up on trying to resuscitate the woman on his table. It’s a pretty basic motivation, but it’s enough to run the motor on his character in the movie that follows. I love all the times when he screams “West, no!” in horror but then goes along with whatever West was about to do anyways. He is the classic tortured hero, who keeps making the wrong choices, who allows himself to be seduced because he wants to be seduced. It’s kind of sexy when you think about it.

Kristine: Right. But Cain doesn’t get it – that death is natural, and not necessarily a tragedy. His refusal to face or accept that basic truth is the thing that allows him to be corrupted. In some sense, that opening scene where he won’t stop giving CPR to that dead lady shows that he is already a mad scientist, he just doesn’t know it yet. The hag lady doctor who screams at him to stop is actually “right,” in one way of thinking. She knows that people die, she can accept that people die and sometime there’s nothing you can do to stop that. She has rational limits to her application of medicine. Cain is the melodramatic one, the excessive bleeding-heart who beats on a corpse’s chest in vain trying to revive it.

Six Feet Under outtake (“Nate covered in zombie blood”)

Sean: That hag doctor, by the way, is played by Caroline Purdy-Gordon, Stuart Gordon’s wife. She makes an appearance in most of his major films. But you’re right about Cain all ready being “mad” when the movie begins. And it’s a stark contrast to West, who is not a humanist and doesn’t seem to actually care about human life really. He’s just interested in results – of becoming legendary by “beating Death.” West is mad because he doesn’t care what the effect of his experiments are on the people around him. He’s a figure of chaos, I think. Dionysian, satyr-like, someone who lusts for knowledge and experience, who pushes boundaries and gives fully in to his impulses. Whereas Cain tries – lamely and ineffectively – to reign his impulses in.

Kristine: That’s the other thing: reanimating a dead person. Can you think of something more invasive and less humane? If you died, I would probably have to try and reanimate you.

Sean: I would tear your legs off and roll you down a gigantic staircase.

Kristine: No, you would give me a big hugsie.

Sean: Then I would tear your ears off and make you eat them. And then I would tear your fingers off and staple them to your bloody earholes.

Kristine: Stop it.

Sean: Then don’t threaten to reanimate me.

Kristine: Remember when we watched Drag Me to Hell and I was writhing and dying and vomiting at the grossness? And I couldn’t do anything but mutter “Nonononononono” at the screen?

Sean: Of course.

Kristine: Well, I had three Drag Me to Hell–style reactions during this movie.

Sean: Do tell.

Kristine: The first was the reanimated dead cat.

Sean: Yep.

Kristine: The second was when West is, like, ensnared by the intestine tentacle. And the third, obviously, is the Dr. Hill cunnilingus.

Sean: I am so sad I wasn’t there to witness all this live.

Kristine: When Dr. Hill’s head was lapping at Megan’s crotch I was laughing and screaming “NO No NO No No!”

Sean: Was there anything sexy about that headless cunny scene?

Kristine: Sean, no!

Sean: Do you think anyone has ever jerked off while watching it?

Kristine: Oh, god, of course.

Sean: Well, then.

Kristine: Umm, there is probably no inch of any footage that someone hasn’t jerked off to.

“The Man” has a stranglehold on kids today

Sean: Fair…

Kristine: I was surprised by all the nudity of the zombies and of the scream queen.

Sean: Oh, I know, it is a very naked movie.

Kristine: Re-Animator: A Very Naked Movie.

Sean: Barbara Crampton just goes for it, man. I think I read something about her watching the movie after and just going, “God, I really do have great tits don’t I?”

Kristine: I love it.

Sean: She’s pretty awesome.

Kristine: Isn’t that Pauline Kael quote amazing?

Sean: Yes. I love “Dirty Pillows” Pauline.

Kristine: I like how it totally deflates the “she was objectified” argument.

Sean: I think the movie is making fun of that whole idea.

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: But also, obviously, exploiting it to the 1000th% degree.

Kristine: Well, why not?

Sean: The exploitation of Megan is so over-the-top that it becomes parody. It is to tits what David Foster Wallace is to self-awareness.

Kristine: Ha!

Sean: Fact.

Kristine: It struck me during this movie that horror, overall, has a pretty dim opinion of science. See: this movie, The Fly (both versions), Daybreakers, Deep Blue Sea… Even in movies like The Mist, 28 Days Later or The Host, science is ultimately responsible for unleashing the monster or the threat. To horror movies, all science = destructive egotism.

Sean: Well, are you ready for my pet theory about this movie?

Kristine: Sure, but first say you were upset by the dead cat (I know you weren’t).

Sean: I was jumping for joy during all Rufus-related scenes. But that actually is part of my earlier point about the movie’s mix of tones. It plays Rufus’ fate for camp hilarity and for heartbreaking terror.

Kristine: I still get upset thinking about Dandelo in the original The Fly.

Sean: Dandelo…

Kristine: Dandelo is still out there, Sean. He is still out there.

Sean: Poor kitties…

Kristine: Lost. Forever. Is there any doubt that West killed Rufus? Any at all?

Sean: No, there is no doubt. Why do horror movies like killing cats?

Dan watches breathlessly as Herbert whips out his “needle” and fills it up with “secret serum”

Kristine: I don’t know.

Sean: We haven’t ever even talked about the trope of the cat scare. It is a very cheesy horror movie trope for a cat to jump out and scare a character (and thus scare the audience) moments before a real scare, to throw us off our game. It happens at the beginning of Friday the 13th Part 2 with Alice, right before she is killed by Jason. It has happened in a bunch of movies we’ve watched. It is a thing, and this movie is taking that thing to ridiculous extremes. Remember Rufus jumps on Megan and Dan in bed and scares them early in the movie?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: I think the whole Rufus thing is a kind of sick reaction/joke to the trope of the cat scare. It’s like, the cat will jump out, but then in this movie it will be killed, reanimated, killed again, reanimated again, jump all over West, bounce off the walls, then get killed and then reanimated again. When Dan throws the cat and then a slow smear of gore just oozes down the wall where Rufus hit it?

Kristine: Awwwwww.

Sean: Do you agree or disagree with my theory?

Kristine: I suppose I agree, but you are boring me. Let’s discuss the intestine scene.

Sean: I don’t really have anything to say about the intestine scene…

Kristine: Except it is awesome and gross?

Sean: Yes, except that it is total body horror ridiculousness. The body becomes the enemy.

Kristine: Okay, daddy issues.

Sean: Well, I still haven’t gotten to tell you my pet theory about this movie.

Kristine: Oh, okay, I thought the Rufus thing was it. I thought you were being cutesy, like “pet” theory = theory about cats. Go forth.

Sean: Well, I totally think this movie is about Nazism and the Holocaust. I think that Herbert West is a parody of the “Nazi doctor” archetype.

Kristine: I did not see that coming.

Sean: Seriously though – I really do.

Kristine: I clutched my pearls just now. Okay, you have to explain.

Sean: Well, I think that West is the phantom image of the deranged concentration camp doctor gone awry. The little, Napoleonic, crazed sociopath. The movie’s prologue takes place in Germany.

Kristine: I thought it was Switzerland?

Sean: Switzerland, Germany, close enough.

Kristine: Hmmm…

What a femme way to hold your bone saw.

Sean: The exploding eyeballs at the beginning, those are the eyeballs of West’s former mentor, a German scientist/doctor, Herr Gruber (by the way, Hans Gruber is also the name of the lead terrorist in Die Hard – were they giving a big Re-Animator shout out?) The black rubber gloves West wears in some scenes, and the stentorian way he marches about, barking out orders all call to mind, for me, the mad German doctor of WWII lore. The glasses!? I think this is like, part of Jeffrey Combs’ performance as West.

Kristine: Okay. So you are saying the Nazi doctors did not choose to experiment on the Jews/gays/freaks out of hatred, but because they were available for whatever scientific purpose they wanted to use them for? Because West is not hateful or political, he cares about nothing but science…

Sean: I am not making any claims about history. I am making claims about our inherited folklore. And the parallel isn’t meant to be received that literally. Obviously West’s specific motivations are not the motivations of the actual historical doctors who committed atrocities in concentration camps. But this is an issue of aesthetics and of representation. Think about the things that mark the character of Herbert West – a total and complete disregard for human life, a perverted idea of scientific ethics, a perverse fascination with corrupted bodies and human biology…. Those are the mythic characteristics that we attribute to the folkloric figure of the “mad Nazi doctor.” The point is exactly that the character of the Nazi doctor and the aesthetics of fascism have become divorced from their original political contexts (see the slate of Nazisploitation movies in the 1970s, like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS).

Kristine: Except… don’t you think there is a homoerotic vibe between West and Cain (which, I suppose, is also very Nazi, by the way)?

Sean: Oh, yes. When West covers Cain with the blanket and lays on top of him? And is like, “You’re in shock”? More like, “Here’s my cock!”

Kristine: And West disapproves of Megan, the “bubbleheaded Co-Ed.”

Sean: Oh, he’s a raging misogynist. He calls Megan a bitch like twelve times in the movie. He’s a repressed homosexual of the extreme woman-hating variety.

Kristine: I agree with that, but am still not convinced by your theory.

Sean: This is all I’m saying: one of the legacies of WWII is the specter of the Nazi doctor. I think that West is imbued with some of that mania.

Kristine: I mean, you could make the same claims about Beverly and Elliot Mantle in Dead Ringers or either of the scientist/heroes in the two versions of The Fly or any of the other “mad scientist” movies.

Sean: None of the actors/characters in those movies are played like stunted little Nazi megalomaniacs… West is.

Kristine: Fair enough. Onto… daddy issues?

Sean: Why doesn’t Dean Halsey say anything to Hill when Hill is like, salivating on Megan over dinner at the Dean’s house? He is like, “Let me make a toast, Megan you have the sweetest peach of a pussy in all the land” and Dan Cain (her boyfriend) and Dean Halsey (her father) are like, not noticing, while Megan is all creeped out and shifting uncomfortably.

Kristine: Because it’s a boy’s club.

Sean: I guess so. But ew. You’d think Dean Halsey would be like, Don’t leer at my daughter.

Kristine: They can’t/won’t notice his gross objectification of Megan because Hill is the alpha male in the room. That’s how boys’ clubs work.

Sean: I want to say that I like how the movie is cool with Megan being sexually liberated and active with Dan and it’s just like, the audience is with her and against her father all judging her. But I don’t dig a grown woman exclaiming “Daddy!” all the time. Just saying.

An embarrassing moment at the TSA security checkpoint

Kristine: I was going to ask you how you felt about grown women saying ‘Daddy.’ I call my father “Daddy” sometimes… but only when I am talking to my mom. Not when I am addressing him.

Sean: I mean, a grown woman embracing her father and being all, “Oooooh, Daddy….” is just weird.

Kristine: Definitely. Let me ask you this: what would be worse? Is it worse that Dr. Hill instructs his body to hold his head against Megan’s vag so he can perform unwanted oral sex on her, or would it be worse if his head had instructed his body to rape her via vaginal intercourse?

Sean: Um…

Kristine: What?

Sean: What’s hilarious and weird about the rape scene is that his fantasy is to give her pleasure. He isn’t interested in phallic-ly penetrating her… It actually does seem to be about sex and not about power or “showing her who is boss.” He wants to pleasure her and worship her vagina.

Kristine: I would rather be raped by a penis then be forced to endure unwanted oral sex.

Sean: Really?

Kristine: Yes. Really, truly.

Sean: That makes no sense to me at all.

Kristine: I can’t explain why, but it is true.

Sean: I don’t think you can make that claim and then refuse to explain why.

Kristine: Maybe because you can write off the penis rape as violent versus sexual? But you cannot do the same with the forced cunny? Also because oral sex can be much more intimate and because… that mouth was not connected to a body.

Sean: Ok we have to talk about Hill.

Kristine: You mean, Mitt Romney.

Sean: Yes, Mitt Hill. Just… the spectacle of his body carrying his head around in the tray is, in my opinion, one of the most ingenious horror images of all time. What about when the body is pouring blood in the tray and the head is groaning and moaning in pleasure? Like the fresh blood feels so good?

Kristine: Ha ha, I loved that “feeding” scene. I love his enslavement of his own body. One of the things that’s great about Hill after he’s re-animated is how the visual sight of him reinforces the themes of the movie. I mean, the movie is about intellect versus instinct, right? One of the things that West and Cain keep expecting is that the bodies they reanimate will return with some semblance of intellect, but they don’t. They just keep returning as creatures of pure id, pure instinct. That’s what makes them monstrous. And West embodies intellectual pursuit, while Megan represents pure love and also… embodiment. That’s one of the more sexist constructions of the movie, that the woman is the crier, and the one who “cares.” She’s also very much defined by her body, though I think the movie does apply layers to that. Cain is caught between the two extremes. So when Hill’s head (his intellect) is separated physically from his body (his instinct), it sets up this awesome physical embodiment of the movie’s key tension. Also, it’s noteworthy that Hill is the only person to be reanimated who does retain a sense of self, a sense of their previous identity. Part of that might be exactly because his head is separate, compartmentalized away from the corrupting influence of the body. And now that I’m thinking about it, of course Hill’s rape of Megan is oral and not penile. But what’s weird is that his head still contains erotic energy. I’m not sure what to say about that, but… it’s kooky and hilarious and gross.

You don’t like my pizza?!?

Sean: I mean, if we read West as the new generation, the young punk rocker who doesn’t play by the establishment rules, then him decapitating Hill has a big symbolic meaning right?

Kristine: Absolutely. But what did you make off West’s reverence for Herr Gruber, his former mentor? Remember that he accused Hill of stealing Gruber’s ideas? I would like it better if it was just West versus Hill, not West versus Hill on behalf of Gruber.

Sean: I think West only acts offended by Hill’s plagiarism because (1) he is a prig and so he is anal about citing your sources and (2) it is ammunition to discredit Hill, which is what West wants to do.

Kristine: You don’t think he loved his daddy/ mentor?

Sean: Nah. But I think you might be right that this whole movie is about daddy issues – Hill is West’s “daddy” (and I guess Gruber was before that) and the Dean is Megan’s. To extend the metaphor, I guess that makes West into Cain’s daddy, which is sexy and filthy.

Kristine: Oh boy. Well, I think the reason why West has to rise up against his symbolic father, then, is that Hill is in the science game to get power – power over women (like Megan) and other men (like the dean and Dan).

Sean: Right…

Kristine: Whereas West is pure science – he isn’t doing this to “get” anything other than knowledge. He isn’t doing it to get laid or to get rich, which makes him both more noble and more scary, equally.

Sean: Well I think one could make the argument that West is “seducing” Dan throughout the whole movie.

Kristine: Yeah, fine, but it’s a secondary storyline.

Sean: Ok… You’re right that West isn’t driven by bodily desires, but intellectual ones. He’s presented as pretty much asexual (with strong undertones of repressed homosexuality), whereas Hill’s erotic obsession with Megan and Cain’s sexual relationship with Megan prove to be both of their undoings. The movie does seem to suggest that sexuality is… a distraction at best, a curse at worst. And I don’t like how all of that symbolism is forced onto Megan’s body. Once again, the woman bears the brunt of everything, and is a pawn in the narratives of men.

Kristine: I do love how Hill is decapitated, because remember, that’s the only way to kill a serpent. Who likes to use his tongue… I am grossing myself out!

Sean: I want you to have a dream where Hill’s head is… licking your ice cream cone.

Kristine: Fuck you.

Sean: Don’t you think that the movie is very traditional about gender politics? The connection between father and daughter is emotional and sentimental…

Kristine: …and fucked up…

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Sean: …and the connection between “father” and “son” is intellectual.

Kristine: Right. I did find Megan’s feelings for her zombified father to be touching… and his plight was horrible.

Sean: Oh yes, all of the film’s most intense moments of pathos revolve around the Megan/her father relationship. But so the horror of Hill is, you can cut off your dad’s head/the head of ”The Man”/the system’s head but it will not matter. There he/it will be, still shambling around, headless but impossibly still alive and functioning. You know, the stupidest thing West does in the movie is reanimate Hill, but I suppose that’s all about West’s hubris, right?

Kristine: Right.

Sean: But doesn’t West’s reanimation of Hill also point to either (a) a deep longing for the destroyed father figure or (b) a perverse pleasure in defiling the father figure, turning the scientist into the experiment? Remember he refers to Hill’s dead body as “parts”… (Fyi, this is where I feel like the Nazi doctor parallel works, is in the delight at turning human beings into test subjects).

Kristine: Yes, both. I also think Megan is supposed to be the embodiment of that deep longing for the destroyed father. Megan is, unapologetically, a “Daddy’s girl” and even though she’s sexually rebellious, it is a passive, secret rebellion. She still pretends to play by “Daddy’s rules.” She’s totally into the patriarchy.

Sean: Yes, and to address your earlier question, Hill keeping Dean Halsey in the room next door to him is a classic Frankenstein/Igor dynamic right? Halsey becomes Hill’s deranged henchman, and most of the horror of that is how he is this debased patriarch. Megan is in pain because she is forced to see her father emasculated, robbed of intellect, turned into an automaton.

Kristine: Yes. But, remember that it is through the bond of love that Megan is able to “reach” her dad at the end.

Sean: Yes…

Kristine: That part I didn’t like so much.

Sean: So ridiculous and melodramatic. Do you find the ending to be incredibly dark?

Kristine: Oh, yes, totally. But it had to happen that way, don’t you think?

Sean: It’s great, but when I saw this as a kid it really upset me. I mean, that idea that we all possess the urge to bring back our dead loved ones… Very Orpheus and Eurydice.

Kristine: Can I bring up something emotional? I don’t want to upset you.

Sean: Oh Jesus here we go. Who is the mad scientist now?

Kristine: Never mind.

Sean: No, now you must.

Kristine: I want to know if you would reanimate your boyfriend if he died and you had the serum right there in a big, Herbert West-ian syringe (by the way, it just struck me that West’s syringe is his total substitute phallus, the thing he “plunges” into bodies to create life… Gross!)

Sean: No I would not.

Kristine: I would reanimate my boyfriend in two seconds.

Sean: But he would be a shambling manbeast, all spurting blood and mucous.

Kristine: I know but I am selfish like that.

Honey, you are going to feel a little prick…

Sean: You would regret it, according to every horror movie ever.

Kristine: Hmmm. We’ll see.

Sean: You love to cast yourself in doomed roles.

Kristine: Ha ha, true.

Sean: You are “The Crow.”

Kristine: Gross!

Sean: Kristine “The Crow” would be your wrestling name. As you came down into the ring a Marilyn Manson cover of the Beatles song “Blackbird” would play.

Kristine: Umm. You know my grandmother’s maiden name is Wrona, which is “Crow” in Polish!

Sean: Ha!

Kristine: And her mother was known to be a witch and none of the Polish villagers would buy vegetables after she had touched them in the market. So watch yourself, Sonny!

Sean: Somehow I am not afraid of a Polish witch.

Kristine: Anyway.

Sean: Would you make out with Herbert West?

Kristine: Sure. You?

Sean: No. Would you piddle Dr. Hill?

Kristine: NO.

Sean: So just fyi, Stuart Gordon adapted another Lovecraft story into a movie called From Beyond [Editor’s note: Follow the link to our later discussion of that movie] and it stars both Jeffrey Combs (West) and Barbara Crampton (Megan). Crampton plays the Dan Cain role of the colleague and scientist.

Kristine: Yay! Do you think West sat outside Cain’s room when he was fucking Megan and jerked off? I do.

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Me too.

Sean: But he might be too asexual. I think he sat outside listening to them fucking while he quietly strangled Rufus to death with his bare hands.

Kristine: Stop it!

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece!

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!


11 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985)

  1. Kris – My bike’s name is “CROW!” Anyway, Re-animator is one of the best sci-fi/comedy/horror movies of all time, but I was saddened to learn Kris thinks guys who like the sci/fi or horror/comedy sub-genres are teenage boy-nerds. Oh well, at least we agree torture porn sucks.
    I think Sean’s observation that Mitt Romney is Dr. Hill was perfect except Mitt is more of a douche nozzle than a megalomaniac.
    I also agree with the kudos you gave to Stewart Gordon for making a great movie out of a typically turgid Lovecraft short story. It might be tough making a Cthulhu-themed horror comedy though.
    This said, I don’t buy Sean’s viewing Herbert West as a Nazi misogynist. He doesn’t just hate women. West despises everyone (Dan Cain included) except himself. Further, I also don’t agree the movie is about the Nazis and the Holocaust, and West is a parody of a Nazi doctor/scientist. To me, Herbert West was an extreme version of the mad scientist except while Dr. Frankenstein wanted to advance science and benefit humanity, West was a nut job who only wanted to gain prestige. I also don’t see West as an example of art imitating life, i.e. Nazi “medical” experiments. If anything, it was life (the Nazis) imitating art (Herr Frankenstein et al although I doubt no pre-Hitler writer or director would have dreamed up the Nazi (or Japanese) “experiments” or death camps.)
    What’s the fixation on daddy issues? I agree with Kris there are daddy issues here in the background, but the point is taken too far. I saw the conflict between West and Hill more as a power struggle between two alpha males.
    That’s my two cents. Keep up the good work. Dave P.

  2. I stand by my reading while admitting it’s many flaws. But I think the fact that pre-death camps no one could have dreamed up the Nazi “experiments” is EXACTLY the point and why the ultragore and aesthetics of Nazi science find their way into movies like Re-Animator. It’s all been dehistoricized and subsumed into the aesthetic universe as a way of either (a) denying it (b) dealing with it or (c) reappropriating it.

    But MAD daddy issues up in this piece. MAD DADDY ISSUES.

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