Denial of death: 35 years of Stuart Gordon film ‘Re-Animator’
“Horror and sex go hand in hand. I think that the two are life and death.” – Stuart Gordon
Often regarded as one of the best H.P. Lovecraft film adaptations, Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic Re-Animator is a delightfully gory sci-fi body horror film. Earlier this month, I mentioned it on a list alongside some of the best works of its genre and there’s good reason for it. 35 years have passed since the film was first released but its overwhelming influence can still be felt in contemporary pop-culture. Re-Animator is proof of the enduring legacy of the late filmmaker.
Gordon was already an accomplished theatre director when he made Re-Animator, his first feature film. “A friend of mine suggested that I do a horror film, explaining that it was the easiest thing to raise money for and the easiest way for investors to get their money back, no matter how terribly it turned out,” the director reflected. Drawing inspiration from Frankenstein, Gordon transformed Lovecraft’s story into his own. The film revolves around the exploits of Herbert West (played by Jeffrey Combs), a young medical student who has pioneered a way to bring the dead back to life but faces resistance from the traditional schools of thought prevalent in medical institutions. “I gave him life,” West claims while referring to the re-animated corpse of his previous professor in the opening sequence itself. However, the undead professor with an imploding head doesn’t look lively at all.
Thrown out of his previous medical school in Switzerland, West travels to Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts where he rooms with Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). Unlike the eccentric West, Dan is a model student who does not openly rebel against conventional ideas regarding death despite sharing the same concerns. The central problem that the film addresses is pretty obvious: is death absolute? It is refreshing to see how Re-Animator does not take itself seriously but still manages to pass as a philosophical thesis on the anthropological significance of death in our culture. As a species, we have solved many universal mysteries over the centuries but the one thing that remains elusive is the reversal of entropy. The primary antagonist of Re-Animator, Dr. Carl Hill (played by David Gale), says: “We all want to retain our personalities in some idyllic afterlife. We all pray for some miracle, some drug, potion, pill.”
It is evident that West has designed a glowing neon green serum to “re-animate” the dead but those who come back to life (if you can call it that) never retain their personalities. They are in a frenzied state and lash out violently at this rebellion against the natural course of life. Is the whole ordeal worth it then? In his seminal work The Denial of Death (1973), American philosopher Ernest Becker wrote, “of all the things that move man, one of the principle ones is his terror of death.” This is especially true for Herbert West’s science project. He believes that he can “defeat death” but he never stops to ask why. Acting on an evolutionary instinct, he does everything he can to take care of the ultimate threat to our survival. It’s an immortality project but a flawed one that cannot differentiate between life and the “appearance of life”.
Re-Animator’s innovative investigation of the ethics of death are often overshadowed by its effective use of special effects. Despite having a relatively low budget of $900,000, producer Brian Yuzna thought the film had a “sort of shock sensibility of an Evil Dead with the production values of, hopefully, The Howling.” The most iconic scene from the film is undoubtedly that of the headless Dr. Hill carrying his own severed head. Each scene with the decapitated zombie forced mechanical effects designer Tony Doublin to take a different approach, including one where he built an upper torso and asked David Gale to bend over and stick his head through so that it would look like the head was being carried around. In addition to the special effects, Gordon’s use of an impeccable sound design (intentionally similar Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho) paired with a fast-paced visual narrative works very well to create an atmosphere of horror.
There’s one particular scene from Re-Animator, dubbed as the “head giving head” scene, where Dan’s girlfriend Megan is restrained on an operation table and is sexually violated by the severed head of Dr. Hill. In keeping with the spirit of reversal, Gordon reverses the phenomenon of necrophilia. Even death cannot erase the perversions of humanity. Dan and West team up to save Megan and West’s work respectively and the final showdown in the morgue looks like a boss-battle straight out of a video game. The morgue’s security guard comes back to duty only to find the headless zombie of Dr. Hill, making him go “What the fuck?’ In what is one of the funniest scenes in the film, he takes one look at all the unnatural shit that is going down and makes a run for it.
Although West gets trapped with the re-animated corpses, Dan saves his work and almost manages to save Megan as well but she succumbs to her injuries. He tries to bring her back to life with the help of conventional devices like a defibrillator. After everything fails, he uses West’s serum on Megan. Even though he has seen the horrific aftermath of the serum’s effects, he clings onto this failed immortality symbol. The screen fades to black and all we can hear is Megan screaming as she is forced back into existence.