Though it's heavily based upon the 20s H.P. Lovecraft story "Herbert West - Reanimator", the Stuart Gordon helmed, Brian Yuzna produced Re-Animator is pretty much the epitome of the cheesy, entertaining 80s horror flick. With B-Movie extraordinaire Jeffrey Combs in his defining role, one that he's never in my opinion surpassed, we're treated to a good old Frankenstein tale of the dead being returned to the living, only not in the way that their restorers might have preferred. Only, unlike Shelley's classic masterpiece, this is not a story with any residual moral qualities, but a spectacle of gore played almost entirely for laughs, despite its sinister undercurrent of possibility. Re-Animator is not quite so over the top as something like Peter Jackson's Braindead, which clearly took a few queues from this, but it's nonetheless a riot. The haircuts and cinematography might feel dated to its decade of greatness, but like Scanners, Evil Dead and The Return of the Living Dead, it's the sort of 80s cult film worth revisiting every few years in the spirit of bloody fun.
You know the entirety of the plot as soon as you see the title: Re-Animator, and that's pretty much the only hangup I might have with this film. Herbert West, who previously was working with a prominent Swiss scientist, has traveled to Miskatonic University in Massachusetts to continue his research into posthumous brain life and the ability to bring back the dead from the precipice of oblivion using his special 'reagant'. From there, he hooks up with a medical student Dan Cain and begins to test out his serum on increasingly complex subjects, who just happen to be heavily involved with the University and Cain's girlfriend. Obviously, this is all going to go downhill, and in the course of the movie's 95 minute runtime, it surely does, while conveniently setting up sequels through the final scene. I haven't really checked out the sequels, and as usual with horror franchises, they never seem to be that highly regarded, so approach them with caution if you happen to enjoy this and seek out more.
Aside from the cheesy but effective makeup and special effects work, it is Combs himself who really steered my enjoyment of Re-Animator through the duality of his character. Is he a cold, sick fuck playing God? Or does he actually wish the best for humanity, to defeat death, and just have a very anti-social way of going about it? Jeffrey handles this with a balance of delicate disconnection and moments of explosive intensity, and even though he's indisputably tongue in cheek, he makes a pretty predictable plot all the more fun. David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill is also enormously creepy and memorable, but the rest of the actors just sort of 'exist', even the alluring scream queen Barbara Crampton who shows a little skin. Richard Band's soundtrack is also excellent, and the opening sequences, which features multi-hued anatomical diagrams in an eerie waltz across the opening credits, is something to behold. It had a reasonable budget for an underground horror flick of its day, and it works well within it, never robbing us of the gore we deserve.
I wouldn't go so far to call Re-Animator amazing, or timeless. It's not Aliens, or The Shining, or The Thing. It never takes itself quite so seriously as the top echelon horror films of the 80s, nor does it have the same sense for morbid pathos as the Romero Dead sequels or The Beyond from Lucio Fulci. But for popcorn horror, with a small cast and simple plot, its certainly worth the time to rent, and it will have no problem appealing to fans of the earlier Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi stuff.
Verdict: Win [8/10]