I first saw the thing all the way back in the great 1980’s, and – though I could be wrong about the location – I’m pretty sure it was at a college friend’s home where I stayed over school break. If I remember correctly, it had come out on home video (VHS) fairly recently, and one of the clerks in the corner video store strongly recommended it to us when we were searching for something different. We took the suggestion, and – again, I may have the particulars a bit off here – I’m pretty certain we sat through it not once but twice. That’s what young minds used to do back in the day, folks, when there was absolutely nothing else within thirty miles of desolate farmland for entertainment – we watched things twice.
As I recall, my buddy loved the thing through and through, but I was a bit guarded. I recall having a whole lot of questions the first time the screen faded to black. While the picture clearly had a great mash-up of ideas – both gratuitous and cerebral – there was still something that kept me from warmly embracing it. I agreed it was likely going to become a huge, huge, huge cult hit (which it most definitely has), but I argued that those who liked to think a bit more about stories would stumble over its storytelling deficiencies here and there. However, we both liked it enough to rent it once more for its screening at our fraternity house once school resumed … and, yes, it had just the right appeal for a college-aged audience to moan and groan over in the proper measure.
Still, it was a picture that stuck in the back of my mind as the years went by. I’d stumble across references to it in my reading on films, and I definitely kept an eye out for the subsequent projects of writer/director Stuart Gordon, actor Jeffrey Combs, and scream queen Barbara Crampton. Yes, their involvement in other properties encouraged me to pick up and watch something that otherwise wouldn’t have appealed to me, and the respect I hold for each of them has finally prompted me to sit down and pen a reflection on my first experience with them.
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“After an odd new medical student arrives on campus, a dedicated local and his girlfriend become involved in bizarre experiments centering around the re-animation of dead tissue.”
Folks, it goes without saying that I’ve always (always!) been afflicted with a singular curse: I think too much about stories.
As one who has dabbled quite a bit in the weaving of my own fictional tapestries, I’ve always gone to great pains to try to make absolutely certain that every piece within a broader tale makes sense. A story is, mostly, the assembly of pieces; and – like anything disassembled – it can be put together a variety of ways. For me, each component should have a time and a place. It should be given the proper amount of attention needed in order to establish both its existence and, ultimately, its purpose; and when these various fragments aren’t clearly defined for the audience the resulting confusion is owed to an inferior storyteller.
This isn’t a complaint. It’s a fact. Everything in any given story both has and should make sense. If it doesn’t, then it’s either a distraction or unnecessary … and it should go.
For a number of reasons, there have been multiple edits of Re-Animator over the years. Chiefly, this is owed to the fact that – early in its release – there were rated and unrated prints (anyone interested can do a bit of research to know more about this, and the Arrow Films release discusses it in solid detail). I’ve no way of knowing with absolute certainty which incarnation of the flick I saw back in the great 1980’s, but I can say it’s a bit different from the one I’ve seen recently. Both do have similar narrative problems (as I see it), so I do feel a bit vindicated in confessing my reasons for not fully embracing all of its magic decades later.
All right, haters. Calm down. I never said I disliked the movie because that would be far from the truth. I find so very much of Re-Animator endearingly horrific, but – as I’ve already said – I do tend to think about story. These questions – and there are many, many others, folks – are the kind of things that crept into my consciousness while watching this release only just yesterday (twice again!), and just as they percolated to the surface three decades ago they did so then. Such glaringly obvious stumbling should’ve been cleaned up at some point … but I can say that – by partaking of Arrow’s special features – a good number of these queries were answered, meaning that perhaps my occasionally disjointed mind was correct in seizing upon them originally.
The differing cuts is only one of the guilty culprits, and director Gordon explains both in the commentary track as well as the accompanying documentary on the film’s making that Dr. Hill (David Gale) had been experimenting with perfecting mind control. That one admission cleared up a great number of the shortcomings involving both his characterization as well as the entire zombie-fueled big finish (and it is a big finish); and I can’t believe that so many suggestions were actually left in the original film. There were enough indications to warrant the genius had some kind of hidden ability, and I think it was a huge disservice to audiences that some explanation – even one that could’ve been part of a quick reshoot – wasn’t provided. It could’ve been small. It could’ve been quick. That one small tweak could’ve honestly worked wonders … at least for me.
Setting aside any of the other narrative hiccups, Re-Animator is still a visual treat, and I say this well into its fourth decade.
Abbott plays the flick’s ‘everyman’ with a good sense of humor. He makes his and Megan’s relationship work to the point wherein the audience roots for the couple, hoping they can eventually iron out the complications keeping them apart. I’d argue that the script perhaps weakened his resolve a bit too dramatically in a few spots, giving him a bout of shock when it all turns to blood a bit too quickly, but – as they say – it is what it is.
And … where would cult and genre villains be without the skills of Jeffrey Combs? Granted, he’ll likely never be employed as a babysitter, but the man possesses his own villainous charisma that can both be turned on/off in an instant or given the kind of layers a more dynamic premise/plot might require. He’s been a part of so many projects throughout the years, and what I find so refreshing about his work is that even if he’s in a small role he never “phones it in.” He’s always w-o-r-k-i-n-g. He’s always emoting. He's always giving audiences something to see – even if it’s in passing – and that’s admirable, to say the least.
Though he’s gone now, writer/director Gordon leaves behind an incredible resume that genre fans should continue exploring. Re-Animator was his debut production, and its reception no doubt helped usher other opportunities his way in the years that followed. He’s credited with crafting the story behind Walt Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (1989) as well as directing such projects as Robot Jox (1989), Fortress (1992), Space Truckers (1996), and Dagon (2001). If my words in this space accomplish nothing more than encouraging a few others to seek out and explore his work, then I’ve done my job … and that’d bring a smile to my face.
Re-Animator (1985) was produced by Empire Pictures and Re-animator Productions. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Arrow Video.
I’m glad that I went back and revisited Re-Animator all these years later. While that first viewing so many years back wasn’t the perfect experience, the film still found some comfortable corner in my mind, took root, and continued to grow – entirely without my permission! It stuck with me – the way some formative events do – and the revisitation helped me to finally resolve some questions lingering in those recesses of my gray matter. And – if I do say so myself – this Arrow Video release is spectacular: while I’m usually no big fan of deleted scenes I’d encourage every single person reading this to watch these 20+ minutes excised from the final print as they do go a long way toward filling in several potholes and fleshing out the relationships between all of Re-animator’s central players. Yes, yes, yes: I understand why they were cut … but seeing them demonstrates why some of the narrative unfolds a certain way, whether or not it all makes perfect sense.