Of all the many great things that horror accomplished in the ‘80s, the introduction to the trifecta of Jeffrey Combs, Stuart Gordon, and Brian Yuzna ranks high on the list. Their first collaboration, Re-Animator, released in theaters 32 years ago on October 18, 1985, not only marked the first of many H.P. Lovecraft adaptations between director Gordon and producer Yuzna, but proved that even boundary-pushing horror could win the critics over with enough charm and wit. Though it may be only loosely based on the first half of Lovecraft’s novella, Herbert West-Reanimator, Re-Animator still remains one of the best, and most fun, cinematic adaptations of the prolific horror author’s works.
Inspired to come up with a new take on Frankenstein in a world inundated with vampire stories, a friend of Stuart Gordon suggested he read Herbert West-Reanimator. Thus, the idea for Re-Animator was born. Gordon, with his background in theater, initially thought to adapt the story for the stage, which soon gave way to adapting the story for the small screen with co-writers Dennis Paoli and William Norris. It wasn’t until Gordon was introduced to Yuzna that Re-Animator came together, with Yuzna making a solid case for the special effects that would be needed for the project. Most impressive of all was that this film was a first for both; Re-Animator was the first feature film that Yuzna produced and the first that Gordon ever directed.
The last piece of the puzzle was Herbert West himself, a blond-haired, blue-eyed scientific automaton according to the original story. Neither of which fits the description of actor Jeffrey Combs. When Combs read for the role, though, it didn’t matter. Combs was Herbert West, and no one else came close. Though Bruce Abbott’s Dan Cain may have been the everyman, it was Combs’ West that audiences gravitated toward with his dry humor and unflappable demeanor. It was Combs’ delivery of lines like, “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow,” along with the clever writing that solidified Combs’ status in the horror genre.
It wasn’t just the dialogue and clever writing that made Re-Animator such an enduring favorite, either. The unapologetic blood and gore, pushing the boundaries of nudity and gore on screen to the point that it had to be cut to attain an R-rating for theatrical release. The uncut, unrated version made it to home release, which was Gordon’s preferred and intended vision for the film. Who can blame him? West getting choked by intestines, a severed head getting inappropriately deviant with Barbara Crampton’s Meg Halsey, and at least 25 gallons worth of blood meant that the horror and comedy were in equal balance.
The gore and comedy delivered in spades, but it was Barbara Crampton as Meg Halsey that really made you care. Tasked with both being the fixation, and then victim, of Dr. Hill’s desire, Crampton had the unenviable task of portraying Halsey as the exposed damsel as well as the straight man counter to the madness around her. Like Combs, it was a breakthrough role for Crampton.
Upon release, even hard-to-please critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert couldn’t help but fall for Re-Animator’s charms, despite the way it really went for broke in gore and sexual humor at poor Meg Halsey’s expense. The practical effects, the over-the-top humor, and Jeffrey Combs’ legendary performance makes Re-Animator a classic, even 32-years later.