“Herbert West has a very good head on his shoulders… and another one in a dish on his desk.”
October is one of my favorite months, not just for the atmosphere of spookiness and fun that accompany Halloween, but also because October gives me an excuse to binge-watch my favorite cult classic horror films. Most, if not all, of my favorite movies come from this genre.
For people who aren’t familiar with the term “cult film,” I’m sure it sounds strange. But it really just refers to “a film that has acquired a cult following,” and they are known for “their dedicated, passionate fanbase, an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings, quoting dialogue, and audience participation” (Wikipedia). Some cult films do horrendously in the box office, but live on in infamy for years afterward, kept alive by their dedicated and unrelenting fans. Under this umbrella we find movies like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “The Room,” and “Repo! The Genetic Opera.”
Without a doubt, my favorite from this genre is “Re-Animator,” an 80s horror-meets-science-fiction classic. This movie comes from a trilogy, but the first in the series is inarguably the most famous and the one I love the most.
“Re-Animator” is not your average zombie flick. It follows a story where “dedicated student [Dan Cain] at a medical college and his girlfriend [Meg Halsey] become involved in bizarre experiments centering around the reanimation of dead tissue when an odd new student [Herbert West] arrives on campus” (IMDB). The trilogy is loosely based on HP Lovecraft’s 1922 short story “Herbert West—Reanimator,” which is notorious for being one of the “first depictions of zombies as scientifically reanimated corpses, with animalistic and uncontrollable temperaments” (Wikipedia).
So, what’s so special about this movie? To put it simply, what the “Re-animator” films lack in production quality they make up for in their charm. Fans love this series for its perfect combination of dark humor, pre-CGI low budget special effects, and over-the-top gore. Jeremiah Kipp of Slant Magazine writes that Re-Animator “doesn’t hesitate in being an almost operatic, larger than life comedy of splatter.” It also boasts a phenomenal cast, namely Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton. All the elements of this movie come together in one perfect, hilarious gore-fest.
Another big draw to this series is the mad scientist protagonist, Herbert West. Don’t be fooled by how many fans love him, though—West is actually a pretty horrible person. He is corrupt, conceited, immoral, antisocial and some might call him a sociopath. He has little regard for the people around him and will stop at nothing to get scientific data for his own benefit. Even when his actions result in the death of others, he feels no remorse. However, strangely enough, there is something about him that fans find endearing. Maybe we feel for him because he is a social outcast. Maybe we like to theorize that deep down, he has heroic motives. Maybe we are simply entertained by his outrageous mad science. Or perhaps it’s just Jeffrey Combs’ stellar acting skills and devotion to the role that make West so iconic. Whatever it is, West is a big reason I keep coming back to this series.
To paint a better picture of my connection to “Re-animator,” let me break down my thoughts about each movie in the series.
1) “Re-Animator” (1985)
My rating: 9/10
The first movie in this series will always beat out the rest. (This film actually just celebrated its 33rd birthday last week on Oct. 18!) It was directed by Stuart Gordon, who worked on equally weird movies like “From Beyond,” another 80s Lovecraft-inspired film. As I mentioned before, this installment follows student Dan Cain and his girlfriend Meg Halsey, whose lives are turned upside down by the appearance of deranged Herbert West. We watch as Dan is sucked into helping Herbert’s vile science experiments, which involve re-animating Dan’s dead cat and Meg’s dead father (neither of which end particularly well). While every experiment ends horribly, West is willing to die to find the elixir of life. Like his devotion to conquering death, the “Re-animator” series carries on.
There is every reason to love this movie. Fans and critics alike will agree with me—“Re-animator” boasts a whopping 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is a critically acclaimed, timeless classic. It has no shortage of thrills, chills and copious amounts of skin-crawling body horror. If you’re looking for a Frankenstein-esque tale with more blood and humor, I would give it a viewing.
2) “Bride of Re-Animator” (1990)
My rating: 9/10
The second film in our series is “Bride of Re-Animator” which emerges five years after its successful predecessor. As its title suggests, Bride plays on the plot from the 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein.” This leg of the story follows West and Dan continuing their efforts several years after Meg’s death at the end of the first film. West decides to move on from reviving dead bodies to creating a complete human from dead body parts—the core of which is Meg’s heart, which West uses to coerce Dan into helping him. As one might predict, everything goes wrong.
Considerably less loved than its predecessor, this movie receives a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest for the trilogy. Frankly, I find this score unfair—I like Bride just as much, if not more, than I like Re-Animator. This film uses psychological and physical horror in innovative ways. We see a creature made from eyeballs and fingers, a dog with human arms and much, much, more. Bride has the best ending in the entire trilogy, wherein a mob of hideous creatures that West made—a mess of heads, arms, and legs—revolt and attack their creator. I also love this film because it gives us a better picture of the characters we met in the first movie. I especially love this monologue from West when the Bride comes to life, because it removes any doubt that Herbert West is so self-righteous he places himself above God:
“Blasphemy? Before what god? A god repulsed by the miserable humanity he created in his own image? I will not be shackled by the failures of your god. The only blasphemy is to wallow in insignificance. I have taken refuse of your god’s failures and I have triumphed. There! There is my creation!”
3) “Beyond Re-Animator” (2003)
My rating: 3/10
Our last film, which I scarcely want to mention, is “Beyond Re-Animator.” Directed in 2003 again by Yuzna, it holds a 45% on Rotten Tomatoes—marginally better than Bride, but definitely not deserving. It takes place years after Bride and follows our beloved West, who has been imprisoned after being incriminated by evidence presented by former partner Dan Cain.
What I hate about this movie is that it lacks the charm of the previous two films. On the surface, it checks off several boxes that the other films had: decent acting, entertaining gore and a plot about reanimation that brings something new to the horror genre. But for many reasons, this movie just falls flat. If you loved the last two movies for the characters, you’re out of luck. The only returning character is West. Dan, Meg, and Dr. Hill’s roles are filled by entirely new characters who are undeveloped and boring. Where the other films use humor sparingly and effectively, this film overuses it. It has a weird, fast pace and a plotline that is interesting in theory but unsatisfying in reality. In short, Jeff Combs is the only saving grace for this movie. It saddens me to think the trilogy had to end this way—but nonetheless, these three films will always mean something special to me.
In short, “Re-Animator” has rightfully earned its cult status by bringing something totally new to the dark comedy genre. I imagine it will be many years before we see another movie that has the same unique appeal. Until then, you can find me re-watching Gordon and Yuzna’s masterpieces while I wait.