Stuart Gordon passed away on March 24th of this year, leaving behind a long and varied career that traversed the boardwalks of live theatre, the silver screen and celluloid film. Horror aficionados would know him best for his ability to channel the weirdness of H.P. Lovecraft’s works and translate them to the big screen: In addition to 1985’s Re-Animator, a modern update of Lovecraft’s 1922 novella, Gordon also helmed From Beyond (1986), Castle Freak (1995), Dagon (2001), and an episode of Masters of Horror, all based on stories by the Cthulhu writing pioneer.
However, you may not have known that Gordon was responsible for co-creating the mega-hit Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) and its sequel, Honey, I Blew up the kid (1992). There was also Robot Jox (1990), futuristic-prison yarn Fortress (1992) and tongue-in-cheek comedy Space Truckers (1996). In 2003 he adapted Charlie Higson’s noir novel King of the Ants and collaborated again with Mamet on a film version of Edmond (2005). His final directorial credit was Stuck (2009), another comedy horror with Stephen Rea as a hobo wedged in nurse Mena Suvari’s car windscreen.
“[…] Re-Animator remains one of the best and most well-known Lovecraft adaptations, to this day.”
But it was the writings of H.P. Lovecraft that seemed to call to Gordon like a siren song, in particular the short stories involving Dr. Herbert West and his ‘special reinvigorating’ formula that would ignite his ultimate cult horror film Re-Animator. Lovecraft himself disliked the novellas, and the insistence of the publishers to have these stories end on a cliff-hanger irked the author. Whether you love cosmic horror and elder Gods, or just prefer to see zombies shambling down a hospital morgue, Re-Animator remains one of the best and most well-known Lovecraft adaptations, to this day.
And it seems fitting that Gordon was likely the best candidate to take on the gory film, as his history with live radical theatre as a student would demonstrate. He staged an anti-war version of Peter Pan (inspired by the Democratic convention riots of that same year) which resulted with him and his then-girlfriend (and later wife) Carolyn Purdy arrested for obscenity. Undeterred, Gordon set up the Organic Theatre, described as a “take-off-your-clothes, scream and bleed theatre” – which he ran for 16 years. Among its successes was the Gordon-directed premiere production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago in 1974.
In many ways Gordon’s theatrical background provided the blueprint for Re-Animator and the schlock-tastic era of 80’s splatter body horror. Dan Cain (played by Bruce Abbott) is a medical student at Miskatonic University (Lovecraft’s college of the occult) who is in a relationship with the Dean’s daughter, Megan (Barbara Crampton). A mysterious transfer student called Herbert West (chewing the scenery with aplomb by Jeffrey Combs) rents a room with Dan and proceeds to start experimentations on the dead, notably trying to bring them back to life.
One evening Dan stumbles into the basement where West is conducting his best Victor Frankenstein impersonation and becomes his accomplice. Because it’s all for science! Naturally, the testing of West’s iconic luminous neon green serum doesn’t go as expected: the dead come back all right, but they also have berserker-like-rage and try to kill anything in their path. Adding to this concoction of mad scientist tomfoolery is Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) who not only sets his greedy sights on obtaining West’s work and passing it off as his own, but also has a creepy longing for Dan’s girlfriend, Megan.
It would be easy to simply play Dan as the optimistic and naïve young student, the protagonist of this story and have West as the amoral and cold antagonist, but Herbert West is the anti-hero of this film. Does he manipulate Dan to comply with his illegal experiments? Sure. Does he favour the cold, clinical science as opposed to the rationale and ethics of the people around him? Yup. But he’s not a megalomaniac, a trait that Dr. Hill showcases. And West also doesn’t exhibit a creepy crush on the dean’s daughter. We root for Herbert West, because time and time again his experiments fail, but we know he’s just one step closer to perfecting the serum. Dr. Hill is the perfect nemesis for West and they are opposites in every sense: David Gale’s tall stature, gaunt appearance and deep baritone voice makes him the perfect horror movie villain compared to Jeffery Comb’s smaller stature, giant glasses and nervous energy.
The gore is on high count as we see decapitations, burn victims, eyes bulging out of their sockets and even in the possibly the most haunting scene, a zombified Dr. Hill about to perform a sex act on an imprisoned Megan. But whilst the gore and nudity were high, there seemed to be an anchorage that Gordon set within the realm of the film – you never felt at anytime that the ridiculous notion of the situation veered into campiness, and it seemed like all the actors involved were playing it straight, as opposed to hamming things up.
Gordon plays with the theme of addiction throughout and would later revisit that same topic when From Beyond (1986) was released. West’s relentless pursuit of finding the right mixture to bring the dead back to life shares the same characteristics of the classic drug addict who cannot stop their urge to use no matter how out of control they get and who they end up hurting. It’s subtle and never gets smashed in your face, letting the undead practical effects take centre stage.
Two sequels would be later made with varying degrees of success. Brian Yuzna was in the director’s chair for Bride of Re-Animator (1989), and Beyond Re-Animator, (2003) but both films never quite hit the heights, be it story-wise or gore-wise, of its predecessor.
Stuart Gordon was set to return as director for House of Re-Animator which was to be a political bayoneting of the George W. Bush-era with the amoral Dr. West reanimating the president himself, but sadly with the director’s death it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing another Re-Animator film anytime soon. There is a silver lining however, as Stuart Gordon produced a stage musical of Re-Animator which, ironically, is what he envisioned in the first place. Re-Animator’s place in the archives of horror has long been assured, with a lot of practical effects that still stands the test of time and supplants itself as one of the influential horror-comedies such as Fright Night (1985) and Return of the Living Dead (1985).