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Feature


‘Herbert West Has a Very Good Head on His Shoulders... And Another One in a Dish on His Desk.’ One of the best taglines of our time. Stuart Gordon's début feature is one of the most important and influential films of the horror/comedy sub-genre. There have been dark comedy/horror hybrids since the dawn of storytelling, and outrageous slapstick dates back to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and H.G. Lewis revamped that slapstick in his tongue-in-cheek gore epics, but it is The Re-Animator stands as the perfect modern era extension.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition
The story follows Herbert West, played with extreme gusto by a young and unknown Jeffery Combs (surely one of the worlds top ten most underrated actors), who comes to the fictional Miskatonic University in search of the knowledge needed to bring life to the dead. The school offers West little in the way of stimulation, and soon he's reverted to his pre-credit sequence ways, injecting his homemade, day-glow green goo into the fresh cadavers and checking for vitals. West manages to suck his new roommate Dan into the debacle with the promise of eternal glory, and the two are soon ejected from school for their meddling, much to the chagrin to of Dan's girlfriend, who doesn't trust West from the outset. A series of tragic mistakes leads West's rival, Dr. Hill, to the apartment to discover the truth behind Dan and Herbert's secret.

Gordon's film is based on one of H.P. Lovecraft's pulpiest stories (originally printed as a series). Herbert West: Re-Animator is not quintessential in the author's canon by any means, but it is one of the most easily and affordably adaptable ones. Fans will often favour At the Mountains of Madness and other Necronomicon based work. Here there are no unnamable, monstrous Gods, and the unusually colourful and often overly metaphorically descriptions are somewhat stilted. The series is most renowned for its humour (not usual for Lovecraft), and it's extreme racism (not an abnormality for Lovecraft). In the book West first tests his re-agent on 'coloured' people, because they are apparently 'lesser' beings, more akin to animals than men. Gordon's film manages to askew this shamelessly inappropriate angle.

Re-Animator the movie owes as much of its existence to the classic E.C. Comic series of pre-code American funny books as Lovecraft himself. The E.C. series ( Tales from the Crypt, Creepy, etc.) were knowingly and admittedly pilfered by Romero on a regular basis, from his zombie flicks to his direct homage Creepshow. It remained favoured pickings for other modern horror and fantasy directors who were weaned on the mags, and is inspirationally prevalent through the mid-'80s. The comic influence in Re-Animator can be seen in its ironic sense of humour (much more obvious than Lovecraft's) and its brightly coloured visuals.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition
Insanely clever, deviously funny, and gruesomely raunchy, Re-Animator is most remembered for its final act 'rape-by-severed-head' sequence, but has a lot more going for it than simply bawdy visual puns. The script houses some of the most quotable witticisms this side of Peter Sellers. When confronted with the possibility of being caught by the late night morgue staff, West simply scoffs and quips, ‘What will they do, embalm us?’ The genius of the humour comes in its mix of subtlety and embellished vulgarity. Had the funny stuff been played as funny the wildness of the situations would've been too cartoony, and the film would lose its razor edge. West's nonchalant reactions, mixed with Dan's realistic reaction are the comedic backbone of the film, and its greatest dramatic asset as well.

Re-Animator could've been just an aggressively campy and gory comedy, akin to the early works or John Waters, but because of Dan and Meg's very real and very touching relationship, and the subsequent rift created by West, the film has genuine humanity. Combs steals every scene he's in, his performance is one for the ages, and David Gale bites into the scenery in a very Vincent Price fashion as Dr. Carl Hill. But these performances would simply be extra paint on an already overfilled canvas if it wasn't for Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton taking their roles so seriously. As Stuart Gordon says, they are the unsung heroes of the film.

The filmmakers and actors involved were almost all from the theatre, not to mention new to film. Gordon nurtured these stage backgrounds as well as his own. The film is shot kind of like a theatre troop's re-enactment of an E.C. comic book. There aren't a lot of close-ups or bravado camera techniques, and the sets are often blocked like a stage. Swedish cinematographer Mac Ahlberg has his moments, but it's mostly his lighting that gives the film its visual grandeur.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition
Though dated (some of the special effects are still effective, others are cheesy but appealing), Gordon's film somehow appreciates with each passing year. Like most cult films of the 1980s, Re-Animator endured due to its popularity on video, two VHS releases, two Laserdisc releases, and this marks the third DVD release. It's a real cult item, a movie one can make friends over and through. Give it a try, shout out ‘Who's going to believe a talking head?’ on a crowded street, I guarantee that a passing pedestrian will answer you with a glib exclamation of ‘Get a job in a sideshow!’ Personally, it's Re-Animator that I find new love for with subsequent viewings. Evil Dead 2 and Braindead are both great films, and films I can watch any day of the week, but this one ends the day a top the heap.

Video


The original DVD release from Elite Entertainment, duped from their original laserdisc, was widescreen, but a little dirty and non-anamorphic. Elite later released a 'Millennium Edition' version of the DVD, as they had with their other two most celebrated titles, I Spit on Your Grave and Night of the Living Dead. It was anamorphic and very clean. For a low budget film from the mid '80s, it was an impressive transfer.

Could Anchor Bay, apparently working hand in hand with Stuart Gordon, possibly improve on the later Elite release? The short answer is pretty much no, with a but. An eagle eye and an obsessive-compulsive mind will notice that this new transfer does have sharper details and smoother motion, but they are all but invisible. I took screen caps from both discs, but found that they looked so much alike that it would be a waste of DVDActive's web space. I've included one to illustrate my point.

The new transfer still doesn't solve the old transfer's biggest problem, which was the darkest of the interior house sequences. Some scenes in the film are meant to be only key lit, but others suffer to the point that you almost can't see what's happening. If Gordon really was approving this transfer, however, I'm forced to assume that this was a conscious choice.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition
Anchor Bay Release


Re-Animator: Limited Edition
Millennium Release


Audio


Taking low budget, twenty-year-old horror films and remixing them to sound like they were made for triple the budget just last year is usually a pointless exercise. These surround mixes are usually either riddled with additional and artificial sounding sound effects, or just boil down suped up mono mixes. Elite's Millennium Edition release of Re-Animator didn't only have a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, it also had a DTS track and a THX optimizer. It was overkill, and it didn't really sound very impressive.

When confronted with such a similar video transfer I assumed that Anchor Bay's re-release would use more or less the same Dolby and DTS tracks as well. Thankfully, this new release is measurably better than the former. The big difference is the spatial differentiation. I keep my speakers pretty far apart in my home, and like to notice this type of thing. The Elite release was basically a wall of sound with a decent LFE channel. This disc has an even deeper bass track (which really helps the film's score), and surround channels are actually somewhat effective. The inclusion of DTS is still a little silly, but I can't imagine the film sounding any 'better' than this. Beyond the music this isn't an aggressive track, but it also doesn’t sound like some modern rehash, it sounds like a crisper version of Gordon's intention.

Fan's of the first disc will have one reason to hang onto it, however, as the isolated score is nowhere to be found on Anchor Bay's disc.

Extras


If a slightly better A/V aren't going to get fans to double dip, maybe a myriad of new extra features will. Well, more like a single new extra I suppose, but it's a pretty good one. The extra I speak of is the all new 70 minute documentary Re-Animator Resurrectus, which features interviews with every one of the most important people behind the film (with the exception of David Gale, who's dead). The doc is very good, actually, maybe not 'buy a new copy of the same movie you've purchased 3 times already' good, but it's good.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition
The doc can be broken down into three parts. The first part takes about ten minutes to fill in the details of the project's pre-production phase, a brief history of producer Brian Yuzna and director Stuart Gordon, the scripting process, and the casting of lead actors. Some of this stuff can be seen on the special features section of Gordon's first Masters of Horror release, Dream in the Witch House.

Part two takes the entire film and boils it down to a fifty-minute essence, allowing the actors, director, writer, producer, and effects team to break the feature apart scene by scene. Sometimes the interviews appear in the corner of the screen while the film itself plays. This section is most invaluable for the never before seen behind the scenes video, including some stills of the fabled grosser version of Dr. Hill's lecture, where he removes a human brain from its housing. This breakdown approach makes for a well-structured analysis, as opposed to other retrospective documentaries that tend to jump around the production a hair too randomly.

Part three is about ten minutes of pre-release discussion. This includes the film's theatrical release, trailers, rating, reviews, and eventual cult status. Surprisingly enough, the film was very well received by critics at the time, despite its filthy nature. It didn't make a whole lot of money off the bat, but the video release became a bit of a sensation. It makes for a good capping to a good doc.

With the exception of a few stills, this pretty much ends the Anchor Bay exclusive extras. Those that already own the Millennium Edition release will probably want to stop reading now.

Disc one contains two classic commentary tracks. The first features Gordon solo, and is the more technically proficient of the two tracks. The second track features producer Brian Yuzna and actors Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton and Robert Sampson. This is the 'fun' track, though no less informative than Gordon's. There is surprisingly little repeating between the tracks, though they do make the new doc a bit moot information-wise.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition
Two versions of the film were made available during the initial video release—the uncut, 'unrated' version and an edited 'R-rated' version for TV and less ballsy video outlets. The edited version, though shorn of several minutes of gore (not to mention the film's show-stopping visual pun), but was actually longer in run time due to the inclusion of several scenes originally cut for timing. These scenes offered little to the film, but were sought after by fans regardless. These extended scenes end up changing the film quite a bit, and add a subplot revealing Dr. Hill to be a master hypnotist.

There is also a deleted dream sequence here, which is presented unfinished. The sequence is edited, but has no music, and an obviously temporary soundtrack. This is one of those deleted scenes that really doesn't belong in the finished film, but its inclusion goes towards making this the ultimate collection of Re-Animator extras, and it's interesting to see the places the film may've gone.

The interview section is a little repetitive in light of the commentary, not to mention the new documentary, but this is a complete collection, as I've stated a few times already, and every bit counts towards that. Gordon and Yuzna interview each other for about fifty minutes. It's a little overlong, but has a nice 'fly-on-the-wall' aspect not present during the doc. Composer Richard Band makes it clear that his title score was meant to be an homage to Bernard Hermann, not a rip-off. After his recollection of events, Band's given a chance to walk us through a few of the films more memorable cues. The other two interviews, which all run more palatable lengths, but have less in the way of info, feature writer Dennis Paoli and Fangoria Magazine editor Tony Timpone.

The second disc is rounded out by the original theatrical trailer and a selection of TV spots, a series of stills (the new ones), posters and video boxes, and a Stuart Gordon bio. The only extra I can that can recall from the original Elite release that hasn't been included on any subsequent release is an Easter egg. When watching the trailers, one could switch to a commentary track featuring the actors. It was cute.

Re-Animator: Limited Edition
Those with a lot of printer ink and paper can also print out the original screenplay and Lovecraft's original short story collection. And least I forget this set's other original (and apparently limited edition) extra, the syringe shaped green highlighter. It's also cute.

Overall


The Re-Animator is a personal favourite of mine, so I cannot recommend it enough to those who haven't yet met with its gooey charms. This set really does seem to be the end all, ultimate Re-Animator release, and I'm giving it a full ten out of ten, but the previous Elite release really hasn't aged all that poorly either. The A/V may not be perfect, but I really can't fathom them being any better, considering the film's roots and age. Fans unconcerned with an only slightly revised transfer, a more modern sounding DTS track, and a good, but somewhat unnecessary seventy-minute documentary will probably be content with keeping their Millennium Edition discs. Those with the means and funds may find the re-purchase worthwhile overall, and those without the film on disc as of yet will be happy they waited.


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