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‘Re-Animator,’ the godfather of giddy gore, at 30

The film remains a pre-CGI classic

Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West in 1985’s “Re-Animator.”
Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West in 1985’s “Re-Animator.”Empire Pictures/Everett Collection/Courtesy Everett Collection

Has it been 30 years since “Re-Animator” first splattered across the screen? It looks like my taste in horror movies isn’t just old school, it’s ancient school.

Thank goodness I’m not alone. For the past month, audiences at the Harvard Film Archive have enjoyed a smorgasbord of genre pictures in the series Ben Rivers’ Midnite Movies (showtime 10 p.m.). The curator, a filmmaker and visiting fellow at Harvard, shares out-there movies from the ’70s and ’80s that warped him during his pre-teen years. For May 23, he’s chosen a gem.

Let’s journey back to the pre-CGI days when makeup-effects artists were getting their hands messy and the soles of their shoes sticky discovering ways to astonish and gross out horror fans. The pantheon of directors included George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”), John Carpenter (“Halloween”), and Wes Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”). These guys were treated like gods in the pages of Fangoria magazine, but so too were Frank Henenlotter (“Basket Case”) and Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead”), young upstarts who created no-budget classics that were not only scary but also disarmingly funny.

The 1985 “Re-Animator” was the bold debut of an anomaly. Not some movie-mad troll in his 20s, Stuart Gordon was pushing 40, and was a respected mover and shaker in the Chicago theater world. His Organic Theater Company even helped launch the career of David Mamet. Gordon wanted to try his hand at movies or television, and was told that horror was the easiest genre to finance. When he wondered why there weren’t many good successors to “Frankenstein,” a friend turned him on to some little-known stories by early 20th-century author H.P. Lovecraft (a cult favorite whose cinematic legacy will be celebrated by the Brattle Theatre this August). Gordon thought the “Herbert West: Re-Animator” tales would make a good anthology, in the vein of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. Maybe public television would be interested.

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But instead of a tastefully macabre period piece, Gordon made a giddy gore classic. “Re-Animator” updated to the present the stories about a medical student who can bring a freshly dead corpse back to life with a shot of glowing green serum (problematically, the subject comes back angry, violent, and super-strong). The movie is one part zombie-fest, two parts mad-scientist blowout. Star Jeffrey Combs is instantly believable as the brilliant and creepy West, while David Gale, who resembles a cross between Christopher Lee and John Kerry, is deliciously evil as brain specialist Dr. Carl Hill, who wants to steal West’s reagent and claim it as his own discovery. Gale goes where no actor had gone before once the furious West decapitates and then reanimates Hill: He continues the performance as a severed head, in some scenes also playing the body that carries the head around.

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Gordon worked hard to finesse the combination of fright and dark humor. Viewers are guided toward “Re-Animator’s” Grand Guignol finale by a series of steps in which West’s experiments become increasingly audacious. The director insisted on two weeks of rehearsals before the 18-day shoot. He and screenwriters Dennis Paoli and William Norris made sure the “normal” characters were credible. Bruce Abbott plays the diligent med student Dan Cain, who gets caught up in West’s quest to prolong life. His fiancée Megan is played by Barbara Crampton, who enters the scream queen hall of fame when the lecherous Dr. Hill’s bloody head, um, explores her strapped-down body.

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I spoke with Gordon in 1987 when his second Lovecraft adaptation, “From Beyond,” first played in Boston. He stressed that “if you’re expecting people to believe a very fantastic premise, there has to be some kind of grounding in reality.” To that end, he conducted research among Chicago pathologists and workers at the Cook County morgue (which was replicated in an LA studio by his set designer). In “Re-Animator’s” final act, Megan’s rescuers are attacked by serum-zapped zombies under the sway of Dr. Hill.

“I discovered the way the dead are portrayed in the movies is pretty inaccurate,” said Gordon. “They paint the person white and put dark circles under their eyes. People are as individual in death as they are in life. Pathologists gave me slides of actual bodies, which I gave to the makeup people to pattern the designs after. Depending on the way a person dies, the body will react differently. It turns bright red for heart conditions, yellow for liver conditions, etc. Since the corpses in ‘Re-Animator’ are naked, we had to bodypaint the actors. We referred to them as the rainbow corpses. It was a very strange scene. After the corpses were made up, no one wanted to go near them. They had to eat separately, hang out in their own corner. It was kind of sad.”

The director’s subsequent filmography includes Lovecraft adaptations, but the two (lesser) movie sequels to “Re-Animator” were helmed by producer Brian Yuzna. Gordon has, though, reunited with his bespectacled anti-hero Herbert West. The existence of the stage romp “Re-Animator: The Musical,” which debuted in 2011, proves you can’t keep a good property down.

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Betsy Sherman can be reached at bezzisherm@yahoo.com.