Today is Barbara Crampton’s birthday, and what better way to say Happy Birthday, Barbara! than with a review of her best horror role as Meg Halsey in RE-ANIMATOR. Death Ensemble is proud to present Phil Fasso’s review as our birthday gift to a lovely lady who’s also a talented actress (and one of Phil’s favorite soap actresses, from her days on Young and the Restless, as he’s not embarrassed to admit!).
In the summer of 1985, three zombie movies opened within a few weeks of each other. One was an off-shoot of Romero’s DEAD saga, which twisted the tropes he’d established into black comedy. One was actual Romero, the third entry in his DEAD saga. And one was a take on a 50-year old serialized story by H.P. Lovecraft, brought into modern times and gone absolutely insane. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was great black comedy; DAY OF THE DEAD was leaden, but had one great performance and the best makeup effects work of Tom Savini’s career; RE-ANIMATOR had a chaotic verve and a wicked bite that raised the levels of humor and gore. Its daring made it my favorite of the three, and when I say daring, I’m not exaggerating. Read on.
RE-ANIMATOR starts off in a Swiss hospital, with an administrator type, a nurse and security trying to break into a lab to stop Herbert West from the Work. Once inside, they find Dr. Gruber with his eyes pulsating and then exploding, and a fevered West, syringe in hand, bemoaning about dosage. This is all before the opening credits, mind you, and only gives a hint of what is to come. Transition to Miskatonic University, as the film introduces med student Dan Cain. Dan is in love with Megan Halsey, the dean’s daughter, and has a promising career ahead of him. That is, until he meets new transfer student Herbert West. When Dan accepts West as his roommate, he’s sealed his fate and made the worst decision of his entire life. He’ll find himself at odds with his girlfriend, Dean Halsey, radical brain surgeon Dr. Carl Hill and West.
He’ll also take part in bringing a dead cat back to life a second time; re-animating a guy played by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunt double; initiate, with West, an insane battle between the undead and an undead Hill; and prove that love can never die… and maybe the lover doesn’t have to either. These are some of the craziest zombie scenes ever put to screen, as director Stuart Gordon pushes the limits beyond where they’d ever gone before. Some of the goriest stuff committed to film at that time assured the film an unrated release, and guaranteed RE-ANIMATOR would be like no other. After all, it’s not every day you see a bone saw rip through a zombie’s torso and come out its chest.
It’s not just about the gore, though. The flick pushes boundaries through its plotting and dialogue. Gordon and co-writer Dennis Paoli sprinkle throughout the script lines such zingers as “Cat dead. Details later,” and “Who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow.” As for the pacing, once Dan and Herbert set things into action in the morgue, things take off and never slow down. The death—and subsequent undeath—of a major character early on has repercussions throughout, setting up the final confrontation between West and Dr. Hill. An undead Hill, mind you, with a severed head.
That head comes into play in one of the sickest of all horror scenes, played for the blackest of comedy. I won’t ruin it for you that haven’t seen the film, but the phrase “head giving head” achieved the most twisted relevance in this film. I’ve seen this film dozens of times, and still can’t believe the sheer audacity involved. Gordon takes chances that no other director has taken, and they pay off in making this one of the best zombie movies. Lovecraft was surely rolling in his grave, given his staid character, when the film was released, but Gordon takes the source material and actually improves it.
Credit his cast, as well. Nobody but Jeffrey Combs could have played West. It’s that simple. Cold and calculating, an arrogant upstart obsessed with the Work, fused with insanity as his face glows in the green light emanating from his syringe, he’s perfect. Bruce Abbott is also great as the powerless Dan, our window into the film, unable to break West’s influence over him. Swayed, he makes poor decisions that ruin him and his relationship with Meg. Barbara Crampton deserves credit for laying her body out in the “head giving head” scene, and for delivering a likable character who’s very much in love with Dan and instantly suspicious of West. In a perfect world, Meg and Dan would’ve been happily married for a long time… but not in this film’s world. Veteran soap actor David Gale is pitch-perfect as Dr. Hill, every bit as arrogant as West, and even more unethical. Rounding out the main cast is Robert Sampson as Dean Halsey. He’s all right as the overprotective father, but even better with disheveled clothing and wild hair as a zombie. The amped up acting drives the plot, as they all play it with a deranged verve.
Anchor Bay and Elite both amped up the extras for a movie that well-deserved them. Somehow, I have discs from both of them in my case for the Elite version. That set hosts two great commentaries. On the first, Gordon discusses how it was easy to get a horror movie funded, why he made certain choices, and the problems with the MPAA. The other sports Combs, Abbott, Crampton, Sampson and producer Brian Yuzna. Combs drives the track, which is a lively affair, a great listen as they discuss their characters, acting methods and the plot. It also hosts about 20 minutes of deleted scenes (which include a dropped subplot about Hill and mind control that’s quite interesting), and trailer and TV spots. The gem on the Anchor Bay disc is the documentary “RE-ANIMATOR Resurrectus.” All I need to say is it’s excellent, the complete retrospective this landmark film deserves. Watch it. Oh, and it addresses Richard Band’s score, and the controversy over how he lifted it from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, but lovingly. There are also a number of stand-alone interviews, but they’re superfluous alongside the doc. The rest of the material is copied over from the Elite disc. I would suggest the Anchor Bay version, based on “Resurrectus” alone.
The summer of ’85 produced three important zombie flicks, each of which you should see. One for a bizarre extrapolation of Romero. One for Romero. And RE-ANIMATOR for its wicked verve and brilliant black humor. It’s the most audacious of the three, full of gore and biting humor. And it’s the only film I’ve ever seen that can make a head giving head funny.