"I'm dead," declares medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), lying beside his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Barbara Compton) in a state of post-coital exhaustion. When Megan questions his compliments of her physical beauty "coming from somebody who spends most of his time with cadavers", Dan insists, "Cadavers aren't beautiful - and besides, you know, they just don't jump when you tickle."
Re-Animator is rather preoccupied with transgressing the boundaries between sex and death. If, in his first scene, Dan is attempting CPR on a flatlined young female patient, and too bent on bringing her back to life to see anything sexual in having his hands all over her naked breasts, then later it will be Megan's "beautiful body" on the slab, and Daniel will come to realise that perhaps cadavers are after all better than nothing. All this is triggered by the arrival of new student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), an arrogant genius who left the Zürich University Medical Institute under something of a cloud after his experiments with a brain-reviving reagent yielded horrific results. Now hoping to continue his cutting-edge research at the Miskatonic Medical School, Herbert establishes himself as Dan's lodger and turns the basement into a lab, while rudely calling out brain specialist Dr Carl Hill (David Gale) for the outmoded and derivative quality of his work.
If Herbert has a professional rivalry with Dr Hill, a different kind of rivalry emerges as Herbert pressures and prods Dan into the rôle of his assistant, carefully displacing Megan from the picture. This is a bizarre love triangle, with Dan torn between his attachment to Megan and a growing involvement with his new roomie - and when later Dan tells Megan's puritanical father (Robert Sampson) that Megan "walked into an experiment" being conducted by Herbert and himself in the basement, it is hard not to pick up on an erotic undercurrent in these words. Meanwhile Dr Hill's "obsessive desire" to steal the credit for Herbert's work is matched only by his own illicit lust for Megan. Add to this heady mix Herbert's green-glowing fluid which, when pumped into bodies, can restored the dead to a life (of sorts), and you have a retelling of Frankenstein with a psychosexual spin.
Of course, the real source for this is the 1922 short story Herbert West - Re-Animator, generally regarded as one of H. P. Lovecraft's weakest works, but working a treat in its on-screen resuscitation. With only baseball-oriented teledrama Bleacher Bums (1979) to his name, Stuart Gordon had originally intended to adapt Lovecraft's weird tale for the stage, and then tried writing it as a television series, before he was finally persuaded by producer Brian Yuzna to make it into a movie. Along the way, the period setting was dropped, some comically gory excess was transplanted fresh from Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981), and Richard Bond's playfully baroque soundtrack would plagiarise Bernard Hermann's theme from Psycho (1960) in much the same way that Dr Hill keeps appropriating Herbert's work.
The results are an infectiously fun foray into science at its most insane and least ethical, as the mind's higher goals are repeatedly driven by the body's basest desires. The film would spawn two sequels - Bride of Re-Animator (1989) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), both starring Combs and directed by Yuzna - while Gordon would go on to work with Combs and Compton again in another Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond (1986).
Re-Animator. USA 1985. Directed by Stuart Gordon. Starring Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crompton, David Gale...
Re-Animator is screening at the BFI as part of their Cult Strand on the 15th and 16h of January 15. For more information and to book tickets, click here.