I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Who’s going to believe a talking head?” 1985’s Undead Classic Re-Animator

by Anthony Galli
May 5, 2013

Okay, so maybe there’s something to be said for not raising the dead. History seems to show that nothing good ever comes from it. Exhibit A: 1985’s Re-Animator.

Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 short story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” Re-Animator tells the story of a mad, young scientist who kills his mentor, an old mad scientist,while trying to bring him back to life. Dr. Herbert West is then, unsurprisingly, exiled from the University of Zurich to the now infamous Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham, Massachusetts.

And yes, Lovecraft’s Arkham is the namesake of Batman’s notorious Arkham Asylum, home to such notorious reprobates as The Joker, The Riddler, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and Bane. Small world.

Herbert West was convinced that animal life could be reanimated successfully after death because life is no more than merely a cellular reflex function; animals are nothing more than electrical machines. Dr. West was convinced that “the so-called ‘soul’ is a myth.”

West’s Promethean hubris will prove to have dire and fatal consequences. Or, as one famous margarine commercial from the 1970’s reminded us, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

“Herbert West: Reanimator” is a modern-day re-telling (or, re-animation, if you will) of Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Gothic novel Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, 21-years-old when Frankenstein was originally published anonymously, warned of the karmic retribution man will pay if he does not, or refuses to, take responsibility for his actions.

In simple terms, one will reap what one will sow.

In Greek mythology, a minor deity like Prometheus may be able to steal fire from the sky and animate the dust and clay into a living, breathing being, but there will be Hell to pay when a major deity like Zeus finds out. There are certain natural laws to be respected, and stealing fire from the cosmos may be one of instances that The Gods don’t look kindly upon.

Now, imagine bringing something back to life that was already dead, that was meant to be dead. One that Nature, in her infinite wisdom, has pronounced truly and irrevocably dead. Imagine bringing that thing back to life.

God: He’s dead, Jim.

Jim: D’oh!

One can only imagine the grief and consternation that one will engender in his God for suggesting that His creations can be improved upon, or that, somehow, through some shuffling, He can be outwitted. This is a magnificent mistake.

Re-Animator reminds us that the dead need to stay dead for a reason, one being that they’re just vile.

Writer/Director Stuart Gordon takes H. P. Lovecraft’s 1922 re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s 1818 interpretation of the ancient Greek Prometheus myth, drags it into the 1980’s, adds a couple gallons of blood (well, 25 to be exact), and, voila, Re-Animator is born.

Re-Animator is also one of the funniest zombie apocalypse morality tales around, and considerably more clever and nuanced than its “cult” status might lead one to believe. I mean, this was the 1980’s, so there are boobs, and there is a slight allusion to necrophilia towards the end of the film, and at a certain point you want to shout at the zombified Dean Halsey, “Uh, that’s your daughter, dude!”

The film’s frenetic pace may also distract one from the subtleties littered throughout its gory landscape: the swinging lamp from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense poster above the bed, the fact that Re-Animator appears in the title sequence in the same green color as the “reagent serum” that brings the dead back to life. Little filmic instances that alert viewers of authorial vision and intent.

At first, Re-Animator seems like a parody and a spoof of the horror genre or the Frankenstein story. Which, in a way, it is, but, in other ways, it is not. Of course we know that the Megan Halsey is going to meet a nasty end, because she is having sex at the beginning of the film. Remember, it’s the 80’s, and that’s how it goes. We also know that the Dan Cain’s black cat, Rufus, will meet a grisly demise because, well, he just seems curious. One of the main characters even pronounces the word “laboratory” la∙BORA∙tory like he was Boris Karloff or something. In 1985.

However, being 1985, our hero Herbert West is not a brooding 19th philosopher scientist. No, our Herbert West is a 1980’s man of action. “I have my things outside. Shall I move in now?” West asks Dan Cain as he peruses the 666 Darkmore Rd. apartment that Cain has for rent. West is more of a Machiavellian Gordon Gekko crossed with American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman than any of the traditional mad scientist types that we have become acquainted with from the past, down to his eyeglasses. Like these characters, West is on a mission that he feels is obvious and correct, unaware that his moral compass has steered him into the murky abyss of inescapable purgatory.

He, like any great 1980’s anti-hero, has no choice but to demolish the ineffective, weak precepts of the recent past, and establish a new order that is clearly superior to what has come before. West has no time to consider how others may be affected by his transgressions and trespasses, for he knows his immortality will be assured once people finally recognize his genius.

But, again, Re-Animator is utterly hilarious and completely action-packed from its first eye-bulging scene, to the final Bride of Frankenstein hommage. In between, there is Dead Black Cat Fu, Talking Disembodied Zombie Head in a Hotel Pan Fu, Fellating Disembodied Talking Zombie Head Fu, Zombie Head Butt Fu, Shovel Fu, Bone Saw Fu…I mean, this film has everything!

Re-Animator has much more in common with the 1973 Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein, than it does the shirtless Sir Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, it probably has more in common, still, with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead than either of those other films, in its depiction of the old order being destroyed by the new.

The movie has also seemed to take on a life of its own, spawning two sequels (although a third, House of Re-Animator, a satire on the Bush White House with a zombified Dick Cheney, has been in development hell forever). There is also a Re-Animator Drinking Game, and in 2011, Stuart Gordon, the film’s original creator, produced and directed a successful stage production of Re-Animator: The Musical.

But, any movie with end credits that feature characters such as One Arm Man Corpse, Bullet Wound to Face Corpse, and Slit Wrist Girl Corpse has to be pretty great.


Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.