‘RE-ANIMATOR (1985)’ is a darkly-funny takedown of men who play God

#31DaysOfHorror — October 6th, 2016

This October, as I have for the last three years, I’ll be watching 31 horror movies in 31 days and reviewing them all! You can see the ongoing list of what I’ve watched and reviewed here.


THE PLOT

Herbert West has invented a “reagent” that revitalizes and reanimates bodies that were previously dead. But he hasn’t perfected his serum yet; sometimes, his reanimated corpses have a tendency to become, well, murderous. When he moves in with his classmate Dan Cain and sets up a laboratory in their basement, Herbert soon ropes his new friend into conducting experiments designed to raise the dead.


MY REVIEW

Re-Animator has a very well-deserved reputation as a cult classic horror film. It only brought in $2million at the box office, barely doubling its paltry $900,000 budget, but thanks to home video and overwhelmingly-positive word-of-mouth — see the film’s 94% Fresh rating at RottenTomatoes, for example — the film has enjoyed a long life, spawning several sequels and two comic book series.

Because, while it’s cheaply made and the acting is stilted and the effects are sorta cheesy, Re-Animator is damn fun. The cheesy effects are the attraction here, as is Jeffrey Combs’ deliriously over-the-top performance as mad scientist Herbert West. He scowls, he smirks, he screams, and he simpers his way through the film, almost a living cartoon with a bitingly creepy edge. Linda Hamilton’s ex-husband Bruce Abbott stars as the Igor to West’s Frankenstein, his roommate and assistant Dan Cain. That’s Dan Cain, not former Lois & Clark actor Dean Cain.

Dan Cain (left) and Dean Cain (right)

If Herbert West is the driving force of both the creepy and the comedy, Dan Cain plays the straight man. And I do mean straight. One of my favorite parts of Re-Animator was how “perfectly queer” the whole film is, to borrow Alexander Doty’s phrase. In an essay called “Together, We Are Providence,” an internet writer who goes by DrWorm breaks down the homoeroticism present in the film and related media, including the film’s novelization, commentary track, and sequels. The essay does a fantastic job at cataloguing the franchise’s possibly-intentional flirtation with a relationship between West and Cain. DrWorm also quotes extensively from Harry Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, which I haven’t read but have ordered from Amazon because it seems like something I’d be into.

Specifically, DrWorm is interested in Benshoff’s reading of mad scientist / creation-of-life stories as inherently queer, as they frequently feature two men (a scientist and a protege/assistant) attempting to create life (i.e. procreate) without the assistance of a woman, who would typically be considered necessary for childbirth.

“The secret experiments they conduct together are chronicled in private diaries and kept locked away in closed cupboards and closets... While many of the classical horror films take the sado-masochistic relationship between their male leads to be the singular driving force of their narratives… perhaps the most obviously queer ones are those wherein the homosexual pair set out to procreate without the aid of woman. The act of procreation, read as sex, thus makes this particular formula spectacularly queer.” — Benshoff

In this way, DrWorm positions Re-Animator as another in a long line of men-playing-god horror stories that, along with Frankenstein, lend themselves to queer readings. And Re-Animator sure makes it easy. The film features numerous longing glances from West to Cain as well as running references to West’s seething jealousy of Cain’s girlfriend. West doesn’t understand social interaction, preferring to focus on his work, which leads most characters to consider him weird and gruff and unapproachable. And he is. But he’s much kinder and softer with Cain than with anyone else, comforting him after he feels weak and queasy at the sight of blood.

Re-Animator is also happy to objectify the muscular male bodies being reanimated just as much as it shamelessly shows off the breasts of the female characters. Most horror movies are made with a presumed-straight male audience in mind, as Carol Clover explains in the introduction to Men, Women, and Chainsaws. They very frequently feature nude women filmed with an objectifying camera for the scopohilic benefit of the men who are watching. It’s far less common, especially for 80s horror movies, to feature fully-nude men, let alone male bodies that are objectified as bodies, flashlights playing out over their bulging muscles, numerous shots and actions designed to show off their buttocks, emphasizing their desirable physicality. (Yes, technically speaking he’s “desirable” because he’s less-dead than some of the others, but they talk about his body being desirable all the same.)

I’m not arguing that we’re supposed to be aroused by a murderous zombie with his decaying penis flapping about, a zombie with this face…

Bet he doesn’t have a face pic on his Grindr profile.

…just that the camera has an unusually queer interest in showing off muscular male bodies usually not seen in horror films. It’s rare to see a penis on screen at all, let alone in the context of two men working together to bring life into the world.

Poor, poor Rufus…

Aside from all the queer interpretations, which I like thinking through, the film itself is just downright fun. From the saga of poor, poor, alive-then-dead-then-alive-then-dead-then-alive-then-dead-again Rufus the Cat, to the incredibly wacky third act that features an extended homage to The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Re-Animator is a nonstop blast. In fact, from the moment West and Cain reanimate their first human — which comes about forty minutes in — the film never lets up until the climax. Which, by the way, is an all-out brawl between a nude army of re-animated zombies, a sentient severed head, West, Cain, and Cain’s girlfriend Megan.

Sadly, the sequel — Bride of Re-Animator, naturally — isn’t on Netflix. I think I’m going to have to get myself to my local public library and check that out. Look for that review later this month, hopefully!

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