"Re-Animator" is splatter heaven. Based on the sci-fi novel by H.P. Lovecraft, "Re-Animator's" gore is exceeded only by its wit. Not since the heyday of Roger Corman, perhaps, have filmmakers had so much fun with an exploitation movie.
Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) is a medical student with a Big Idea -- he's come up with a chemical re-agent, a fluorescent green liquid, that can restore the dead to life. His professor, Dr. Hill (David Gale), wants the secret of reanimation for himself. "Plagiarist!" spits West, and soon enough, the plagiarist gets his. Till then (and indeed, afterward) their struggle creates a Faustian vortex, sucking in West's roommate, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott); Cain's girlfriend, Megan (Barbara Crampton); and Megan's father, the med school dean (Robert Sampson).
What follows? Stabbing (with a brain surgeon's bone saw), beating (head against wall), maiming (with an ax), decapitation (with a shovel), strangulation (by an intestine that takes on a life of its own), but all done with a verve that lifts "Re-Animator" out of the dour realm of shock effects. A movie like "Friday the 13th" offers the dubious joys of pornography -- you simply wait for the hacking and hewing, and look, there it is. "Re-Animator," on the other hand, while it never transcends the limitations of its genre, offers the more substantial pleasure of an expert pastiche.
Throughout, director Stuart Gordon dances on the edge of parody but never crosses it, and the actors follow his lead nicely. Beady-eyed, his face hard, almost lacquered, Combs makes West into a brittle, slightly fey psychotic in the Anthony Perkins mold. West is a figure of fun, but Combs doesn't spoof him -- in West's own mind, there's nothing funny about someone who marches around the morgue lifting shrouds and deadpans, "Not fresh enough!"
The perspective of "Re-Animator" is that such things are funny, a view that's grounded in the story. Toward the beginning, Dr. Hill, instructing his class in the techniques of brain surgery, pulls the scalp from a cadaver and says, with a grin, that it's "very much like peeling a large orange"; if the seed of "Re-Animator's" comedy lies in a reckless disregard for human dignity, it stems from a sense of alienation that young doctors learn very quickly. At its base, the movie is a surreal comedy about medical school, growing out of a doctor's sense of helplessness about death. The paranoia about professors and deans; the resentment toward the naked ambition of your classmates; body parts that resist your "invasive procedures" and actually fight back -- it's a transcription, and a condensation, of every nightmare a med student ever had.
The score (by Richard Band) is, uh, not fresh enough; given what happens to plagiarists here, it's hard to believe that Band would transcribe Bernard Herrmann's famous "Psycho" theme jot for jot. It's a glaring flaw in a movie of splendid excess that indulges a perversity beyond the imagination. In "Re-Animator's" tour de force, Gale, who has created Dr. Hill as the dark side of Herman Munster, sets up operations in the morgue; his head has been chopped off, but both head and trunk have been severally "re-animated." He has captured Megan, long the object of his affections; and while the trunk caresses her, the head, sitting in a tray alongside, pants and leers away. Here, you have to admit, is a movie with guts; the horror genre itself has been reanimated.