Re-Animator, which deftly combined camp with visceral horror, won the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and gained instant cult status. Thirty-five years later, it remains one of the greatest horror comedies of all time.
One week ago, writer/director/producer Stuart Gordon passed away, and the world lost a brilliant architect of art and a true horror and film icon. Having first made a name for himself in the provocative world of experimental theater, his first transition to film remains one of his most memorable and influential films: 1985’s Re-Animator.
The film was an inspired adaptation of an obscure H.P. Lovecraft story. Gordon teamed up with producer Brian Yuzna and actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton for the first of what would be many future collaborations.
In celebration of Gordon’s vast contributions to the genre and the great legacy he left behind, let’s take a look at 13 things you may not know about his career-defining debut film Re-Animator.
1. BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR
For Godon and Yuzna, H.P. Lovecraft as the real star of the movie. It was his name above the title. From the beginning, if Re-Animator was successful, the plan was to do an entire series of Lovecraft adaptations. The follow-up film was supposed to be Dagon (which Gordon ended up making in 2001), but Charles Band thought the idea of people turning into fish was ludicrous. So he insisted they use a different story, and Yuzna chose From Beyond.
2. LITERARY INSPIRATION
In addition to Lovecraft, Gordon was also a big Edgar Allen Poe fan. He fell in love with Poe’s writing after seeing Roger Corman’s popular cinematic adaptations in his teens. Gordon credits some of his success working with the material of another gothic horror master, Lovecraft, to what he learned watching Corman pay homage to Poe’s literary genius.
3. ON THE JOB TRAINING
As a first-time filmmaker, Gordon learned a great deal on the set of Re-Animator, getting a crash course in the basics from his director of photography, Mac Ahlberg. Gordon used to call Ahlberg the professor because he taught the young filmmaker so much about things like screen direction.
4. DEFYING EXPECTATIONS
Prior to Re-Animator, Gordon was known as an avant-garde theater director, and many expected his first film to be an art-house drama or something similar in nature. However, a friend of his suggested he make a horror film, explaining that it was the easiest thing to raise money for and the easiest way for investors to get their money back, no matter how terribly it turned out.
5. IT'S ALIVE
Though he might have ventured into horror for practical reasons, Gordon was quite a horror fan. In addition to Lovecraft’s source material, Re-Animator was heavily inspired by Frankenstein. Gordon recalls complaining at the time that all anyone wanted to make was vampire movies, and he really wanted somebody to make a Frankenstein movie. The friend suggested he read H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Re-Animator, which he had never heard of though he knew Lovecraft pretty well. He had to seek it out — it was no longer in print. And when he started reading it, he immediately started thinking about how to adapt it.
6. NO MUST SEE TV
The idea for Re-Animator started out as a pitch for a TV series. Gordon had turned one of his successful plays, Bleacher Bums, into a show for public television, so he had connections at the network. He went to them with the idea of doing Herbert West: Re-Animator as a six-part mini-series, but they were not interested in it. Lovecraft actually wrote his story as a serial in six installments, and originally Gordon wanted to do it faithfully to those stories.
7. THE DREAM TEAM
Jeffrey Combs was brought in by the film’s casting director Anthony Barnao, who had seen him in a play. As soon as he walked in and started reading, they knew he was the guy — even though in Lovecraft’s story, West is described as being a blue-eyed blonde.
Barbara Crampton actually came in very late. Another actress had been cast in the part, but she got cold feet because she talked to her mother about it, and her mother insisted that she leave the production immediately. Again, it was Anthony Barnao who found Barbara, and Gordon credits the replacement as extremely fortuitous, given how much better Barbara was in the role.
The cast rehearsed for two weeks at Barbara Crampton’s apartment, during which they treated the scenes in order as if it were a play. Gordon credits that time as essential to getting everyone comfortable with each other and the script.
8. ON SECOND THOUGHT
The shooting schedule for Re-Animator was just eighteen days, though they had to come back and shoot the opening sequence several weeks later. That scene had been written but cut from the script as unnecessary. However, when Yuzna saw the first assembly, he thought they needed it to let people know what kind of film this was going to be.
9. A BLOODY MESS
The main thing Stuart Gordon says he remembers about shooting Re-Animator is that his shoes stuck to the floor the whole time on account of all the blood. Because of the enormous amounts of blood and gore drenching the set, they actually did very few takes because it would have taken forever to clean it all up. Thus, there was a lot of pressure to get each scene right on the first take whenever possible.
10. ONE FANTASTIC THING IS ENOUGH
There was an entire subplot of the film that ended up getting cut in which Dr. Hill had the ability to hypnotize people. Albert Band, Charles Band’s father, suggested they get rid of it. He said that a movie should only have one fantastic thing. If you expect the audience to believe more than that, you’re going to stretch credibility too far. And the film already had its key fantastic thing: a serum that could bring the dead back to life.
11. THIS MIGHT JUST WORK
Gordon remembers the moment he knew he had a potential hit on his hands. They had a test screening in San Francisco. At the end (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the movie), when Meg has been killed and is lying on the autopsy table, someone in the audience yelled, “Use the juice!” That’s when he says he knew it was working.
12. DAMN THE MAN
The original film was released unrated. Gordon says they tried to get a rating from the MPAA, but it soon became clear that if they cut the film to their standards, the movie would be about fifteen minutes long. Gordon praised Empire Records for being brave enough to release the film unrated. However, he says they actually weren’t hurt because of it and had no problems getting ads and theaters to show the film. He stated, “Unless you’re a major studio or something, you really don’t need a rating.”
For his next film, From Beyond, they actually did work to get an R-rating, and Gordon says the board gave them a very hard time. He thinks that was partially as payback for releasing Re-Animator unrated. They tried to get clever and used lots of slime and goo instead of blood, but the MPAA said that was even more disgusting!
13. OTHER FUN FACTS
That’s a real dead cat in West’s mini-fridge.
The gurney was obtained from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead because it already had the hole cut in it.
Producer Brian Yuzna plays one of the background corpses in the hospital morgue.
The head-less Hill effect was achieved in part with the use of a belt. The performer inside the fake shoulders/neck rig had a belt that he would take hold of with his mouth to keep his head pulled down and steady.
The actors playing the re-animated corpses all worked out together at the YMCA to coordinate their movements as zombies.
Written by Stephanie Malone, Morbidly Beautiful