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DEVIL’S ADVOCATES: RE-ANIMATOR ****
By Eddie Falvey ****

Published by Auteur / Liverpool University Press. 118pp

 

For horror fans of a certain age, the very mention of RE-ANIMATOR will likely stoke the flames of was-it-really-that-long-ago nostalgia, sparking associated memories of excitable playground chatter, schoolboy crushes and replaying certain moments (you know which ones) on a creaking, clanging, top-loading VHS player rented from Curry’s. There’s a convincing argument to be made that it’s the King of that brace of inventively gory, mid-80s American horror pictures that found much humour in absurd splatter but also knew when to be serious. You may have your own favourite, and there are many nice things to be said about the likes of FRIGHT NIGHT, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and this film’s own successor, FROM BEYOND.

 

At the outset of this wide-ranging monograph about Stuart Gordon’s beloved 1985 film, author Eddie Falvey highlights how RE-ANIMATOR has often been overlooked in the realm of “serious” film study purely because of that very adept juggling of Grand Guignol gore and comedy. He positions it as a key picture in the popularising of the decade’s comic horror trend, the comedy-gore aesthetic, while reminding us that its roots lie with the campy genius of James Whale’s iconic mad-science Universal genre works of five decades earlier. We are reminded not only of its largely positive critical notices of the time, but also the fond following it has sustained over the decades – generating sequels, imitations and high-end home video releases – and officially endorsed via a key sequence in Alan Ball’s multi-Oscar winning AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), in which Kevin Spacey and Wes Bentley do what so many of us did in the VHS era: wax lyrical about the notorious head-giving-head set piece. Even if the rest of the film proved disappointing (which it didn’t), THAT scene guaranteed its place in genre history.

 

The contextual analysis of RE-ANIMATOR in this typically thoughtful Devil’s Advocates study examines it as a pivotal product of the briefly thriving Empire Pictures, likening Gordon’s own, Lovecraft-dominated film career and his repertory company to the Poe / Corman / Price cycle of the 1960s. The rise and fall of Empire is a fascinating story – its head honcho Charles Band needing to provide credible cinematic competition at a time when Tobe Hooper had transitioned from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE to making films for Steven Spielberg. His answer was to compete via story and eye-catching content, and the author traces the inauspicious beginnings, with the mediocre THE ALCHEMIST essentially establishing Empire’s product prototype and the audience they sought, prefiguring witty “counter-cinema” titles to come like TRANCERS and Gordon’s films. Falvey’s analysis hits just the right tone of affection, with pleasing incidental detail, including the ”poetic” turn of events that saw the expanded, post-RE-ANIMATOR Empire relocating to Dinocitta Studios, formerly the home of BARBARELLA and Dino De Laurentiis.

 

Falvey notes that, while we have no shortage of intelligent readings of Romero and his socially conscious horror cinema, it has been easy to overlook a mere “horror-comedy” like this one. Nonetheless, Gordon’s work is framed within an ongoing cycle of bodily destruction horror films and post-ANIMAL HOUSE gross-out American comedies designed to provoke. RE-ANIMATOR is viewed as a significant part of the “Body Horror” sub-genre, with its combination of slapstick and repugnance, while calling back to the classic horror era with its reduction of male ambition (here, Dan Gale’s Dr. Hill and Jeffrey Combs’ Herbert West) to farce. Falvey rightly notes the inadequacy of the broad, overused term “Scream Queen” when considering Barbara Crampton’s Meg: while seemingly displaying all the “reductive” traits of this branding, she transforms into a much more interesting character than her very first appearance might suggest, becoming, perhaps, a parody of the hapless female victim.

 

The book incorporates useful at-a-glance guides to Empire’s productions and Lovecraft adaptations through the years, with Gordon’s subsequent FROM BEYOND viewed as more “Lovecraftian” while the looser RE-ANIMATOR is deemed to at least capture the spirit of the iconic / contentious writer. There is a fond reminiscence of the 80s horror franchise boom and the trend toward family-friendly mainstream horror comedies (GHOSTBUSTERS, GREMLINS et al) alongside the ascension of make-up effects artists to almost rock star status via Fangoria magazine and its brethren.

 

It's fitting that Levey closes with an interview with current Fangoria editor in chief Phil Noble Jr., discussing the evolution of horror fandom in the decades that his magazine has been on the shelves, while noting the trend for empty nostalgia from those who weren’t actually around. RE-ANIMATOR has aged like a fine red wine (perhaps one served by a gaunt waiter carrying his own head around in a gym bag), outliving assorted adaptations and variations, including the porno RE-PENETRATOR, with the inevitable Herbert Breast. It survives as one of the best of its kind – despite, as Falvey conveys, slipping through the regular cult film paradigms by not being quite outrageous enough to obtain the lasting infamy of being “banned” and not quite serious enough to be taken seriously. Though this Devil’s Advocate does a fine job of redressing the balance with the latter.

 

Steven West.

 

 

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