Herbert West's reagent - a glowing green liquid in an unbreakable plastic vial. Instructions for use: inject directly into the brain of a recently deceased specimen. Intended result: re-animation of the specimen to full life. Possible side effects: erratic heartbeat, chronic internal pain, exploding eyeballs, homicidal psychosis, and fun fun fun.
Stuart Gordon's first feature film (after years as a director of experimental theater) is a brilliant tour-de-farce of gut-busting laughs and plain old gut-busting. The key is that the completely far-fetched story is told with such brazen confidence that you never question how a decapitated head can hold a conversation without lungs.
Here's a tantalizing taste of what makes Re-Animator so good: Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is mourning his cat, who was discovered dead in the mini-fridge of his roommate, the deliriously smug Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs in a career-making turn). West proclaims innocence, of course, but that doesn't stop him from trying to bring the cat back to life. And back to life the cat comes, with a feral vengeance. Aided only by a swinging light, a truly awful stuffed cat, and some clever editing, director Gordon manages to make this no-holds-barred epic struggle of man vs. zombie cat into a truly hilarious experience. If you don't laugh during that scene, this film and others of its kind (Evil Dead II and Dead Alive come to mind) are probably not to your taste.
Giving the film an extra bit of gruesome shine is the mad scientist acting. No, it's not excellent. It's not even very good. It's just over-the-top and arch as hell. Combs expresses the various neuroses of Herbert West through an increasingly bizarre series of facial tics (an acting tool that would become Combs's trademark). David Gale, playing the evil Dr. Hill (and looking for all the world like former Presidential candidate John Kerry), sucks scenery in by way of pure gravitas.
Alas, Abbott and Barbara Crampton, as the central "normal" couple and ostensible heroes of our tale, are stilted and blah. Abbott doesn't seem to be sure of how to play in a film like this, and keeps staring out at dead space, almost never making recognizable eye contact with anything. Crampton is shrill and off-putting, breathing nothing lively into her character.
However, the acting is never the point. It's an amusing aside to the non-stop whirling dervish of grotesqueries. Gordon and editor Lee Percy (who would go on to do such films at Reversal of Fortune and The Center of the World) take a no-frills approach to the narrative, slicing out anything that might slow the momentum even an iota. The most telling evidence of this is in the deleted scenes (which you can see on Elite's DVD). There's an entire subplot involving Dr. Hill's use of hypnosis that is completely excised, and though it does clear up some character motivations, it would drag the feature down. So out it is.
The Elite Millennium Edition DVD features brilliant video and audio (available in Dolby 5.1 and DTS), as well as a music-only track (a rather neat little gift for those trying to pick out which Hitchcock films composer Richard Band is "homaging"), and two commentaries. There's also deleted scenes a-plenty, video interviews, and trailers. It's quite the package and, like all Elite Millennium Editions and the film itself, is recommended.