Arrow Video's special presentation of a re-mastered Re-Animator gives die-hard fans almost all they could reasonably want, and offers newcomers an opportunity to experience a cult classic with a more enlightened perspective, thanks to the impressive bonus materials. Upon initial viewing, I was left with only a lukewarm reaction to the movie. However, the audio commentaries and documentaries have since won me over, and now the Blu-ray earns a permanent place in my collection with the highest of recommendations.
For a look at Anchor Bay's version of the original cut, please see Mr. Duarte's excellent review of this 2012 release.
(For the sake of keeping this review as PG-rated as possible, please note that the accompanying photos in this review very much underrepresent the amount of gore seen in the main feature.)
When it comes to mindless horror films, I like mine with plenty of blood and guts, otherwise what's the point? Sure, torture porn like Hostel and the Saw series are excessive, tacky and even tasteless, but at least you get your shameful dollar's worth. Over the years, I have sat through middling and muddled mainstream efforts like The Purge: Election Year, as well as lower-budgeted "Grindhouse" wannabes such as Lost After Dark, and they barely register minutes after they're over. So, if you can't be original, clever, or inspired, at least be icky. In that vein (slight pun intended), Re-Animator: Special Edition delivers. Beginning with clinically explicit surgeries, and concluding with an "anything goes!" gore-fest, this movie justifies its cult-classic status due to an engaging storyline which constantly straddles drama and parody, and over-the-top mayhem which is fun and repulsive. If only all horror films achieved this level of craft and amusement, the genre wouldn't be lumped into a category of hack work (yes, pun intended).
Re-Animator was released over thirty years ago, but I never got to sample it until this Blu-ray release. The story is based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, a writer whose work was never mandated as part of my high school reading list, and therefore, is completely unfamiliar to me. I don't know how closely this movie follows its inspiration, but I have to imagine that it's been updated significantly for the Friday the 13th generation. Herbert Wes (the wild-eyed Jeffrey Combs) is a manic but ambitious medical student who is obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. This is accomplished not through spiritual means, but by a formula (basically the green fluid found in glow sticks) which chemically induces the body (mainly the brain) to reactivate. His fellow medical student is Dan Cain, (played pensively by Bruce Abbott), a caring and idealistic young man who reluctantly assists his roommate Wes in his experiments. Also involved in these mad scientist antics is Dan's easy-on-the-eyes girlfriend Meg (the rather fetching Barbara Crampton) and her father, Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson, effective as both a straitlaced academic as well as an out of control zombie). Their main antagonist is the arrogant and greedy Dr. Carl Hill (a suitably over the top David Gale) who also happens to lust after poor Meg and is willing to kidnap and basically rape her despite his separation of mind and body. Needless to say, all this sex and violence plays havok with hospital protocols.
Despite it's "underground" popularity, I was not immediately taken in by Re-Animator, although a superficial first viewing reveals a lot to enjoy about it, especially the setting and horror effects. Most scenes take place indoors, and the dark and claustrophobic settings establish the clinical mood from the start. Some of the practical special effects like a mutilated cat coming to life still produce an immediate "eww, gross!. " response despite the obvious but well-done puppet work. There's also a convincing scene where a scalp and brain is removed for a class of medical students, and I actually wondered if a real cadaver was being used for the film. Naturally, popular entertainment like The Walking Dead and Evil Dead rip-offs have probably out-done what appears in Re-Animator, making its bloody contents a bit tame in comparison. Yet, the effects are effectively outlandish, and the context in which they are presented certainly add to the craziness.
Characters and plot are usually inconsequential to horror films, where victims are mere ciphers who aren't worth remembering after the credits roll. But Re-Animator is a true exception. Jeffrey Combs's portrayal of Wes (often reminding me of Cillian Murphy in his villainous roles) is appropriately off-putting: the guy is just plain weird and certainly not your typical protagonist; it's no wonder that people like Meg gets the heebie-jeebies when he's around. Speaking of my favorite character, she and her boyfriend Cain are pretty plain vanilla, yet still likeable. Their descent into all this madness makes them wholly sympathetic, even if their romantic moments are more often (deliberately) cheesy and contrived. With some actors gleefully chewing the scenery, and others playing it straight, Re-Animator maintains its pulp integrity from beginning to end. Even Ms. Crampton's gratuitous nude scenes are held back just a wee bit, despite all the opportunities to exploit her physical presence endlessly (such as Mathilda May's character from Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce).
Of course, there are several obvious questions and issues which are raised in the movie: How is such a clumsy and uncoordinated headless body able to maneuver itself from place to place, especially when they may be miles away? How is a head able to speak when separated from its chest? How does a spastic corpse able to take orders and kidnap his own daughter when he's lobotomized? Just what is in that green liquid in the first place? Must it always be injected, or is it available in easy to digest pill form? Sadly, none of these penetrating inquiries are ever addressed in the film (nor are they answered in the bonus materials), forcing the viewer to discard logic and enjoy the film for the escapist in excess entertainment that it is. For those who have enjoyed the tasteless irreverence of Return of the Living Dead (also a 1985 release) along with the upfront gore of John Carpenter's The Thing, Re-Animator is a must-see.
The conclusion opens a very obvious door for a sequel (Bride of Re-Animator), which has further given rise to yet a third outing (Beyond Re-Animator). Neither follow-ups have apparently reached the popularity of the original. On-line research also reveals several different cuts of Re-Animator, including a foreign import which has a 20-minute longer running time. Whether the bonus contents of this Blu-ray cover every bit of material seen in the extended cuts are something only a dedicated collector can answer. For now, I'm content with what I have.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Re-Animator: Special Edition is given life thanks to Arrow Video in a single BD-50 which contains both main feature and all of the bonuses. The disc is packaged in a clear case with reversible cover art, including an anatomical drawing of the main character's head which is filled with faces (done by Justin Erickson). An insert provides advertising for other Arrow releases. Once loaded, the disc displays an animated menu with composer Richard Band's amusing variation of the main theme from Psycho.
Re-Animator: Special Edition is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, filling the screen of most standard high definition TVs. The visual presentation is much better than expected, given its age and budget, and I was pleased that quality remained consistent from beginning to end. he AVC-encoded 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode picture is from a 4K scan of the "unrated" version and is certainly acceptable to this reviewer's eyes. Darker scenes do not exhibit any overt crushing of blacks, nor are there any obvious defects which demand cleaning. I did not compare this transfer to any other prior release, so I'm not sure just how much of an improvement this disc is.
Overall, details aren't crystal clear, and colors don't pop, but its a clean presentation with only a few scratches and age-related deterioration popping up here and there. The film grain is noticeable especially during darker scenes, yet never distracting and contribute to the film's rather gritty content. When it comes to horror movies, I prefer the natural grain of shot-on-film productions over the antiseptic look of digital, and Re-Animator benefits from the "weathered" appearance.
Re-Animator provides three separate soundtracks (other than the audio commentaries), including a mono track, a stereo version, and a five-channel surround mix. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is not what anyone would call reference quality, as surround sound activity is extremely limited. In fact, other than ambient music occasionally leaking into the rear channels, I rarely noticed any other sounds coming from behind or from the sides. Bass activity is likewise lacking, with the music benefitting more from low frequencies than the sound effects.
However, despite its limitations, the surround track is a more engaging listening experience than the Dolby Digital mono or stereo soundtrack. Dialogue appears dead center, and is intelligible if a little thin at times. The music and sound effects spread over the main channels impress with better dynamics and stereo separation. Similarly, much of the bonus materials have a two-channel audio track where voices are clear and distinct. There may be some subtle directionality with dialogue made clearer with stereo, but I can't imagine why one would choose it over the DTS-HD MA track.
More than just a mere horror film, Re-Animator has a fascinating history, beginning with book to stage to television, before finally ending up on the silver screen. The Blu-ray provides an abundant bonuses documenting its production, beyond mere self-congratulatory electronic press kits and canned interviews. Much of the contents are carried over from Anchor Bay's 2012 release of the original cut, but Arrow has provided some new material which makes it worth the upgrade. Some of the high definition segments are apparently upconverted from standard definition elements with stereo sound.
Audio Commentaries: Viewers have their choice of three separate audio commentaries. The first track with Director Stuart Gordon is a thoughtful discussion of his work, with many stories and references which should appeal to hardcore fans. Similarly, the third track with Gordon, and actors Graham Skipper and Jesse Merlin (from the musical version of Re-Animator) also proved a great ensemble discussion of the making of the film and comparison to the live production.
However, I found the second commentary to be the most entertaining and most satisfying as actors Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbot and Robert Sampson along with producer Brian Yuzna have a fun and funny discussion from beginning to end. There are occasional quite spots, but most scenes are filled with fond remembrances and jokes which approach MST3K brand of wit. Ms. Crampton, in particular, takes all the exploitative scenes in stride and with good-natured sarcasm, especially when she points out that her naked, near-violation moment by the head of Dr. Hill was her "mom's favorite scene!"
Re-Animator: Resurrectus (Widescreen SD 1:08:39): A 2007 production, this documentary provides an in-depth behind the scenes, with plenty of clips from the movie as well as anecdotes and interviews from the main players and some of the crew. It's a heartfelt and affectionate review by those who clearly enjoyed their work.
Music Discussion with Composer Richard Band (HD 16:31): The soundtrack composer speaks enthusiastically about his work on the film, which is punctuated by music-only clips from the film. Soundtrack buffs (such as myself) will particularly enjoy this featurette.
Interviews: These segments are presented in two-channel audio, and appear in high definition, although the original sources appear to be 4:3 standard definition.
Stuart Gordan and Brian Yuzna (48:47): This segment features a long and friendly conversation between director and producer as they talk freely about their history together
Dennis Paoli (10:41): The co-writer of the screenplay compares his work on the movie with the final film.
Richard Band (14:23): He provides an in-depth discussion of his deliberately "campy" and "quirky" score, which includes adapting Bernard Herrman's classic Psycho score.
Tony Timpone (4:35): The former editor of Fangoria magazine shares his thoughts on the movie, which was apparently recorded in 2002 before the second sequel.
Barbara Crampton in Conversation (HD 36:05): The very well-aged co-star sits down for a 2015 in-depth interview by enthusiastic film journalist Alan Jones.
The Catastrophe of Success: Stuart Gordon and the Organic Theater (HD 13:08): The director talks about how the Re-Animator film made its way from a theater into film. Photos from the theater production are displayed during his narration.
Theater of Blood (HD 12:04): Made in 2017 by Arrow Video, this segment focuses on lyricist Mark Nutter who discusses the adaptation of the movie into Re-Animator: The Musical. Nutter plays a few notes of character themes on the piano, and stills are provided of the movie and the stage show.
Extended Scenes (HD 23:05): Seventeen deleted scenes of varying length are provided, usually with longer dialogue or expanding on ideas already established in the film. While fascinating, none of the scenes offer anything new or of particular importance other than perhaps clarifying some references made in this cut. (Mr. Duarte's review explains that these segments were once used for an extended R-rated cut of the movie.)
Deleted Scene (2:40): All the main characters appear in what is apparently dream sequence, in which a deceased Meg is brought back to life by the secret of the ooze.
Multi-Angle Storyboards (HD): Three separate scenes from the finished film are shown, with the viewer's choice of comparing them to their individual storyboards, which are overdubbed by the original soundtrack.
Trailer and TV Spots (HD :31): A trailer which runs nearly two minutes long, and five differently edited commercials (presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio) teases and amuses in an appropriate "Grindhouse" style ("This is not an advertisement for a new movie. This is a warning...").
Re-Animator Screenplay: This 108 page, PDF file is available as BD-ROM content if you pop this disc in your player and access the disc as a media file.
There are several versions of Re-Animator, which has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, with the Arrow Special Edition version being the most recent, and apparently, the most highly praised. Also, there is a limited edition two-disc version with a few more extras and yet another cut of the film. Again, I was unable to compare this version with any of the previous incarnations, although I admit my bolstered interest in this film makes me curious. There's no doubt that this film has a lot of energy and style which elevates it from being just another exploitative horror film. It doesn't have the same element of disgusting-grossness as Lucio Fulci's Zombie (also known as Zombi II), but it does have enough cleverness and humor to distinguish it from being relegated to a classification termed by the British as a "video nasty."
For me, this release from Arrow Film demonstrates how a good Blu-ray package can elevate the main feature with excellent supplementary materials which do more than merely praise the film. I highly recommend Re-Animator to horror aficionados as well as general film buffs who appreciate the craft of cinema.