Star Trek’s Most Underappreciated Actor Starred in Horror’s Most Underappreciated Shlockfest
There’s trashy, and then there's Re-Animator.
Low-budget shock horror existed well before 1985. Hammer, the British production company, perfected a style of horror so kitschy that it’s actually brilliant, but one American horror movie took up Hammer’s mantel thanks to its unique mix of grotesque storytelling and pitch-dark humor. That movie was Re-Animator, a campy horror flick that didn’t care how trashy it looked. This absurd horror classic is now streaming for free, and it’s the perfect time of year to check it out.
Classifying Re-Animator is tricky. It’s technically an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story “Herbert West–Reanimator,” which might make you think there’s a gothic element here, but that’s very much not the case. On some level, what Lovecraft attempted is the same thing the movie is going for: a contemporary, Frankenstein-ish tale about the dangers of bringing people back from the dead. It’s one of his pulpier, more commercial, and generally weaker tales, but it still has Lovecraft’s tone.
Re-Animator... does not. Because most of the action takes place in labs and focuses on literal mad scientist Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), Re-Animator is as much gonzo sci-fi as horror. If you dialed back the gore way back, you could imagine Herbert West as a Doctor Who villain, or even someone from a Halloween episode of Murder, She Wrote.
West, a medical student, brings people back to life with a special serum. In the pre-title sequence, we find him in Switzerland, struggling with the dying, bloody body of Hans Gruber (no apparent relation to the famous villain). West then goes to Arkham, Massachusetts to continue his depraved work, which involves the occasional murder. Hey, you gotta break a few eggs.
Stuart Gordon directed Re-Animator, but Combs’ is its bloody heart. Best known for playing a gazillion Star Trek characters to the point where he once played two different aliens in the same Deep Space Nine episode, anyone who knows Combs as Weyoun or Shran will find Re-Animator doubly disturbing. Combs’ ability to play anti-heroes and unsettling villains is clear throughout his body of work, but Re-Animator is the career-defining performance of a deeply underrated horror performer.
Combs doesn’t just make West a nebish geek with a scary side. He gives West a hidden set of ethics, and a cold confidence that clashes with his overt dorkiness. If you could somehow mash Christian Bale in American Psycho with Matt Frewer in Lawnmower Man 2, you would get Combs. That’s a meandering compliment, but it is a compliment. West is creepy, but amid all the camp, he seems real.
The rest of Re-Animator, of course, does not seem real, and that paradox makes the movie click. Like cheap glue, a trashy campiness binds Re-Animator together, making it a patchwork greater than the sum of its parts. When senior scientist Dr. Hill (David Gale) threatens to take credit for West’s discoveries, West takes him out, cuts his head off, and separately re-animates his head and body. Later, in a plot development that has random, go-with-it music video logic, it’s revealed that Hill can telepathically control other re-animated zombies. This keeps Jeffrey Combs’ compelling baddie from being the movie’s most evil character; when West calmly chats with Hill’s disembodied head in an infamously gross scene, you’re rooting for West to triumph.
There are conventional good characters too, but these people aren’t why you’re watching the movie. You’re not even really watching it for the gore and the zombie horde. You’re watching for Jeffrey Combs. He steals every scene in a way not seen in horror since Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. If good horror is about examining the human psyche, then Re-Animator gives us one of the scariest and most horribly creative humans of all time.