31 Days of Hell: The Secret of Life and Death - The Re-Animator Trilogy

Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna's Re-Animator Trilogy is one of the crown jewels of horror-comedy cinema. With the first debuting at Cannes, two sequels, two unproduced concepts, and legions of devoted fans, the Re-Animator films have carved out a repulsive niche within the body horror genre throughout the years, delivering three films filled with over the top gore, cheesy (but glorious) dialogue, and a surprisingly lethal undercurrent of existential dread. 

Buoyed by Jeffrey Combs sensational performance as Dr. Herbert West, these films are a late-night treasure, born from a miasma of VHS filth and practical effects mayhem.  The initial plot, loosely based upon H. P. Lovecraft's classic story, focuses on West's obsession with his reagent, an unspeakable substance that gives (unpredictable) life to the dead.  Both the reagent and West's obsession with his "work" are two themes that run throughout all three films.  Additionally, and perhaps most important is a third concept that each film explores.  West, for all his faults and psychological dysfunctions is a truth teller.  His embrace of the hard truths that mere mortals avoid and obfuscate is his most endearing quality and also essential to every conflict in each of the films.

It is this revelation that allows the films to be experienced in a new light.  The inevitability of death, coupled with the classic man breaking the laws of nature trope are encased within West's draconian morality.   In Re-Animator, both Cain and Hill act as foils, with Cain participating in West's experiments having the best intentions, while Hill seeks fame, fortune, and ultimately power.  The ethical limits of each of these characters is integral.  While Cain is the "good guy", he still submits to West's more nefarious actions in the name of the greater good.  Both West and Hill are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, perhaps a reflection of not only the medical community, but the dangerous pursuit of knowledge and power at any cost, a core tenant of Lovecraft's oeuvre.  

Power plays an interesting role in the films, specifically with respect to various relationships.  While Re-Animator is about the partnership of West and Cain, Cain and Megan's relationship is also of import.  This continues in Bride of Re-Animator, where sins of the past come to roost.  While Hill's arc is vendetta fueled, West and Cain continue their off-again, on-again relationship, with Cain ultimately rebuking the "work" in favor of newfound love.  This is an interesting change that also sets the stage for the final act.  West is the protagonist, moving from hospital corridors to forgotten tombs to prison infirmaries, never changing.  Cain and Hill abandon the reagent's possibilities in favor of personal agendas, while West, the balance of the two remains steadfast, even when practicing from incarceration in Beyond Re-Animator.  

This trinity of introspection matures in the last film.  With West behind bars, one might expect him to become a defeated shadow of his former self.  This idea is banished almost immediately, as the viewer is graphically reminded that old habits die hard.  Re-Animator could be viewed as a descent.  Cain descends into the madness of West's mission while Hill descends into the dark heart of avarice.  Beyond Re-Animator is an ascent, with West clawing his way up from pedestrian experiments with rats to a full-blown prison wide massacre.  Regardless the situation, West remains the same, a glassed gargoyle looming over chaos he has inherently caused.  

The finale of each film showcases not only the power of practical special effects, but also the ultimate price for stepping into the beyond.  Re-Animator ends with the infamous Miskatonic massacre, while Bride's denouement is the showdown between Hill and West.  Beyond's ultra-violent conclusion involves a prison riot and copious amounts of bodily fluids.  In the first two, it appears as though West meets his end, or at the least is entombed within a prison of his own design.  Beyond breaks tradition and ends the series with West escaping back into society and this is done with intent.  On the surface, it is a recycled horror trope that sets up countless sequels.  Beneath the simplicity is a more uncomfortable reality: For all the death, pain, and crimes against nature that West has wrought throughout his crusade, he once again exists among us in plain sight.  There's an argument that perhaps West is not a villain, that his mission to bring life to the dead has altruistic flourishes.  While this might be true, his obsession, and willingness to murder relegate him to the shadows and the results of his experiments speak for themselves.  His escape from consequence isn’t so much tragic as it is gleefully nihilistic, perfectly in line with the tone of all three movies.

Lovecraft's initial story was about the crimes of a genius coming back to undo him.  Using the three-act structure, the Re-Animator films perfectly embody the spirit of the text.  While there are Lovecraftian Easter Eggs hidden throughout, the films evoke the dread of the source material through their portrayal of West's inhumane devotion to his labors.  Underneath the B-movie veneer lies a frank deconstruction of the mad scientist cliché' and both Yuzna and Gordon's refusal to destroy West is a potent indicator.  The end result is a trio of flawed, but absolutely unforgettable forays across the Rubicon of sanity. 

-Kyle Jonathan