Analysis of ‘Re-Animator’

Re-Animator is a 1985 horror-comedy film directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris, and Gordon; the film is loosely based on parts of the HP Lovecraft 1922 horror serial novelette, “Herbert West–Reanimator.” The film stars Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton; it costars David Gale and Robert Sampson.

Apart from the basic premise of Lovecraft’s story–namely, a serum that brings the dead back to life, created by the narcissistic young scientist Herbert West (Combs)–not much is taken from the tale and put directly into the film. Dr. Alan Halsey (Sampson), dean of the fictional Miskatonic University medical school, refuses to let West and the narrator (Dan Cain in the film–played by Abbott) do the reanimating experiments on corpses on the campus. The dean himself dies and is reanimated, making him a wild, cannibalistic, zombie-like monster and forcing him to be committed in an asylum.

The above plot elements are from the first two episodes of Lovecraft’s story, while also being updated (by Norris) to the 1980s and expanded to include Halsey’s pretty daughter, Dan Cain’s girlfriend, Megan (Crampton). Another doctor, the middle-aged Carl Hill (Gale), who is decapitated and reanimated by West, seems to be derived from the last two episodes (as is the plot of the first sequel–link in the next paragraph), from a WWI surgeon who is also decapitated and reanimated; and who, as in the story, commands an army, as it were, of reanimated corpses at the climax.

The film spawned a few sequels, 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator and 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator. While the sequels weren’t well-received, the first film was, and it is now considered a cult classic.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

During the film’s opening credits, we hear a soundtrack (composed by Richard Band) that is a blatant and intentional rip-off of the opening theme of Psycho. Only a few minor differences and variations are heard, with an original wind melody (bass clarinet?) played over the strings and a drum beat in the background. The film’s obvious campiness–a kind of black comedy whose over-the-top, even humorous violence may remind us of that of Titus Andronicus–inspired Band to make a similarly obvious, campy, and tongue-in-cheek reference to Psycho‘s stereotypical horror film music. Apart from this joke-reason, can we find others to justify the link between Re-Animator and Psycho?

I believe we can find other such reasons. With similar musical themes, we can also find similar motivic themes. Indeed, a careful analysis and comparison of the themes, symbolism, and motifs of both films shows striking similarities. Does all of this justify ripping off Bernard Herrmann‘s music, beyond it being a musical joke? I’ll let you decide, Dear Reader.

In Psycho, after Norman Bates has murdered his mother, in order to rid himself of the unbearable guilt of his crime, he tries to ‘reanimate’ her, in a way–not literally, of course, but in his mind. He uses a number of elaborate methods to convince himself of his delusion that she’s still alive. He robs her corpse and uses taxidermy on it to stave off decomposition as best he can. He dresses in her clothes, including a cheap wig he’s bought, and speaks in her voice. He gives over half of his life to bring her back from the dead.

Similarly, Herbert West deludes himself that his serum will restore life, when all it does is it turns the corpses it’s used on into savage killers…rather like Bates’s mother personality.

Another thematic similarity between the two films is that of invasion of privacy, intrusion, penetration. (See my Psycho analysis to see how I explain these themes in that film.) West intrudes on the world of Dan Cain and Megan, just after they’ve made love, and says he wishes to rent the basement of his house; he meets Dan at the front door of the house when Dan has only a sheet to cover his nakedness.

Later, the couple’s cat, Rufus, dies–did West kill it for use in his macabre experiments? West has the cat’s body in a small refrigerator, the sight of which naturally upsets Dan and Megan, the latter of whom has, in fact, invaded West’s privacy by going into his room without his permission, because she has been looking for her missing cat. Still, West will have to explain why he’s using their dead cat, without their consent, for his experiments.

The injecting of West’s vaccine-like [!] serum into the cat’s corpse, and later into corpses at the university morgue in defiance of Dean Halsey’s express forbidding of it, is further intrusion and unwelcome penetration. Indeed, it’s as if the violent reactions of the revived corpses are a reflection of how they hate the penetrative intrusion of West’s syringe jabs.

The stabbing of West’s needle into the corpses, like the stabbing of Bates’s knife into showering Marion Crane and Detective Arbogast (if in only a symbolic sense), is a projection of West’s psychopathy into the dead, making them as violent to the living as he is to the dead, by making them take on their stabber’s violent traits. Recall that narcissistic West doesn’t actually care about helping humanity with his reanimating; he just wants to play God, amazing all his science colleagues with his brilliance.

He has no respect or empathy for the feelings and rights of others, living or dead. This is why he has no qualms about insulting Dr. Carl Hill to his face, or using pets and human corpses without anyone’s consent in his experiments. West is thought of as a rather weird fellow, but the point is that he’s cold and calculating. Like Bates, West feels no human, emotional connection with others; all that matters to him is the reviving of the dead, as Bates wants a relationship with only his ‘reanimated’ mother.

West, like Bates the ghoul who stole his mother’s corpse, is an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm wasn’t necessarily, or even primarily, referring to a sexual attraction to dead bodies; he was referring to people who have a morbid fascination with death and destructiveness.

West’s wish to bring the dead back to life mustn’t be confused with Fromm’s notion of biophilia, a love of life; rather, West’s claim to want to give people life is a reaction formation. West is fascinated with death for its own sake. The human body is a soulless machine to him; death just means that the body has broken down, malfunctioned, and reanimation is a repairing of the human machine, which, being soulless in his eyes, is already as dead as a machine, anyway.

Fromm explains: “Necrophilia is the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)

West isn’t reviving the dead out of a wish to generate the biophilic joy of living; he is just fascinated in the technique of repairing biological machinery, as he sees it. In describing the necrophilous character, Fromm was referring “…to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way.” (Fromm, page 382, his emphasis)

To return to a discussion of the intrusion/penetration/invasion-of-privacy theme, the equally narcissistic Dr. Hill enjoys stealing other doctors’ research (hence, West’s contempt for him), and when he tries to steal West’s work, West kills him with a blow to the head with a shovel (reminding us of the ending, a kind of second matricide, of Psycho II, a film made just two years before Re-Animator).

Hill also intrudes on reanimated Halsey’s personal space by lobotomizing him, with the intention of controlling him through telepathy after brain surgery. The ultimate invasion of privacy, however, is when decapitated, reanimated Hill uses zombie-Halsey to abduct his daughter Megan, has Halsey take her while she’s unconscious to the university morgue, has Halsey strip her naked, and ties her to a table so the lecherous doctor can enjoy her.

Hill’s sexual assault on her can be paralleled with the shower scene in Psycho, in which naked Marion is, figuratively speaking, raped by Bates’s penetrating, phallic knife. Hill’s voyeuristic lusting after naked Megan parallels Bates’s lusting after Marion, watching her undress through his peep-hole in the wall.

Yet another point of comparison between Re-Animator and Psycho is, to be put in general terms, the conflict between the older and younger generations, usually understood in a psychoanalytical sense as the Oedipal love-hate relationship a son or daughter has with his or her parents. Bates Oedipally loves…and hates…his emotionally abusive, domineering mother, and her bringing a lover into his house pushes him over the line, making him kill them both with strychnine, which causes them to convulse violently and painfully before they die. West’s serum causes a similarly violent, toxic reaction in those reanimated by it.

Instead of domineering mothers, in Re-Animator we have a domineering father, Megan’s father, the dean, who angrily forbids Dan and West (he is a symbolic father to them) to do their experiments in the university morgue, to the point of threatening to kick them out. The two young scientists’ defiance of Halsey infuriates him, causing an argument between him and Megan in the hospital near the morgue, in which he tells her she’s his daughter and she’ll do as she’s told…just before he’s killed by a reanimated corpse there.

When Bates’s mother-personality forbids him to give Marion any food from their house, he defies ‘her’ by making Marion a sandwich. Since Hill is old enough to be the father of West, Dan, and Megan, and since Hill as a professor of medicine is as much an authority figure over West and Dan as Dean Halsey is, Hill can be seen as another symbolic father (i.e., through transference) to the two young scientists, and maybe even to Megan, too.

When West makes Hill lose face during his medical lesson, West is defying what could easily be a father-transference. West’s breaking of pencils, and later decapitating of Hill with the shovel he’s hit him with, are symbolic castrations, reminding one of Cronus‘ castration and dethroning of his father, Ouranos, and then, according to the interpretations of Freud (page 469), Robert Graves, and John Tzetzes, Zeus’ castration and dethroning of his father, Cronus. West would similarly dethrone Dr. Hill as god of medicine. (Just before the reanimated corpse kills Halsey, it bites off two of his fingers, another symbolic castration.)

Normally, we think of the son being afraid of being castrated by his father, but West symbolically reverses this. West should be afraid of the symbolic father’s wish for revenge, though, especially since West has reanimated him. Bates similarly should fear the revenge of the mother he’s killed and ‘reanimated,’ for by giving her half of his life with the mother-personality, he is being possessed by her internal object, what WRD Fairbairn called the return of repressed bad objects (Fairbairn, page 67). She avenges her murder, as it were, by possessing him as an evil spirit would, dominating him even in death.

Reanimated Hill attempts a similar revenge in death by controlling the lobotomized, reanimated Halsey (who as Megan’s father and Dan’s once-hoped-to-be father-in-law, is thus a double of Hill), and by using the serum and research he’s stolen from West to reanimate all the corpses in the morgue, sicking them all on West, Dan, and the Megan who rejected his advances.

Now, while West’s interest in reanimation is of a necrophilous nature (recall that he shows not even the slightest sexual interest in the sight of the lovely and naked Megan), Dan’s interest in West’s obsession is of a biophilous sort. Dan has a genuine wish to save lives, as seen at the beginning and at the end of the film. First, there’s a dying woman he tries feverishly to save, but his superior, Dr. Harrod (played by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), tells him to face reality: the woman is dead, and he must give up trying to save her.

At the end of the film, the far more devastating death of a woman is a fear of Dan’s that’s come true. Hill and his army of reanimated zombies have been mostly defeated, but not before one of them has strangled Megan to death. Dan’s attempt to revive her has failed just as it had with the woman at the beginning of the film. Dan does have West’s serum, though, and with her having just freshly died, surely her reanimation will give him her whole personality intact…won’t it?

Her scream, just before the ending credits, raises our doubts.

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