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Laserblast: Anchor Bay Re-Animates Stuart Gordon's 1985 gorefest

This is one of those Tuesdays when little new of note hits DVD shelves – at least in the fantasy, horror and sci-fi genres. Consequently, we’ll spend most of our time discussing Anchor Bay’s recent DVD release of RE-ANIMATOR, director Stuart Gordon’s 1985 gorefest. but first, a quick round-up of this week’s titles…

A new DVD of PHANTASM III: LORD OF THE DEAD reaches store shelves. For some reason, the PHANTASM sequels never earned the level of devotion that allowed fans to overlook the shortcomings of the original PHANTASM, which is also available in a new DVD releasetoday.

For undemanding viewers with a taste for older fare, Digital 1-Stop offers a 100-Movie Pack of Horror Classics, a set of twenty-four double-sided discs filled with films starring Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. Tod Slaughter, and Barbara Steele. Even without a closer look, you know you can bet your mad scientist’s laboratory that these are all titles you would never think of purchasing individually. Still, for a purchase price just over $40, you’re getting nearly 2.5 films per dollar, which may make it a worthwhile investment for voracious viewers on a budget.

The week’s new genre DVDs are an oddly titled assortment of obscure direct-to-video releases: DEAD AND DEADER, BLOOD FLOOD, and SKIN CRAWL. Purchase at your own peril!

So much for the current crop of schlock; let’s take a look back at something really good, courtesy of Anchor Bay’s new two-disc release of RE-ANIMATOR. The film has been previously released to home video in several forms: VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD (including an R-rated videotape from Vestron Video, which went bankrupt – divine providence, perhaps?)

Of these earlier releases, the best by far was Elite Entertainment Millennium Edition DVD (ASIN:  B00020UHF6) from 2004. This excellent two-disc set included two audio commentaries (one by director Stuart Gordon; one with producer Brian Yuzna and actors Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and Robert Sampson); trailers; and numerous deleted scenes.

The brand new Anchor Bay Collection DVD release  reproduces the audio commentaries, trailers, and deleted scenes from the Elite Entertainment disc, and adds a feature-length documentary “Re-Animator Resurrectus,” by Perry Martin. The Anchor Bay two-disc set supercedes the previous Elite release, becoming the preferred version for fans to own.

DISC ONE of the Anchor Bay DVD presents the film in a 1.85 transfer, divided into 16 chapters, with audio options for Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1 Surround, and Dolby Surround 2.0. There are no subtitle options, so you cannot follow the film’s dialogue while listening to one of the audio commentaries. The disc launches with an option to watch trailers for other DVD releases (including Stuart Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR episode “The Dreams in the Witch House”), but you can easily bypass this by pressing the Menu button on your remote control.

AUDIO COMMENTARIES: Stuart Gordon’s commentary is the more informative and sober of the two. The director discusses the project’s genesis, his research (which included a visit to a morgue), replacing the original cinematographer with Mac Ahlberg (because distributor Charles Band thought the first week’s footage looked too dark), and releasing the film without an MPAA rating. He also mentions that the doctors with whom he spoke did not disapprove of Herbert West’s quest to defeat death, saying, “If West and Cain were successful in their experiments, they would be winning the Noble Prize.”

The second commentary (featuring Yuzna, Combs, Abbott, Crampton, and Sampson) is a bit more conversational, with lots of recollections and joking around. “This is my mother’s favorite film,” Barbara Crampton announces at the beginning, and then during the infamous “head giving head” scene: “This is my mom’s favorite scene – she loved this part!” Strangely, even with five speakers, the assembled commentators cannot think of enough to say to fill the entire movie, allowing the audio track to go dead in several places.

DISC TWO contains the 2007 documentary “RE-ANIMATOR Resurrectus,” plus numerous bonus features. The Main Menu lacks the computer graphics of Disco One; instead the options are amusing printed on a body tag attached to a toe sticking out from under a sheet on an autopsy table. The presentation is a bit misleading, listing three options: the documentary title, chapter stops, and bonus features – inadvertently implying that the bonus features are related to the documentary, as opposed to RE-ANIMATOR itself.

RE-ANIMATOR Resurrectus” inludes numerous interviews from the cast and crew, discussing the making of the film and its impact on their careers. Much of the behind-the-scenes information is repeated from the audio commentaries, but it is presented in an entertaining form, often with the interview subjects superimposed upon scenes they are discussing. The feature is divided into twelve chapter stops and presented in Dolby Surround, with no options for subtitles or other audio tracks.

THE BONUS FEATURES include five interviews, a deleted scene, several extended scenes, a trailer, five TV spots, photo galleries, a Stuart Gordon biography, and downloadable PDF files (on DVD-Rom) for the screenplay and the H. P. Lovecraft stories on which the script is based. (You will need Adobe Reader to view these; Microsoft Word will not work.)

INTERVIEWS: Conducted in 2002, the interviews (shot with a single-camera set-up and no on-screen interviewer) are not leftovers from the documentary.

1.   Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna reminisce about the genesis of RE-ANIMATOR, including unmade projects that got pushed aside in its wake. They seem to enjoy gabbing about the movie that changed their lives, and they are eager to spread credit around to everyone who contributed, but their recollections are a bit vague. Nevertheless, a few interesting tidbits turn up. For example, Brian Yuzna relates spending his own money to develop films for Charles Band’s Empire pictures that never got made; realizing he would never get his money back, he made a deal to utilize Empire facilities for the making of RE-ANIMATOR instead.

2.   Screenwriter Dennis Paoli gives the nuts about bolts behind the development of the screenplay, which was originally intended as a half-hour television episode, intended to launch a mini-series that would adapt all six chapters of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator.”

3.   Richard Band offers some of the most informative and interesting insights, explaining that he argued for a campy score over the objections of Gordon and Yuzna, who wanted serious music. Band won the argument and infamously borrowed elements from Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score, using the familiarity as a musical joke to cue the audience in on what to expect. (Band says he also borrowed a theme from Jerry Goldsmith’s music for FREUD, but this is less recognizable, because he reversed the progression of the notes.)

4.   Following up on the interview, Band introduces – and explains his approach to scoring – a few scenes from the film, which play with the music track only, including the end titles.

5.   Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria magazine, talks about first seeing RE-ANIMATOR. His personal recollections offer little substance about the film itself, and he wears a ridiculously long tie that stretches all the way down to his lap – just begging for Freudian interpretation.

DELETED SCENE: There is one Deleted Scene, a nightmare in which Dan Cain (Abbott) wheels a body into a morgue, only to find that it is his girlfriend Megan Halsey (Crampton), who is revived by Herbert West (Combs) while her father Dean Halsey (Sampson) and Dr. Hill (Gale) watch approvingly. Although interesting, the scene lacks a dreamlike quality, and it was dropped because it too clearly foreshadowed Megan’s fate at the ending.

EXTENDED SCENES: The remaining additional scenes are grouped together under this heading, although some of them are completely new, not merely longer versions of scenes in the film. This footage represents approximately a half-hour of material that was trimmed to reach the quick-paced, 86-minute running time. Most of the footage features unnecessary character development and plot points that are clearly implied in the film. One sub-plot regarding Dr. Hill was completely deleted, showcasing the hypnotic abilities that allowed him to project his will and control others at a distance (which was intended to explain how he could control his body after being decapitated and also control the zombies he re-animates to do his will).

There is only one scene that seems a genuine loss to the picture and worthy of being restored: In the final cut, after Dean Halsey tells Dan Cain his student loan is being revoked and Herbert West is being expelled, there follows a scene in which Cain sneaks West into the morgue to attempt reviving a corpse. There is no mention of the expulsion, which is promptly wiped from memory by the tragic events that follow, and it is not clear why Cain and West seem to be continuing with their experiments as if nothing has happened. The deleted scene shows Cain breaking the news to West, who decides that the only way to get reinstated is to provide proof that their experiments work, which leads to their sneaking into the morgue. This scene, which plays out in a single, uninterrupted take, is also another step in the deteriorating relationship between Dan and Megan, who are initially shown in two-shot, before West intrudes into the shot, visually splitting the pair apart – a subtle directorial touch that speaks louder than volumes of dialogue.

Unfortunately, these Extended Scenes represent one area in which the Anchor Bay DVD is inferior to the Elite Millennium Edition DVD: the scenes are not separately titled and individually accessible; the Anchor Bay DVD allows you to access them only as a group, playing one after the other, making it hard to find your favorite missing moment.

TRAILER AND TV SPOTS: The jokey theatrical trailer and the television spots showcase the tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign for the film, which played up the camp element. The highlight is the third TV commercial, which contains no footage from the movie, relying on some graphic art and a narrator who first bellows, “This is not an advertisement. This is a warning!” and then winds up by promising that the film is “Way Beyond the Possibility of Any Rating!”

GALLERIES: The DVD offers several image galleries: ·

·       Production Stills – scenes from the movie.

·       Behind-the Scenes Stills – shots showing the cast and crew.

·       Fun on the Set – some clowning around behind the scenes.

·       Poster and Advertising Art – numerous posters, both domestic and foreign, including some fairly explicit Japanese posters that feature the infamous nude scene (with nipples blotted out by red splotches simulating a blood splatter); plus some comic book cover art. Curiously, one foreign poster describes RE-ANIMATOR as a “Charles Band Film,” although Band had little do with the production, only with distribution.

·       Storyboards – rough sketches from several sequences, including Dr. Hill’s decapitation and the infamous “head giving head” scene.

STUART GORDON BIOGRAPHY: This is a little bit more detailed than many DVD biographies, featuring several amusing quotes from the director regarding his approach to horror in general and RE-ANIMATOR in particular. It runs into a little trouble with chronology, thanks to the fact that Gordon’s ROBOT-JOX sat on the shelf for so long. Also, the filmography at the end extends only to Gordon’s 2005 MASTERS OF HORROR episode, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House,” omitting his 2006 MASTERS OF HORROR adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” (If not for the 2007 copyright on “RE-ANIMATOR Resurrectus,” this might lead one to suspect that the DVD had been completed back in 2005 to coincide with RE-ANIMATOR’s 20th Anniversary.)

CONCLUSION: So, is Anchor Bay’s DVD the definitive disc, never to be bettered, never to be replaced? It might seem so, but there is one small element lacking: perspective on the film’s longevity. The audio commentaries, the interviews, and the documentary deal with the making of the film, its cult success, and how it launched the careers of many involved. But there is not an abundance of insight into what made RE-ANIMATOR click with audiences.

The only one who offers much of a theory is producer Brian Yuzna, who attributes the film’s quality to its script. Yuzna points out that other cult horror films (like THE EVIL DEAD) tend to simply set up situations and let them play out. RE-ANIMATOR, on the other hand, features “a lot of plot development”: the story takes Dan Cain full circle (the film begins and ends with him trying to revive a patient in E.R.); Herbert West is introduced as a villain whose presence drags Dan into dark waters, alienating him from Megan and losing him his scholarship; then Dr. Hill emerges as the true villain and audience sympathy shifts to West as he and Dan try to put a stop to the mad scientist.

No doubt this does explain part of the film’s appeal. But a more precise interpretation would be that RE-ANIMATOR is a film that feels wildly out of control, generating an exciting adrenalin rush as if it were careening toward a cliff – when it in point of fact it is very carefully constructed to achieve its emotional effects. As a director, Stuart Gordon is fearless in terms of what he is willing to show: his film doesn’t simply ignore boundaries; it smashes them to pieces and uses the debris to gouge gory chunks of warm, gooey flesh from its victims. And yet, the movie never totally descends to the level of a campy freak show; it remains always engaging, always involving.

Even the infamous rape scene, which blatantly panders to the perceived tastes of the horror audience (presumably sexually frustrated male teen-agers, for whom the sight of a naked female body is about as realistic a prospect as bringing the dead back to life), generates a truly disturbing resonance. There is something about the perfection of Barbara Crampton’s body – combined with her innocent blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks – that makes the sequence simultaneously attractive and repulsive. As much as the debased male libido may yearn for her ravishment at the hands (well, head) of Dr. Hill, there is an equally powerful revulsion. Or to put it another way, Megan Halsey always remains a character; she is never completely reduced to being a male sex-object fantasy, and her reaction to what is happening makes the scene horrifying, not just another “ain’t-it-cool” display of virtuoso splatter effects. (For a point of comparison, check out the repugnant [implied] rape scene in HOLLOW MAN, in which director Paul Verhoven refuses to grant Rhona Mitra any hint of humanity that would transform her from a beautiful body into a human being; the objectification of female flesh is deliberately intended to force viewers into identifying with the attacker, without regard for the victim, robbing the scene of any genuine suspense and turning it into a kind of violent pornography.)

Few films ever walk this razor’s edge as effectively as RE-ANIMATOR. It is a balancing act little short of miraculous – to leap about as if completely unhinged while never tripping off the edge and stumbling into the abyss of schlocky sensationalism. Films have come and gone with just as many gory effects and beautiful bodies subjected to horrible abuse, but few if any have managed to earn a place in our collective memories. For achieving that, RE-ANIMATOR indisputably deserves its place in horror history.