It’s apt that Herbert West (Combs) resembles both Harry Potter and Scottish necrophile Dennis Nilsen.
His small stature and precocious schoolboy looks suggest he’s harmless, enabling him to obscure a deep-rooted fascination with corpses while committing murder if necessary.
It’s a plum role, all right, and Combs seizes it with such memorable relish that he takes a well-deserved place in horror’s long, blood-spattered tradition of mad scientists.
West arrives at a Massachusetts medical school to further his neurological studies under the tutelage of Dr. Carl Hill (the wonderfully off-center Gale). Straightaway it’s plain that the new student has limited social finesse.
“How can you teach such drivel?” he asks during his first class before accusing the respected surgeon of plagiarism and outdated research on brain death. Hill tries to take the arrogant outburst on the chin. “I’m going to enjoy failing you,” he mutters.
Like so many of his Frankenstein ilk, West has a sweaty intensity that makes people uncomfortable. He might be a student but you’re never going to find him partying on campus and drunkenly egging the dean’s windows. Girls don’t interest him. He’s capable of a smile but there’s never any warmth behind it, as if the exercise is merely a required social nicety done under mild duress. On the whole he will suck the fun out of any room.
What matters are his career and the acknowledgement of his outrageous genius. To this end, he’s secretive, free of doubt, and indifferent to distress. Every waking thought is directed toward pushing the boundaries of medical science. Other people only exist to further his career. Convinced his limited, vaguely stupid colleagues are blundering in the dark, it doesn’t matter how much chaos he wreaks in the obsessive pursuit of his goals. Indeed, when it comes to bringing his dream to its sacred fruition he literally has a never say die attitude.
West’s roommate Dan Cain (Abbott) is soon sucked into his twisted orbit via a recently deceased pet cat. “Don’t expect it to tango,” West tells him before injecting it with his glowing serum. “It has a broken back.”
Cain’s eyes are opened at the death-defeating results, even if his former pet no longer shows him the same degree of affection.
“We can defeat death,” West seductively whispers in his ear. “We can achieve every doctor’s dream. We’ll be famous… and live lifetimes.”
Now you might disagree, but I believe the 80s was the last decade in which good horror movies were consistently produced. Re-Animator popped up slap bang in its middle, securing my vote as the second greatest horror comedy of all time after American Werewolf. It’s a brisk movie, aided by good production values, excellent special effects and nicely judged support.
However, what makes it stand out is the way it truly commits to its premise, never once shying away from pushing its pronounced streak of black comedy as far as possible, even if that means depicting a reanimated severed head slobbering over pinioned naked female flesh.
Combs’ unhinged, justly celebrated performance stands at its center, encapsulating the way in which egomaniacs often validate their bloody deeds by insisting they’re on the side of right.