Beyond Re-Animator

In recent reviews, and as we continue to discuss movies based on the literary works of pulp horror/sci-fi author HP Lovecraft, the names Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon have popped up a lot. More specifically, the title Re-Animator keeps getting dropped into impolite conversation. The team of Gordon and Yuzna have enjoyed considerable acclaim from fans for their adaptations of Lovecraft material and for their ability to take Lovecraft’s work and make it something new without losing the essence of what made the story work in the first place. They did this in a number of ways, but probably the wisest decision they made was to confine themselves to the periphery of Lovecraft’s bibliography, selecting lesser known and all-but-forgotten stories rather than Lovecraft’s best known and most beloved. The first of the author’s story the duo chose to tackle was Herbert West, Re-Animator.

It wasn’t one that Lovecraft fans rallied around, so it would be less likely to get dissected or draw ire for departing from the source material. In terms of mind-bending weirdness, it was relatively straightforward, meaning that the filmmakers would not have to grapple with the more abstract horrors with which Lovecraft so often dealt. The resulting film, Re-Animator, is often heralded as a classic of American horror, combining the chills of Lovecraft with a black sense of humor, over-the-top gore, and something lurking beneath it all that means even amid all the mayhem and outrageousness, there’s something that just feels… icky. Almost sordid. Certainly unsettling. But also delirious and gleefully perverse. I’m not one to argue with consensus in this case; I think Re-Animator is fantastic. I think it’s a cornerstone not just of American horror, but horror in general. It’s a film that one can return to over and over without ever growing tired of it. And it’s amazing still what they were able to get away with. Over twenty years and at least as many viewings later, it’s still as shocking and brashly unbelievable as it was the very first time I saw it.

So naturally, I’m not going to review that film.

And I’m not going to review the sequel either, an ultimately disappointing follow-up by the title of Bride of Re-Animator — obviously taking its queue from the classic Universal horror film Bride of Frankenstein. Despite original cast members Bruce Abbot, David Gale, and Jeffrey Combs returning, there’s something off about the sequel. Most of what’s off can be attributed to the screenwriters (Rick Fry and Woody Keith, neither of whom had any notable experience and neither of whom had been involved with the first film) and Brian Yuzna himself, who for this movie moved into the additional role of director (as well as working on the screenplay).

It was only Yuzna’s second film as a director (his first was a movie called Society, which also happened to be the only movie Fry and Keith had worked on before Bride of Re-Animator). Inexperience in and of itself is no damning situation. Stuart Gordon had practically no experience when he directed Re-Animator. Neither did screenwriter Dennis Paoli. In fact, before Re-Animator, the only credit for either man was fulfilling their respective roles and director ad screenwriter for a 1978 movie called Bleacher Bums. I assumed that it would be some sort of ribald proto-Porky’s teen sex comedy, probably with a lot of scenes of guys prowling around under the bleachers in the high school gym, looking up the short skirts of the female student population (come on…bleachers…bums…the title writes the movie). But it turns out it’s a slice-of-life thing about a bunch of people hanging out in the cheap seats at a baseball game, and it features a young Dennis Franz. And we’ve all seen his bleacher bum.

The difference between Gordon/Paoli and Yuzna/Fry/Keith is that Gordon and Paoli both turned out to be naturals. There’s so little evidence of Re-Animator being the first substantial work for either man that it comes as a shock to learn how green they were at the time. Yuzna was not the natural that Gordon was in the director’s chair. He had to learn the craft as he went, and as a result, his mistakes are more obvious. I don’t know much about Fry and Keith, but I would imagine that a couple rookie screenwriters got called in by their friend to write a sequel to what had surprised everyone by becoming one of the most wickedly successful cult horror films ever. That’s a lot of pressure. You’re trying to put your own stamp on things while also trying to mimic what Paoli did with the first film. And the guy who hired you is not only producing the movie; he’s also directing and working with you on the screenplay. This is pure conjecture, but I imagine that when Gordon, Yuzna, and Paoli were making the first film, it was a mad experiment between three equals. With Bride of Re-Animator, Yuzna was obviously the boss, and as such, saying no to him was probably more difficult that it would have been for Keith and Fry than it was for Paoli and Gordon. Not that I’m claiming he was some sort of demanding bear; merely that he was the experienced one, so the tendency on the part of the newcomers would be to defer to him. And if there’s one thing Yuzna needs, it’s someone who won’t defer to him.

We said it when we reviewed Faust: Love of the Damned. And we said it again when we reviewed Necronomicon: Yuzna needs an idea editor. The man is a jumble of ideas. A lot of them are good. Some of them are brilliant. Some are terrible. And some are downright ludicrous. Without a level playing field of minds to reject certain ideas, too much of Yuzna’s taste for the ridiculous can seep into a production. That’s what happened with Bride of Re-Animator. Without Paloi or Gordon on hand to reel him in, Brian Yuzna ends up with Dr. Hill’s disembodied head flying around with tiny little bat wings attached to its neck. Re-Animator relied on humor, sure, but Bride of Re-Animator strayed from the clever, dark comedy of the original and into territory best left to the Three Stooges (who themselves had even done the head-with-wings bit) or Sam Raimi, who somehow manages to take Stooges style antics and make them work in his own particular brand of horror-comedy.

But just as I constantly reiterate Yuzna’s tendency to give in to such slapstick shenanigans, let me also reiterate the other point I frequently make about the man: as a director, he’s made some movies I think are bad, but he rarely makes a movie that I don’t think is entertaining.

Beyond Re-Animator was made in 2003, some 13 years after Bride of Re-Animator. I didn’t see it until recently, for reasons I can’t fully articulate. I get in these weird moods sometimes where something I should be excited about fails to appeal to me because… I don’t know. Because I consider it too obvious? Not exactly that, but something close. The Re-Animator series was familiar. And my last experience with it hadn’t been that great. So despite loving the first film, the tepid reaction I had to part two unfairly soured my urge to see a third one. It also failed to appeal to me because neither Gordon nor Paoli were attached to the project. It was another Brian Yuzna solo project, and my last experience with Yuzna on his own, at the time Beyond Re-Animator was originally released, was Return of the Living Dead III, a movie I hated when I first saw it. Why Yuzna, so prone to black humor and goofiness, chose the Return of the Living Dead series to treat with utter seriousness, baffles me still. I guess it was a reaction to the atrociously comical Return of the Living Dead II, but it seemed just as wrong in basically the same way, only at the opposite end of the spectrum. Since then, I’ve sort of made my peace with Return of the Living Dead III (after all, Necropolis and Rave to the Grave taught me that the Return of the Living Dead series was capable of far worse crimes than Yuzna’s entry), though I still don’t think it’s very good.

But then I had a string of decent experiences with Brian Yuzna. I finally saw Necronomicon, which was 3/4 of a really good movie. I watched Beneath Still Waters, which a lot of people hate but I liked quite a bit. And I watched Faust: Love of the Damned, which is just gloriously stupid and absurd. Then I rewatched Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator (which was much better now that I’m not a teenager expecting it to be just like the first film) and thought to myself that it was sort of dumb to be dancing around Beyond Re-Animator. It wasn’t getting a lot of praise from horror film fans, but then, neither do a lot of movies I like. When October of 2009 rolled around and Teleport City held its second Month of Lovecraft, I decided it was time to sit down and watch Beyond Re-Animator, even though referring to it as a Lovecraft adaptation is so far beyond the pale of what could justifiably be considered a movie based on the works of Lovecraft that I might have just as legitimately reviewed Field of Dreams. Frankly, being stuck in a cornfield in Iowa with people waxing nostalgic about baseball for a few hours is a pretty unspeakable Lovecraftian horror for me — and I even like goofing around in cornfields!

Instead of Lovecraft, Beyond Re-Animator looks to Hammer horror films for inspiration. In particular, it’s mining the territory previously explored by Frankenstein Created Woman and, even more so, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, which finds Frankenstein in an insane asylum, where he continues to perform admittedly degraded versions of his original experiments. For my money, Hammer’s Frankenstein movies were their most consistent series. Where the Dracula movies descended into near camp and repetitive lack of creativity, and where the Mummy movies had gone cheap and shoddy almost immediately after the first one, the Frankenstein movies always managed to maintain an air of dignity and imagination about them. There were some missteps — namely The Evil of Frankenstein and The Horror of Frankenstein — but both of those are easily dismissible anomalies. The Evil of Frankenstein was something of a one-off, clumsy with the freedom they finally had to make something similar to the old Universal Frankenstein movies rather than sticking to their own vision. Because it wreaks such havoc with the continuity of the Hammer series movies that came before it, I don’t think it’s any great stretch to declare it a non-canonical alternate history experiment. And despite being a disappointing movie, it still has its highlights. The Horror of Frankenstein is even easier to dismiss as a lark, since it was basically a limp comedic satire of the Frankenstein movies, replacing Peter Cushing with young Ralph Bates (who I’ve noticed is almost always referred to as “young Ralph Bates” when people write about Hammer).

But the core movies of the series are uniformly outstanding, in my opinion. Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell takes some guff from a lot of people for being a weak movie, but most of the criticisms seem to ultimately boil down to pointing out that the monster make-up and design is terrible — which it is. But if you can get over that, I think it’s a solid entry, taking the series to its logical extreme and a fitting conclusion. Frankenstein is so far gone into his own private obsession that his work has lost all semblance of scientific sanity. In fact, he has regressed considerably. Having almost perfected his experiment on several occasions (and he himself being a living example of the near perfect success of his method, though executed by one of his assistants), it’s a tragedy to see what’s he’s been reduced to. By the time Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell rolls around, he seems to have lost himself in his mania, creating monstrosities and losing his grip on reality. This version of Frankenstein was manifest later in George Romero’s Day of the Dead, in the person of Dr. Logan. Like Hammer’s Frankenstein, Logan’s experiments with zombies have become such an obsession that he has moved from actual world-changing potential to an increasingly myopic and impractical obsession with experimentation for experimentation’s sake. If you are looking to horror’s past for inspiration, it would seem a pretty obvious trajectory for Brian Yuzna to send Dr. Herbert West on as well.

Beyond Re-Animator begins shortly after the conclusion of Bride of Re-Animator, with one of Dr West’s (Jeffrey Combs naturally) murderous reanimated corpses wandering through a suburban neighborhood. There wasn’t really anything like it shown at the end of the last movie, but we can roll with that. Before finally being gunned down by the cops, the corpse attacks and kills a young woman because she stands in the way of the delicious milk that the zombie wants to grab from the kitchen. Sure, why not? The murder of the girl and subsequent arrest of West (hey, if the man can survive being strangled by a giant re-animated colon, he can survive being buried in a crypt collapse) is witnessed by the woman’s little brother, Howard. Howard also finds a syringe of West’s reagent. The event causes the young boy to become obsessed with Herbert West and the brilliant-but-mad experiments that have defined the re-animator’s scientific career. Luckily, the kid doesn’t find Dr. Hill’s unaccounted for head-with-bat-wings.

Howard grows up to become Dr. Howard Phillips (Jason Barry), and he has maneuvered his career so that he is doing his residency in the same prison where Herbert West has been confined for thirteen years. But Phillips isn’t interested in revenge. No, he thinks that West’s research could have saved his sister just as surely as it killed her. He takes the prison assignment because he wants to get close to West to encourage and enable him to resume his experiments. Not surprisingly, West takes very little encouraging. The enabling is made easy by the fact that West has been a relatively well behaved if creepy inmate, and by the fact that the warden (Simon Andreu) is corrupt, twisted, and weird. Before long, Phillips has procured West as his assistant and the two have set up a secret lab where West can continue his experiments.

Of course, nothing in the world of Re-Animator stays uncomplicated for long. A hot young reporter, Laura (Elsa Pataky), is hanging around the joint and becomes romantically involved with Phillips while doing some vague sort of profile of the warden. West can’t help but smugly antagonize some of the other inmates. And of course, the need for fresh corpses and the sudden revivification of dead men, but as vomiting, gory creatures, can only go unnoticed for so long, even by a warden who is more interested in making women crawl around and bark for him than he is in attending to his official duties. By the time Phillips has realized how cracked West may truly be, it’s too late. A prison riot breaks out, and amid the chaos, West’s reanimated ghouls break out as well. And of course, as the bodies pile up… well, West has never been able to resist injecting his reagent into a fresh subject, regardless of how out of control the situation already is.

Let’s talk about Brian Yuzna the director. I said earlier that he was no natural the way Stuart Gordon seemed to be. He had to learn by making a lot of mistakes along the way. But he has learned. Bland, professional competence is the best way I can describe the directing job — and that is in no way meant as an insult. Too often, the director’s desire to “place his mark” on a movie ruins it, cramming it full of superfluous and distracting flourishes and indulgences that don’t serve any real purpose and instead actively distract from the movie itself. Yuzna, like the old directors at Hammer, knows better than to let his job as director get in the way of telling the story. Given how prone modern horror is to the above-mentioned stylistic conceits, I’m overjoyed to watch a movie where the director knows what he’s doing and knows how to be unobtrusive without being boring. Yuzna may have had to learn through trial and error, but he has studied the trade, and that makes him a better director than most of the people who just hop into the seat directly after making a music video or two.

Now let’s talk about Brian Yuzna the screenwriter. Deciphering exactly who is responsible for what in the screenplay is difficult. Official credit goes to Jose Manuel Gomez, but with assistance from a guy named Xavier Berraondo. Like Fry and Keith before them, neither of these guys had a lot of experience. Gomez only credit was for a single episode of a TV series, and while Berraondo boasted a little more to his name, it was still as a writer and director for Spanish television. I’m guessing then that, once again, a lot of the credit for the script goes to Yuzna himself, even if there’s no actual official credit for him as the screenwriter. It certainly has the trademarks, both good and bad, of Yuzna’s previous forays into screenwriting. There’s a lot of good stuff, but there’s also some stuff that strays from the darkly comical to the just plain silly.

At the top of the list of things that are just too ridiculous to be effective are the drug addict who thinks West’s reagent is some sort of groovy new narcotic. The original Re-Animator had a scene (absent from many prints) in which Bruce Abbott’s Dan Cain discovers West shooting up with the reagent. It’s a scene that’s played straight and generates a whole different kind of creepy horror than is generated by the film’s legions of disgusting living dead corpses. This time around, however, a living person using the reagent like a drug is treated as pure comedy, complete with the actor (apparently a big actor in Spain and a huge fan of horror) doing his very worst Tommy Chong imitation.

Not far behind that is the transformation of plucky young reporter Laura Olney (Elsa Pataky) from plucky young reporter to S&M kungfu superbabe. Yeah, I know, that sounds fine, right? But this just isn’t the proper venue. Can you imagine how the original Re-Animator would have undercut itself if Barbara Crampton’s character suddenly jumped off the table, did a backflip, and delivered a series of spinning back kicks to Dr. Hill and his head, while having previously demonstrated no acumen or interest at all in martial arts? It’s the sort of idiotic fanboy idea that deserves to be pitched in a forum discussion as being cool. It also deserves to never go any further than that same forum discussion.

Most of the story is cribbed, as I said, from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. But at least part of it also comes from Hammer’s Frankenstein Created Woman, which dealt with Frankenstein attempting to right some the errors in his research by capturing and transplanting not just body parts, but also something like the “soul.” West’s breakthrough in this film is that he can finally prevent his reanimated corpses from turning into vomiting, murderous monsters by transplanting this “soul” (though when it’s referred to as such, West has the appropriately smug and condescending reaction to such superstitious terminology). Unfortunately, this also causes a severe case of split personality. Something that can, say, turn a sadistic warden into a rat-like creature should you plant rat soul in his reanimated corpse, or a plucky young reported into an S&M kungfu superbabe if you mix her soul with some sadistic warden soul.

As with all of West’s experiments (and Frankenstein’s before him), his research is brilliant but ultimately disastrous largely because he has such limited resources and unfriendly working conditions, but also because he has no ability to (or even the ability to see the need to) stop himself from making due with what he has anyway. In a way, Dr. West’s experiments are like Brian Yuzna’s films: a lot of good ideas, some inferior working conditions, and ultimately, everything spins out of control and collapses in on itself. If Yuzna the director has become a steady and reliable hand, Yuzna the screenwriter still needs someone who can look at his huge pile of ideas and sort out the daft ones before they get committed to screen.

Which brings us to Yuzna the producer. Like all of Yuzna’s movies these days, Beyond Re-Animator was produced under the umbrella of his Fantastic Films company. Fantastic is based in Spain and gets most of its funding from a Spanish production company partner. As such, Yuzna shoots in Spain with largely Spanish cast members. Most of the time, this is fine. Dagon dealt with it by setting the story in a remote village on the coast of Spain. Beneath Still Waters also set itself in Europe. But Re-Animator is an American story, with an American setting, and Yuzna doesn’t have the funds to trick audiences into thinking his Spanish location is American, even when he limits almost all the action to the generic interior of a prison. For starters, this is probably the only prison in America with an all-Caucasian inmate population. The Spanish actors can pass easily enough as Latino Americans, but the lack of any other race or color in the prison draws attention to itself.

Also drawing attention to itself is the prison itself. It’s too clean. When the appearance of “disrepair” is attempted, it looks fake, like when someone tries to look like a hobo by cutting holes in their clothing with scissors and smearing some grease paint on their cheeks. It’s also probably one of the only prisons in the world with so much mood lightning. I’ve been in jail, and I’ve visited prisons, and the one thing they all have in common is the distinct lack of tasteful shadows and artfully dim lighting. But maybe Warden Brando is like me, and he just hated all that fluorescent lighting that is the norm in places of incarceration. Had this movie been filmed in the United States, they probably would have used Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the Bronson Canyon of prison locations. Actually, had this movie been filmed in the United States, they probably would have used a set just like this one, but decrepit, crumbling Eastern State sure would have been cool.

Now, the irony — it was a location. An actual prison in Spain. Apparently a remarkably grubby one, very similar in appearance and layout to Eastern State (which is basically a hub and spoke design, so that multiple wings can all be watched over from a single central location), that Yuzna and crew cleaned up to make look more like an American prison. The fact that I think this actual prison doesn’t look enough like a prison reminds me of a story about the making of one of the old Biblical epics. They were filming in Israel, Egypt, places like that. But when the dailies came back, the director and producer felt that the actual Holy Land didn’t look “Holy Land” enough. So they shot the rest in Utah instead, or somewhere like that.

I think part of the problem is that you have this modern looking prison, but with a very horror film and medieval set-up, which just doesn’t mesh with the clean, more modern facility. Having the prison be all grubby and awful would not have reflected the norm in modern American prisons, but it would have fit better in a horror film. Or at the very least, if you are going to try and make most of your prison look modern, don’t give other parts of it weird mood lighting. It was a conscious decision, again, to make the lower depths of the prison seem more surreal, but it doesn’t work for me. What the hell would the first official inspector think when he comes in and sees the warden’s private expressionist film set in the basement?

But the most obviously stupid (though it’s also obviously why he did it) decision Yuzna the producer makes is with what he allows his female cast members to wear. There are only two of them, the aforementioned Laura and a female nurse (Raquel Gribler). Both of them are gorgeous. Both of them slink around the prison in sexy outfits. Nurse Vanessa is a particularly egregious example of a filmmaker’s desire to inject some gratuitous sexiness into his film in the face of every reasonable interpretation of reality. Vanessa comes to work in one of those sexy nurse mini-skirt deals I don’t think any nurse has worn in decades. Certainly the nurse I know doesn’t wear one. But the nurse I know is a dude over six feet tall and built like Joe Don Baker in his prime (yes, I know what I just wrote). But I think they traded in the white skirt in favor of scrubs with cartoon fish on them a long time ago. Even if they didn’t, Vanessa’s dress is short enough to be approved of by a panel of Japanese anime fans, and she wears it without pantyhose, and with the blouse unbuttoned to show off almost the entirety of her ample breasts. Now I’m no prude, and I’m all for a woman expressing her sexuality, but I would think common sense would inform even the sauciest tart not to wear her sexy nurse Halloween costume to her job at the fucking prison with the psychotic warden.

Similarly, Laura parades around in a series of tight dresses and short skirts, culminating in a very ill-advised (practically, not aesthetically) bodice-and-miniskirt get-up. Now I know the warden is a perv. Who isn’t? But he’s also a control freak. Even he must see the disadvantages of allowing the only two women in your prison facility to parade around in skimpy outfits with almost no supervision whatsoever. I know you may be saying to yourself, in a movie about a mad scientist reanimating the dead… in a movie where a rat has a throw-down with a reanimated disembodied penis… is dressing your prison nurse up in porno nurse attire really that big a sin? Well, to that I respond with the age-old adage: a writer can ask us to accept the impossible, but not the improbable. If Yuzna wanted to sex up his movie, there’s even a way he could have done it. You have a psycho warden. Have him force one of the women to dress in the slinky attire (he already makes one of them bark like a dog for him). Then have your riot and set your woman lose in her stockings and leather thong, or whatever you want her in. But having them report to work every day dressed like they’re about to go clubbing or to a medical themed night at a fetish club is just too much. It’s just too improbably without being acceptably impossible.

So enough about Yuzna. He gets it more right here than he had in any of his movies beforehand, but he still has his issues when he’s left on his own. Let’s talk now about the actors. For the most part, their blandly acceptable. Jason Barry’s Dr. Phillips is there to be nothing more than the straight man and assistant, the Hans to Herbert West’s Frankenstein. Like Dan Cain from the first film, he is torn between his fascination and revulsion, respect for and horror at what Dr. west does. But he’s not as effective in the role as Cain was in the first film. At the same time, he’s not the simpering over-emotional load Cain was in Bride of Re-Animator, so I guess it all evens out. Similarly, Elsa Pataky is there to look sexy, be put in danger, and inevitably end up on the bad end of some reanimation. She fulfills that role well, but there’s precious little to her beyond that. Certainly not like Barbara Crampton from the first film. Like Bruce Abbot, Crampton was able to take something of a thinly sketched character and make you care about what happened. When she ends up at the tender mercies of Dr. Hill, the resulting infamous scene is both hilariously tasteless and truly horrifying because we actually like Megan Halsey as a character.

Not so with Pataky’s Laura, though. Yuzna seems to be cribbing Laura’s transformation partly from Bride of Re-Animator, but perhaps even more so, from his own Return of the Living Dead III. One of the high points of that movie was that Melinda Clarke managed to drag some pathos out of the situation and make the predicament of being partially living dead more emotional. Pataky just doesn’t pull it off. When she’s being stalked by prisoners, it’s not that big a deal. When she struggles with the split personality West’s reanimation process has given her, we don’t really care. She’s never been much of a character up until that point, and so the desperate chase to save her has no real sense of emotion or urgency. Crampton knew how to make you terrified for her, and when things went bad, it was depressing even as it was insane and giddy. The mix of confused emotions somehow working in concert, that sense of urgency and claustrophobic desperation that comes in the finale of the original, is what’s missing from Beyond Re-Animator. While much of what Beyond Re-Animator lacks may be the fault of the script, some of the blame lies with the actors as well.

But really, we all went into this knowing that there would ultimately be only two characters we’d want to pay attention to. First, there’s Simon Andreu’s Warden Brando. As a sadistic prison warden, he’s no Vic Diaz. As a mad foil to Herbert West, he’s no Dr. Hill. He’s never over the top enough to be entertaining, nor is he subtle enough to be scary. He’s just a generic comic book villain. There was an interesting opportunity to make him a counterpart to West — experimenting in pain, torture, and subjugation in the same insane way West experiments with life and death. But that concept is never explored, and the warden’s sadistic nature is basically used as nothing deeper than window dressing, a way to make him loathsome enough so that we relish his twisted comeuppance when it inevitably is visited upon him by a vengeful Herbert West.

Speaking of which…

You see a Re-Animator film because of Jeffrey Combs. His portrayal of Dr. Herbert West in the first film made him an instant fan favorite, and his involvement in any project, Re-Animator related or otherwise, is enough to make many fans give it a watch. Hell, I even made it through half of the first season of Enterprise because Jeffrey Combs appeared every now and then. One of the many complaints filed against Beyond Re-Animator is that there’s not enough Herbert West. I disagree. I think there’s just the right amount of Herbert West. He’s a character whose appeal is made all the more powerful by reserved use of his appearances. That’s how it was in the first film. That’s how it is here. Unfortunately, the supporting cast isn’t as engaging this time around, which makes the non-West scenes a bit of a slog.

But it also makes it that much more of a treat when he does show up. If this movie revolved entirely around him, I think it would be too much. West has become the de facto hero of the movies, despite his insanity. If you over-expose him, you end up with a wisecrackin’ Freddie Krueger. Used wisely and with reserve, though, the character never overstays his welcome or becomes wearisome. In the same way, Jeffrey Combs knows exactly what to do with the character. Like Vincent Price, he knows how much ham to add to the recipe without going overboard. Even though it’s been thirteen years in between wielding the fluorescent green reagent, Combs steps into the role with the same confidence and quirky condescension that made him such an icon to begin with. Some day, someone will put him in a horror movie with Bruce Campbell, and that’s going to be something special.

The final ingredient in any Re-Animator movie is the gore. Compared to the first film, this one is pretty tame. There was something truly disgusting about the effects in the first film. Not just because they were splattery. There was an undercurrent of something more… disturbing. Something that could get under the skin even of seasoned gore hounds. What Beyond Re-Animator has is some similar splatter but without any of that lurking sickness. Once again, it’s because most of the gore is played for comedy. The decaying state of the drug dude, the reanimated inmate missing his lower torso and having to run around like Johnny Eck or swing from overhead pipes — sure these things are gross to people who have never watched gross movies, but to someone who is coming in with previous experience, it’s too silly to be truly effective. The effects aren’t bad. Bran Yuzna has injected some bad CGI into previous movies. He’s gotten better at CGI over the years, and anyway includes fewer such effects this time around. Most of the gore is restricted to the final act, and even when it comes it’s not that voluminous or scary. Although Re-Animator movies have always had the gore, they’ve never been solely about the gore. I thought it was enough to be satisfying in this movie, but presented in too flippant a way. That said, there are still some good ones. The half-man may be played largely for laughs, but it’s a fantastically realized effect, as is the appearance of the zombie in the beginning of the film. That one might even rival “Dr. Tongue” from the beginning of Day of the Dead.

Yuzna himself admits that the gore has to be “cleaner” these days than in the 1980s. I always marvel at the way people say something was gory or violent “for the time,” when that time was the 1980s. What you could get away with in the 1980s was so much more extreme than what is allowable today. Violence may be more pervasive and commonplace in modern movies, but it’s rarely bloodier. When it is, they usually have to shoot with some sort of tinting — the classic cold blue or yellow-green, which usually renders blood less colorful and more “acceptable.” Anyway, colorful though it may be, part of the problem with Beyond Re-Animator is that the gore is more “splatterstick,” and thus not as shocking. But it’s also more far-out. What makes a lot of the gore in the first film so effectively gruesome is that it’s believably familiar — we may not know what gruesome secrets are in a morgue, but we can guess at it, and the reanimated corpses of Re-Animator reflect that. It somehow makes it a lot grosser than what’s in Beyond Re-Animator, with its rat-men and swingin’ torsos.

So Beyond Re-Animator is a mixed bag, which is about what I expected. More good than bad. The end result, like so many of Yuzna’s projects, loses control of itself and falls apart… but just barely. I like Yuzna, and it’s been nice watching him learn the trade over the decades. And like Yuzna’s other movies, even when he’s making mistakes here, he’s not making boring mistakes. There’s a carnival-esque atmosphere about the place. Re-Animator movies may be something that Yuzna knows he can crank out if he needs a fast buck, but I think he also genuinely loves them as much as the fans do. That keeps this from being just some run-of-the-mill direct-to-DVD horror movie that doesn’t give a crap about itself (we have Return of the Living Dead IV: Necropolis for that). It has energy; it has charm, and I think it’s a fun movie even though it’s full of flaws. A dash of Re-Animator, a dash of Penitentiary, and jigger of Hammer horror. More of a delirious funhouse atmosphere than the original. Certainly more pep than Bride of Re-Animator. Would it have been a better movie if Yuzna had been able to involve Stuart Gordon or Denis Paoli? Yeah, probably. But that didn’t happen, and what we got was still pretty enjoyable.

The proposed fourth film, House of Re-Animator is in a state of constant “yes it is/no it isn’t.” Right now, it’s spending time firmly planted in the “no it isn’t” end of the spectrum, which is too bad since it also promised the return of Paoli and Gordon to the series. The plot was supposed to be about Herbert West being enlisted to revive the president of the United States — a high concept that is as ripe with possibility as it is fraught with peril. Who knows if we’ll ever get to see it. Like a potential fifth Phantasm film, some people are hopeful, others think it will never happen, and some think that either way, it probably shouldn’t happen. If we end the series at Beyond Re-Animator, though, I don’t think it’s a bad place — and incidentally, I love the end of this movie. If nothing else ever happens with the franchise, it goes out on exactly the note it needs to: with West disappearing into the mist.

Release Year: 2003 | Country: United States, Spain | Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Jason Barry, Elsa Pataky, Simon Andreu, Raquel Gribler, Santiago Segura, Enrique Arce, Barbara Elorrieta | Writers: Xavier Berraondo, Jose Manuel Gomez, Brian Yuzna | Director: Brian Yuzna | Cinematographer: Andreu Rebes | Music: Xavier Capellas | Producer: Brian Yuzna, Julio Fernandez