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How Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator Shaped the Horror Landscape

The history of “cult” films, and the loyal fanbases that propel seemingly unlikely projects to icon status, is hardly one that began online. But it’s undeniable that the advent of the internet forever changed fans’ ability to find each other—and to form closer bonds to their favorite movies than ever before. The rising popularity of online fan communities is exemplified nowhere better than the horror community, where films with small but devoted followings could suddenly reach new waves of fans.

This, in conjunction with the advancements made in LGBTQ+ rights, scholarship, and media criticism, has also created a landscape in which pulpy, cult horror films are embraced by queer fanbases and understood through new (or previously unvoiced) lenses. Though countless horror films from “Sleepaway Camp” to “Saw” have LGBTQ+ themes and undertones celebrated by vocal sects of queer fans, few are as consistently acknowledged by cast and crew as director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna’s “Re-Animator.”

Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton, the 1985 science-fiction horror film (based on the H.P. Lovecraft novelette of the same name) follows Herbert West (Combs), an ambitious, neurotic mad scientist on a quest to develop a serum that revives the dead. Though he’s nailed down the reanimation of the body, West’s formula comes at the cost of higher brain function, and the zombified corpses wreak bloody, gruesome havoc across the campus of the Miskatonic University where West conducts his experiments.

The film is beloved for its extreme practical effects, comedic sensibilities, and memorable cast, the crown jewel of which is Jeffrey Combs’ twitchy Herbert West, a performance that has since become a camp classic of its own. But it’s West’s unlikely relationship with kindly, leading-man type Dan Cain (Abbott) that’s prompted 38 years of discussion and queer readings. The bond Herbert and Dan share doesn’t just make for a comedic odd-couple dynamic, but also a strangely domestic, codependent, pseudo-partnership that serves as the emotional core across “Re-Animator” and its sequel, “Bride Of Re-Animator.”

At face value, Herbert West’s cold, haughty attitude towards virtually everyone could be simply interpreted as an extension of the mad scientist character archetype (and to some extent, it is). Herbert West has a particular disdain for and flummoxed fascination with women and women’s bodies. In the first film, this manifests as frequent clashes with Dan’s girlfriend Meg (Crampton), the daughter of the Mistkatonic Dean and the object of Dr. Carl Hill’s (David Gale’s) desires.

For West, though, his intensity of feelings towards Meg doesn’t come from a place of sexual desire or romantic inclination—West despises Meg because of how much she robs him of Dan’s time and assistance. Despite constantly talking down to and sneering at Dan, Herbert also has a remarkably self-aware understanding that, without Dan, his experiments wouldn’t be complete, and thus Meg is the problem standing in the way of Herbert perfecting the serum.

This is how the messy Dan/Herbert/Megan relationship is presented on initial viewing/understandings of “Re-Animator,” but, of course, as queer visibility boomed in pop culture and media consumption went digital, LGBTQ+ fans latched onto Herbert’s disdain for Meg and jealousy of her as an indication of romantic feelings (conscious or unconscious) for Dan.

Herbert’s vocal lobbying for Dan’s attention, alongside his equally apparent contempt for Meg as indicators of Herbert’s stifled affection, lend “Bride Of Re-Animator” a new understanding as well, considering how the sequel revolves around Herbert attempting to build the perfect romantic partner for Dan by use of Meg’s heart. Across all three films, Herbert is (by his own deliberate action and the understanding of others) standoffish and not prone to affection—only offering Dan words of comfort when Dan’s moral compass and/or nerves are stalling West’s research.

But in “Bride,” Herbert finds an outlet for his reliance on/dedication to Dan—building him the perfect woman and making Meg the center of everything. Despite the fact that he (by all accounts) hated her and never gave Meg much more than a second glance, Herbert is demonstrated to be acutely aware of (and annoyed by) the sway that Meg holds over Dan’s mind and heart—a sway that some fans argue Herbert Wants for himself.

Then, of course, there’s the Dan of it all—Bruce Abbott makes for a strong-jawed, clean-cut, broad-shouldered opposite to the squirrely Herbert, but he’s also not dismissed as simply a hunk or a dumb jock. Instead, Dan has a massive bleeding heart—a dedication to his patients and a moral compass that Herbert finds entirely inconvenient when it comes to The Work. But despite West’s continued antics and Dan’s genuine want to do the right thing, Dan can’t help but heel when Herbert calls—pulling him out of fires (literally) and remaining staunchly loyal, despite how horrified he is by Herbert’s experiments.

Dan's unflagging dedication to the type of person he should, by all means, rail against is poignant when paired with Herbert’s equally steadfast (but perhaps more suspicious) loyalty to Dan. It all paints a portrait of an odd but undeniable partnership, one that makes the “Re-Animator” films so compelling as not just a campy, gory horror-comedy but as a character-driven drama with charismatic actors.

The actors themselves are another key factor in the prevalence of queer readings of the Dan/Herbert relationship: both “Re-Animator” and “Bride of Re-Animator” have audio commentary tracks where Combs, Abbott, Crampton, and Gale all frequently joke about and acknowledge the strange chemistry (no pun intended) of West and Cain.

Where their relationship stands as of the franchise’s most recent installment, though, is a little murkier—with Bruce Abbott not returning to the third and final film of the series, “Beyond Re-Animator,” Dan is written out of the film via an offscreen bombshell: Dan turned Herbert in to the police and testified against him to ensure he went to prison. It’s a bleak and drastic turn to explain Dan’s unfortunate absence, but also fits morbidly into the idea of a possible pseudo-romantic nature to their relationship: some kind of epic, Shakespearian betrayal to end their violent, chaotic partnership.

At one time, there were talks of a fourth “Re-Animator” that saw Herbert West holed up in the White House, but the passing of director and franchise mastermind Stuart Gordon in 2020 has partially stalled discussions of future installments. Still, Barbara Crampton recently alluded to talks of a potential fourth “Re-Animator” film and indicated Combs was similarly interested, though whether or not Abbott might return for a hypothetical fourth film remains to be seen.

Just two years from the film’s 40th anniversary, the continued cultural and media prevalence of “Re-Animator” is a testament to the creative genius of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna—the decision to cast primarily stage actors Combs and Abbott, ensuring a grandiose, gothic, Romantic quality to a pair of films that might otherwise be just egregiously violent. With a pair of classically trained leads willing to take big swings, Herbert West and Dan Cain’s parasitic bond in the “Re-Animator” films remains an iconic standout of the horror canon and a flagrantly queer cult classic. 

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