Times Staff Writer

“Re-Animator” (citywide), despite its title, is not a cartoon.

It’s simply the best, funniest Grand Guignol horror picture to come along in ages.

Winner of a special critics’ prize at Cannes, it could become a classic of the genre like “Night of the Living Dead” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and enjoy a long life as a cult film.

“You haven’t done this on people?,” asks medical student Bruce Abbott of his new roommate, Jeffrey Combs, who’s shot up Abbott’s dead cat with a mysterious phosphorescent chartreuse substance that has turned the poor creature into a rampaging attacker. But Combs, fresh transfer from a Zurich medical school--never mind why he departed--is a genius teetering on madness and determined to conquer brain death. The only trouble is that the dead, animal or human, are brought back to life as zombies with brutal killer instincts.

Of course Combs’ experiments lurch out of control with breathtaking rapidity, but then everything about this film is fast and punchy. Adapted by Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris from a 1922 H.P. Lovecraft story and directed by Stuart Gordon, it’s a real throat-grabber that holds on tight from first frame to last.


To describe what happens is not merely to spoil the show but to invite a repugnance that the film itself skirts because its makers have been shrewd enough to balance the blood and guts with laughter. The special effects pass inspection yet are so outrageous that you can’t take them seriously. “Re-Animator” is therefore not really all that scary, although it’s absolutely out of the question for the faint of heart and/or impressionable youngsters; it is rather comically gross in the way that “Animal House” was as a fraternity comedy.

A founder of Chicago’s widely acclaimed Organic Theater, Gordon displays an impressive grasp of the cinematic for a debuting film director, even allowing for some TV experience. Empire Pictures has him committed for more horror, but he shouldn’t let himself get stuck in the genre.

Everyone involved is first-rate: cinematographers Mac Ahlberg and Robert Ebinger and composer Richard Band, whose score, in the full-bodied vintage Hollywood manner, is performed by Rome’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Abbott and Barbara Crampton (as his girlfriend) are attractive, capable leads, and like their director and acting colleagues, come from the theater. David Gale has gruesome fun as a crazed member of the medical school faculty, and so does Robert Sampson as its ill-fated dean. But the big noise is Combs, a small, compact man of terrific intensity and concentration (and winner of a Los Angeles Drama Critics best actor award for his performance in “Playboy of the Western World.”) “Re-Animator” is Times-rated Mature.