Oh man. Poor, poor Herbert West. Such a gifted medical student, so underappreciated, undervalued, unrecognized. That makes for a very volatile person with the potential of a broken psyche.
Herbert, played by Jeffrey Combs, is a third-year medical student who has personally developed a formula which he calls “reagent” that, when injected into the brain stem of a corpse, brings the dead person back to life, which he calls “re-animation”. He’s working through the “bugs” of course. There are some problems with the re-animation. For instance, there is an incredibly high propensity for violence when these dead are re-animated. Plus, like all zombies, they try to kill and eat people. So, there’s still work to be done.
During his research at University of Zurich, Herbert is involved in the re-animation of his dead professor, Dr. Hans Gruber (yes that’s the same name as the bad guy in Die Hard. But this came first.). When this goes awry and he is found out, he is transferred to Miskatonic University in New England, planning to continue not only his studies but, also his work.
He quickly rents a room from a fellow student, Dan Cain, who just happens to be dating and sleeping with the Dean’s daughter, Megan, without the Dean’s knowledge of course. After he moves in, West immediately turns the building’s basement into his personal laboratory. When Dan finds this little workshop of Herbert’s, West shows him the proof of the reagent by reanimating Dan’s dead cat.
Dan is amazed and quickly goes to the Dean to tell him of the research. However, the Dean is not, shall we say, a believer and he bans both Dan and Herbert from the school. Still, as determined medical researchers, they sneak into the morgue to test the reagent on a human corpse. Dean Halsey finds them and, in the scuffle, is killed by the reanimated corpse. So, then they give Halsey the reagent, convinced that the fresher the corpse, the better the results will be. He is re-animated and becomes a violent zombie himself. Looking for her father, Megan happens to see the aftermath of all this in the morgue and is absolutely appalled, blaming Herbert and Dan for her father’s condition.
Now, Herbert also encounters a nemesis of sorts. A Dr. Hill that teaches at the University is seemingly at odds with everything that has to do with West’s research and conclusions. We see them have an intellectual pissing contest a couple times in the film. Hill takes over the care of Dr. Halsey and admits him into a mental hospital and chooses to perform a lobotomy on Halsey, leaving him forever altered even more. Megan is heartbroken over her father’s condition and while begging to see him, Dr. Hill basically tells her that he’s gone and she needs to move on. He also gets creepily close to her, invading her personal space and eerily telling her that he’s there for her if she needs anything. This comes off as totally gross and perverted, making it obvious he has seedy thoughts and intentions towards this young woman, young enough to be his daughter…yuck!
Dr. Hill goes to confront Herbert in his makeshift laboratory, they soon get into an argument over who will be getting credit for the work as Dr. Hill informs West he’s pretty much going to steal his research, which he has vehemently refuted since it’s inception. West becomes furious and kills Hill, decapitating him with the blade end of a shovel. Realizing that he’s not tried to re-animate individual body parts he re-animates Hill’s head and body separately. While studying the reaction and taking notes, Hill’s body comes up behind him and knocks him out. The body then carries its own head, the reagent and West’s notes back to the morgue at the University.
Having now been re-animated himself, he seems to be able to control other re-animated corpses. He uses this ability to get Halsey to go kidnap his own daughter and bring her to Hill. Having passed out from shock, she is strapped to a table in the morgue and Hill gets nasty, performing a grotesque form of sexually assault on Megan.
Herbert and Dan find Hill, Halsey and Megan in the morgue. Herbert occupies Hill and Dan is able to get Megan free. Hill has re-animated other corpses in the morgue and they begin to attack Dan and Megan. Megan yells out in desperation at her father, who seems to come back to our reality and holds off the other re-animations as his daughter and Dan flee frantically.
During this ordeal, Herbert decides to inject Hill with a lethal dose of the reagent, causing him to react and mutate, attacking West. West screams to Dan to save his research and the reagent and he takes it all with him as he and Megan leave. As they are running out of the morgue, a re-animated corpse attacks and strangles Megan. Dan rushes her to the hospital where she is pronounced dead. Dan, fueled by grief, uses the reagent on her. The screen fades to black as we hear the painful scream of Megan, presumably being re-animated.
What a classic movie! Loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft tale, it’s easy to see why this would have such a strong cult following. Jeffrey Combs is great in this film. (He was actually in an episode of CSI (the original) called Jackpot. He played a doctor then too.) His performance is just over-the-top enough to be the right amount of creepy. David Gale (Dr. Hill) is very skilled at giving you the willies. Everything about Hill just oozes scumbag.
The special effects make-up is really well done in this movie, in my opinion. They’ve even got lividity on the corpses, a detail often overlooked. The zombies look good and I actually like that the whole movie is just, like, two degrees off center. It’s exaggerated enough to have the appropriate impact but, not so much that you think it’s cheesy or corny.
And I have to say that the reagent is very mad-scientist looking. It’s a very bright, almost electric, neon kind of green. It actually looks like something that might be radioactive or something like that. It has this glow that, to a sane person, would be a huge red flag indicating “this should not be in the human body in any way, shape or form”.
There are some excellent blood and gore scenes. There’s a common theme in the blood effects where blood spills out the side of the mouth like perpetual drool. While that is a little played out by the end of the movie, it still is done well.
Also, to top it all off, there is a healthy dose of dark comedy in this movie. I liked the way the jokes and sarcastic comments were slyly slipped in and seemed so fluid in the script.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this movie. It is definitely going to be a movie that will have some repeat viewings.