EZMM 2020 Day 2.2: Herbert West: Reanimator (2017)

It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 2008, 2009 (a bad year), 2010, 2011, 2012 (when we left the blog behind), 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Written between October 1921 and June 1922, “Herbert West – Reanimator” was H. P. Lovecraft’s contribution to serialized fiction. It was a parody of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and ran in six parts from February through July 1922 in Home Brew, an amateur magazine published by his friend George Julian Houtain, and was maybe the first time zombies appeared in popular fiction as animalistic, cannibalistic reanimated corpses, as opposed to the traditional voodoo origins. It also contained the first reference to Miskatonic University. The stories follow young Herbert West, the inventor of a mysterious “reagent” that can resurrect the dead, to varying results, as he develops his solution from his college days through World War I and beyond, until his past experiments catch up with him.

While the story has been adapted across various mediums, most famously as Stuart Gordon’s classic Re-Animator in 1985, and less famously in a couple of sequels (Bride of Re-Animator in 1990 and Beyond Re-Animator in 2003, both directed by Brian Yuzna), all of the adaptations veer away from the source materials, usually updating the settings while keeping some of the more disturbing elements and the basic personality of Herbert West.

Italian writer/director Ivan Zuccon has spent a large chunk of his filmmaking career playing around with Lovecraftian storytelling, beginning with the no-budget The Darkness Beyond (2000) and its sequel, Unknown Beyond (2001), and then the adaptations The Shunned House (2003) and later, Colour from the Dark (2008). I haven’t seen any of these, but despite some questionable reviews on IMDB, I’m curious after sitting down with his take on Herbert West: Reanimator (2017).

Eschewing the comedic splatter of the Gordon and Yuzna era, Zuccon instead leans heavily into a serious narrative of a scientist obsessed with defeating death after his daughter, Eleanor, is killed in an automobile accident, while embracing a surrealist style that hearkens back to films like Phantasm (1979) The Beyond (1981), or Dellamorte, Dellamore (1994). Longtime Zuccon collaborator Emanuele Cerman takes on the title role and inhabits the role of a suffering father forced to murder his reanimated daughter again and again until finally she comes back to life with a semblance of sanity.

But before we get there, the film opens in media res with three reanimated corpses concerned about the sanity of a fourth who then scamper back to their slabs and pretend to be dead when they hear someone coming. It’s an odd opening that immediately avoids most of the usual zombie clichés, although the mad corpse, Elizabeth (Roberta Marrelli), is animalistic and hostile, if easily restrained. When we’re introduced to Doctor Herbert West, he is chained to a wheelchair and being tormented by an unnamed man (Alessio Cherubini) who is a doppelganger for a young Jeffrey Combs. It’s a clever choice, playing with meta-textual expectations to create confusion, before truly diving into the bizarre and surreal.

By the time the grown-up, only somewhat homicidal, Eleanor (Rita Rusciano) disappears into a bathtub of black goo that exploded from her vagina only to be replaced by our mystery man (finally dubbed Herbert West Jr.) in a twist that would make Lost Highway-era David Lynch proud, we are fully engaged in dream logic and if you’re not along for the ride, you may as well give up then.

We don’t get much by way of logical explanation, even when it is revealed that the original Herbert West injected himself with his reagent and is now, effectively immortal, not aging while his daughter has grown up. This film is more poetry than prose. When West dies, repeatedly, he finds himself in the Dark World. Is this death? Not sure, but since the film ends in a barren landscape that is somehow between life and death, I’m gonna go with that.

So, with Eleanor missing, West is searching for her in the Dark World, where unseen creatures inhabit the darkness, taking souls away bit by bit, but because he’s immortal, he is yanked back to reality to deal with Junior and the emotional trauma of his daughter’s death.

I think that’s all I want to say about the plot, as it is. There are some very interesting twists and turns and no bad performances. But it’s weird as hell and will most definitely not be for everybody. I wasn’t even sure it was for me until I started writing this review, to be honest. Watching Herbert West: Reanimator was like being in college again, back when you could go down to the local video store – not the franchise store, but the one run by that weird guy who had all the coolest shit – and find films that would blow your weed-addled mind.

That’s a rare feeling for me these days, so I’m glad we watched this one. Even if it’s not the usual zombie movie fare.

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