Beyond Re-Animator

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The cashier was pretty enthusiastic when I brought up BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR to rent. It's rare that anyone will be enthusiastic about horror when they speak to me. Rarer still that said enthusiast will be female. "I've heard there's a first one, but I can't find it anywhere," she said. Okay, time to slick the hair back, turn on the suave and show what an oversized geek I really am. "There's two," I said. I went on to explain that the original RE-ANIMATOR was made in 1986 by Stuart Gordon. She probably does find it hard to find in video stores, as it was unrated and hence, isn't carried by the Blockbusters or Hollywoods nearby - Nazis that they are. The DVD I haven't seen for rental many places, but it's got a lovely two-disc set that you can buy. Brian Yuzna's sequel, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, may be a little more available and it's an under-appreciated gem. It's not unexpected she may be unaware of RE-ANIMATOR. The films were never "big," catching on in small circles. It's mandatory viewing for many horror fans. But the mainstream never really "got it." Were you supposed to be scared? Were you supposed to laugh? What's the big deal? To this day, RE-ANIMATOR's biggest shot at the bigtime may be a reference in AMERICAN BEAUTY.

Stop. Smile at the pretty lady, show the pearly whites.

"Wow, you really know a lot about this stuff."

"Yeah, well ah - I have a website."

(Hey John, give me a break. It was a rare social interaction, I had to exaggerate a little.)

It's been a while since we've seen Herbert West, our crazy modern-day Frankenstein who we admire in an "aw-shucks-I-can't-stay-mad-at-you" kind of way. Now, Brian Yuzna is back with his Fantastic Factory outfit. Hence, he was finally able to get enough people together to tackle the third installment in the series, BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR.

Time hasn't been kind to the not-so-good doctor. He's been finally put in the slammer, something we witness in a lengthy prologue. Some of his zombies got loose, and at least one of them was responsible for the death of a young girl. The girl's brother watches West as the police take him away. He picks up a syringe. Roll credits.

So, we have West finally looking his age. We met him as an overzealous medical student, but now the wrinkles are starting to show. He has devoted most of his life to his re-animation experiments and frankly, he looks tired. It hasn't kept him down, however. He still tries to experiment and dissect whenever possible, gathering the plentiful vermin from the prison.

Speaking of prisons, this one is run more like a gulag. Warden Brando (screen vet Sim´┐Żn Andreu), no relation to Marlon I'm sure, rules with an iron fist. He doesn't believe in rehabilitation and he even talks about the electric chair in a way that seems to say "final solution," a creepy thought. He is a fascist in the true sense of the word. It is only the setting that is strange. Were this a Nazi prison camp, Warden Brando would be right at home. He is not above ignoring the law in pretty major ways, like adding a year to someone's sentence without blinking an eye. Uh, this isn't a BREAKFAST CLUB Saturday detention deal, this is prison. Who's going to pay for these people staying years beyond their term?

But I'm getting away from the subject, which is our doctor. Bruce Abbot, who aided West in the first two films, is nowhere to be seen. Anyone who thought he had a weak stomach and couldn't be trusted was right. Abbot has turned state's evidence against Dr. West and so he's a free man, while West rots away behind bars (Hey Brian, how about a fourth movie where West gets his revenge? Picture it: REVENGE OF RE-ANIMATOR - This time, it's personal! Have your people call my people. We'll do lunch.).

Still, West needs someone on the outside if he's going to get anything done. You can't just whip up a batch of re-animation fluid in the prison toilet you know. His aide comes in the form of Howard (Jason Barry, who played DiCaprio's friend in TITANIC), the kid from the prologue all grown up. Seems that ever since the night his sister was killed, he's been fascinated with life and death and wants to continue West's research. Howard is the head doctor at the prison, but it takes West no time at all to assume control, ordering him around and telling him what is worthwhile in the name of science. Soon, they are re-animating a deceased prison inmate (Nico Baixas) and experimenting with something new.

That new thing is what causes all sorts of mishaps. While West's re-agent can re-animate the dead, it's his new ability to extract nano-plasmic energy that gives them "new life." By injecting it back into the host after re-animation, they won't be a walking zombie. So wait, Dr. West has found a way to harness souls? Yes, but he doesn't call it that. In fact, he maintains that the energy is neutral and shouldn't make any difference who it comes from. None of that humility of tampering in God's domain for our little mad scientist. What happens eventually, people get infused with other people's NPE, which causes a bipolar reaction and you've got intelligent yet murderous zombies running around. Imagine a Grand Guignol version of THREE'S COMPANY and you're on the right track. When Howard's girlfriend reporter Laura (Elsa Pataky - THE ART OF DYING) catches wind of what's going on, the serum really hits the fan.

I kept waiting for Howard to reveal a master plan. To show us he's not as gullible as he appears, but it never happens. You would expect him to hold a grudge for the murder of his sister. It is West's recklessness that caused her death, there's no question about that. The fact that he feels no remorse for any of his crimes should be even more fuel to the fire. But no, Howard is just really interested in whatever the heck that thing was that killed his sister and drank all the milk (you'll have to see it to understand). This is one of the spots where producers really missed the boat here. Howard is a pushover, easily relinquishing control, far too trusting, and he can't keep a secret to save his life. I guess pickings are so slim that Dr. West will take whatever fate hands him.

The setting remains the prison for most of the film, making this the most confined installment of the three. Hard to say this is cheap. The original was done for under a million dollars, remember. The zombie and makeup effects, again courtesy of Screaming Mad George, are impressive. However, the sets do all seem to look the same after a while and you start itching for more variety. The characters, to their credit, do offer a bit more variety than the tapestry of stereotypes found in other jailhouse shocks like PRISON.

All the same, BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR is not a wash-out by a long shot. It may be the least of the three, but it still makes for one great trip. Combs is great as usual. Barry's character is written as a craven pushover and I guess he plays the part well. Elsa Pataky is great as the girlfriend who adds more to the mix than one would expect. Andreu, the most seasoned actor of the bunch, is the total comic book villain. Sure, he's no David Gale (R.I.P.), but the mad oozes sleaze like no warden since the days of Sid Haig.

Also, things cannot go completely wrong with Yuzna steering the ship. Here is one of the most underrated directors in horror. While Stuart Gordon may have got the ball rolling, Yuzna stepped up from the producer's chair and took the directing reigns for the two sequels. The first of these, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR still doesn't get the respect it deserves. In the meantime, he's a done a nifty horror satire, SOCIETY. His FAUST out-crowed THE CROW in my book. PROGENY is a claustrophobic ride through fatherly terror. And need I remind you that RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART III was the rare zombie sequel to actually hold up to the original and offer something new?

If BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR succeeds, it has Yuzna to thank. The actors could be as good as they want but they couldn't redeem it if someone were to treat the material without the benefit of experience and respect for the material. Yuzna offers plenty of action, drama, gore, gratuitous nudity and humor. In fact, there are some hilarious set-pieces including one sequence during the end-credits that's one of the weirdest mano-y-mano fights you'll see for some time. Part of the charm of the RE-ANIMATOR films is that it keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, even if it's someone else's.

Even if it isn't up to par with its two predessesors, there's plenty to admire in BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR. It's a fun ride. Still, there is the feeling of smallness to overcome, so one hopes this isn't the last time we'll see Herbert West. Perhaps one more film is in order to finally bring everything together. But let's not make the wait so long this time, okay?

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis