To claim that Re-Animator, a faultless hybrid of no-holds-barred splatterpunk horror and pitch-black comedy from 1985, is the best movie ever drawn from the writing of H.P. Lovecraft is to merely claim the offensively obvious. It doesn't take very much at all to be one of the best Lovecraft adaptations (he's a good candidate for the honor of having the worst film adaptations on average of any major horror writer*), and Re-Animator is besides that one of the 1980s very best horror movies regardless of its source material. It's also pretty obvious that the reason Re-Animator is so uncharacteristically great is that it's hardly a proper Lovecraft adaptation at all. The author hated writing "Herbert West—Reanimator", first serialised in 1922, and it has never since been very popular or well-regarded even by his fans (the leading Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi has called it Lovecraft's worst work). This meant that there was no pressure to be delicate about adapting it: the filmmakers had free reign to rip it apart and reassemble whatever parts it didn't discard in whatever order they like, and nobody was apt to complain.

Among those filmmakers was a cinema neophyte named Stuart Gordon, who cowrote the script with Dennis Paoli & William J. Norris. Gordon wanted to make a modern-day riff on Frankenstein; he hadn't even read "Herbert West—Reanimator" till someone suggested it would be a good candidate for such a project. And even then, the project took years to coalesce; it was first planned as a stage production, then as a television miniseries, and it nearly became the latter thing before fate intervened in the form of Gordon's acquaintance Brian Yuzna, who suggested that the real money was in theatrical features. And this was especially true given the little heyday films about cannibalistic undead corpses were having right about then; besides Re-Animator, 1985 alone witnessed two other major, influential zombie films in the form of The Return of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead. Re-Animator was a great deal grungier and more of a microbudget DIY affair than either of those; its the kind of film where Yuzna ended up selling the distribution rights to Charles Band's notorious Empire Pictures under fairly ungenerous terms just to get Empire to underwrite the film's post-production costs. It is a tiny, scrappy nothing of a film, which is surely why it can get away with being so unrelentingly fucked up.

But we were not done with Gordon. A cinema neophyte, I said, and he surely was; but a well-seasoned veteran of the dramatic arts. Gordon had been an avant-garde theater director since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his Screw Theater company made national headlines when he was charged with obscenity. He then founded the seminal experimental theater company Broom Street Theater before returning to his hometown of Chicago where his third company, Organic Theater, became a local institution and even a nationally prominent organization for a short time in the '70s; during this time, Gordon helped David Mamet shape the second version of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the play and the production that catapulted Mamet to prominence.

So, by the time he came to make his first movie, Gordon had some fairly clear ideas about what he wanted to do to an audience and how to do it. Specifically, he liked to shock and unsettle the audience, and Re-Animator is nothing if not shocking and unsettling: it is, dollar-for-dollar, one of the most excessively violent horror films that I have ever seen, transforming its pittance of a budget into shocking lush production value through basically nothing but a can-do attitude- one would never know, just to watch the film, that it was a dirt-cheap indie that couldn't get any more prestigious of a distributor than Charles Band. That production value shows up everywhere, but it most vividly shows up in the gore effects scenes, which are some of the most gleefully disgusting, both in conception and execution, of the entire decade. And this decade was a golden age for gore effects. Now, whether we can draw a straight line from the audience-baiting in Gordon's early experimental theater to the over-the-top exploitation brazenness of this film - most notoriously including a scene where a decapitated zombie holds its detached head between a screaming woman's thighs - I cannot say. But there's definitely a sense of provocation, as though the film is daring us: "you say you like gore? Well, do you like this much gore? What about this much?" And for me, at least, one of the most thoroughly distressing effects in the movie is also one of the most benign, when a character places a long cotton swap waaaaay deep into a hole drilled in a cadaver's head.

This is, I should clarify at some point, all in good fun. Whatever else we might say about Re-Animator, it's unmistakably a comedy - the best horror-comedy of its generation, after Evil Dead II, I'd say. Also a vicious-hearted, pitch-black comedy of the meanest sort (I mean, go back and re-read my descriptions in the last paragraph), but no less funny for it. One thing that Re-Animator understands very well is that the line between horror and comedy is thin: both work by surprising us and sneaking around our expectations, both get a lot of mileage out of being gross and making us a little nervous. Throughout the film, there are dozens of moments where the difference between making us laugh and making us recoil seems to be something that's being decided right on the spot.

This is all packaged into a pretty straightforward, if sardonic, variation on Frankenstein. We have a medical student, young Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who is convinced he's discovered a serum that can revive a dead brain, though it needs some refinement: the film's opening scene finds his experiment on his freshly deceased professor at a university in Switzerland ending with the latter man's face exploding through the eyes. Somehow, West manages to keep ahead of the shitstorm that presumably follows this, and is able to return home to the United States. Here, he enrolls in Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts. And the rest plays out pretty swiftly over the course of the film's roughly 86 minutes (there are two official cuts, running to about the same length; one replaces some of the most extreme gore with dialogue scenes): West sweeps into the home of fellow student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), giving the other man very little chance to think about whether this is really the roommate he's looking for, despite the immediate bad feeling West gives Dan's girlfriend, Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). West alternates his time between conducting experiments that possibly involve killing Megan's cat, feuding with arrogant professor Carl Hill (David Gale), and strong-arming Dan into becoming his increasingly willing assistant. West and Hill's different flavors of caustic arrogance (West is chilly and sociopathic; Hill is obviously in academia for the power, especially power over young women) keep coming into conflict; things come to a head when West resurrects the school's dean (Robert Sampson), who is also Megan's father. Hill figures this out, and prepares to steal the serum for his own petty ends.

The biggest change this makes to the usual mad science song and dance is that West's serum turns the dead into cannibalistic ghouls, with a perhaps a bit more self-awareness and persistence of their old personality. That's the wellspring from which all of that grandiose, excessive violence flows, of course, with makeup effects designer John Carl Buechler coming up with a cornucopia of different things to do with the film's various reanimated bodies; they grow more and more elaborate as it goes on, with the number of variations on "what can you do with a disembodied head?" accounting for some ingenious staging tricks.

But if that's all there was to it - a fun variation on genre tropes (and Re-Animator is certainly aware of tropes, playing around not just with Lovecraft and zombie clichés, but also creating what I think almost certainly has to be a deliberate homage to the '60s bad-movie classic The Brain that Wouldn't Die) - this certainly wouldn't be more than just a fun treat for genre fans and gorehounds. What makes it more than that; what puts it on the top tier of horror films from the 1980s and makes it arguably the best English-language zombie film not directed by George A. Romero; comes down to the uncommon skill with which it's been made outside of the effects, and that nasty comic energy that courses throughout the whole film. These things are not necessarily separable. One of the most reliable sources of comedy in the film comes from the actors, who are much better than the ensemble a low-budget exploitation film should possibly be able to afford. Combs almost instantaneously turned into a cult star on the back of this movie, and he well deserved to: his approach to West is to begin by taking for granted that the character really does have the best intentions at heart, and a holy zeal for knowledge, but that this is mixed with such unbridled ego that he has nothing warm or passionate in him. He's a cruel wit, clearly unconcerned with the humanity of those around him, and somehow, Combs has to make sure we find West as off-putting as Megan does while enjoying his drive and his sharp, biting jokes.

Combs is obviously the standout here, but the cast doesn't have a weak link, right down to the featured extras who weren't even professional actors. This isn't a character drama, but it does have clashing personalities driving its story, and Crampton and Gale both need to be very good at creating consistent characters who can work in both comedy and horror as needed (Abbott just needs to react agog all the time). Knowing that Gordon came out of theater explains this, I think: he's great at helping his actors focus on what they need to be doing, making them feel comfortable to work in the stylised register that the movie requires, and doing so with no resources and while requiring them to be doused in stage blood or, in Gale's case, crammed inside various setpieces. It's not what one generally calls "good acting", but it's exactly the acting Re-Animator needs to work as such a gonzo collision between comic and horror modes.

What isn't explained by Gordon's stage roots, though, is how damn good he is at placing the camera. Right from the first scene, he and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg are quietly feeding us partial information, using focal depth to separate out different parts of the frame and let us see how West relates to the world around him; he starts existing in visual pockets, that become a crucial part of the film's visuals once he and Megan start warring over Dan's soul. It's polished and propulsive filmmaking, full of echoing visual structures that feed into jokes, and let the film provide its scares in unexpected ways (there are places in the third act where the camera pans away from the gore or uses close-ups to limit what we see of it, and this proves surprisingly unnerving; there's also a wide shot near the end that brilliantly hides a big jump scare right in plain sight). Considering how ragged and small the production is, Re-Animator is a startlingly handsome, confident piece of cinema, looking much more lavish than it is. Everything from the gore to Richard Band's thoroughly strange score (mostly made up of jazzy variations on music from Bernard Herrmann's iconic Psycho score) makes this feel bigger than it is, and the film uses its warped sense of humor within that bigness to feel even more transgressive and shocking. It's an endlessly delightful film, bold and fearless, and while Gordon never came close to matching it, most genre filmmakers go their whole careers without making something have as delirious and dazzling as he did right in his debut.

*That being said, I'd watch a bad Lovecraft movie before I'd watch a bad Stephen King movie.

†Chicago AND Madison? It's good that I legitimately like Gordon's work, for I would surely force myself to pretend that I did otherwise.