At Zurich University Institute of Medicine in Switzerland, Herbert West brings his dead professor, Dr. Hans Gruber (Al Berry), back to life with horrific side-effects because, as West explains, the dosage was too large. When accused of killing Gruber, West counters: "I gave him life!"
In the emergency room of the hospital at Miskatonic University in New England, medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) tries in vain to revive a patient after other medical personnel have given her up as dead.
Dan is secretly dating Megan (Barbara Crampton), daughter of school dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson). West arrives at Miskatonic in order to further his studies. West rents a room from Dan and converts the building's basement into his own personal laboratory. There is an instant animosity between West and faculty member Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale). West declares that Hill stole the theory of brain death from West's late mentor, Dr. Gruber. Dan discovers that West has re-animated Dan's dead cat, Rufus, with a glowing re-agent. West recruits Dan as his partner in research to defeat death. Megan dislikes West, especially after discovering Rufus re-animated in a state of dismemberment.
Hill manages to turn Halsey against both West and Dan. Barred from the school, West and Dan sneak into the morgue to test the re-agent on a human subject in an attempt to salvage their medical careers. The corpse revives and goes on a rampage, attacking the duo. Dean Halsey stumbles upon the scene and, despite attempts by both West and Dan to save him, is brutally killed by the re-animated corpse. Armed with a bone saw, West finally manages to dispatch that which he has only just brought back to life. Hardly fazed by the violence and excited at the prospect of working with a freshly dead specimen, West injects Halsey with the re-agent. Halsey returns to life, but in a zombie-like state.
Hill discovers West's work and gains guardianship over Halsey whom he puts in a padded cell adjacent to his office. Dan and Megan break into Hill's office where they find evidence that Hill has a secret obsession with Megan and has lobotomized her father. Hill has gone to confront West in his basement lab and threatens to blackmail him to continue his research so that Hill can take credit for West's re-agent. While Hill is distracted, West decapitates Hill with a shovel. Overcome with curiosity, West re-animates both Hill's head and body. While West is questioning Hill's head and taking notes, Hill's body knocks out West. The body carries the head and steals West's re-agent, returning to Hill's office. Exercising mind control over Halsey, Hill sends him out to kidnap Megan from Dan.
West and Dan track Halsey to the morgue where they find Hill's body holding his head in a compromising position over a restrained Megan. West distracts Hill while Dan frees Megan. Hill reveals that he has re-animated and lobotomized several corpses from the morgue to do his bidding. However, Megan manages to get through to her father, who fights off the other corpses long enough for Dan and Megan to escape. In the ensuing chaos, Halsey is torn to pieces and West injects Hill's body with what he believes is a lethal overdose of the re-agent. Hill's body mutates horribly and attacks West, who screams out to Dan to save his work as he continues fighting.
Dan retrieves the satchel containing West's re-agent. As Dan and Megan run from the morgue, one of the re-animated corpses attacks and kills Megan. Dan takes her to the hospital emergency room where we first saw Dan. He tries in vain to revive her. Finally in despair he injects her with re-agent. Just after the scene fades to black, Megan screams.
Bruce Abbott as Dan Cain
Barbara Crampton as Megan Halsey
David Gale as Dr. Carl Hill
Robert Sampson as Dean Alan Halsey
Al Berry as Dr. Hans Gruber
The idea to make Re-Animator came from a discussion Stuart Gordon had with friends one night about vampire movies. He felt that there were too many Dracula movies and expressed a desire to see a Frankenstein movie. Someone asked if he had read Herbert West: Re-Animator by H.P. Lovecraft. Gordon had read most of the author's works but that story had been out of print. He went to the Chicago Public Library and read their copy.
Originally, Gordon was going to adapt Lovecraft's story for the stage but then writers Dennis Paoli and William Norris and Gordon decided to do it as a half-hour television pilot. The story was set around the turn of the century and they realized that it would be too expensive to recreate. They updated it to the present day in Chicago with the intention of using actors from the Organic Theater company. They were told that the half hour format was not salable and so they made it an hour, writing 13 episodes. Special effects technician Bob Greenberg, who had worked on John Carpenter's Dark Star, repeatedly told Gordon that the only market for horror was in feature films and introduced him to producer Brian Yuzna. Gordon showed Yuzna the script for the pilot and the 12 additional episodes. The producer liked what he read and convinced Gordon to shoot the film in Hollywood because of all the special effects involved. Yuzna made a distribution deal with Charles Band's Empire Pictures in return for post-production services.
Yuzna described the film as having the "sort of shock sensibility of an Evil Dead with the production values of, hopefully, The Howling". John Naulin worked on the film's gruesome makeup effects and worked from what he described as "disgusting shots brought out from the Cook County morgue of all kinds of different lividities and different corpses". He and Gordon also used a book of forensic pathology in order to present how a corpse looks once the blood settles in the body creating a variety of odd skin tones. Naulin said that Re-Animator was the bloodiest film he had ever worked on. In the past, he never used more than two gallons of blood on a film. On Re-Animator, he used 24 gallons of blood.
The biggest makeup challenge in the film was the headless Dr. Hill zombie. Tony Doublin designed the mechanical effects and was faced with the problem of proportion once the 9–10 inches of the head were removed from the body. Each scene forced him to use a different technique. For example, one technique involved building an upper torso that actor David Gale could bend over and stick his head through so that it appeared to be the one that the walking corpse was carrying around.
It was well-received by critics, earning mostly positive reviews, and today has a 92% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "I walked out somewhat surprised and reinvigorated (if not re-animated) by a movie that had the audience emitting taxi whistles and wild goat cries". In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Re-Animator has a fast pace and a good deal of grisly vitality. It even has a sense of humor, albeit one that would be lost on 99.9 percent of any ordinary moviegoing crowd". Paul Attanasio, in his review for the Washington Post, praised Jeffrey Combs' performance: "Beady-eyed, his face hard, almost lacquered, Combs makes West into a brittle, slightly fey psychotic in the Anthony Perkins mold. West is a figure of fun, but Combs doesn't spoof him". In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas wrote, "The big noise is Combs, a small, compact man of terrific intensity and concentration".