Rated R (unrated version reviewed)
Score: 4 out of 5
Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a medical student at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts who rents a room from fellow student Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott). West, who had previously been going to school in Zurich working with a Dr. Hans Gruber (yes, that's where Die Hard got the villain's name from) before his professor's untimely death, is obsessed with reanimating the dead, and turns Dan's basement into a makeshift laboratory where he experiments on animals with a unique, glowing green serum. Dan is furious upon finding that West had killed his cat Rufus in order to experiment on him, but when he tries to tell Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson), he has them both reprimanded, West for the sick nature of his experiments and Dan for being his accomplice -- and out of lingering resentment of him for dating his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton). With West desperate to save his reputation and establish his credibility, he ropes Dan (who by this point has no other choice) into sneaking into the morgue and experimenting on human subjects. Meanwhile, Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), a glory-hound phony of a scientist whose main accomplishments have come from plagiarizing his peers, seeks to steal West's work and Dan's girlfriend.
At the center of this film is Jeffrey Combs' performance as West. His character is clearly off-kilter, obsessed with proving his hypothesis to a scientific establishment that dismisses him as a crank, but he walks a fine line of not turning into a caricature straight out of a hundred Frankenstein parodies. He's a mad scientist who actually feels like a madman, his geeky appearance at first hiding just how driven he is and how far he's willing to go. He is a joy to watch here, easily stealing the show right out from under his peers. David Gale's villainous Dr. Hill, meanwhile, serves as a great mirror to him, a man whose interests are far more self-serving than West's belief in science for its own sake. While the film never explained all that well the psychic/hypnotic link he had with the zombies he created (there's a deleted scene, available on the DVD and in extended cuts of the film, that explains this, something I feel should've been left in to close a plot hole), I was still able to buy him as a sleazeball and, later, a genuine villain. Bruce Abbott is the straight man as Dan, the guy who's caught up in West's antics and is desperately trying to find a way to get himself out of them and, eventually, just save himself and his girlfriend, while Robert Sampson was fun to watch as Dean Halsey, especially after he becomes one of West's first human test subjects, leaving the viewer wondering just how much of his personality he's truly retained. The only character who didn't click with me was Megan, and it was through no fault of Barbara Crampton, who was both beautiful (something that the film loved to show off) and refreshingly capable in her role. Her finding out what West had done to her father was a heartbreaking moment, one that made it personal for her, and more should've come of that as opposed to having her serve as a damsel during the climax, which saw some frankly disturbing things happen to her. Seriously, some of the stuff she's put through made me more uncomfortable than anything that has to do with the zombies or West's experiments, in a manner that clashed with the vibe the film otherwise had, and it could've been handled a lot more tastefully. (The final shot of her and Dan, which closes the film on a high, yet ominous, note, is a good example of how this could've worked a lot better.)
Director and co-writer Stuart Gordon was obviously having a ton of fun shooting this film. The gore is abundant and over-the-top, the film packed with all manner of sick gags and a mean streak a mile wide. It may not be the most ridiculous gorefest ever, but while other films have it topped in sheer viscera, this film makes up for it with its dry humor. It knows the genre it's in, knows all the tropes and cliches of the genre, and knows that these sorts of mad scientist films are usually B-movies. It's aiming less to shock the viewers and more to gross them out and wow them (ever see a zombie's intestines come to life and try to strangle a dude?); it's not for nothing that, while this film is packed with special effects setpieces, it leaves most of the actual scares to the human characters of West and Hill. It knows that gore for gore's sake isn't that scary, and milks that fact for all it's worth. This isn't about creeping terror, but rather, about larger-than-life characters going all-out, and as such, it just seeks to have a blast.
The Bottom Line:
It's a simple, modernized Frankenstein tale that's fully committed to what it is, and despite a few missteps, it earns the cult classic status it's built up for itself. Check it out and enjoy a great display of mad science and some of the best gore effects the '80s had to offer.