Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator is one of the most beloved horror comedies in film history. Not as broad in its appeal perhaps as Young Frankenstein or Ghostbusters, it's nevertheless a unique work of art that deftly works the dual involuntary reflex actions of the laugh and the scream in a way that's never been matched. Loosely based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator presents the tale of one Herbert West, a brilliant but amoral Miskatonic University medical student who concocts a serum for returning life to dead bodies, albeit with some gruesome side effects. The film was a breakthrough for its director, and, as portrayed by actor Jeffrey Combs, its antihero is an icon of '80s screen horror, one who returned for several sequels, and who stands proudly alongside Ash, Freddy, Jason and Pinhead.
Like many of the best horror films, Re-Animator is also a tale of emotions pitched so high they outdistance moon rockets. Its characters – good and evil alike – vacillate between such extremes of human feeling and behavior that the movie becomes a kind of opera. As such, it's easy to see why Gordon decided to adapt Re-Animator to the stage in the form of a musical comedy. Horror and music have often proved to be ideal bedfellows, from Little Shop of Horrors to Sweeney Todd to Repo! The Genetic Opera. In recent years, cult classic films like The Evil Dead and The Toxic Avenger have found their way to the stage, offering further proof that an audience whose emotions are forced opened by fright are perfectly primed for the goofy pleasures of a show tune.
Re-Animator: The Musical, which began its run at L.A.'s Steve Allen Theater last Saturday evening, differs from these latter plays in that its score, from composer-lyricist Mark Nutter, is comprised not of pop/rock songs, but of older musical forms, from Gilbert & Sullivan to Kurt Weill-style cabaret ditties to, in one scene, a tango. It's a mix that proves effective, and given the size limits of the Steve Allen Theater (which seats only ninety-nine people), it's probably a necessity. Young horror-musical fans who've grown accustomed to rocking out to their favorite frights will experience a different kind of vibe this time around, but one that in some ways feels more authentic to the Grand Guignol tradition in which Gordon (aided by his co-writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli) is operating.
Adding immeasurably to that spectacle is, of course, a generous amount of bloodletting. Like Evil Dead: The Musical, this version of Re-Animator designates the first several rows of the theater as a Splash Zone. Evil Dead called it a Splatter Zone, but the principal is the same – throughout the performance, blood is sprayed onto attendees lucky enough to nab one of the front seats. Plastic garbage bags, in which holes are torn for head and arms, are distributed beforehand, should one wish to avoid a trip to the laundromat afterwards.
Having experienced both the Evil Dead and Re-Animator musical's " Zones", I can attest that Re-Animator offers more blood for your buck. I sat in the first row of the theater; and, by the end of the play, my hair was literally soaked wet with stage blood; most of which showered me during Herbert West's final musical number, in which he sprays the audience with a lengthy piece of intestine. At the moment, my jeans look like I spilled cherry Kool-Aid on them, but the theater staff has assured me it'll come out in the wash. (To be honest, I'm kind of hoping it doesn't.)
As Herbert West, Graham Skipper deserves praise. He proves a worthy successor to Jeffrey Combs, by not trying to surpass Combs. He simply creates his own version of the frantic West, madness shining through his every bug-eyed stare. Skipper's West comes across as a spoiled, arrogant brat, whose sense of entitlement is forever thwarting his brilliance. It's subtly different from Combs' misunderstood genius-loner/outsider character, but it works quite well for this version of the story.
In the roles of Dan – the hapless med student seduced by West's madness – and Megan – Dan's put-upon girlfriend, and the daughter of Miskatonic University's Dean – Chris L. McKenna and Rachel Avery perform admirably, giving their characters a little more depth than that which they had in the film. And both have impressive vocal chops. (For the curious -- and you know who you are -- the gorgeous Avery performs Re-Animator's infamous decapitated-head-giving-head scene clothed in a nightgown; though she does appear, in one early scene, briefly topless.) Cheers star George Wendt (who also worked with Gordon on King of the Ants) lends a world-weary presence – and some terrific zombie moaning – to his role as Halsey.
But the standout performance here is that of Jesse Merlin as Dr. Karl Hill, the twisted scientist who seeks to steal West's work and Megan's heart -- at any cost. Merlin is capable of contorting his expressive face into some wonderfully droll expressions, while maintaining a sense of authority and funereal menace. He redefines his character more so than any other performer, and he earns the play's biggest laughs. His tango scene with West is a particular hoot.
Though Re-Animator: The Musical is only scheduled to run until March 27, the play is so enjoyably outrageous -- and has been garnering such an enthusiastic response from its packed houses -- that I expect to see that run extended. Hell, I'm already hoping for musical adaptations of the Re-Animator sequels. But who wouldn't want to see a singing zombie penis?