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.:. mad science & brainfarts .:.

Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 1)

An abnormal brain is blamed for the failure of an experiment when it is implanted into a corpse’s skull in James Whale’s classic horror movie Frankenstein. The creature’s violent misconduct is accordingly associated with its brain dysfunction. In Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator from 1985, the brain assumes centre stage again. This time, the focus is on “mad doctors who exist in a world where the mind has become so fetishized that brains are literally leaving their bodies behind” (Newitz 70). Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a medical student who appearantly stops at nothing in order to act out his drive to research. As a result of his reckless efforts to reanimate every corpse he can get hold of, he not only wreaks havoc at the facility he is working for, but also disrupts the hierarchic structure of Miskantonic Medical School. The idea “of returning the dead to life . . . isn’t exactly new territory, but Gordon’s fascination with the flesh and bone mechanics of the process raises the film above the level of a Frankenstein retreat into an area distinctly its own” (Dixon 70). Re-Animator is an adaptation of a short story originally written by American horror novelist Howard Phillips Lovecraft in 1922. In his works, Lovecraft often refers to the fictional place of Miskatonic University located in Arkham, Massachusetts. Although the motion picture considerably varies from Lovecraft’s original story, it is still considered to have a “genuine Lovecraftian feel” (Dixon 70). In regard to its impact on the horror genre, Bruce G. Hallenbeck points out that Stuart Gordon made “the first truly successful Lovecraft film, one that influenced a whole sub-genre that is still prevalent today” (Hallenbeck 142).

Herbert West, an arrogant medical student whose experiments explore the reanimation of dead bodies, is the main protagonist of Re-Animator. Linchpin of his research is a fluorescent green liquid which can bring corpses back to life if injected into the subject’s brain. His serum is not quite mature yet and has some side-effects,  e.g. in some cases it makes the revived bodies turn violent against themselves or others. After some bodies are successfully reanimated, it turns out the substance also works on single body parts. In a key scene of the movie, West’s rival Dr. Hill (David Gale) is decapitated by the mad scientist, just to have his headless body and his separated head reanimated again. In a post-mortem act of vengeance, Dr. Hill’s head uses his hypnotic powers to command a band of reanimated corpses against Herbert West, inciting “an all-out war between brains and body parts” (Newitz 79). The graphic depiction of this scene and similar others is exemplary for the film’s “over-the-top Grand Guignol violence” (Dixon 70). Yet, the separation of brain and body in the movie serves another purpose beyond shocking the audience: it is a metaphor for the replacement of mental labour by manual labour because it portrays how a body can still perform certain tasks even without a brain.

In his book The Organization Man, William H. Whyte criticises the American economy of the 1950s for “systematically stamping out individuality . . . and that this loss of individuality would eventually be ruinous to both the individual and the corporation” (Nocera vii). He therein “described how people not only worked for organisations but how they belonged to them as well” (Beder 60). “Organization men and women subordinate their own values to the needs of the institution or system, and sublimate political impotence with harmless personal enrichment activities,” explains Shapiro (Shapiro 104). The book was a major success when it was released in 1956. Whyte believed “that scientific innovation would be greatly diminished if companies stopped hiring scientists who were free-spirits and even renegades” (Nocera vii). As Sharon Beder writes in her article, Whyte revisited his thesis in the 1980s, claiming “little had changed: ‘The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations . . . The people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before’” (Beder 60). In consideration of the social ethic of the “organization life,” Whyte theorises about what would happen if the same ethic was applied to the scientific sector:

(1) scientists would now concentrate on the practical application of previously discovered ideas rather than the discovery of new ones; (2) they would rarely work by themselves but rather as units of scientific cells; (3) organization loyalty, getting along with people, etc. would be considered just as important as thinking; (4) well-rounded team players would be more valuable than brilliant men, and a very brilliant man would probably be disruptive. (Whyte 205)

Whyte’s outlook on the scientific sector depicts a dismal scenario assuming that scientists had to subordinate their individuality—and thus their creativity—to corporate interests in case their mental work is undervalued. As a closer look at the plot of Re-Animator reveals, the mad scientist breaking ranks is a metaphor for the struggle against the fears expressed by Whyte. Herbert West’s disrespect for senior scientists is only one aspect of his revolt against subordination.

…TO BE CONTINUED

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