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Mad Science versus Corporate Structure in Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (Part 3)

Determined to pursue his research, West is in desperate need of space for his experiments. Therefore, he asks Daniel, who  has “access to certain authorities,” for help (Gordon 28:27).  For a successful reanimation, a fresh specimen is required because otherwise the side-effects of the serum cause uncontrolled violent outrage. Hence, West needs access to the hospital’s morgue which only Cain can provide. But instead of granting him assistance, Cain approaches dean Halsey and tells him about West’s efforts. The dean does not believe him and gets upset when he learns about his daughter being involved in Cain’s “insanity” (Gordon 31:05). Cain’s admission does not have the desired effect, but eventually gets him and West expelled from school. Daniel Cain never intended to rebel against the hierarchy of Miskantonic University, yet his attempt of “getting along with people” gets him in trouble (Whyte 205). Herbert West is the personification of a revolt against corporate subordination, whereas the character of Daniel Cain depicts the consequences of Whyte’s theory. “Cain wants to follow the rules; West never does,” and as a result of his subordination, Cain falls by the wayside (Newitz 79). Having lost his place at university, Cain ends up helping West to get access to the hospital’s morgue and resume his experiments. As Newitz concludes, “Cain’s desire to be good and do his low-level work gets him used and manipulated by West (after which he loses his student loans and class status)” (Newitz 80). Now that Cain is assisting West with his experiments on human bodies, his sense of duty is subverted. From this point on, “the film bifurcates the Frankenstein mad-scientist attributes into two characters working in tandem” (Muir 465). West wants to become famous for his research, so he is boasting “the skill and brains” (Muir 465). Cain on the other hand has a “deep-seated personal reason for needing the experiments to continue” because in the end of the movie, he must save his girlfriend’s life by injecting her the serum (Muir 465).

In order to test the serum on a recently deceased person, Cain sneaks West in the morgue. Herbert backs up their intrusion and asserts that “any evidence of reanimated consciousness will justify proceeding” (Gordon 34:57). When they get interrupted by Halsey, the dean gets attacked and killed by a corpse they just brought back to life. West does not hesitate and declares the dean his next human guinea pig since “this is the freshest body that [they] would come across save of killing one [themselves]” (Gordon 41:20). Halsey is reincarnated as a drooling zombie and put in charge of Dr. Hill who keeps him locked up in a padded cell. Dr. Hill seems to realise that West has something to do with the dean’s condition because he is referring to West’s theory about the brain functioning on biological processes when he tells Megan that her “father’s problem is neurological” (Gordon 46:56).

Dr. Hill’s behaviour retains consistency when he tries to arrogate his rival’s discovery. His intention to steal West’s elixir of life and claim it his own achievement once again verifies Whyte’s theory. In this particular scene, Dr. Carl Hill effectively demonstrates his higher rank over the medical student. He blackmails West into handing him out his research results because otherwise he would have him “locked up for a madman or a murderer” (Gordon 52:00). The second Hill triumphantly proclaims that he “will be famous,” he is hit with a shovel by West (Gordon 54:43). Of course, West instantly draws his syringe and injects a shot of his serum into the decapitated head of Dr. Hill and his torso since he has “never done whole parts” before (Gordon 56:01). Few seconds later, both parts “come to life exactly as they were before, insane and hungry for power” (Newitz 79). Although his head and his torso are separated, Hill can still control his body. The interaction of mind and body shadows out “how anxieties about a proletarianized professional class tend to create formal connections between madness and professional success, and simultaneously between routinized mental labor and manual labor” (Newitz 79). Hill escapes West and then uses his mind to control his own body as well as other reanimated corpses on which he conducted a special lobotomy. His experiments have the purpose of establishing a status quo in which his power is ensured by “enforcing a kind of absolute mental hierarchy where Hill will do all the thinking, and his lobotomized zombies will be controlled entirely by his thoughts” (Newitz 81). One of his living dead servants is Alan Halsey. Thus, Dr. Carl Hill has breached the corporate hierarchy of Miskatonic because his “madness has propelled him into a position where he can control the college dean” (Newitz 81). Dr. Hill strives for fame, but his greatest obsession is the “total mastery of the human will” (Gordon 74:18). “Hill, in other words, wants to control the will, while West is only interested in bodies,” concludes Newitz (Newitz 80).

It appears that Hill’s torso does not necessarily need a brain to work because in some scenes it is walking around the hospital with the head hidden in a bag. The body’s ability to operate independently from a brain suggests that “the head truly is just another body part, interchangeable with all other body parts” (Newitz 82). An autonomously working body needs no brain to think for it. At this point, the movie alludes to the fear of a missing “dividing line between professional ‘think work’ and manual labor ‘body work’” which, as a result, “would threaten all . . . privileges [of professionals]” (Newitz 82). In a scenario in which thinking brains “are not so special after all,” the qualities of scientific professionals may be expendable (Newitz 70). This is the case if scientists accept a subordinate role to corporate decision making which intends to restrict their individuality, as formulated by Whyte in his theory. A verification of this anxiety is portrayed in an extreme way in the climax of Re-Animator. When Cain and West face Dr. Hill and a bunch of reanimated corpses in the morgue, West overdoses the headless torso in order to destroy it. Even though Hill’s head is in the meantime crushed by Halsey, the remains of his body are still alive. Due to the overdose of the reagent, the guts of Hill’s torso take on a life of their own. Bursting out of the torso’s chest, Hill’s colon ultimately strangles West to death. Although Halsey has successfully removed Hill from his unjustly gained position, it turns out that his body does not need a brain at all. Dr. Hill’s scientific expertise has hence become redundant since his body can perform manual labour without a thinking brain.

Madness in Stuart Gordon’s movie is presented as a result of frantic struggle for success and power. Although Herbert West declares his reagent “can defeat death,” his true motivation is “to be famous and live lifetimes” (Gordon 28:32). John Kenneth Muir points out that “Herbert West is not truly a thoughtful genius, only a dork and perpetual overachiever” whose pride is not based “on his desire to keep alive the ones he loves, since he loves only himself” (Muir 464). West’s revolt against Miskatonic’s professional chain of command is intended “to prove he is right, that others are wrong” (Muir 464). His status as a student determines his rank at the lowest level of the medical school’s hierarchy. Yet, he is still ahead in terms of scientific knowledge and wit compared to his fellow student. While “mad doctors West and Hill are capable of performing fantastically successful, though immoral, experiments because they are mad,” Cain’s abiding by the rules costs him his status (Newitz 80). His moral constraints are the reason for his failure because when he informs Halsey about his roommate’s secret research, he gets himself and West expelled from school. Thus, Cain’s good intentions turn into a backlash against himself and others. For Megan, the consequences of her boyfriend’s straightforwardness are fatal. Alarmed by Cain’s confession about Halsey being a victim of both, West’s reanimation and Hill’s brain surgery, she tries to rescue her father. When she finds him in the morgue, she gets trapped by Dr. Hill and eventually killed by one of his mind-controlled corpses on her attempt to escape. Cain is the only one who makes it out of the morgue alive—and literally in one piece—“because he is ‘sane’” (Newitz 80). The final scene, however, depicts him with a syringe in his hand and about to administer the serum to Megan. For that reason, “Cain ultimately goes mad too—leaving us with the impression that perhaps he has survived precisely because he has lost his mind” (Newitz 81).

In the end, mad scientist Herbert West becomes a victim of his own experiment which makes him the tragic hero of the film because he embodies “the direct antithesis of the company-oriented man” (Whyte 211). According to Whyte, subordination to corporate interests rather than conducting individual research “inhibits the flow of really good ideas” (Whyte 216). In his view, scientists need to be able to “follow their own interests without direction or interference” (Whyte 211). West’s insubordination is a protest against the restrictions imposed by the administration of Miskatonic Medical School. He unwaveringly refuses to acknowledge Dr. Hill’s theories and even impeaches his credibility as a scientist. Following Whyte’s argumentation, the fear of mental labour being replaced by manual labour due to the restriction of scientific independence, dominated the discourse about work ethics in the 1980s. In Re-Animator, the protagonist’s defiant attitude derails the hierarchy of the facility he is working for. Therefore, Herbert West serves as an example of a mad scientist scattering such anxieties, even though his efforts end up in a disaster for all involved parties. Despite the fact The Organization Man was published about three decades before the first release of Re-Animator, the relevance of Whyte’s thesis still prevailed in the 1980s. In this context, Stuart Gordon’s splatter comedy “bears all the marks of conflicted eighties discourses about professional work,” as Newitz points out (Newitz 80).

Jeffrey Combs reprises his role as Herbert West in two sequels to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, both directed by Brian Yuzna. In Bride of Re-Animator it is revealed that West has actually survived the massacre at Miskatonic Medical School. He teams up with Daniel Cain again to assemble a whole new creature made of body parts from stolen corpses. The central part of their “bride” is the heart of Megan, Cain’s girlfriend who did not survive the events in Re-Animator. Dr. Carl Hill’s separated head also reappears and wreaks another vengeance on his rival Herbert West. Although his sequel released in 1990 “is even closer to the original” Lovecraft story in terms of setting and characters, Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-Animator lacks the originality of Gordon’s take on the story since it is, as the title already implies, rather a parody of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (Mitchell 40). Hence, the film “could not duplicate the chemistry and magic that made Re-Animator a unique thriller and black comedy” (Mitchell 36). Junge and Ohlhoff confirm that Brian Yuzna’s Beyond Re-Animator from 2003 marks the transition of the mad scientist into the 21st century (see Junge and Ohlhoff 13). However, the third instalment of the series adds nothing new to the character of Herbert West, who is therein conducting his experiments on prison inmates. In an interview director Stuart Gordon talks about his plans of making House of Re-Animator which was supposed to be set in the White House. Since the movie was intended to be a satire on the Bush administration, which is now history, Gordon considers this project “kind of pointless” (Brown).

Works Cited

Beder, Sharon. “Conformity not Conducive to Creativity.” Engineers Australia April 1999: 60.

Brown, Todd. Fantasia 2010: A Conversation with Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs. <http://twitchfilm.com/interviews/2010/07/fantasia-2010-a-conversation-with-stuart-gordon-and-jeffrey-combs.php> 6 Jan. 2011.

Charney, Mark J. “Beauty in the Beast: Technological Reanimation in the Contemporary Horror Film.” Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastics in the Arts. Ed. Michael A. Morrison. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 161-170.

 Dixon, Wheeler W. The Second Century of Cinema: The Past and Future of the Moving Image. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000.

 Hallenbeck, Bruce G. Comedy-horror Films: A Chronological History, 1914-2008. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.

 Junge, Torsten and Dörthe Ohlhoff. “In den Steinbrüchen von Dr. Monreau: Eine Einleitung.” Wahnsinnnig genial: Der Mad Scientist Reader. Ed. Torsten Junge and Dörthe Ohlhoff. Aschaffenburg: Alibri, 2004. 7-23.

 Mitchell, Charles P. The Complete H.P. Lovecraft Filmography. Westport: Greenwood, 2001.

 Muir, John K. Horror Films of the 1980s. Jefferson: McFarland, 2007.

 Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. London: Duke University Press, 2006.

 Nocera, Joseph. Introduction. The Organization Man. By William H. Whyte. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. vii-xvi.

 Re-Animator. Dir. Stuart Gordon. Perfs. Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, and David Gale. 1985. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2007.

 Shapiro, Jerome F. Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film. New York: Routledge, 2002.

 Whyte, William H. The Organization Man. 1956. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

 Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.

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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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