Explain your fascination with author H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote much of your source material. ^ I had really liked Lovecraft, had read him since I was a teenager. But “Re-Animator” was a really obscure Lovecraft story that I’d never heard of. Some associates and I were talking about all the Dracula movies that had been made, and thinking that someone should make a new Frankenstein movie. A friend suggested that I read Herbert West, Re-Animator a series involving a scientist’s attempts to re-animate the dead. I discovered that the story was out of print, and I had to find a copy in the public library. It was from an old pulp magazine that literally was crumbling in my hands as I turned the pages. Lovecraft wrote the story as a serial, in six little installments, and they were all great. We had to ask ourselves how many of the six were we gonna put in the movie. In typical Brian Yuzna fashion, he said, “I think you should put all of them in the movie.”

The stories follow West throughout his life, starting with him as a medical student. At the end of the stories, he’s in his fifties, and gets destroyed by his own creations. For “Re-Animator,” We took all six stories and compressed them in terms of time, having them all take place while he’s a medical student at Miskatonic University.

I notice that in Dagon, the leading man wears a shirt emblazoned with a Miskatonic University logo. There was a similar T-shirt worn by a cast member in “From Beyond.” ^ Yeah. Lovecraft created a town called Arkham, Massachusetts, and Miskatonic is the University that’s located there. The Miskatonic Asylum for the Criminally Insane is also there.

Do you remember the first time you started reading Lovecraft’s stories? ^ I read them in paperback books. It was in the sixties when I started reading his work, right around the time when he was finally being published (in book format). His stuff was put out in the fifties by Arkham house, a publishing company started by August Derleth, one of his friends. If it weren’t for that, I think Lovecraft would have been forgotten, because all of his work had previously only been published in these pulp magazines, and then they didn’t even bother renewing the copyrights on them. I read a bunch of those stories, and found them to be scary as hell. Because his work is public domain, it’s like a treasure trove.

The Sam Mendes film American Beauty included a reference to “Re-Animator,” in a scene where Kevin Spacey and Wes Bentley swap movie trivia. ^ I got a call from Jeffrey Combs (the actor portraying Herbert West), who said that beyond their mentioning the film, they had duplicated the famous “lustful head” scene shot for shot at the end of American Beauty. I couldn’t believe it, then went back to take another look. It was true. In the scene where he’s finally going to seduce the cheerleader, his head is in the corner of the frame, and you can just see this disembodied head – Kevin Spacey’s head, lowering toward her, very much like the way we shot “Re-Animator”. It was really an homage to the film, and I was very honored.

Speaking of the famous love scene between the severed head of Professor Carl Hill (David Gale) and intact body of Megan Halsey (Crampton), were there certain limits set by Barbara when it was shot? I’d have to be inebriated to agree to something like that. ^ Barbara is a very brave girl. Originally, we had cast another girl in that role, and when we told her she had the part, she completely chickened out and dropped out of the production. Then Barbara came in, and did the scene, knowing that it would be the one people would be talking about. I can’t even remember the name of the other actress.

In interviews, Brian Yuzna claims that a lot of the humor in “Re-Animator” was from you, and improvised. I understand that the movie was originally intended to be more of a straight-out horror experience. ^ Well, I think that there were funny things in the original Lovecraft story. Whenever one of these experiments goes bad, the line that Herbert West keeps repeating is, “Well, I guess it just wasn’t fresh enough.” All of us were coming up with bits and pieces of shtick. Brian actually came up with the bit where the professor, after being beheaded, is trying to put his head into the pan and it keeps falling over. He takes a note spike and sticks the head on it, which gets a huge laugh whenever we show it.

There’s another line where David Gale is demonstrating the removal of a cadaver’s scalp to a room of medical students. He describes the procedure as, “very much like peeling a large orange.” Who came up with that? ^ We interviewed and visited a lot of pathologists. We toured a morgue in Los Angeles, and we met these guys. They had the blackest senses of humor of anybody. This guy that was describing the process is the one who used that statement, and I said, “OK, that’s going in the movie.”

I think a lot of the comedy in “Re-Animator” comes from these pathologists. If you’re gonna do a job like that, you’ve gotta have a sense of humor. The first time I ever visited a morgue, it was the Cook County Morgue in Chicago. There was a guy there named Dr. Stein. He was opening up what looked like meat lockers, and each would be full of bodies. I’d be walking along trying not to lose my lunch. We got to the end of the line, and he turned to his assistant, and said, “Well, he’s still standing. I guess he’s ready for the Rose Room.” I said, “What’s the Rose Room?” It turned out that the Rose Room was for the bodies they found that had been dead for several weeks, several months, or in some cases, for several years.

He led me into this room, where there are all these decomposing bodies. There was one that looked sort of like what Dracula looks like after he gets hit with a burst of sunlight. I remember this shape of a body that was just, like, dust. There was a body that had been pulled out of the Chicago River that had been completely bloated. It was horrific. And the smell was so bad. That’s why they called it the Rose Room. I couldn’t get it out of my nose for about a month after that. It just stayed with me.

We tried to give that feeling to “Re-Animator,” concerning the smell. I took the actors on a tour of the Cook County morgue, just because I wanted them to see how the bodies are treated and what the attitude was. Again, the smell was really bad. There is a scene in the film which shows Bruce Abbott going into a morgue locker, holding his breath while he’s doing his business inside there, then coming out and exhaling, gasping for air. That is really what you had to do while working there. It’s kind of hard to convey smell in movies, unless you do “smell-o-rama”. No one would want to stay in the theatre very long.

One of “Re-Animator”’s final scenes, where the zombies burst out of the black bags under command of Professor Hill, is very effective. Each body has a different look to it. ^ We had a gunshot to the head, a failed operation, a motorcycle accident, and a burn victim. One pathologist I’d visited was asking me specifically about the corpses that would be seen in the movie. So I went through and listed them all. He said, “come back tomorrow”. I came back the next day and he had a slide projector set up with a screen, and one chair (laughter). The nurse says to me, “I hope you have a strong stomach,” sits me down in the chair, and starts going through slides that pathologists had taken of the various bodies they had worked with. It was kind of like, “Stuart Gordon, You Asked for It” (laughter)! Here’s the gunshot to the head. Here’s the burn victim. I started getting woozy. I was ready to pass out after about ten minutes. I finally asked them to stop, and said, “Let me just hold them up to the light. If they’re smaller, I think I can deal with this a little better.”

The pathologist thought it was pretty funny. As a present, he actually ended up giving me a head block that they use for autopsies, which they put behind the neck to keep the head from moving around. Quite a souvenir.

Get the rest of the interview in part four of STUART GORDON: BODY OF WORK>>>

Posted on July 17, 2002 in Interviews by

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