I just saw this 1985 movie (thanks, Netflix!) I’ve been thinking about Lovecraft adaptations recently ( I wrote a long review of the graphic classics Lovecraft volume for the last Comics Journal.
Anyway, Wikipedia claims this is true to Lovecraft’s original, which I think is not quite the case. Yes, Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West:Reanimator” was intended to be a goofy parody of sorts. But it didn’t really work: Lovecraft’s tongue is much too ponderous and unspeakable an organ to be placed in his cheek. Certainly, the zombie scenario is goofy, but its also macabre and slow; less a parody than a poor imitation. The movie, on the other hand, is pitch perfect, from the day-glo reanimating serum to the Herbert West’s uber-nerd portrayal to the gleefully disintegrating body parts to the puncturing of academic pomposity to the gratuitous sexual exploitation. Even the soundtrack is great. It’s smart and accomplished — which means that it shares little with Lovecraft except a few clever ideas and a title.
Which isn’t to say that the movie is better than the book. Lovecraft’s surface clumsiness was always part and parcel of an inner, lumbering anxiety. His writing, in other word, had an overwrought emotional core, which is what made them both ridiculous and compelling. The re-animator story (as I argued in my TCJ review) is powered by a deep, Puritan distrust of/fascination with bodies, sensuality, and (possibly) homosexuality. The film plays with these tropes to some degree (any zombie film has to) but it’s mostly committed to having a good time. Nothing wrong with that — it’s just not where Lovecraft was coming from. Even when he tried.