Death is the end. Period. Or, well, unless you happen to have a glowing, neon-green chemical substance to inject into the neck of a freshly departed creature.
Re-Animator, now playing at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and adapted from the 1985 film of the same name, uses a wild and often absurd story to explore the idea that life might not stop the moment the heart does. Penned by Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon, and William J. Norris, and employing a wide range of over-the-top theatrics (including spraying blood on the first three rows of the covered audience), the H.P. Lovecraft–inspired story offers a surprisingly even balance of camp, pulp, and genuine horror. But ultimately, the experience comes across as too quick and rapid-fire to produce any emotional resonance, leaving the theater-goer a bit frazzled and disoriented.
The plot introduces Herbert West (Graham Skipper), a medical student who, after studying in Europe, claims to have discovered a way to prevent death and, in his words, “give life.” He continues his academic work at a New England school, where he rooms with a promising young peer, Dan (Chris L. McKenna), whose fiancée Megan (Rachel Avery) also happens to be the daughter of the dean (George Wendt). Immediately, Megan senses something is off with Herbert, who always wears a black tie, thick glasses, and demands to be left alone in the basement. Her worry is quickly proven correct: They discover that Herbert has potentially killed Dan’s cat. Then Dan witnesses Herbert injecting the kitty with a glimmering substance that brings it back to life—kind of, as it turns the animal into a raving, twisting, and practically rabid beast. Dan soon finds himself drunk with Herbert’s ideas of what he calls “re-animation,” believing they can change the course of medicine forever. Before long, though, the action all starts spinning out of control.
Under the direction of Stuart Gordon (who also headed the movie), the cast handles the monster amount of material as gracefully as they can. Particular standouts are Jesse Merlin as the creepy Dr. Carl Hill, a rival medical school neurosurgeon who floats around the stage with a sly, ghoulish look on his face; and Skipper, who soars as Herbert, making the fall into a crazed lunatic delightfully. Mark Nutter’s music and lyrics are catchy and dramatic, too, with their exaggerated melodies harmonizing nicely with the show’s campiness. The special effects team should also be applauded. Producing so much red slippery substance like that—honestly, the amount of blood was surreal—in a controlled manner is not only difficult technically, but plays an important role in creating the mood and atmosphere of Re-Animator.
As fun and disturbing as all this madness is, something is missing to bring it all together. The idea of a “blood splash zone” that involves the audiences is charming, sure. And so is utilizing a character’s intestines as a literal cannon to shoot blood into the crowd. But the piece’s chaotic pace never slows. Re-Animator assaults its audience, both physically and mentally, over and over and over again to the point of exhaustion. The moments that the show stops to actually take a breath—like when Dan pauses for a second to consider the consequences of their actions—are simply just too short to make any sort of lasting impact. Re-Animator is an entertaining adventure, but if you’re always swimming through a sea of blood, you can’t expect to learn anything. You just want to survive.