RADaptation: Re-Animator The Musical


[Re-Animator The Musical will be playing this weekend in New York City at the PTC Performance Space as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Tickets can be purchased at the NYMF website.]

Usually our RADaptation/BADaptation series focuses on why a film has succeeded or failed in its attempts to bring something from another medium onto the big screen. Given how many adaptations there are nowadays (most of the films we have seen as part of Japan Cuts this year are an adaptation of some kind), there’s no shortage of material for that, but today we’re doing something different. We’re going to talk about an adaptation of a film (which was itself an adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft  short story): Re-Animator The Musical.

The translation of cult films to the stage is hardly a new phenomenon, both with well-known adaptations like Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors (both of which are more well-known than the things they are adapted from) as well as more obscure ones like Reefer Madness and Evil Dead The Musical. Obviously Re-Animator, no matter how good it is, will stay firmly in place with the latter group, but the film’s a cult classic, so it’s fitting than an adaptation of it would be as well.

I am ashamed to admit that I had not seen the original Re-Animator until I got my ticket to see the musical. There’s no reason for me not to have seen it. In fact, last semester I had a friend who was assigned to watch it as a class assignment. I considered asking to borrow it, but it just didn’t happen. It’s been on my list of “Yeah, I know…” movies for a long time. But I figured that this was the kick in the pants that I needed.

For those of you who don’t know, Re-Animator (the full name of which is H. P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator) tells the story of Herbert West, an eccentric medical student who has found the secret recipe for bringing the dead back to life. With the lack of all-things-Frankenstein in cinema today, it never even occured to me that the film would not be about zombies of some kind. And I guess in some ways you could say it’s about zombies, but I don’t think’s right. No, Herbert West is a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, and by modern day I mean more modern than actual Dr. Frankenstein (H. P. Lovecraft‘s short story, entitled “Herbert West—Reanimator,” was published a little over 100 years after Mary Shelley’s original novel).

But by modern day standards, the technology at play may as well be ancient. Herbert West may have found a way to reanimate dead tissue, but if he could see how far computer technology has come, I think he’d have a heart attack. Nobody in the movie actually uses computers. Computers may very well not even exist. The film has a distinctly ’80s feel, but it could be pretty easily set in any time period, as long as phones, bonesaws, tape recorders, and laser drills exist. Those last two give some kind of dating to the whole thing, but never you mind.

Re-Animator The Musical

The musical is a very direct adaptation of the story in the film. In fact, beat for beat, the two are basically identical. The biggest difference is, of course, the music. Music is an integral part of pretty much any horror film, and Re-Animator is no different. Taking aside the fact that the main theme for the film sounds questionably like the theme from Psycho (the one that plays in the credits, not during the killings), the music acts as an excellent complement to the action. But in a musical setting, music stops being the complement and becomes the action. Without good music, Re-Animator The Musical would be dead in the water.

Fortunately, the majority of the songs are quite enjoyable. Not all of them are perfect, but they definitely all work within the context of the play. I don’t know for sure how many of them I would listen to on their own, but I think I could put at least a couple of them on regular rotation in my musicals playlist. Unfortunately, there is no currently existing recording, which makes me very sad that I didn’t bring a recorder of some kind and get it for myself. I’ve had several of the songs stuck in my head since the house lights came up, and I know that I’m getting tunes, notes, and lyrics all jumbled up in my brain, but there’s no way for me to correct them. It’s terrible. I don’t even need a high quality soundtrack. I just need something

Anyways, when it comes to adaptations like these, it’s always cool to see which moments get their own songs. Time has no real relevance in the case of song. The world outside of the singers can slow down, speed up, or even stop depending on the contents of the song, which gives each song a special weight. It’s also far more difficult to compose a song than it is to write a regular page of dialogue. Even if you have the lyrics mostly written for you (I’ll get to that in a moment), make them fit in time with the music that still needs to be written and whatnot is hardly a simple affair. So it stands to reason that each and every song-worthy moment is something really important. That is generally true, [although I completely misunderstood the context of one of the songs due to a lack of a song list either in the program or online to explain to me the difference between “Mr. Tonic” and “Miskatonic” (the name of the university, which I didn’t know). I appreciate an apparently re-animated Herbert West for pointing that out in the comments.

David Gale in Re-Animator 1985

Although Re-Animator is very funny, it is still a horror film. Many of the characters are in very real danger, and that’s not where the humor comes from. The characters are funny, their situations are occasionally funny, and the whole thing has the slightest air of levity, but there’s quite a lot of it that’s completely serious. It never goes too far in that direction, fortunately, because it is a  It’s much harder to make a musical scary, although it’s not impossible. Making a comedy musical scary, though? That’s probably pushing it. I don’t know for sure, but the masterminds behind Re-Animator The Musical didn’t even try. It’s a comedy through and through. This is especially notable because the dialogue between the two is very similar. Many of the lyrics are ripped straight from the film’s script, but the musical actually expands on a few points that I was surprised the film skipped (Herbert’s role in the death of Rufus, for example). Even so, hearing lines that were once serious in the context of a song is a delightful experience, and made all the better by the acting.

The acting in Re-Animator is hardly incredible, but it’s competent and I had no real complaints. Frankly, the only performance that really matters is that of Herbert West, and he is played brilliantly by Jeffrey Combs. The part in the musical was taken on by Graham Skipper, who looks weirdly like Daniel Radcliffe at times, but is a better actor. He does an excellent job with it, and watching his complete seriousness amidst everything (including the ridiculous choreography he occasionally does) is easily one of the best parts of the show. Everyone else in the cast does a serviceable job, with some being better than others. Each member of the ensemble has a character of some kind that recurs, even if that character isn’t a part of the narrative, and a cross-eyed janitor had the probably-substance-abusing woman two seats over from me in hysterics every time he came onstage. 

George Wendt and Jesse Merlin

Part of what’s so interesting about Re-Animator The Musical is that it was both directed and effects’d by the people who did the original film. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Re-Animator was originally going to be a stage play, but the effects he wanted needed a little movie magic (as well as a movie budget) to pull off. It seemed strange at first, but I can totally see it. The film has very few locations, and none of them are particularly complicated to replicate. So it’s a pretty easy thing to transition, as far as that goes. The effects are much harder, though. The effects in the original film are brilliant. It was usually pretty simple to see how they did any given effect, but the illusions worked well enough that it didn’t matter. I had no idea how they would replicate the headless character onstage, for example, or how they would do a lot of the blood. I did know, though, that there would be a splash zone, so I expected something awesome.

Nearly every major effect from the film is translated onto the stage in some way, from the bonesaw through the back to the small intestine suffocation. Some are obviously a bit better than others, but it is really cool to see how things come together. As I said, the effects team (which is basically the same size as the cast) worked on the original film, so they know these blood splats and limb removals and what-have-you like nobody else. Obviously not everything was exactly the same, but in many ways it’s even more impressive. For example (if you don’t want an example, skip the next paragraph): the bonesaw through the back.

When the dead man in the dead people room was re-animated, I was struck by what seemed like an excess of cloth around his midsection. Presumably, this was where the guts were stored, and I was ready to see them spill. Then I saw that he had a fake arm (one that Graham Skipper used to “slap” himself). That was really strange, and I couldn’t figure out what the point of that was. And then, after a bit of fighting, the suit opened up and FLURGSH, out came the blood. Why did he have a fake arm? So the real one could push out the gore. I didn’t realize it until after the show, and when I did, I was blown away. Genius.

Herbert West in Re-Animator 1985

I wish I had sat in the splash zone. Imagine you’re watching Saw 3D (or any other gory 3D film), but when the blood starts spraying, it’s literally spraying you and your complimentary poncho. Seeing it as I did from the back, I was able to laugh at the people getting drenched, but I couldn’t help the feeling that I was missing out. The first three rows are the “splash zone,” but the front gets even more interaction. I imagine at least one person in that row was probably washing blood and the like out of their hair that night, regretting their seating choice. I should have taken that seat. Alas, I could not. If you see it, don’t make the same mistake.

When I looked up some more information about Re-Animator for the purposes of this article, I looked over its Rotten Tomatoes page, where it currently holds a 92% average. It’s interesting reading the little blurbs and getting the essence of an opinion. Of all of them, I felt that Felix Vasquez Jr. from Cinema said it best: “It’s sweet when a classic lives up to its legend, isn’t it?” I absolutely agree. Re-Animator is a classic in every single way. Having seen it, I’m now even more ashamed that I waited so long. If you haven’t seen it, do so immediately. You’ll really enjoy yourself.

Now Re-Animator The Musical needs to get its own film adaptation. That’s how you know you’ve hit the big time. Hairspray did it, and so did Little Shop of Horrors. Hell, even Reefer Madness got one. It’s true that the musical adds very little to the overall narrative, and a movie adaptation would probably appear as little more than a remake of the original, but so what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The original will still exist, and it will still be awesome But in the meantime, the show’s still onstage, and you can go see it… if you live in New York. And you should see it if you live in New York. It’s awesome, and you will leave with a smile on your face and a bunch of songs in your head that you can’t quite remember.

And then you’ll curse whoever it is that made the decision to not put out the soundtrack, because that guy sucks.

Re-Animator the Musical NEW trailer