Leave of Absence: A Posthumous Interview With Stuart Gordon

The late and great Master of Horror details the making of 1985's Re-Animator

Stuart Gordon
Stuart Gordon

Halfway to Halloween Month continues on Consequence of Sound with an exclusive interview featuring the late and great Master of Horror Stuart Gordon. Stay tuned next week when The Horror Virgin revisits his iconic feature-length debut Re-Animator.

In retrospect, the thing that stands out the most about theater and film director Stuart Gordon’s wild, eclectic body of work is its remarkable consistency. Gordon, who died this past March from multiple organ failure caused by kidney disease, left behind an enviable legacy. And not just because of his rock-solid catalogue of horror movies—some personal favorites: From Beyond, Dagon, and “The Black Cat”—but also his exceptionally well-crafted B-movie gems like The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, Fortress, and Stuck. It’s also gratifying to see Gordon’s work as a theater director acknowledged and celebrated right alongside his movies, everything from his early productions with Chicago’s Organic Theater Company to Nevermore, an excellent recent one-man show starring Re-Animator lead and frequent collaborator Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe.

Gordon is also understandably best known as the director of Re-Animator, the benchmark 1985 grossout horror-comedy that developed a hearty cult following thanks partly to the scene where a disembodied head gives a female captive (scream queen Barbara Crampton) oral pleasure. Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s serialized “Herbert West, Re-Animator” short story, Gordon’s Re-Animator is the kind of movie that you look back at and wonder: Where the hell did that come from? Prior to his untimely death, I was lucky enough to talk with Gordon about Re-Animator, as well as some of his influences and preceding theatrical work. Below is an edited version of that conversation, which I conducted for an upcoming book about the history of gore on film that Matt Zoller Seitz and I are working on.

Where did you go to see William Castle movies with your brothers, when you were younger?

I believe it was The Riviera.

Was going to see horror movies with your brother a regular thing for you?

No. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t allowed to see horror films as a kid. We had to sneak out to see them, or we told our parents that we were going out to see, I dunno, Lady and the Tramp, or something.

Why weren’t you allowed to see horror films?

My parents were worried that they would give me nightmares. Which they did: I had nightmares for years after I saw The Tingler.

What did you dream about?

I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie, but Vincent Price tries to kill his wife by manipulating a fear-activated parasite in her body. The scene that scared me the most: we see a bedsheet covering something, and it’s a human body that sits up, towards the camera … a living corpse. When I saw that, I ran out of the theater. I never saw the rest of the movie.

Where did you first see Blood Feast?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.

Oh, weird, I read that Blood Feast influenced the gore effects for Re-Animator. Which seemed to make sense, since both you and [Blood Feast director] Herschell Gordon Lewis are influenced by the Grand Guignol theater. Lewis also briefly managed a Chicago movie theater called The Blood Shed, where he sometimes hosted crude Grand Guignol-esque theatrics, as well as old Universal horror movies.

Ah. I actually wasn’t living in Chicago back then.

When did you move there?

Around 1970. [Editor’s note: Gordon and Lewis were, actually, both in Chicago around the same time; in fact, Lewis had to shut down the Blood Shed because of the months-long Chicago riots that Gordon refers to up ahead]

A little before that, in 1968, you were arrested on charges of obscenity for your naked stage version of Peter Pan with Screw Theater. What do you remember about that production?

It was a political satire about a student protest where the Chicago police had clubbed peaceful anti-war protesters during the Democratic National Convention. Me and Carolyn, who was not yet my wife, were both there, and we both got chased by the police. That was very intense. After that, we looked at Peter Pan, and thought, There’s an analogy there. We didn’t change anything from J.M. Barrie’s original dialogue, but we changed what was going on on-stage. So the Lost Boys are hippies, and the pirates are the Chicago police. And Captain Hook is Mayor Daley.

Can you tell me a little about the infamous orgy scene?

There was a dance sequence, set in Neverland. And, again, it was based on Barrie’s writing: it’s a scene where Neverland is first coming into view, and you see all the beautiful creatures who live there, including mermaids. It’s really innocent, actually, not sexual at all.

This is the scene that was considered obscene?

Well, we had a light show projected onto the naked actresses’ bodies. That they thought was obscene. It’s hard to believe today, but back then, that was obscene.

Some of your theater productions were also Grand Guignol-esque, no?

Well, we did some blood effects for those shows. Like, at the Organic Theater Company, we did a swashbuckler called Bloody Bess. In the opening scene, pirates capture a ship’s captain, and slit his throat. They catch the blood in a bucket that’s positioned underneath him. And the actor hung upside for 10, 15 minutes, still breathing. That’s definitely a Grand Guignol kind of effect.

But was Grand Guignol a conscious influence?

We were more influenced by Jacobean revenge tragedies, which are extremely bloody.

Who was the prop guy, or the person who handled special effects, for The Organic Theater Company?

It varied, based on the production. I don’t think we had a regular prop person, though we did have production and set designers, like John Paoletti and Mary Griswold. But we made up the blood effects ourselves.

Going back to Screw Theater, we did a production of Titus Andronicus, which is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. It was an outdoor production. We came up with all different kinds of blood for that show; we had washable blood, because we didn’t want it to stain. We still use that blood today in recent productions of Re-Animator: The Musical. It’s a soap-based blood. We devised a lot of different things like that early on.

Lewis initially used offal and a Pepto Bismol knockoff for his gore effects, which gave his blood a surreal look.

I actually can’t stand the sight of real blood. One time, our dog stepped on a piece of glass, and tracked bloody footprints around the kitchen. I had to sit down and put my head between my legs. I’m okay if I know the blood is fake though.

Read ahead to learn about the development of Re-Animator.

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

You originally adapted Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Re-Animator” as an episodic TV serial that never got off the ground. Do you still have your script for that pilot?

I don’t think so. I’d have to look for that. The original story is a period piece, spanning about 20 years. We immediately decided to set it in the present day to save money, but when we first started working on Re-Animator, we were quite faithful to Lovecraft. But eventually, we wound up updating it to the present day.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Lovecraft’s original story, but is it the second, or the third installment that ends with the boxer eating a little girl?

Oh, gosh, it’s been so long. I think it’s actually the fourth installment. [Editor’s Note: It’s the third one] That’s the one where he has the girl’s arm hanging out of his mouth.

Home brew 1922 june v1 n5 Leave of Absence: A Posthumous Interview With Stuart GordonRight! Not many people talk about this aspect of Lovecraft’s story, but stuff like that is supposed to be weirdly funny. I mean, “Herbert West, Re-Animator” was first published in Home Brew, which put out a bunch of humor pieces.

Whenever something goes wrong in Lovecraft’s story, Herbert West repeats the same line over and over again: “Well, I guess [the body] wasn’t fresh enough.” Lovecraft has a very dry sense of humor.

You said that your original serial version of Re-Animator was very faithful to Lovecraft’s story, so I wondered what the tone of it was like compared to the movie version.

It wasn’t all that different, actually. Some of the dialogue ended up in the final film; some of West’s lines are very old-fashioned-sounding, like when he brings the cat back to life, and calls it an “infernal beast.”

Did you ever film that early serial version?

We never shot it. But we kept working on it, and eventually, when I met [producer] Brian Yuzna, we turned it into a film script.

Speaking about Yuzna: talk about being introduced to [Re-Animator special effects technician] Bob Greenberg by Yuzna.

Bob Greenberg and I met in Chicago. He was an actor doing theater across the street from my theater. We grew to be friends. Years later, he was getting ready to leave Chicago for Hollywood. He was making films at USC, and was friends with John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, and [special effects technician] Ron Cobb. They did a movie together, as a student project, called Dark Star. That turned out so well that they got more money to turn it into a theatrical feature. Bob and I remained friends, and he kept pushing me to come out to California.

What happened was: He placed an ad in Variety, looking for a director for a film that he was producing. That movie was based on Kim Deitch’s underground comics, and was supposed to be an anthology film. Bob had a script, but he just couldn’t get it to work. He also knew that I had been working on Re-Animator, and mentioned the idea of collaborating to Brian. Bob was originally set to helm that movie, but he graciously stepped aside to let me direct it. Which is something that I’ve never forgotten; what a kind thing that was. I don’t know if that’s what I would do. I know Bob very much wanted to direct movies.

Why didn’t you take Greenberg up on his offer to move out to California?

We visited the West Coast a couple of times, and Bob always showed us around, including giving us a tour of 20th Century Fox’s studio lot when he was working with Dan O’Bannon on Alien. This was a year before they got Ridley Scott on board; Bob and Dan had a trailer where they were working on conceptual art.

What was your first impression of Brian Yuzna?

Brian’s a Southerner; he comes from South Carolina. He sort of looked like Ted Turner: he had a big mustache, long hair. He was very much a fan of Lovecraft; he knew a lot of Lovecraft. He came to see a production at Organic called “E/R Emergency Room,” and asked me if I’d like to direct Re-Animator as a movie with him, probably because it was a medical thriller.

Once you and Yuzna agreed to work on a project together: what was the division of labor between you two? Like, were you very hands-on in the audition process?

I was the one who did the casting. Brian had made a deal with Charles Band for a company called Empire [International] Pictures. And the deal was: Brian would allow Charlie to distribute the film in exchange for him, Charles Band, providing us with a post-production facility.

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

What were auditions like?

Almost everybody in the movie was cast in LA, with the exception of a small cameo at the beginning of the film. [Jeffrey Combs] came in early on. I think the casting director saw him in a play, and based on that, thought he might be great in a film. Jeffrey’s performance is very different than how Herbert West is described in Lovecraft’s story. But Jeffrey’s attitude was exactly right for West, and he really seemed to understand the character. So it was an easy call: that’s the guy.

I had originally wanted to film Re-Animator in Chicago with the members of our theater company. But the company had a board of directors, and they did not like the idea of us doing a horror film, especially one that had the Organic Theater Company’s name on it. They said that if we did a movie with them, it should be an art film. So I took a leave of absence from the theater.

Early on, there was a poster made to attract potential investors for the movie. And it was a drawing of the head giving head scene.

Yeah, that’s right.

What kind of feedback was Yuzna giving you from potential investors?

Brian already had the money for the project by the time I got on board; he had raised it from that other project, the Kim Deitch adaptation. I think he just had that poster as something that he could show people. I still have a copy of it, the artwork. It’s wonderful.

Re-Animator Poster, courtesy of Westgate Gallery

Re-Animator Poster, courtesy of Westgate Gallery

And what was your first meeting with [distributor] Charles Band like?

I didn’t really talk with Charles Band until long after the movie came out. Which is kind of funny. He used to see dailies, but I never really spoke to him. He would just come by to talk with his brother Albert Band, and we’d watch the dailies together without ever talking to each other. I actually had more dealings with Albert than with Charles.

Albert and I got to be good friends, and he gave us some very good advice about the film. For example: in the original version of the movie, Dr. Hill has hypnotic powers. And Albert felt that there should only be one amazing element in the film, and that should be the serum that brings people back to life. He said: “Having someone who could hypnotize people…we don’t need that. Just worry about the audience’s suspension of disbelief.”

So, while we shot the scene where Hill was hypnotizing people, we ultimately cut them out of the film.

If we went back in time to when you were making Re-Animator: what would the you of then be most concerned with? What were your biggest worries, or priorities for the project?

For me, the most important thing is to get the audience to care about the characters. For something to really scare you, you have to be really invested in the characters. To fear for them, you have to be afraid that something’s going to happen to them. So you have to like them. That’s what we worked the hardest on, when we were developing the script.

Dan Cain, Bruce Abbott’s character, is really the audience surrogate in the movie. He’s in Lovecraft’s story, but he’s a very minor character, so we had to develop his personality. Also: Lovecraft never really had female characters in his stories, so we created a new character named Megan Halsey, Dr. Hill’s daughter.

Stuart Gordon Interview

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

Is the [Gordon, William Norris, and Dennis Paoli co-written] script basically what we’re looking at on the screen?

For the most part, that’s right. Some things didn’t make it, but that’s pretty much what we shot.

I’ve read that Jeffrey Combs was very squeamish during the film, especially during the bolt-cutter scene. Was that a typical reaction from him, or did he get used to all that gore?

Oh, he hated all the blood. There’s actually a great moment in the movie, where West is using the bone-saw to cut through a re-animated corpse’s chest. And both the zombie and West are completely soaked in blood, so Jeffrey had to shake blood off, in total disgust. That was deadly.

Continue ahead to read more about the gore — including some real morgue madness.

There are a couple of people who are credited with working on the movie’s special makeup effects, like Gerald Quist, Anthony Doublin, and John Naulin. What kind of conversations did you have with them about, not just the look of the film, but the way the gore would look?

We had long, involved conversations about that. The main guys who did that were Anthony Doublin and John Naulin; the other guys that you mentioned were assistants. We storyboarded all of the effects; it was really important that we could show everybody exactly what I wanted to see on-screen. I had also done a lot of research.

I spent a lot of time visiting morgues, talking to pathologists, and taking pictures of real corpses. And the thing that I discovered is: the corpses in movies are not exactly how corpses look in movies. In movies, they’re very stylized. So I showed these makeup guys my photos, and that was the basis for a lot of the makeup effects.

These were Chicago morgues?

Yeah, the Cook County morgue. The guy who ran it was named Dr. Robert Stein. At one point, he offered to let us shoot the film in an actual morgue. As long as we didn’t show the faces of the corpses. But the stench was so bad … I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a morgue, but the smell is so bad that the idea of spending hours and hours in there just didn’t cut it. And the smell stays with you for hours and hours afterwards. Stein got in trouble, later on, because he had clown paintings of, what’s his name, the serial killer…

John Wayne Gacy.

Yeah. And he did an exhibit, in the morgue, of his paintings. That got him fired. He was an interesting guy. When I met him, he must have been in his late 60s, so he was very grandfatherly. He also had a sick sense of humor, which is another thing that informed a lot of the comedy in the movie.

In earlier interviews, you’ve said that you found filming Re-Animator was “liberating” compared to the theater because on stage, you have to deal with the limitations of filming things on a proscenium stage, or the Three Quarter Round. But with the film, you had the extra liberty of positioning yourself wherever with your camera. So did you follow the storyboards very closely?

Yes. Storyboards are very useful because you can show the effects guys exactly what you want to see. Sometimes, you don’t even have to build the whole thing that we’re drawing—you can just build the portion that we’re seeing. That becomes really important when you’re budgeting a movie: you gotta storyboard all of the effects. The biggest challenge that we had with Re-Animator was that we had a character who was beheaded and walking around without his head for about 30 minutes. So we had to figure out how to do that, how to make it work.

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

How did you get around that?

The biggest problem is: If you try to film somebody with their head below a prop version of their shoulders, it just makes them look like they have the arms of an orangutan. We tried to avoid that whenever we could. We even built a fake body where the actor would just stick his head through, and somebody else was doing the body with its hands. It would all depend on how close or how far away the camera was. We used some of the same techniques for the recent live musical version of Re-Animator.

What about the oral sex scene? Was that scene easy to shoot?

That one actually wasn’t that hard to shoot. It just depends on where you place the camera since you had to show a headless guy walking around. We had a couple of guys playing the body, and then David Gale playing the head. He had to spend a lot of time underneath the autopsy table, with his head through a hole in the table, which was uncomfortable for him. He had to be in there for hours. We had Gale in a pan full of blood, and the pan leaked, so he was constantly covered in blood underneath the table. He was a smoker, so people would light and hold cigarettes for him while we were shooting him in a pan full of blood. We used to call him “The Man in the Pan.”

What were you focused on when you shot that scene?

Our art director had an assistant who told me: “Stuart, you’ve got to go as far as you can with this scene.” We all knew that this was the scene. Because, before we started making the movie, we said among ourselves: look, there are all these horror movies that have been made in the last few years—we have to find a way to set Re-Animator apart. And if we wanted to get people’s attention, we had to show them something that they hadn’t seen before. This was that scene.

In Barbara Crampton’s contracts, there was more specific language about how that scene would be shot than about anything else. Barbara also originally replaced the original actress, who got cold feet before we started shooting.

Stuart Gordon Interview

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

Was the extensive, or specific language in Crampton’s contract a result of losing that earlier actress?

When I met Barbara Crampton, she asked me: “Well, what exactly are we going to see?” We had storyboarded the sequence, so I was able to show her exactly how it was going to work. There were a couple of storyboards we showed her where she said, “No, no, I can’t do that.” So we made some changes. She was very much concerned with the camera angles that we used, so even in the contract, it specified the amount of time that there would be full frontal nudity on-screen. I think it was five seconds, seven seconds. It’s in the contract.

I said to her: “Barbara, seven seconds is just going to be the final cut of the picture. We’re not just going to shoot seven seconds of this scene.” For years, she was very protective of the film. In the contract, she also specified that there couldn’t be any additional photographers present while that scene was being shot. I was with her once at a horror convention, and there was a guy who was selling 8×10 photos of that scene. She freaked out, and went over to the guy, saying, “Where did you get these?!”

Turns out that what he had done was he had taken a personal print and blown up the individual frames of the film himself. So at least it confirmed for her: There were no other cameras present at the time. She ended up confiscating the photos, a big stack of photographs. Barbara can be very strong.

When you were editing Re-Animator, were you ever concerned about censorship?

When we were shooting the movie, we were trying to get an R rating. And, because there were all these naked corpses in the movie, we tried very hard to ensure that there wouldn’t be any male genitalia in the movie. We even had the actors wear merkins, which are kind of like wigs, but with pubic hair. We never used them though because Mac Ahlberg, our director of photography, was very careful for a lot of the shots.

There was one time though where Mac came up to us and said: “I can see this guy’s dick here.” [Peter Kent,] the guy playing the corpse, was very well-endowed; it was hard not to notice it. We said “Alright, keep working on ‘im.” So we tried to paint it black, to make it less noticeable. But if you watch the movie, you can see this [white guy] with a black dick. So we had people coming up to us after the movie, asking, “Is that true, is that what happens when you die, it turns black like a banana??”

So by the time we got the film to the MPAA, they took one look at the movie and said “There’s absolutely no way that you’re going to get an R rating for this movie.” And I have to say, I think it was really brave of both Brian Yuzna and Charles Band to release the movie unrated. If we had released Re-Animator with an R rating, there would have been nothing left.

Stuart Gordon Interview

Re-Animator (Empire International Pictures)

What did the lack of a rating mean for the movie’s release, in terms of where it could play?

It honestly didn’t hurt us that much. You don’t have to have a rating for a movie; that’s only if you’re a major studio. And, right around the same time we were releasing Re-Animator, A Room with a View also had a shot of full-front male nudity. So A Room with a View was also released unrated. Some people were worried about that; they said that we’d have to change our marketing strategy, avoiding stuff like TV commercials. But that’s untrue, we just showed different footage for the TV ads. I’m surprised that there aren’t more unrated movies being shown.

There are two screenings of Re-Animator that I wanted to hear a little more about, the first being the screenings in San Francisco that were accompanied by William Castle-style gimmicks. Where was that?

I’m trying to remember what the name of the theater that was. At one of these screenings, after Megan Halsey dies, somebody in the audience yelled out “Give ‘er the juice! Give ‘er the juice!” That’s when I knew that the movie was working.

What was the audience like?

It was a very lively audience, partly because we were wheeling actors out on hospital stretchers before people could even get in. That got them revved up. The movie still gets that kind of reaction. Seeing Re-Animator with an audience is a very different experience than watching it at home. It’s a very participatory movie.

I first saw the film like that with my wife after the movie opened, on Hollywood Boulevard. We had gotten there late, and there was already a line around the block for the next showing. So by the time we got inside, the movie had already started. We were sitting behind this large guy with a big tub of pop corn. He screamed and threw pop corn everywhere when Dr. Gruber’s eyeballs popped out.

The audience was already laughing and screaming along with the film by the time we got to the head giving head scene.

reanimator poster Leave of Absence: A Posthumous Interview With Stuart Gordon

Re-Animator also screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Critic’s Week sidebar. What were those screenings like?

I wasn’t at Cannes, so I can’t tell you much about that. But I did get a call from Brian Yuzna after that screening and he was just over the moon. He was so excited. I didn’t know, until years later, about the criteria for the “Special Prize” award that the movie had won. That award is given to a worthy movie whether it’s in or out of competition — and Re-Animator was not in competition. I always laughed, thinking back about when the Organic Theater’s board of directors told us that we needed to make an art movie. Apparently, we did.