'Re-Animator: The Musical': Director Stuart Gordon talks about his singing-and-beheading theatrical spectacular

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A few years back, film director Stuart Gordon had the thought that his gore-filled 1985 horror movie Re-Animator might be improved with the addition of some songs. It was an odd idea — but an ultimately successful one. In the spring of 2011, Re-Animator: The Musical opened at Hollywood’s Steve Allen Theater to great reviews (Variety hailed it as “an entertainment of rich rewards and high accomplishment”) and tonight the play officially starts a second run at the Hayworth Theatre, prior to engagements at the New York Musical Theatre Festival and the Edinburgh Festival. The H.P. Lovecraft-inspired tale stars Graham Skipper as the corpse-reanimating Herbert West, George Wendt as the unfortunate Dean Halsey, and large amounts of fake blood as, well, large amounts of not-fake blood.

Gordon — who is both the show’s director and coauthor of its book — talks about his hopes for Re-Animator: The Musical, the possibility of fourth Re-Animator movie, and why his brother eats bugs — literally.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did Re-Animator: The Musical come about in the first place?
STUART GORDON:
I just saw it in my head, how you could do this as a musical. People had been suggesting it to me for several years and I kind of laughed. I thought it was a ridiculous idea. But one day it sort of hit me — all of the effects in the movie were done practically on a stage, so we could do them all live in front of audiences.

I was looking at video footage of the scene from the musical in which the decapitated head of Jesse Merlin’s Dr. Hill starts talking. It really is a delightful piece of stage magic.
I got all of the original effects guys to come and work on the play. So we were able to do almost everything that we did in the movie, including showering the audience with blood, so it’s even better than a 3-D movie. [Laughs]

So, f— you , James Cameron!
Exactly. It’s the magic of theater. You’re there, experiencing it for real.

Could you give us a flavor of the tunes?
The guy who wrote it is named Mark Nutter and I always think his music reminds me of Tom Lehrer, who used to write these cheerfully perverse songs like “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.” Mark’s music is like that. It’s kind of happy music about disturbing things.

What’s the show’s big number? What’s its “Memories”?
Oh, gosh. I guess it’s “I Give Life.” Herbert West is this young medical student who invents a serum that can bring the dead back to life. It’s the first time that he really shows how it works, by reanimating a dead cat that he’s actually murdered himself. He brings it back to life — twice actually.

The role of Herbert West is so associated with Jeffrey Combs, who played the part in all three Re-Animator movies. Was it hard to find someone to fill his shoes onstage?
It was, and I have to credit George Wendt with finding Graham Skipper. Graham is similar to Jeffrey but I kind of think he looks like a young Peter Lorre. He’s got these gigantic eyes and this wonderful singing voice and he really does a great job of becoming Herbert West. George found him in a comedy group called FUCT, which is Fordham University Comedy Troupe, I think. He brought him to my attention. He said, “This is the guy to play West.”

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Image Credit: Thomas Hargis

And what’s it been like working with the great George Wendt?
Well, Geroge and I go way back to our Chicago days. I directed him at Second City back in the ’70s and he’s been in four of my films, so we are old pals.

Does he like horror?
He loves horror. And the thing about George Wendt is that he’s also a huge punk rock music fan. He’s taken me to a few concerts. He knows all the bands and they know him. It’s really quite wonderful.

I understand the first three rows of the auditorium are a designated “splash zone.” How bloody do things get?
[The audience] gets totally covered in blood. A lot of them wear white because it’s sort of a badge of honor. People show up in white tuxedos and lab coats, all decked out. You know, we offer them plastic garbage bags to wear. But a lot of them decline it because they really want to walk out of the theater covered in blood.

I was watching your Trailers From Hell commentary for the old Ray Milland movie The Thing With Two Heads, during which you mentioned that your brother had suggested turning that into a musical.
I think that’s maybe something we’ll do at some point. It would be kind of fun. You could have one of the heads singing soul music and the other one doing Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Is your brother in showbiz?
He was. When we were doing theater, he was a member of our company. But now he has become a very noted bug chef. He cooks insects. He actually had Conan O’Brien eating a cockroach on his show at one point.

I love the idea that there are enough bug chefs for some to be noted and others not.
Yeah, there are. Actually, there was a cook-off that they had here at the Natural History Museum and David (George Gordon),my brother, won, which was pretty great.

I also love the idea that the director of Re-Animator may be the duller of two siblings.
[Laughs] Well, we’re quite a pair.

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Image Credit: Thomas Hargis

After the run in Los Angeles, you’re taking Re-Animator: The Musical to both the Edinburgh Festival and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Do you have Broadway ambitions?
Yes. I mean, with musicals, all roads lead to Broadway. But I think initially this is an Off Broadway show. It’s kind of a chamber musical. It’s not gigantic. It’s not like Wicked or something like that. Having the audience be really on top of it is a wonderful thing. But Broadway is the goal.

And what about Re-Animator: The Musical — The Movie?
Well, that’s always a possibility too. But I am enjoying the live theater aspects of it so much. I think that’s a ways off.

Do you have any other big-screen plans?
I’ve got a couple of projects that I’m working on. I don’t want to say too much, because they’re all in the works right now. But I haven’t abandoned films. I still love making movies.

I read an interview with you from last year in which you were talking about making a script by the late Alien and Dark Star co-writer Dan O’Bannon.
Yeah, it’s true. It’s a script called The Men. It’s a wonderful script in which it turns out that all men are actually aliens from another world who have convinced women that they’re necessary for reproduction.

I always assumed it was the other way round.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess you could say that too.

There was a great recent book called Shock Value about ’70s horror films which attempted to retrieve Dan O’Bannon from semi-obscurity and place hm at the center of that whole scene.
Dan O’Bannon was really quite brilliant. He was a friend of mine. When he was working on Alien he said, “You know, in horror movies, the monster always wants to eat you. How about if the monster wants to f— you?” And that I think was a brilliant idea. It actually inspired me for the famous scene in Re-Animator (in which David Gale’s bodiless Dr Hill attempts to molest Barbara Crampton’s heroine). Dead people just want to have fun too, you know!

Would you ever make a fourth Re-Animator movie? I know at one point you planned to send Herbert West to the White House.
I would like to revive that idea. It was specifically tied to the Bush administration. It was about Dick Cheney having to be reanimated. Although he just recently got a new heart, so he’s going to go on forever. But I think maybe it could be done like Dr. Strangelove where you’re not that specific about whose administration it is and so forth. But Herbert West being in the White House seems like a great idea!

You can check out the trailer for the original Re-Animator below.

Read more:
Alice Cooper talks about his ‘Dark Shadows’ cameo — and his many other memorable onscreen adventures
‘Shock Value': Review

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