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On the occasion of a new DVD of Re-Animator, director Stuart Gordon shared some thoughts with Maitland McDonagh about horror, humor and severed heads.

Maitland McDonagh: Re-Animator continues to attract new viewers while many of its contemporaries are gathering dust on the shelves. Why?

Stuart Gordon: Re-Animator is into its third generation now which I think is partly because it can still take people by surprise. Dr. Hill [ David Gale] is an outrageous character -- I mean, he's lusting after that poor girl even when he's a severed head being carried around in a bag. But I think it's also Dr. West [ Jeffrey Combs]: He's so myopic, so possessed by the vision of what he wants to do to the exclusion of everything else that his mania is funny and horrifying at the same time. And when you look past the corpses, I think a lot of people know someone like that.

And I really believe that one of the reasons Re-Animator continues to play so well is that anticipates the needs of the horror viewer: They want to laugh, not because the movie is silly, but because they have to get rid of some of that tension that builds up when you're doing everything right. If you give them an utterly outrageous line of dialogue or image they'll laugh because you've provided an opportunity to let it all out. Then you can go right back to playing on their nerves and they're with you.

MM: What's the difference between a horror movie that incorporates humor and a horror spoof, and how do you feel about each?

SG: The thing about the humor in Re-Animator is that it isn't making fun of the film. It comes out of the characters, rather than from the impulse to show that we the filmmakers, the audience are better than "this kind of thing." I don't like horror spoofs because by and large, they're made by people who don't like horror movies. They use the excuse of parody to show their contempt for the genre, which comes through loud and clear.

That's where a movie like Peter Jackson's Dead Alive [1992] differs from the nudge-nudge spoofs: He knows the conventions of zombie movies and he's having fun with them, but the humor comes out of the characters and the situations. They're not cheap gags designed to show how dumb zombie movies are.

I remember meeting Peter at some event and asking him just how much blood he used in Dead Alive, because until then Re-Animator was widely considered to hold the record for most blood spilled onscreen we used about 30 gallons of fake blood. Peter said they'd used 3000. I suppose you could say Stanley Kubrick used more for the elevator sequence in The Shining [1980], but I don't think that really counts.

MM: Technical skill counts for a lot in horror movies, and pretty much anyone can learn the mechanics of a suspense sequence. So why can't more filmmakers just go by the numbers and make an effective, if not inspired, horror movie?

SG: Because you have to love horror to connect with the stuff under the surface, and that's where you find what resonates. Take Neil Marshall's The Descent [2005], for example -- he doesn't think he's slumming in horror. He's with it all the way. I think in some ways horror is very unforgiving, and if you make a false step you risk losing viewers and not getting them back.

The genre has always been marginalized, and yet the images it produces are among the most persistent ones in movies. Brian Yuzna, who produced Re-Animator, once said to me that the image absolutely everyone recognizes is Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster. They don't have to have seen Frankenstein [1931]. That image, from an 70 year old movie, speaks for itself and people immediately know what it is.

MM: In my Ask FlickChick column, I often get questions that begin "I don't know whether this was really a movie I saw or whether it's a dream I had..."

SG: (Laughs) That's great! Horror movies are like dreams; they don't always make sense in a linear way because their logic is allusive, but it's completely compelling. It's coming from someplace very deep and very potent, which is why those images linger and haunt us.

MM: What are some of your favorite horror movies, the ones you'd recommend to non-fans?

SG: Horror movies just aren't for everyone, and some of that is hardwired in: My younger daughter, who's in college now, still can't bear them. But I love Rosemary's Baby [1968]. It impressed the hell out of my from the first time I saw it, and in Re-Animator I ended up copying Roman Polanski's style. He has a way of putting the viewer into the film, like the scene in The Tenant [1976] when Trelkovsky looks out the window because he hears some kind of commotion on the street. Most directors would have cut to a street-level shot of what was going on, but Polanski keeps you up there, looking down with the character. It's simple and it's brilliant.

After Rosemary's Baby, I'd say Psycho [1960]. Never gets old. And Audition [1999]. That little noise she makes when she's sticking the poor guy full of needles... brrrr!

MM: Why do you think Asian horror movies have made such inroads into the Western horror market when the average moviegoer will do anything not to see a movie with subtitles?

SG: I think Asian filmmakers have made such a splash because they bring a new approach to familiar material. That's what horror buffs want: They love a certain kind of story, but they want to see it with a fresh spin or perspective. Many Asian horror movies are ghost stories of one kind or another. But the way those filmmakers present the ghosts what they look like, what they want, the way they interact with the living is fresh, at least to Americans.

MM: So I'm guessing you're not a big fan of the current spate of remakes of horror movies from the 1970s and '80s.

SG: I really don't like the remake trend. We need new monsters, like the cave dwellers in The Descent, not rehashes of tired old monsters.

MM: Serious horror buffs and horror theorists see sexual subtexts everywhere. Do you think that's a legitimate insight, or is it just over-intellectualizing?

SG: I once met somebody who'd written a book about horror and argued that all horror movies are sexual in nature. Vampire stories are about sex with a stranger, someone coming into your room at night and having his way with you. Werewolf movies are about unleashing the beast within. And Frankenstein stories are inherently masturbatory.

I was a little offended at that, since I always thought of Re-Animator as a different spin on the Frankenstein theme. But he said look, Frankenstein movies are all about creating life without a woman. And I had to say, hmmm... I see the point. And that plays into what all horror movies are about, which is nothing less than life and death. Sex is all about creating new life, and death is about extinguishing life. So of course horror movies are all wrapped up in sex!

Send your movie questions to FlickChick.

See Maitland McDonagh and Ken Fox review this week's new flicks in Movie Talk!