Re-Animator at Edinburgh Fringe - "We’re throwing blood all over the audience!"
(54 gallons of) blood and gore-a-plenty in Stuart Gordon's Edinburgh Fringe play based on cult 80s film
This article is from 2012.
Stuart Gordon holds a grisly place in movie trivia. ‘It’s true, I had the all-time record for most amount of fake blood used in a film,’ the director confirms, referring to the 24 gallons of corn syrup-based thick red gunge poured into his cult 1985 comedy-horror Re-Animator, which he reincarnated as a stage musical. ‘I remember when I was making it,’ he continues, ‘that my feet just kept sticking to the floor.’
It’s a record the Chicagoan would proudly hold until 1993 and Peter Jackson’s splatter classicBraindead, which saw the future Lord of the Rings trilogy director somewhat trump Gordon in the artificial haemoglobin stakes. ‘I got to meet him and asked how many gallons of blood he used in his film. He told me he’d used 2000.’
Still with us? Readers of a squeamish disposition beware that it only gets worse from here (warning: contains chat about the Three Little Pigs getting hacked to bits, and a man doing something despicable with his own severed head).
Based on a long-lost story by influential American horror and weird science author HP Lovecraft, Re-Animator – ranked as one of the greatest cult movies of all time – broke Gordon out of theatre and into a lengthy film career that included screen adaptations of four further Lovecraft stories (including From Beyond and Castle Freak) and writing credits for titles such as the 1989 blockbuster Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
With Re-Animator: The Musical, many of the original crew from the 1985 movie are reunited to tell once more the story of Herbert West (played by Chris L McKenna), a brilliant young medical student obsessed with bringing the dead back to life. Only this time set to music and lyrics by composer Mark Nutter. ‘It’s almost an operetta,’ comments Gordon, ‘it’s quite wonderful.’
When West arrives at Miskatonic University in New England to test a life-giving serum that turns out to be less-than-perfected, things go shockingly awry, with comedy, brutality and song ensuing. Oh, and Norm off of Cheers gets attacked by a zombie. Or at least the actor who played him, George Wendt, here starring as a university dean.
But back to the fake blood. Re-Animator: The Musical uses a modest two gallons per performance, meaning 54 gallons total will be expended over the show’s 27-night Fringe stint. The gore factor was actually upped by popular demand. ‘When we were doing previews the audience kept saying, “more blood!”’ Gordon reports, speaking of the musical’s award-winning sell-out debut run in Los Angeles, where some obsessives turned up on as many as 30 occasions. ‘The last time they asked for more blood I said, “maybe we should fill up the whole theatre with blood and let you swim out!”’
Gordon describes a ‘very participatory production’, particularly around the ‘splash zone’ in the front rows (very popular with those aforementioned Re-Animator freaks, many of whom come dressed in white), where theatre-goers are invited to sit at their own risk. ‘Everyone’s getting so excited about 3D movies, but theatre goes far beyond that,’ says Gordon. ‘In Re-Animator we’re throwing blood all over the audience.’ It necessitated a bespoke fake blood recipe. ‘We needed to develop something that’s washable so it doesn’t stain their clothes. It’s based on a baby shampoo in case it got in their eyes too.’
Thinking back to the Re-Animator film’s effects eventually convinced Gordon that it could potentially transfer successfully from screen to stage. ‘People had suggested the idea to me for years and I had laughed because I thought it was pretty crazy,’ he says. ‘But then one day, it struck me: most of the effects we had used had been stage effects. We didn’t have CGI back then.’
Gordon’s stage days go all the way back to the 1970s, when he founded the Organic Theatre Company in Chicago, a ground-breaking organisation focused on action-packed performances. It was through his work there that Gordon first met ‘one of the funniest people on earth’, as he refers to George Wendt, then a member of legendary improvisational comedy enterprise, The Second City.
‘We decided we would do the Three Little Pigs as staged by Organic,’ Wendt recalls, of his satirical first encounter with Gordon. ‘We invited Stuart to guest-direct that sketch. Of course, it was filled with gratuitous nudity and lots of blood and dismemberment, innards and entrails,’ he laughs. When Wendt heard Gordon and Nutter, another friend, were working on Re-Animator: The Musical, his fingers were crossed they might call. ‘And sure enough they did,’ he says.
One of the few actors to appear in all 11 seasons of Cheers, Wendt experienced household fame as Norm Peterson, the wise-cracking, beer-loving regular of the sitcom’s titular Boston watering-hole, who stole many of the show’s best lines. He’s starred in a few horror movies since, but his taste for fake blood is far outstripped by his thirst for beer. Wendt’s love for the hops is every bit as real as Norm’s, and he even penned a ‘barstool professional’s’ beer guide a few years ago entitled Drinking with George. Immersing himself in the less-than-sober spirit of the Fringe – for a second time in two years, following his part in 2010’s Celebrity Autobiography – is an experience he understandably looks forward to: ‘I love the Scottish ales’.
Of course, Wendt can rarely set foot in a bar without being reminded of Norm, a character he has never quite managed to leave behind, having played him now in seven different TV series, including voice cameos in The Simpsons and Family Guy. ‘I could be selling insurance right now if something hadn’t worked out quite as well as Cheers,’ Wendt muses, philosophically. ‘I’ve had plenty of other opportunities since, and I keep having fun. To wit, we’re back to Re-Animator: The Musical.’
Considering Hollywood’s current fashion for remakes, would Gordon ever welcome a big screen re-animation of Re-Animator? Over his dead body. ‘I’m not a fan of these remakes,’ he grumbles. ‘They’re never as good as the originals. I think the original Re-Animator still shocks people and makes them laugh.’
Besides, there’s also the tricky issue of what Gordon calls ‘a sexual element’ in the movie which Hollywood ‘has always been afraid of’. Whatever could he mean by that? ‘The scene that everyone always talks about in Re-Animator is the heroine being strapped down to an autopsy table, then a re-animated corpse that’s carrying its own head putting the head between her legs,’ Gordon explains, describing one of Re-Animator’s most memorable visual puns. ‘The head gives head.’ We weren’t joking about the squeamish thing.