Alan Smithee’s magnum opus Herbert West - Reanimator was laded with problems and difficulties before and after filming. These problems ranged from those having to do with the cast and crew, to those having to do with the circumstances surrounding the filming, to those having to do with the script, to those dealing in direct regard to the very sanity of all of those involved with Herbert West - Reanimator. Despite the myriad of problems that contributed to this acclaimed film’s failure, Herbert West - Reanimator still became a success in its own right, and a true classic by any director’s standards.
H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 novella Herbert West – Reanimator is the striking story of Dr. Herbert West, an American medical student, and later doctor, who becomes obsessed with the securing of dead bodies and the reanimation of them back to some semblance of real life. In this novella the narrator is faced with his moral questions about this horrible act as well as the possible insanity of West himself (portrayed in the film by a greatly sobered Matt Le Blanc in a departure from his Friends days). In retrospect the narrator can only describe West with extreme terror. The narrator begins with a curious friendship with the title character. Not yet obsessed with reanimating the dead, but with the conviction that it could be done, West seemed no more harmful than any experimental student. (Lovecraft).
This fascinating story is the one that inspired original screenwriter John Morton to write the first drafts of Herbert West - Reanimator in 1989 (Bear). Stuart Gordon originally directed his own version of the story, simply entitled Re-Animator back in 1985, with a sequel, Bride of Re-Animator following in 1989 (Bear). Response to the films were mixed. While technical critics found it to be well done, Lovecraft fans considered it an embarrassment. Gordon decided to give up on the series and to make Fortress instead.
This and other factors led to the belief that Herbert West - Reanimator could not be successfully written, much less produced in an accurate format (Bear). A college film student at the time, Morton took these notions as a challenge to write his own interpretation of Lovecraft’s Herbert West - Reanimator combined with what he knew of then-current events (Bear). Morton elected not to attempt to redo or top Lovecraft’s original novella, but decided not to try to modernize it with his own flavor set into the script, either. This inclusion of topical issues included the setting of the medical worries such as Aids and Cancer into the midst of the reanimation problem with West faced with the idea of what damage is too much damage for a body to reanimate. This tale became one of excess, greed, insanity, and psychadelia, which commented more on the state of the nineties experience than on what Lovecraft, who wrote his work forty years prior to the beginning of the Aids strife, had originally intended. Morton called the script a cross between Herbert West - Reanimator and Dracula, with the narrator (portrayed by Smithee himself) as the subdued and confused Van Helsing, who must be tricked, and overcome in order for West to continue his journey, and the modern viruses as the story’s syphilis, which leads to not only the concern of what can be repaired, but also what would happen if an army of zombies can spread death in this manner also (Bear).
Other influences on the original script included “Marigrace Haley’s article ‘The Battle of HIV’, referring to drugs, and sex in the war against Aids.” (Kidd), as well as John Morton’ collected anecdotes from VD victims, and the care givers he knew personally (Bear). Morton says, “I wrote the screenplay between 1989 and 1993, and based the West character on a friend of mine, Boston Brand, a doctor who was constantly obsessed with life as opposed to death. He gave his life for saving lives, and he should be remembered.” (Kidd).
Despite Morton’s intentions, Smithee had other Ideas of how his script should turn out. Smithee began rewriting the script in 1995, wishing to explore “more the moral side, not to mention the decline of the title character’s sanity.” (Kidd). These added elements dragged the story farther away from Lovecraft and Morton. Smithee was also an advocate of improvisation. With the situations experienced by the cast and crew so far from those of the actual doctors, Smithee felt that it was important to get real responses from real people. He chose to set a feel for his “scenes unknown”, then have the actors improvise what was going to happen (Bear). Smithee also had these actors make lists of what they felt that their characters should do in different situations (Bear). This caused an effect of the script writing itself, as well as creating a deeper rift between it and the source material.
Marlon Brando, who portrayed Dr. Allan Halsey, fed the fire of deep confusion where the script was concerned. Both Herbert West - Reanimator, and Morton’s original script, as well as Smithee’s later interpretation of these, called for the character of Halsey to be an authoritative and demanding man. Brando, however, refused to play the part much different from the recent attempts he made in such films as Don Juan De Marco. Brando in fact sleepwalked through the role so much that he was shy about it (Bear). Smithee first suggested that he rewrite the script to accommodate the character to Brando by setting him up as an old man consumed by his own bureaucracy (Bear). Brando refused to be undignified in his portrayal, so the filming, as well as the writing remained stagnant for days on end, a large sacrifice for such a small character. In the end Smithee merely set Brando and Le Blanc free to improvise for a week, leaving him with an incoherent batch of footage that had little to do with the script, or the novella. Time and money restraints forced Smithee to leave this as what it was, and try to get it straight in the editing (Bear).
Smithee still felt that the ending was weak, and lacking of any answer to the moral issues the script posed, but he was powerless to do any thing about this with uncooperative actors and a distributing company demanding Herbert West - Reanimator’s release (Bear). In spite of the many changes both attributed to Smithee, and to outside forces, John Morton said, “Even had I written every line of every scene I could not have realized it on screen in the way Alan did.” (Kidd).
The film was originally intended to be filmed in 1995, using 16 millimeter film with Clive Barker as the director. Warner Brothers backed out of the project, fearing that the film would not survive the Canoga Park test (Bear). Due to the controversy surrounding the Aids epidemic, no other studio would touch the script for any reason. “It was one thing to have a film, like Philadelphia, or something which is positive and proactive, but Warner and everyone else was afraid that people would dismiss the film as anti-homosexual, in that zombies were portrayed as the Aids carriers. No amount of proof that the film was making no statement whatsoever could convince them otherwise. (Keep in mind that this was to be filmed at a time when HIV had already become as much of a heterosexual disease, as a homosexual one.)” (Kidd).
When Smithee reunited his film group American Scuttlebutt in 1995, they all decided to do Herbert West - Reanimator as their first project (Bear). The start of filming was not the end, but the beginning of the trouble surrounding the film. Filming began in February of 1998 on Herbert West - Reanimator, which was intended to have a sixteen week shoot (Bear). Around this time Smithee’s doubts began arising about the film’s integrity as a work of art (Bear). His wife said that Alan went into himself to confront his own demons in order to make the film. Smithee’s biggest fear was to make a second-rate film on an important subject, and he seemed bent on avoiding this travesty. The director saw his work as a seventy million dollar disaster, that was sure to receive an “F” on any filmic grading scale (Bear). Alan Smithee admitted to having even considered shooting himself, or causing himself to have a great accident in order to get out of the horror he had placed himself in (Bear). It came to the point in the filming of the work when Smithee began to so identify with his title character’s attempts at revivification of something long dead that he began to incessantly recite quotes from West’s monologues and began to become obsessed with the film’s life, no matter what it became.
Acts of God played a part in the film’s troubles. A hurricane hit the Cambridge, Massachusetts set during principle photography, demolishing sets, and making the cemetery terrain harder to film on (Bear). Production was closed for two months in order to rebuild the ruined sets (Bear). This delay also caused Brando to threaten to back out and keep his million dollar bonus. After tense negotiations Brando stayed, but the film was still drastically over budget. United Artists agreed to put up three million dollars toward completion of the film, under the contingency that Smithee pay the sum back if the film made less than forty million dollars at the box office (Bear).
Smithee, in his delirium, also chose to cut scenes that he found to be less than perfect, such as one flashback during a potter’s field scene. In this scene Smithee began to show West’s journey back into himself, starting with the remnants of his morality which had remained in the heart of the man and threatened to tear him apart as he desecrated the body of a man who by most rights could have been his friend (Bear). Smithee went to great lengths to ensure this scene’s accuracy, right down to the temperature, and deterioration time of the different ages of people he buried (Bear). Smithee was dissatisfied with a few minor portions of the expensive scene and decided that “it never happened” (Bear). This showed Smithee’s dwindling state of mind, and his impending insanity.
To contribute to this, the film’s original sixteen week shoot ended up extending to two hundred thirty eight days (Bear). The United Artists Company was pushing for the release of a film that was not yet ready, and whose director was convinced that it was “a bad film” (Bear).
Perhaps the most visible problems Smithee had with his film were those he had with his actors. Brando was “an incredible joker to play!” (Bear), in Smithee’s own words, and he demanded frequent script rewrites, as well as constant time and attention. Other actors such as Sam Bottoms, who played the local Ptolemean, Calvinist, anti-Darwinist, anti-Neitzscheian, Protestant minister, were almost constantly under the influence of amphetamines, marijuana, LSD, alcohol, and other drugs (Bear). Actors such as James Marshall, playing the boxer Kid O’Brien, continually argued with Smithee, and refused to bother with learning the lines (Bear). But the most trouble surrounded the character of West. Michael J. Fox was originally cast as the perennial mad doctor and was even filmed in Cambridge in this role (Bear). However, once Smithee and the producers sat down to view the footage of Fox as West, they all agreed within fifteen minutes that Fox was to be replaced (Bear). Smithee flew to Los Angeles to recruit Matt Le Blanc to play the part of West (Bear). Le Blanc was concerned about his own abilities to play such a role, and voiced these opinions. “Who is this guy West?” (Bear), Le Blanc would ask. “He’s you, Whoever you are.” (Bear), Smithee would reply.
During the opening sequence showing West alone in an Arkham morgue the ever improvisational director allowed Le Blanc to get drunk and play the entire scene out without any real cues as to how to play the part (Bear). The scene got so intense that Le Blanc actually punched a table of scalpels and such instruments, badly injuring his hand (Bear). While Smithee insisted that the scene end there and that Le Blanc seek medical attention, Le Blanc was adamant about finishing the action and displaying West’s animalistic, primal side (Bear). The strife was so intense at that moment that Le Blanc actually screamed profanities at the director, and physically threatened to charge the camera and actually attack Smithee (Bear). The sound track of this real life footage was removed in favor of a musical overlay of a Frank Black song. This added to the illusion that this was not Le Blanc’s struggle, but West’s dealing with his own “chaotic spiritual state” (Bear). “It had to do with facing my worst enemy: Myself.”, said Le Blanc (Bear).
Le Blanc’s confused state was not exclusive to this scene. Sam Bottoms called Le Blanc an “extremely generous, big hearted man, filled with a lot of love, and much unlike West. And so when you ask Matt [Le Blanc] to examine the darker nature of this character it meant closing himself down a lot and becoming very inward in order to find the… warlock who could carry out the task and reanimate Clapham-Lee. I think that West was responsible for Matt’s breakdown.” (Bear). This breakdown came when Le Blanc suffered a severe heart attack and literally faced death (Bear). So close was Matt Le Blanc to death that he actually received last rites from a priest that did not speak English (Bear). Amid Smithee’s near insanity, he tried to cover up Le Blanc’s attack so that Hollywood would not hear of it. He pushed Le Blanc to do close ups, and other non strenuous work in order to keep the film going (Bear). They used body doubles, and over the shoulder shots, matting Le Blanc in later, to continue filming. So adamant was he that the film be competed Smithee told his staff “If Matt dies I want to hear that everything’s okay until I say Matt is dead!” (Bear).
“A film director is one of the last truly dictatorial posts left in a world that is becoming more and more democratic.”, said Smithee of his experiences with the film (Bear). Perhaps this is the reason that Smithee finished the film the way he did, and when he did. After thirty eight takes of the last sequence alone (none of which pleased him), two hundred thirty eight days of shooting, dwindling psychological stability, and “a hundred problems a day” (Bear), Smithee was left with a film whose incoherent ending did not match the rest of the plot or itself, and was drastically deviant from any script associated with it (Bear).
At this point amid thoughts of suicide, and other serious expressions of depression, Smithee decided to take what he had and develop it into something that he enjoyed. Smithee showed West’s abduction by the many ghastly figures, led by the Canadian officer, as it was in the original story, but as the story closed, Smithee (as the narrator) was seen in the fascinating asylum scene. The narrator recites the final lines, in his straight jacket with Brando taking notes near him, but just out of arm’s reach, in a white room at Sefton Asylum (it is a subject of conjecture in many film circles whether the Doctor’s presence is intended to be actual, or a mere apparition of an insane mind). Finally, as Smithee says “probably I am mad.” (Lovecraft, 234), the camera zeroes in on his pupil and transports the viewer into West’s Hell. There West is strapped to an enormous stone, as the souls of his decayed “children” surround him and rip pieces of his body off a little at a time. The promethean myth, as related to West, is Smithee’s own creation, and has no textual basis, yet it is the most recognized scene of the film, and is considered the greatest summary of West’s mad career. This setting of himself up as his own selfish audience, and choosing to please himself rather than the actors, producers, critics, distributors, or public caused this film to be a true expression of Smithee’s heart and mind rather than what anyone else chose to think it should have been.
The film opened on August 19, 2000, and it grossed three hundred fifty million dollars worldwide (Bear). The film won three Golden Globes, two Academy awards, and the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival (Bear). Smithee’s seventy million dollar disaster was quite a success (Bear).
While all signs pointed to Herbert West - Reanimator’s sure failure, that failure never came. Alan Smithee not only did not receive the ”F” he assured himself that he would, but rather proved himself to be the true Reanimator of the title, as he rescued a dead film from failure. Smithee created a film that is uniquely his, and that remains loyal to its many parents, but also reflects Smithee’s inner self unlike any other artist’s mirror.
“I don’t consider them off the wall, I don’t know what the wall is!” -Dr. Thomas Du Bose
Bear, Chance (Co-writer, Co-director), & Sackville, George (Co-writer, Co-director). 2002. Alan Smithee - Reanimator: A Filmmaker’s Reanimation [Film]. Starrz/ Paramount.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. Herbert West - Reanimator. The Mammoth Book of Zombies. Ed. Stephen Jones. New York, NY. Carroll And Graff Publishers, Inc. 1993.
Smithee, Alan (Director, Co-author). 2000. Herbert West - Reanimator [Film]. American Scuttlebutt/ United Artists.
Kidd, Justin E. (2007). Herbert West - Reanimator Tribute Page. Retrieved July 2nd, 2007 from the World Wide Web: https://members.tripod.com/~resurrectionjoe/illwill.html.
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(That's not to say that Hollywood Shouldn't BURN, Baby, BURN! Burn like the Midnight Bomber, what Bombs at MIDNIGHT! YEAH BABY!)