Short on plot and long on exploding body parts, splatter horror films seem to be only slightly more respectable than hard-core porn. With Stuart Gordon's 1985 Re-Animator, though, this gutbucket subgenre reached a flash point. Here was a Frankenstein inspired farce that won critical raves while soaring into a zone of limb-strewn carnage undreamed of by the most hardened Friday the 13th buffs. The type of movie you pass on to friends and dare them to sit through, Re-Animator really took off on video, and it had the same effect on that industry that 1931's Frankenstein had on early Hollywood: It proved that an audience existed for more graphic and better-made shockers. Thus 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, and thus 1991's Bride of Re-Animator.
The parallel ends there, unfortunately. While Bride of Frankenstein was one of a handful of sequels to outclass the originals, Bride of Re-Animator, directed by Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna, is an anemic shadow of the first film. Still, it has enough grisly gusto to place it a severed head and shoulders above most of the other direct-to-video cookie-tossers.
Bride asks us to believe that Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), the mad med-student dweeb whose glowing green formula created Re-Animator's homicidal zombies, survived being strangled by the surly large intestine of a deceased colleague and is still slaving away in a basement lab near Miskatonic University. This time his aims are firmly in Frankenstein territory instead of revivifying any old corpse that happens to come his way, he's created a whole new woman out of spare parts swiped from the local morgue. Once again he's assisted by Dr. Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), the handsome stud of an Ygor who might be our hero if he wasn't such a sucker. And once again the pair's experiments have a habit of spiraling absurdly out of control. Like Re-Animator, Bride finds genuine yucks in taking Murphy's Law to its blood-spurting outer limits it wants to be a gag-fest in every sense.
But Re-Animator terrified audiences and won over mainstream critics for a reason: It broke the rules early and often. Any movie that offers up a zombie pet cat in the first half hour obviously has no idea of when to stop, but Gordon crashed through the barriers of taste with such abandon that the wit was as bracing as the body count was high.
Because Re-Animator went so far, though, Bride of Re-Animator has no place to go. The black humor is a bit cloying this time (''I don't want to gamble with Meg's heart'' is meant all too literally), and the gore feels like bloody business as usual. Where the first film's script was cut to the bone, Bride is overstuffed with silly tangents, like an awkward subplot involving a zombie cop.
Still, the movie works better than threadbare dreck such as Deadtime Stories, Dr. Hackenstein, or the hundreds of other cheap screamers that clog the video shelves. For one thing, Herbert West, as played by Combs, is a wonderful character. Purse-lipped, prissy, arrogant unto psychosis, Herbert's the science geek as worst-case scenario-the kid your parents told you to steer clear of because they knew he'd get you into trouble. A good actor who has kicked around Z films for years, Combs seems to know this is his big shot at glory, and he gives an insane little performance that puts the dead back in deadpan.
The special effects also share some of Re-Animator's demented black humor. A critter that Herbert creates out of detached fingers and an eyeball scurries around hilariously like a frisky pet, and when the good doctor grafts a human arm onto a dog's body, the results give new meaning to the command ''Shake.'' But without the exhilarating, anything-goes momentum of the first movie, these bits seem calculated, like sops to gore-hounds who want to feel they're getting their money's worth. The original Re-Animator was made by an artist working on a wicked, energetic high. Bride of Re-Animator is a smart piece of hack work. In the end, it's best left standing at the altar.
(Consumer note: Both Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator are available on video in unrated and edited R-rated versions. On the assumption that if you're going to lose your lunch you might as well go all the way, the uncut versions are the ones to watch-especially since the R-rated Re-Animator substitutes long, inconsequential dialogue scenes for the nastiest bits.) C+