In 1985, the now cult classic film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator had its theatrical release. It stars Bruce Abbott as medical student Dan Cain and Jeffrey Combs as scientist Herbert West, the titular re-animator, who moves in with Dan and drags him into his dangerous and morally questionable experiments to conquer death. Herbert is the story’s engine, and yet is held at a distance by both the narrative and the characters around him, maligned as “dangerous, insane, a maniac.” In stark contrast, Dan’s failings are blamed on the manipulations of Herbert or painted as part of his romance with his girlfriend, Megan. The constructions of inhumanity around West are not entirely unfounded, as he is certainly the catalyst for a lot of destruction, but I would like to argue that the primary mechanisms by which they portray this are intended to monsterize him by virtue of his nonconformity to the cisgender heterosexual system that he threatens.

Combs as West, as well as West in the original stories, is physically unimposing and feminine, especially next to the paragon of masculine “heterosexuality” offered in Dan Cain. He never fights with his hands, only with tools, he is slight and small, and most importantly he performs a high level of obsessive fixation on his appearance that plays directly to stereotypes of the overly groomed gay man. He is never seen in anything less than a button down and tie (whereas Dan spends much of the first two movies with his chest in full view), and the film lingers on shots of his reconstruction of this image; he takes the time to put his socks and shoes on properly after being smuggled into the morgue, and shows disgust when covered in blood despite his regular interactions with the dead.

Herbert acts as one of two destabilizing influences on the “heterosexual” heroes, Dan and Megan, but unlike the antagonist Dr. Hill his interest is not on Megan but on Dan, creating the image of the feminine man filling the role “rightfully” belonging to the woman. He is placed into a homosocial kinship with Dan that puts him in direct conflict with Meg right from the start; when Meg refuses to move in with Dan because her dad would disapprove of sex before marriage (upholding the ideals of the virtuous heterosexual woman that Herbert destroys), Herbert arrives within the same scene to take her place. When Herbert’s actions threaten to get Dan expelled from school, Meg and Herbert argue to convince Dan of their position, and the scene ends with Dan choosing Herbert and “the work” over marriage with Meg. As Meg leaves frame, Herbert leaves the background of the shot and steps directly into the space she vacates. When Meg dies, it is at the hand of Herbert’s “work.” Dan’s rejection of Meg and continuation of “the work” with Herbert serves as a rejection of the larger heterosexual norms that he is expected to fall into; not only has he chosen homosociality over heterosexual marriage, but their work consists of the creation of life. Two men exploring the production of life at the expense of a procreative relationship between a man and a woman is a very literal metaphor for the rhetoric of anti-gay anxieties for much of the history of LGBT civil rights advocacy.

As Elana Gomel says in Science (Fiction) and Posthuman Ethics: Redefining the Human, the dehumanizing of people through discourse is a “powerful linguistic tool for (re)drawing the boundaries of our biological species and thus facilitating extreme violence.” The narrative efforts to depict Herbert as immoral and monsterous for his upset of the natural order by bringing the dead back to life combined with his coded mannerisms seems a very deliberate attempt to draw a parallel between these coded behaviors and immorality; however, the extended version of the film includes several details of his life before the film’s story begins that have lead LGBT fans like myself to rewrite his motivations from our own understandings of the pain a gay man would have been suffering in the 80s, and through this lens made him an interesting and sympathetic character rather than a harmful one. Though Herbert and characters like him cannot be fully separated from the contexts they reside in, I think it speaks to the power of interpretation that he and many others have been reclaimed for the better from their monstrous origins.