Stuart Gordon, a director best known for lavishly lurid horror films with a piercing sense of humor, notably the cult favorite “Re-Animator,” died on Tuesday in Van Nuys, Calif. He was 72.
His wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, an actress who appeared in many of his films and with whom he founded the Chicago-based Organic Theater Company, said the cause was multiple organ failure brought on by kidney disease.
Mr. Gordon’s generally low-budget films often combined the body horror of John Carpenter or David Cronenberg’s films with the titillation found in Roger Corman’s. He said that surprising moviegoers was an important part of his work, and he did his best to exceed the everyday terrors of many slasher movies.
“There is a side of me that likes to break through clichés and wake people up,” Mr. Gordon told Rolling Stone in 1986.
Before turning to film, he directed experimental plays at the Organic Theater Company in the late 1960s. The company produced original works, like the comic-book-themed trilogy “Warp,” one-third of which briefly made it to Broadway in 1973; it also staged the first production of David Mamet’s breakout play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” in 1974.
“Re-Animator” (1985), Mr. Gordon’s first feature film, was based on a serialized story about human revivification by H.P. Lovecraft. He wrote the adaptation with Dennis Paoli and William Norris.
The movie centers on Herbert West, a medical student played by Jeffrey Combs (he would become a stock player of sorts for Mr. Gordon) who discovers a chemical reagent that returns dead bodies to life. His experiments with it yield ever more grotesque results, culminating in a gang of marauding undead. One unforgettable scene involves the severed head of a reanimated corpse and a captive young woman.
“Re-Animator” was released without a rating, so the more gruesome and graphic bits were not censored, resulting in a limited run in theaters. But it reached a much broader audience on video, and many critics loved it.
“‘Re-Animator’ has as much originality as it has gore, and that’s really saying something,” Janet Maslin wrote in her review in The New York Times when the movie opened in New York theaters. The film, she added, “has a fast pace and a good deal of grisly vitality” and even “a sense of humor, albeit one that would be lost on 99.9 percent of any ordinary moviegoing crowd.”
Mr. Paoli, who also worked with Mr. Gordon on later Lovecraft adaptations, said in a telephone interview that the humor-horror hybrid in “Re-Animator” and other Gordon films was similar to that in his theater work, which often straddled the line between the serious and the hilarious.
“If you watch someone laughing and you don’t hear them, it looks like they’re screaming,” Mr. Paoli said. “The fact is they’re both releases of tension, and Stuart was a genius at storing up that tension and then releasing it over the line in one direction or another.”
That same combination of mordant comedy, graphic violence and cosmic horror turned up in Lovecraft derivations like “From Beyond” (1986), about a doctor who uses a device to see into alien dimensions and whose pineal gland bursts through his forehead; and “Dagon” (2001), about a village of human-fish hybrids who enjoy procreating with people and sometimes skinning them.
Not all Mr. Gordon’s films were creature features. He, Brian Yuzna and Ed Naha came up with the story for the hit Disney film “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989), and he was an executive producer of the sequel, “Honey, I Blew Up the Kid” (1992).
He also made science fiction films, like “Fortress” (1992), about a high-tech prison in a dystopian future; and nightmarish dramas, like “Stuck” (2007), about a woman who crashes into a homeless man with her car while intoxicated, then drives home with him trapped in her windshield and barely alive.
Mr. Gordon adapted the work of other authors, like Edgar Allan Poe (“The Pit and the Pendulum,” 1991) and Ray Bradbury (“The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” 1998). He returned to the work of Mr. Mamet with the film version of his one-act play “Edmond” (2005), about a man, played by William H. Macy, who renounces his strait-laced life and goes on a wild tear that ends with murder and a long prison sentence.
To Mr. Gordon, the goal of supposedly highbrow theater was not much different from that of a blood-soaked horror film. “I have never separated art from having a good time,” he said in 1986.
Stuart Alan Gordon was born in Chicago on Aug. 11, 1947, to Bernard and Rosalie (Sabath) Gordon. His father was a supervisor at a cosmetics factory, his mother a high school English teacher. He graduated from high school in Chicago before studying theater at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
At the university Mr. Gordon formed Screw Theater, an experimental troupe that incensed the college authorities with a 1968 production of “Peter Pan” that featured a nude dance sequence.
Mr. Gordon and Ms. Purdy, who was in the show, were arrested after the second performance, and the university demanded that Mr. Gordon submit future scripts in advance and allow faculty members into every rehearsal. Mr. Gordon declined and left the university.
He and Ms. Purdy married later that year, then founded the Organic Theater Company in Wisconsin. In 1969 they moved to Chicago, where the company first staged shows in a church.
“Re-Animator” has lived on, spawning several comic book adaptations, film sequels (with which Mr. Gordon was not involved) and a stage musical, which he directed and for which he co-wrote the book.
Mr. Gordon lived in Valley Glen, Calif. In addition to his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Suzanna, Jillian and Margaret Gordon; a brother, David; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Gordon maintained that his creative brand of violence was less detrimental to viewers than the comparatively sanitized killings in many action movies.
“Violence should horrify,” he said in 1986. “If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with it. It should not be seductive.”