“Easy is the descent into Hell, for it is paved with good intentions.”
– from Paradise Lost by John Milton
A group of medical researchers set out with the intent of creating a drug that could help prolong brain activity in comatose patients or suffering head trauma. Along the way they discover their serum may actually be able to bring the dead back from the dead. The two lead researchers, Frank and Zoe, accompanied in their efforts by fellow researchers, Clay and Niko, nearly succeed an attempt at reanimating a pig. With the possibility of success looming not too far off, they bring in a documentarian to record their progress.
That success finally comes when they “resuscitate” a dog that had been euthanized. The team run follow-up tests to determine their “patient’s” condition and discover the animal is displaying full simultaneous activity in all brain regions. This may be the effect of the serum, which should have quickly dissipated, remaining in the dog’s brain tissue. And even though the dog seems “off” to them, they chalk it up to becoming re-acclimated to being alive again. Of course maybe showing aggression, escaping cramped locked cages, and trashing refrigerators were all parts of “Rocky” the dog’s normal life prior to death.
Now the team are facing ouster from the powers that be, at the university where they conduct their research, due to ethical concerns about the re-purposing of their serum for uses other than originally intended. Even more unexpected is the confiscation of their equipment, data, and any remaining serum by a large pharmaceutical that has bought out the company that originally awarded their research grant. Hmmm, wonder why would they do that?
All they’ve worked for could be lost, unless they can replicate the experiment’s results yet again. So the group sneaks back into the lab armed with a “contingency” supply of the serum, one last dead dog, and any equipment remains at their disposal, all in hopes of lightning striking twice. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, but as Zoe is operating the device used deliver the injection of serum into the dog’s brain, she gets electrocuted and dies.
Frank is absolutely (and understandably) beside himself and the others completely panic-stricken, but opportunity is knocking and there is no time like the present to begin human trials. Despite the pleading of his colleagues to go to the authorities and their cautioning him against it, Frank administers the serum to Zoe and manages to snatch her from the clutches of death.
Having returned to this mortal coil, Zoe begins displaying serum induced elevated brain functions in very rapid fashion. Her behavior and emerging abilities prove troubling and frightening to her colleagues. In the end she makes them wish they let sleeping dogs lie and let the dead rest in peace.
The Lazarus Effect borrows from so many others, that the story fails to effectively stand on its own. There are aspects of Flatliners, Reanimator, Frankenstein, Pet Semetary, Carrie, and even Lucy strewn throughout. It’s possible that the writers borrowed from other sources as well but there’s no point in beating that particular dead horse – or trying to reanimate it either. This is a movie that could add to the furor over the death of originality in Hollywood.
Another aspect that betrayed this movie, is its very cramped 83 minute time-frame. A movie’s running time includes the opening title and ending credit sequences, meaning less than 80 minutes were devoted to the actual story. There is entirely too much that goes undeveloped or unexplained as a result. So much of this movie’s limited time is spent clumsily building towards the third act, which is horribly rushed and unsatisfying.
The story is also not particularly well written, and real development of certain aspects of the story and of the characters might have added a lot. Maybe they reveal how the resurrecting properties of the serum were discovered. Perhaps more back story involving the researchers and their department head at the university. Some mention of the company that gave them the grant, and also something more about the company that later lays claim to the research and the serum.
As for the characters, only Zoe gets any background development. The audience learns that she has recurring nightmares about a tragic fire from when she was a child. She is also shown as the only person in the group to have any religious affiliation, thus providing her with some inner conflict about the purpose of their research. There’s also Frank and Zoe’s nearly defunct engagement, and the sense that there is some history between Zoe and Niko. Aside from that, there is little else known about the characters.
The look of the movie is not particularly unique, as many standard horror clichés have been employed. Lighting is low-key, with oft flickering fluorescent light fixtures, and some periods of total, pitch black darkness. And as other films have done, slow creeping wide-angle shots, off kilter angles, and quick cuts are employed for the purpose of creating tension. All of these devices are very effective when utilized properly, but not this time. The most, dare I really say, “effective” shocks come from the usual cheap jolts – many of which had nothing to do with anything supernatural at all. And one would think that with the advances in both digital and practical special effects, there would at least have been some interesting death scenes – sadly this is not so.
This movie serves as David Gelb’s debut in feature film directing. He already has an established career directing documentaries, so directing a feature may have been a little outside his wheelhouse. While the performances were by no means terrible, he was graced with a cast that he definitely could have commanded better performances from. If he decides to continue directing feature films, he would be well served to hone his style and techniques. Gelb will also benefit from being decidedly more discerning when it comes to choosing future projects.
At the center of this story is a very talented group of actors and actresses that includes Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, and Sarah Bolger. There’s also an entirely too short cameo by Ray Wise, as the ominous representative of the big pharmaceutical company, who confiscates the groups research. If he were featured longer, Wise could have made a great antagonist. Sadly, these talented individuals were horribly wasted on this film.
Wilde wasn’t tasked with a huge stretch, having already appeared on the show House M.D. as Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley. But during the climax of the film, she cuts loose while emulating something akin to a more evil version of Sissy Spacek in the prom night massacre scene from Carrie. Duplass gave a decent portrayal of a doctor whose research has become something of an obsession. Peters and Glover play well off of each other despite differing personalities. Peters comes off as somewhat cavalier, while Glover seems more even-tempered and thoughtful. Bolger is pretty much on the outside of the group, since her primary function is to make a documentary about their work. Of course when all hell starts breaking loose, she is thrust into the fray as the defacto horror movie “final girl”.
Sometimes movies end in such a way that there may be potential for a sequel. Such was the case with the end of The Lazarus Effect. Hopefully once this movie shuffles loose this cinematic coil, the producers will let it rest in peace. Unless they can offer a more well written and developed story that doesn’t want to be at least a half a dozen other movies, then perhaps it would be worth it. If not, they shouldn’t bother resurrecting the story with subsequent low quality sequels to follow.