If there’s one thing that scientists should have learned from Marie Curie, it’s that you don’t take your work home with you. So when the characters in David Gelb’s The Lazarus Effect take a dog that they managed to resurrect from the dead with an experimental, potentially dangerous serum home with them (even after it has begun to have hyper-violent outbursts), you begin to realize one of the film’s crucial failings: these aren’t particularly good scientists. Of course, The Lazarus Effect isn’t a particularly good horror film, either. It deals with two of the greatest questions known to man: can the dead be returned to life; is there something after death? And unlike many Frankenstein rip-offs involving scientists who either purposefully or inadvertently play God, the film does attempt to address these issues. Unfortunately, it does it rather poorly.
We follow a young woman named Eva (Sarah Bolger) who has been hired to record the experiments of a team of scientists. Headed by Dr. Frank (Mark Duplass) and Dr. Zoe (Olivia Wilde), whom for some reason are never given last names (and come to think of it, I’m not sure either of them are explicitly mentioned as being doctors either), the project seeks to revive brain tissues and neural pathways using “Lazarus,” the aforementioned experimental serum, thereby allowing doctors more time to resuscitate dead patients. But when they manage to totally revive a dog, they realize that they might have unlocked the key to reversing death.
Two problems, though. First, the serum never technically stops working. So the subject gains hyperactive cognitive powers (yes, that old chestnut about humans only using 10% of their brains is dredged up again) which makes them erratic, uncontrollable, and psychic. Second, the scientists assume that whatever is revived wishes to be revived and that maybe ripping somebody back out of heaven or (dun dun DUN) hell might not be the best idea. So after a terrible accident results in Dr. Zoe’s death, Dr. Frank revives her in a fit of grief. From here the film collapses into a miasma of clichés ripped from seemingly random sources: The Exorcist (1973), slasher movies, and even Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000) with Eva being literally dragged into traumatic memories in Dr. Zoe’s past. What could have been a subtle, chilling meditation on the repercussions of resurrecting the dead is spoiled by a parade of cheap jump scares. There is not a single jump scare that isn’t telegraphed: whenever a character has a foreground close-up where their head or body only occupies about half of the screen, expect a sudden loud noise.
The shame is that The Lazarus Effect could have worked as either a found footage movie (after all, the main character is literally just there to record all of the weird things that happen) or a straight drama. The actors have amazing chemistry with each other, particularly Duplass and Wilde. Donald Glover and Evan Peters turn in solid performances as the other lab scientists who are destined to die horrible, violent deaths in the third act. But the film’s few sparks of originality and charisma are stamped out by a script and a director who refuses to take any genuine chances with the subject material.