Movie Review: “The Lazarus Effect”

Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Sarah Bolger
David Gelb

A group of scientists are working on a serum that, combined with the right stimuli, can bring someone back from the dead. Their argument for creating this is that it would enable doctors to have a little more time to find a cure for whatever is ailing someone. That is a terrible, terrible idea, and the rationale for the idea is even worse. But here’s the worst part: “The Lazarus Effect” actually has some interesting bits mixed in with all of the stupid ones, and the ending is kind of fantastic. To get there, though, we have to slog through a bunch of home video and security camera footage (this looks like it started life as a found footage movie, which makes sense considering the film’s producers also worked on the “Paranormal Activity” films) and an ungodly number of faulty light fixtures. The only thing it was missing was a cat.

Frank (Mark Duplass), his fiancé Zoe (Olivia Wilde), and their assistants Clay (Evan Peters) and Neko (Donald Glover), are working in a basement lab at a school in Berkeley to perfect their Lazarus serum. They bring in student Eva (Sarah Bolger) to document their work on video. They test the process on a dog, and it works, though the dog doesn’t really act like a dog once alive, and there are numerous medical red flags that suggest the dog could become extremely aggressive at any moment. Soon after their success in resurrecting someone, which is only known to those five, the lab is raided by a pharmaceutical company that, according to the terms of the grant that was funding Frank and Zoe’s research, owns all intellectual property in the event the terms of the grant are broken, which happened once they started testing on animals.

Frank cannot stand the idea of someone else taking credit for his discovery, so they try to recreate the experiment on another dog before the lab is completely cleared out in the morning. Zoe is electrocuted when she flips the power switch to their equipment, and Frank then decides to use Zoe as the test subject, against the wishes of all concerned. Reluctantly, they agree to help him, and they succeed. Zoe’s brain, however, is now operating at “Lucy” levels of functionality, and that, combined with her brief but unforgettable experiences in the afterlife, have turned Zoe into a weaponized and decidedly less human version of her former self.

The trailers and ads suggest that Zoe isn’t really Zoe, and instead is some demon standing in for her. Thankfully, that isn’t true, because hello, “Pet Sematary.” Zoe is definitely Zoe, but death has changed her, unlocking something she tried to fight in life but has now embraced. That’s an interesting concept: if you knew your fate in the next life, how could that not have an effect on your behavior in this one, especially if you suddenly possess superhuman abilities? Sadly, they spend little time dissecting that topic, and instead turn the lab into Camp Crystal Lake, this despite the fact that there is a security guard upstairs. Yes, they blocked his video feed, but they are making a shit ton of noise down there. How has he not heard them? Yet another one of the movie’s stupid bits.

Olivia Wilde was an inspired choice to play the undead Zoe. She’s beautiful, but if you catch her face with the right lighting (the one thing the lighting department got right), she looks gaunt and alien-like, and Wilde seems like she’s having fun playing the bad girl. Duplass was hosed from the beginning, his character (obsessive workaholic, God complex) a cliché to the bitter end, likewise Glover as the friend-zoned Niko. Peters fares better as the goofy genius Clay, while Bolger (“The Spiderwick Chronicles”) never had a character to develop in the first place. That being said, the acting is not this movie’s biggest problem: the cheap scares are. It spends most of the time startling people courtesy of the blind side pan shot, even though the creepiest moments in the film are the exact opposite of that. Zoe’s resurrection, in particular, was chilling. The movie could have used more moments like that.

“The Lazarus Effect” is a wag-the-dog film, where the filmmakers had a good idea of how to end the movie, but didn’t put the required work into selling the setup. The irony is that it is usually the reverse, where a film comes up with a killer hook but has no idea how to end the story (several of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies come to mind). The good news is that “The Lazarus Effect 2” (and you better believe there will be one), if handled properly, could be a whole lot of fun. The bad news is that if they approach that script with the same tone deafness that they approached the original, they’re going to screw up that one as well.