Death is so final. Permanent, everlasting, unavoidable black silence is a space that everyone eventually must enter, no matter how hard we fight to hang on. But what if there were a way to prolong life, a new way for science to put off God’s plan; immortality bought and sold to the highest bidder. What if we could bring someone back from the big sleep, to the land of the living? According to the bible, Jesus resurrected Lazarus a full four days after he died. A cold, stiff body entered that tomb, but a breathing, blinking, fully functional man walked out on his own two feet. Some call it the first zombie, some call it a miracle, and some people like scientists/power couple Frank and Zoe call it a possibility. The two have been perfecting their serum, the “Lazarus 5”, which they administer, along with electrical shocks, to hopefully bring life back to the quiet corpses that fill the morgue at their hospital. Right now, they’re working with canines, but they hope that with enough research and successful experiments, they’ll be able to perform the same operation on human beings. Little do they know, they’re about to get their wish.
The moment that Zoe, Frank, Niko, and the rest of their team achieve their goal should be a happy one, but unfortunately, their celebration is short lived when their boss announces that all of their research has been confiscated, due to a lack of results and an ever-growing budget, gone to waste, in her opinion. No matter how much Frank and Zoe try to argue that they’ve finally done it; they’ve brought a dead dog back to life, she refuses to listen. Before they even return to their headquarters, all of the hard work that they’ve put in the past few years is gone. Not one to back down, Frank argues that they’ll simply have to complete the procedure again, and film it, just like they did before. He reveals a hidden batch of bags filled with the Lazarus serum, and together, he and the group gather to prove their theory, once and for all. Everything’s going according to plan, until a freak accident leaves Zoe stone cold on the ground. She’s been electrocuted. and as she lies there, lifeless, Frank makes a bold decision. To everyone’s horror, he says that he’ll simply move the dog and put his wife on the table in its place, and resurrect her just as he did the animal before her. Don’t worry that the serum that’s supposed to dissipate once it hits the dog’s brain has hung around for days, the milky white substance floating around like old dairy inside his skull. Never mind the fact that the group has yet to even try to perform this experiment on humans. He wants his wife back, and in his grief he doesn’t care that what he brings back might not be Zoe at all. In fact, what he brings back might just bring hell with it.
The premise of The Lazarus Effect is a very brave and intriguing one. The idea that a person could be brought back to life though electric shocks and serum is smart, and could actually fit into the real world. Scientists have already shown that electric shocks can jolt animation into a lifeless corpse, as proven with frogs, so adding serum to the equation could possibly bring life back to a cadaver. Not only is this experiment well thought out and logical, but the film proposes a lot of interesting questions, like what happens when we die? Where do we go when we die? Why does DMT shoot through our systems right before we die? Should we extend life or even re-animate a corpse with scientific advances if we have the opportunity? And, of course, it brings up the ancient yet ever-looming debate of religion vs. science. The only problem is, the film fails to ever really answer or even explore these questions in depth. Once Zoe is re-animated. the story switches over from a science-fiction thriller to a straight possession tale, and it’s more than a little disappointing, since the first half held so much promise.
Despite the letdown and strange shift halfway through, The Lazarus Effect manages to hold interest in the story thanks to crisp, cool shots from director David Gelb, and strong performances from cast members Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Danny Glover, and Evan Peters. Wilde pulls off a frightening persona, but I wish that if the filmmakers had decided to go in a paranormal, Carrie-like direction, they would have brought out the big guns and really let her tear the place apart. There are some undoubtedly creepy moments, like when Zoe begins reading people’s minds and reciting their dialogue right along with them, but at times it feels like they’re holding back on the violence to obtain that PG-13 rating. I would have liked to see her really play with her powers, and show just how strong her telepathy truly is, since they were already headed in in more of the direction of a bloody supernatural slasher anyway. I’m also surprised that they didn’t take the opportunity to tie in the actual scripture of Lazarus a bit more, since they went as far as to name the movie after the bible verse. For instance, the serum is referred to as “Lazarus 5”, but if they had called it “Lazarus 11” instead, it could have provided a simple allusion to John 11, which is the text that tells the story of Lazarus. Also, since Zoe, the Catholic girl at heart, and her husband Frank, logic-based atheist, disagree on the purpose of DMT distributing though out the body immediately before death, why not have re-animated Zoe spout a few lines of scripture from the original text? It would have made her seem all the more ravenous and terrifying. Here’s just a sample: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11: 25). Of course, these are just examples, but it’s worth wondering why the writers didn’t bother to take advantage of an easy way to make the film more memorable.
The Lazarus Effect starts out logical with much depth, but ends on a much shallower note. Despite the fact that it fails to reach deeper levels, it makes for a pretty fun ride along the way. This is definitely a film that’s worth talking about, as it proposes many interesting questions and topics of debate, even if it doesn’t provide the most sound arguments for those debates. It’s unnerving, well shot, and with the dark, fantastical, Polanski-esque dream sequences, it provides some invigoratingly beautiful aesthetics. The Lazarus Effect is worth seeing, but just know that you’re in for more of a supernatural scare-fest than an analytical look at what waits for us after death.