At one point in The Lazarus Effect, Evan Peters (playing the lab’s resident stoner), does his best Dr. Frankenstein impression. “It’s alive!” he says, looking into the eyes of a dog his colleagues have managed to resurrect from the dead. Following this homage, David “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” Gelb’s new film contains elements we’ve seen before in films like Flatliners, Altered States, and Pet Sematary and patches them together into his own type of monster.
Populated with a hip cast that fully commit to their roles, Lazarus Effect follows a group of scientists who’ve discovered a serum that brings the dead back to life. Led by Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde, the team (that also includes Donald Glover and Sarah Bolger) go through various trial runs with animals. Their ultimate goal isn’t to technically resurrect the dead. They only wish to give doctors “more time” when treating coma patients whose hearts have stopped.
Gelb captures their trial experiments on pigs and dogs in disconcerting, extreme close-ups. After a few hiccups they reach a breakthrough, which opens the doors for the film’s discussion of morality and faith. Who the hell are they to raise the dead? And how dare an 80 minute horror movie starring Olivia Wilde address themes like Catholic guilt, the hereafter, and the morality of playing god!
But Gelb’s film does, which is one of reasons it’s so great. He’s got some heady ideas laid out on the screen here and the fact that he’s chosen horror as his philosophical outlet is great. The problem is that there’s so much he has to get across in 80 minutes that nothing is deeply explored.
The prime example is Olivia Wilde’s faith. Her character, Zoe suffered a traumatic experience at a young age that has crippled her with guilt ever since. Through trippy dream sequences we learn a bit about the event, but never enough that it gives the story much weight. The climax relies heavily on our investment in this event and Zoe’s troubled faith, but I never felt like the story brought me to that point where it had an effect on me. The whole final hour of horror is executed very well (with one top notch kill), though it does follow many conventional routes. For Gelb to jump from the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi to this film shows immense talent. It just didn’t transcend beyond a bunch of cool visuals, which considering the themes addressed, I’m sure it was meant to.
As you probably guessed by the trailer, Zoe winds up dead at one point and the team brings her back to life with the serum. What follows is one long night of hell in which Wilde transforms into one terrifying S.O.B. She absolutely nails Zoe’s shift from scientist to force of nature. It’s a helluva performance to watch. The rest of the cast is phenomenal as well, with Glover breaking out of his comedic mold and Duplass anchoring the entire cast.
The Lazarus Effect, despite its lack of impact and rushed themes, is a great film that proves even well-worn territory can feel fresh if it’s well-executed.