Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Olivia Wilde as Zoe
Directed by David Gelb
A group of scientists working at a university have discovered a serum that can possibly bring the dead back to life. When a horrible freak accident kills one of them, they make the decision to bring her back. That was a mistake.
(Note: There are possible spoilers in this review if you know nothing about the general plot from the film’s marketing.)
The premise behind The Lazarus Effect is going to sound familiar to anyone who’s been watching horror movies for any number of years, exploring the idea of bringing back the dead we’ve seen in the likes of Flatliners and the adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, while also finding a way to explore this territory in a more organic way.
The opening experiment to resurrect a pig is filmed in a way that might make you worry you’re in for another Blumhouse found-footage movie – the shots from the hallway security cameras might add to this worry as will the introduction of Sara Bolger’s Eva, who has been hired to video document the experiments of a group of college scientists. Scientists Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and Frank (Mark Duplass) happen to be in a romantic relationship, and there’s a casual nature to the way they run their lab except when it comes to their primary discovery, the Lazarus serum, which is ejected into test subject corpses hoping to bring them to life using thousands of volts of electricity.
They successfully bring a dog back to life and start observing it for bizarre behavior (and as one might expect, it delivers). When the company that funded their experiments is sold, the buyer shuts them down and takes all their research, giving them one last chance to recreate the dog experiment and film it for posterity, but this time, the experiment goes horribly wrong.
There’s something naturally creepy about the thought of bringing the dead back to life that puts the viewer on edge during the experiment scenes, although there are a few cheap scares thrown in for good measure. It may seem like an odd choice for David Gelb, best known for the foodie doc Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the dreams in this case being Zoe’s nightmares about a childhood fire that left her neighbors dead.
If you look at the poster for the movie (above right), then you probably can presume that Olivia Wilde’s character will take a dark turn sometime during the movie. Like Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, she starts using parts of her brain that allows for things like telepathy and telekinesis, although it’s not quite clear if she got these powers from the experiment or if she’s somehow tapped into some dark supernatural realm on. Either way, it’s not long before Zoe is getting angry at the useless humans around her and starts to eliminate them one by one as well as pulling them into her dreams. One can certainly draw comparisons between Zoe and horror fiends like Freddy Krueger, but her dark turn is handled in a far more grounded way even if their motivations are generally the same.
Gelb’s cast is solid enough to help elevate the material beyond typical modern-day horror films where naturalistic acting seems to be frowned upon. None of the actors have quite the range of Wilde, who effortlessly glides between a believable scientist and what ends up being the film’s primary antagonist, but Mark Duplass brings an air of levity to the film that keeps it from getting too serious, at least during the set-up. Anyone expecting Donald Glover from “Community” to offer any comic relief might be surprised that he’s playing a fairly serious and straight role, at least compared to Evan Peters’ as the lab’s token stoner. Sarah Bolger offers a nice counterpoint to Wilde as the other woman in the lab and helps to raise the stakes in the last act.
The Bottom Line:
As predictable as The Lazarus Effect may be, it’s a well-crafted and effective horror film that puts you on edge with its creepy premise and does its best to rise above familiar territory.