Movies about reanimating corpses have run the quality gamut from James Whale’s “Frankenstein” to Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” “The Lazarus Effect” falls somewhere in the middle of the pack—it’s a far cheaper cousin to “Flatliners” that, thanks to the better-than-average cast, is reasonably engaging for an hour or so before deteriorating badly in a mayhem-filled finale. It will probably come across a lot better on the small screen than it does in a megaplex, and you’d be best off waiting until you can see it there.
Directed by David Gelb, in an interesting turn from his well-received documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the picture stars Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde as Frank and Zoe, romantically attached researchers at a Berkeley university who are leading a four-member team—the other regulars being Evan Peters’ Clay and Donald Glover’s Niko—in experiments that have been ongoing for years. Originally the focus was on end-of-life issues, but it morphed into life-after-death ones when their work resulted in a serum that might just revive corpses. When they begin testing it—in conjunction with electrical shocks—on a deceased dog named Rocky, they call in winsome young coed Eva (Sarah Bolger), a videographer, to record the trials for posterity.
It’s not long before Rocky jolts back to life in the first of the movie’s many “gotcha” moments; but the canine soon begins showing signs of strange, threatening behavior. It’s at that point that the school’s administration intervenes, turning the results over to a Big Pharma firm whose representative turns out to be none other than Ray Wise, who gets to bare his shark-like grin in a cameo of thirty seconds or so before disappearing. So our team decides to sneak into the now-shuttered lab and replicate their experiment on Rocky with another animal. Unfortunately, in the course of the effort Zoe is electrocuted, and Frank insists on trying to revive her instead of the dog. The prospective Bride of Frank does in fact return from the nether regions, but as changed as Rocky was. She’s got telekinetic powers, can read minds and grows increasingly hostile as she’s haunted by a persistent dream involving a fire she was trapped in as a child. Much violence against her fellow researchers ensues, although the blood spillage is relatively mild and most of the deaths will probably seem pretty tame to gore-minded devotees of the horror genre. But at least one offers something I doubt anyone has seen before: death by e-cigarette. You have to credit innovation wherever you find it.
Gelb directs this hokum well enough, and the cast is certainly better than what one ordinarily encounters in such low-budget genre material. Duplass is his usual affable self, and though Wilde has to engage in a lot of mad staring and scowling in the latter stages—encumbered by some black eye makeup that must have been uncomfortable—she mostly retains her dignity. Both Peters and Glover are less irritating than their stock roles might have been in lesser hands, and even Bolger keeps the obligatory damsel-in-distress part less obnoxious you might expect. As for Wise, one has to be pleased that his screen time is so modest.
So is the physical production, which reflects the picture’s obvious shoestring budget. But you have to admire what the craft team—cinematographer Michael Fimognari, production designer Melanie Paizis-Jones, art directors Hunter Brown and Justin Trask and set decorator Karuna Karmarkar—have accomplished with such meager resources. Editor Michael N. Knue has trimmed the footage down to roughly eighty minutes of actual narrative, which at least keeps it from running on interminably, and Sarah Schachner’s background score does its best to drum up excitement, with sporadic success. But all their contributions are in the service of a script that frankly lacks any creativity.
There’s an in-joke near the start of the picture, when Zoe and Niko—who’s clearly infatuated with her—share a meal that refers to Gelb’s documentary. “Thank you for the sushi,” Zoe tells him. Many of us were in fact thankful for “Sushi.” But it’s doubtful that anyone will ever be thankful for “The Lazarus Effect.”