‘The Lazarus Effect’ and the consequences of cheating death

One of the recurring themes of the horror movie genre is the exploration of attempts to cheat death. Zombies seem to have stumbled upon their own solution to this enduring issue,  although the side-effects are yucky. The “Final Destination” series of movies proved that when people try to alter their sealed fate, death just comes up with another creative way of carrying out its master plan.

Using the research lab to find ways of postponing a visit by the Grim Reaper is always a ripe theme for the “science gone bad” element of horror and science fiction films.

The latest movie to deal with laboratory experiments designed to reverse death is “The Lazarus Effect,” which starts out promising but eventually derails.

“Lazarus” has a similar set up as “Deep Blue Sea” in that a driven group of scientists and lab assistants are pushing the envelope on experimentation in hopes of discovering cures or ways to stall the devastating effects of diseases. Their efforts soon yield terrible results they are not expecting.

In “The Lazarus Effect,” Frank (Mark Duplass) and his co-researcher and fiancee Zoe (Olivia Wilde), financed by a grant and based at a university campus, have come up with a serum they hope can revive recently deceased people and provide a second chance at life.

Assisted by Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), with college student Eva (Sarah Bolger) serving as a videographer, Frank and Zoe take the next step — an unsanctioned test of injecting the serum into a dead dog.

Initially the experiment appears to be a failure, but suddenly the dog, named Rocky, jumps to life. Immediately, however, unforeseen things crop up. Poor Rocky seems to have developed a personality disorder, one minute docilely lying around, the next growling and in pre-attack mode, leading Zoe to make the most astute observation in the movie: Maybe Rocky was snatched from doggie heaven and is not happy about it.

A nonsensical side plot is that the university officials go after Frank upon learning about his experimenting on the dog, stating that was not approved when the grant was issued. Say what? How did these people think this serum would be effective if not tested on actual biological organisms? Because of this violation of the grant contract, all of the project data is seized.

This plot device is used as supposed  motivation for Frank and Zoe to continue the tests, as if seeing poor Rocky engaged in schizophrenic behavior, going from Benji to Cujo and back, is not enough to prompt more experiments.

Thus another dog is brought out for another test. But this time something goes wrong and Zoe is electrocuted. Well, shades of “Re-Animator,” as Frank, rendered crazed by Zoe’s death, decides to inject the serum onto her.

Zoe is revived, but like Rocky, her brain’s neural activity is in overdrive.

At this point, “The Lazarus Effect” takes a weird turn. The screenplay, by Luke Dawson (“Shutter”) and Jeremy Slater, goes with a premise that Zoe’s now super-powered brain can turn her into a person that is a mix of Carrie White (telekinesis), Freddie Krueger (dream invasions), mind readers and demonic possession.

While this ramps up the terror aspect of the movie, it does so at the expense of what could have been a chilling psychological thriller and a provocative look at the consequences of mankind trying to alter nature’s laws. Instead it turns into a puzzling potpourri of mayhem with an ending that is ominous but ultimately silly.

Character development is minimal. Only Zoe has a back story, haunted by nightmares that stemmed from a tragedy she endured as a child. Frank is seen as a man so driven in his research it isn’t until he almost loses Zoe that his passion for her surfaces. The other three characters are just typical potential victims once the violence starts.

While “The Lazarous Effect” uses all the tools to provide some scary moments, it soon spins out of control. The filmmakers might have had a better movie if they had just focused on the poor dog Rocky.

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