The Lazarus Effect follows a small team of medical researches headed by husband and wife team Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde). There's also Niko (Donald Glover), the constantly-vaping Clay1, and a videographer named Eva2 who's just there to record the team's progress.
I don't remember what they were originally studying, but it doesn't matter--the important thing is that they've developed a serum which may jumpstart the dead back to life. Their first clinical success is on a dog named Rocky (Cato)4. Apparently these people have never seen Pet Semetary or Cujo, or they'd have chosen something smaller--toy poodles can get vicious, but they're easier to contain.
Rocky is...unstable. He climbs up on Zoe's bed and watches her menacingly while she sleeps, and left alone for a couple of minutes he breaks out of his cage and completely trashes a kitchen, including a bag of chips on the top shelf which he couldn't possibly have reached. The team gets as far as determining that his body is in better shape than it was before death and that his synapses are firing at a much higher rate than normal, but the Big Pharma company that owns the research comes in and confiscates everything before Rocky gets his chance to turn this into a killer dog movie.
An angry meeting with the dean of the university suggests to Frank that their experiments were being monitored much more closely than anybody realized. The team understands that they will receive no credit for the confiscated research, so they sneak into the lab at night to reproduce their experiment in the hopes of bringing it to the public's notice before the pharma company does. Zoe is electrocuted in the process, and Frank decides to make her their first human test subject. Everyone else is against this.
The living dead always come back broken. Some of them have no particular reasoning faculties (Night of the Living Dead), and some of them are extremely high-functioning but haunted by visions of The Beyond (Flatliners). Zoe's back, for the most part, but she's experiencing visions of an incident from her childhood, where the apartment building she lived in caught fire, and several residents died. This is her own, personal hell. Brain scans reveal an impossibly high level or neural activity, and she starts developing telepathic and telekinetic powers. She becomes aggressive, and the movie finally has its villain.
I found The Lazarus Effect to be pretty mediocre. A percentage scale is too granular, but I'm happy assigning 2/4 stars, or 2.5/5 stars, if you like. It's definitely a thumbs down, but it's on the higher end of the thumbs down side of the scale. The critics didn't much like The Lazarus Effect, and a common complaint is that it starts a lot of balls rolling, but never does anything interesting with them. I don't personally see much squandered potential here, but I think that's because I think this ground was covered well enough by Flatliners, which is another college-students-explore-near-death-expe
Speaking of the cast: I have no strong feelings about Mark Duplass, but it's worth pointing out that this is the first time I've seen him outside of a comedy. He's fine, and so is Olivia Wilde. They're both good enough actors who deserve to be in a better movie. Donald Glover left the sitcom Community around the time he signed on to be in this movie, and I wish he'd stuck with Community; he's wasted in the role of Niko, which anybody could have played. Director David Gelb is not untalented (I'd have said that anyway, but I just noticed from his resume that he made the beautiful documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi), but The Lazarus Effect is a lackluster screenplay to begin with, and he'd have had to take a great deal more editorial license to fix that.
Here's the trailer:
1 and 2 I have never really nailed down a formal, stylistic policy for these reviews3, but I usually only name the actors who play the biggest characters, or who I want to single out. Also, I link to the Wikipedia page of the movie the first time I mention its title, but after that I just italicize it. Sorry, Clay and Eva.
3 This should be obvious--anyone who'd been thinking about formal style would definitely not have combined 1 and 2 into the same footnote.
4 I won't insult the rest of the cast by saying that Cato is the best actor in the bunch, but he's impressively good at acting dead.