The Lazarus Effect's Empathetic Brand of Resurrection Horror

The low-budget, science-experiment-gone-wrong film explores the nightmare of coming back to life from the perspective of Zoe (Olivia Wilde), who's revived by her associates.

Medical journals have documented at least a few dozen cases of people who died and then, somehow, came back to life. The catchier term for this phenomenon is the "Lazarus syndrome," so named for the man raised from the dead by Jesus in Christian teaching—divine proof of God's dominion over life and death.

But in the new horror film The Lazarus Effect, this kind of reanimation is orchestrated by humans with disastrous consequences. The movie, produced by the same studio that made low-budget horror hits like the Paranormal Activity franchise and Insidious, is one of a number of films to explore the phenomenon of people brought back from the dead, but it's rare in that it does so, fleetingly, from the subject's perspective. Most supernatural stories about "resurrection" feature zombies or ghosts or other beings that aren't, strictly speaking, alive, and proper undead horror stories tend to focus more on the alarming experience of witnessing the phenomenon from the outside.

The Lazarus Effect, on the other hand, has (short-lived) empathy for its undead character. In the film, a group of scientists bring a dog back to life with the help of a special serum injected into the brain and stimulated by electricity. When a trial run goes wrong, one of the scientists Zoe (Olivia Wilde) dies and is later revived. But strange things begin happening to her—she has visions of a childhood nightmare, she can move objects with her mind, and, this being a horror film, she's possessed by the sudden desire to murder everyone around her.

Soon, she can hear her colleagues (Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Donald Glover) thinking things like, "That isn't really Zoe," "Something's not right with her," and, "We should never have brought her back." And when she becomes demonic and violent, the film suggests it's partly a consequence of feeling alienated and alone. The movie itself, it should be noted, is a non-frightening, overly ambitious mess, though there are flashes of excellence from David Gelb, who also directed the acclaimed documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. But it does a fine job of conjuring up Zoe's paranoia and ultimately succeeds at being a cautionary tale against scientific hubris.

Perhaps the best recent on-screen, psychological exploration of what it's like to literally come back to life is the French television drama The Returned (Les Revenants), in which a small Alpine town is forced to grapple with the inexplicable return of several people who had died in over the span of decades. The supernatural-horror show follows not only the families and friends of the returned, but also the reanimated themselves, who have no memory of how they died or what it was like when they were dead. "Do I scare you? I scare myself," says one young character who, after meeting her twin again, breaks down into tears when her sister panics at the sight of her.

So many reanimation stories focus on the fear, confusion, and terror experienced by the still-living, but tales like the ones told by The Returned and to a lesser degree (and with less beauty and sophistication) The Lazarus Effect focus on the interior lives of the risen themselves. It's the difference between the sci-fi film Them!, where characters witness the improbable scourge of a horde of giant ants, and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, told from the view of Gregor as he slowly becomes a giant insect-like creature.

So why does this shift in perspective matter? Going inside the mind of the resurrected, or the person experiencing supernatural phenomena, opens the chance for less hackneyed, more psychologically resonant storytelling. It also taps into the anxiety associated with nature-defying technologies such as cloning, genetic engineering, bionic prosthetics, all of which in some way challenge, or threaten to broaden, the definition of what's "human." Naturally, when the division between life and death is blurred, questions of ethics arise. The Lazarus Effect and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein show how the stakes are raised when human agency is involved, and opinions tend to bifurcate along the lines of science (and rallying cries of “Progress!”) and religion (and the phrase “playing God”). “If we’re going to be asking big questions, we have to be ready for the answers,” Zoe says early on in the film. Of course, The Lazarus Effect (whose action is mostly derived from Zoe menacingly turning the lights on and off and appearing in different parts of the room) doesn't really answer those questions.

As an understated, minimal-gore, un-campy film The Lazarus Effect has the chance to do something different than its resurrection-horror predecessors like Re-Animator, Flatliners, and Pet Sematary. It feints in the direction of the gray, unknowable area between science and spirituality, only to indulge in some bad special effects and a climax that has some of The Descent's claustrophobia but none of the terror. Given the low-budget film's bottle-episode feel, horror fans could've gotten extra mileage out of a disorienting and original psychological treatment. But for viewers intrigued but unsatisfied by the film's brief half-hour inside Zoe's unraveling mind, there's always The Returned. The show's haunting first season is on Netflix, and it's wrapping production of season two this month in preparation for a late-2015 debut.