Appropriately enough for a horror-thriller about raising the dead, “The Lazarus Effect” has spent the past few years sitting on a shelf, developing quite a stench in the process. Completed back in 2013 and originally set for release via Lionsgate, the low-budget pic subsequently landed at Relativity, which just last year teamed with producing shingle Blumhouse to distribute the imaginative and unsettling “Oculus.” No such luck this time around, as “Lazarus” shamelessly steals from superior genre efforts and lacks any distinguishing traits beyond a wildly overqualified cast. Still, even a modest opening weekend will ensure a profit before toxic word of mouth kills this stinker for good.
As a follow-up to the heralded foodie documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” this is certainly an odd selection for director David Gelb; at the very least, it’s the strangest doc-to-horror left turn since Joe Berlinger’s “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.” But as with that notorious disappointment, the offbeat choice of helmer isn’t reflected in the anonymous final product (though “Lazarus” leading lady Olivia Wilde does nosh on sushi in one early scene).
For reasons never made entirely clear, romantically entangled scientific researchers Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Wilde) have spent several years at a California university getting closer and closer to their ultimate goal: resurrecting the dead. At least, that’s what Frank hopes to achieve by hooking up various deceased animals, including a pig and a dog, to an elaborate machine and injecting them with a fancy resuscitation serum. When the ongoing trials actually succeed in reanimating a departed canine, Frank is thrilled. Zoe is a little more conflicted, thanks to a strong dose of Catholic guilt and mysterious recurring nightmares from her childhood. It doesn’t help when she notices the undead pup isn’t exactly acting normal.
Meanwhile, the couple’s support staff — computer whiz Niko (Donald Glover), who nurses a crush on Zoe, pothead idea man Clay (Evan Peters) and newly hired videographer Ava (Sarah Bolger) — don’t seem particularly fazed by the fact that they’ve brought a formerly living creature back from the dead, though Clay has his reservations after a late night alone with the dog. The stakes soon escalate past the point of no return when a covert attempt to re-create the resurrection results in Zoe losing her life, and Frank taking extreme measures to bring her back.
That’s when “The Lazarus Effect” morphs from the kind of pseudo-intellectual science thriller that forces its cast to recite meaningless technical jargon in an attempt to sound smart into a full-blown horror movie forcing the same characters to act as dumb as humanly possible. As zombie Zoe develops crazy powers (telekinesis, mind reading, the ability to fully dilate her pupils at will), everyone including Frank just sits around waiting to see what happens next. The answer turns out to be a whole slew of horror tropes (one half expects “Flatliners”-era Kiefer Sutherland to show up ranting, “Our sins have come back in a physical form!”), but no genuine scares, and certainly nothing visceral enough to threaten the bloodless PG-13 rating.
Credited scribes Luke Dawson (“Shutter”) and Jeremy Slater (the upcoming “Fantastic Four” reboot) clearly aim to reimagine Frankenstein (down to the name of Duplass’ sorta-mad scientist), but the script is quite literally made up of recycled parts. A dash of “The Thing” here, a dollop of “The Fury” there — topped with cardboard characters and superficial treatment of Big Questions involving life and death, science and religion. It’s all deeply unsatisfying.
At least the actors valiantly labor to breathe life into the limp narrative. Even playing a vaguely villainous nerd, Duplass remains loose and natural, riffing his way through ludicrous exposition and bantering with the very game Wilde. She has by far the most intriguing role, taking Zoe from voice of reason to demonic hellbeast. Glover and Peters restrain too much of their natural charm, while Bolger is stuck playing damsel in distress.
Tech credits range from adequate to above average, most notably the special effects makeup employed on Wilde, but it’s a safe bet this won’t be a career highlight for anyone on either side of the camera.