Reanimation horror isn’t the most common sub-genre in modern horror filmmaking. We see far more ghosts in haunted houses and teen gorefests than animated corpses these days. But reanimation remains one of the oldest horror institutions. There’s something appealing about the “mad scientist” necessary within reanimation horror that stands apart from crazy killers in the woods or unhappy spirits stuck under floorboards. It feels more believable having some sort of scientific groundwork, even if that science is almost complete nonsense.
The Lazarus Effect (2015) is a modern reanimation horror that utilizes all the familiar filmmaking tropes that developed the genre. In a way, it’s the newest and oldest reanimation movie that exists. Hollywood horror loves to recycle its themes and concepts, and The Lazarus Effect is a hot and ready meal seasoned with every ingredient from the reanimation sub-genre's spice rack.
Reanimating a corpse isn’t something any random person can do. There has to be a scientist. And not just any scientist - a mad scientist. Someone who is too smart or too insane to be convinced that bringing a corpse back to life is a bad idea, even though it’s never been a good one. The typically male scientist often starts out with legitimate intentions, just as Frank (Mark Duplass) did in The Lazarus Effect. But for Frank, what started as research to help coma patients turned into a maniacal human experiment with a disregard for the consequences. He’s the film’s Herbert West, aka The Reanimator (1985), and his mad scientist-ness is so strongly rooted in classic tropes that his process is even activated using a giant wall-mounted switch. Not only is that a classic Frankenstein (1931)-era move, but it also ends up being exactly how Frank’s lover and co-scientist Zoe (Olivia Wilde) meets her demise. She forgot to ground herself by removing her engagement ring - a ring given to her by Frank - and cooks herself onto the laboratory floor.
If plain insanity or scientific ambition aren’t enough fuel for a mad scientist to reanimate the dead, love is right up there in second place. Frankenstein had a bride. Frankenhooker (1990) was reanimation in the name of love. Bringing people back in the name of love goes all the way back to The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). Heck, even Huey Lewis once went that route in a music video.
The Lazarus experiment had already complicated the relationship between Frank and Zoe. Their three-year engagement had no end in sight, and the work was to blame for their lingering lack of matrimony. When Zoe dies because of that very research, the mad scientist in Frank can think of no better solution than to immediately ramp up their clinical trials to human study, hook her up to the machine, and flip that big switch of life. He can't bear the idea of losing his woman. If only the Paul and Storm song “Live” had been playing in the background…
“Hard work and science
Are what I have to give
And all I’m asking in return
Is that you live.”
What makes Frank so certain the experiment will work on Zoey? Well, that’s another very important trope of reanimation films - the God complex. Every mad scientist feels the power of God, and Frank is no exception. The Lazarus Effect isn’t quiet about its Godly tones, starting with its title. For those who never pulled that little book out of a hotel nightstand and gave it a read, Lazarus was a fellow resurrected by Jesus a few days after his death.
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” - John 11:25-26
Funneling life back into a corpse is blasphemous. It’s absolute Jesus zone behavior. And it’s the essence of reanimation horror.
Frank and Zoe have a number of religious conversations prior to her death. Frank is a through-and-through scientist with an explanation for everything and a fiercely atheistic interpretation of life. Zoe respects the science, of course, but still believes there’s more beyond the veil. She wears a cross necklace and worries about redemption and the afterlife. Naturally, she’s the one who winds up as the embodiment of hell before the film’s end, complete with the burning flesh, dark inky eyes, and the sudden desire to murder everyone that completes the image.
That hellish transformation leads to another important theme of the genre: Reanimating corpses doesn’t work out. With the possible exception of Fred Gwynne’s Herman Munster, animated dead bodies are bad news. Religion aside, science aside, it’s purely unnatural to instill life in something that has died. Zombies aren’t charming.
Though there’s no telling exactly what happens to Zoe after she’s brought back in The Lazarus Effect, it’s obvious that some sort of hell followed her from death. She’s suddenly materializing generations worth of brain development over a few minutes time like a demonic Lucy (2014), has Carrie-esque (1976) powers of telekinesis, and can read people’s minds. Zoe is even able to project false images upon those around her, like when she forces research assistant Eva (Sara Bolger) into a childhood memory where Zoe caused some people to die in a fire that looked a lot like the burning hallway in Barton Fink (1991).
The Lazarus Effect takes all these classic reanimation tropes and puts them into an ultra-modern science lab in a high-end university, complete with very pretty 21-st century-looking actors for today's audiences. It's a standard Hollywood reinvention of things from the past, and doesn't miss any of the beats that define the sub-genre.