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‘The Lazarus Effect’: Resurrecting the past

by Cody Zwieg

The concept of bringing the dead back to life has created some classic, horrific films. From Frankenstein to Flatliners to The Walking Dead, the notion provides reverse wish-fulfillment that usually turns dark and becomes a cautionary tale.

I’ve been focusing on these ideas for the past few years, preparing to unleash The Lazarus Effect on audiences. Director David Gelb leads Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde and their team of research scientists into a thought-provoking, surreal and chilling exploration of what happens when we leave this life.

What would you do if you could bring a lost loved one back to life? When I read the script for what would become The Lazarus Effect, that central question stayed with me. It always existed in early drafts of our script, but we needed it to go further.

Behind the scenes, the team worked with the writers to make sure that the loss that led to resurrection had real impact. Otherwise, it didn’t matter. It’s our close, personal connections we have that make loss so difficult.

As the story evolved to focus on reclaiming a central character, we got closer to achieving that encounter. 

How can we bring back loved ones that have passed? A letter or photo takes us back to important moments. The right song can immediately recapture a memory of a special time.

We don’t have the concrete answers to know what comes after this life, but popular culture connects us and helps build our legacies.

They create reflections that keep us alive in the hearts and minds of loved ones long after we are gone.

When Mark and Olivia came on board, they were able to find great improvisational moments, natural and nuanced. We had zero rehearsal time, but the cast (Evan Peters, Donald Glover and Sarah Bolger) came together as a family. Peters brought an intense sense of humor; Glover, a somber, quiet longing; Bolger, a wide-eyed outsider’s perspective as she tries to fit in.

Gelb had just enough time each morning to work them through their scenes and help them build relationships and personal history. It’s the playing around, the quick glances, the shared jokes and love for certain games or opera arias and jazz music that made their characters come alive. Little by little, we could all relate to what these scientists were going through.

Our production design team had the challenge of making a cold research lab a “home” for our family of scientists. They achieved some of this by surrounding our characters with as many pop culture elements as possible. The Settlers of Catan and World of Warcraft games make a cameo, as does Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

While these are all background pieces, they enrich the world that we’re creating. I recall rolling my eyes when our director stressed the importance of having these pieces cleared so we could include them. From a production perspective, it might seem insignificant. But these details add to the impending doom and sense of loss in a way that can’t be described on the page. They add to the history in the world of this ensemble.

The most emotionally challenging day of shooting involved the loss of a character loved by the rest of the team. The tears we watched through the monitors felt real, the sense of loss palpable. The trust and camaraderie between the actors allowed them to go to some truly murky places.

In the best horror films, we explore the dark side of wish-fulfillment, the worst case scenario of the what if?. Sometimes chasing the memories and emotions of lost ones bring an end to the living (40 year spoiler alert – watch Don’t Look Now if you haven’t already). And of course, things go horribly wrong once a character is resurrected. The answer to the big question provides a cautionary tale.

May people enjoy the thrill of being scared by The Lazarus Effect. I also hope they remember their own loved ones, look inside themselves and think about that big what if? that the film provides.

Cody Zwieg

About Cody Zwieg

Cody Zwieg is a film producer whose credits include "The Last House on the Left," "The Hills Have Eyes" and "Lazarus." He's deeply proud of his South Dakota heritage and his massive board game collection.

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