‘Back to Life’: what’s a pet’s soul II soul?

What happens when animals return from the dead?

By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: A dog becomes a test subject for a neurotransmitter stimulant in “The Lazarus Effect”

I need to start off by admitting that I am not much of a pet guy. I had fish for a hot minute as a kid, took care of a baby chick for close to a week after bringing the little cutie home from a science-oriented summer camp, and I have volunteered to cat and dog sit for friends back in the day. I’m fine with other people’s pets. Everything’s copacetic as long as someone else is feeding them and cleaning up their poop, because that’s a never-ending job, one of those gigs I’m not interested in signing up for. I’m just here to pat a head and scratch a belly for a minute to establish my credibility as a friendly guy.

But while my best friend may not be of the canine (or other non-human) variety, that doesn’t mean I don’t, from time to time, pause to consider the fates of my animal brethren. Most recently, I found myself thoroughly distracted during the screening of “The Lazarus Effect” with the plight of a test subject in the film. While we all certainly appreciate the miracles of science and technology, let’s be honest, we don’t waste much time wondering or worrying about the non-human subjects that make the ultimate sacrifices for our general (and perceived greater) well being, but that is exactly what was on my mind as I watched the action unfolding before my eyes.

Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) lead a team of medical researchers seeking to develop a neurotransmitter stimulant that can revive the recently deceased, which means that before the inevitable human trial on one of the unlucky team members there has to be a non-human test subject – cue up man’s best friend. A big loveable mug with soulful eyes and all the misguided trust of an hour-old pup finds himself strapped down on a cold table with wires taped all over its poor little snout. The other team members – Evan Peters and Donald Glover – scurry around prepping equipment and keeping an eye on the scientific readings while a camera operator (Sara Bolger) documents the process, but my attention never left the dog.

It was no surprise, despite director David Gelb’s best/worst efforts to make us jump, when the dog lunged forward, narrowly missing a chance to nip off a bit of a team member’s face.

It lives! It lives! Frankenstein’s puppy lives again, right?

Well, what exactly does that mean? Yes, the formula stimulates brain activity in a recently dead creature, but as the team soon discovers, the jumpstart doesn’t level off; it actually continues to show increases, long after the initial expectancy period. This was no mere re-visitation of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary.” What we have here is more along the lines of last year’s drug-induced brain scrambling action movie “Lucy.” Other areas of the brain are activated and begin working in unison in ways never before seen.

The dog’s dilemma is only briefly highlighted, barely explored enough to tease us with the potential that is to come when the serum is used on Zoe, who gets electrocuted while attempting to replicate the results with another canine subject. The more curious aspect of the story for me though was what happens in the mind of that first dog. If he were now able to use more of his brain at once, what would he want out of life?

Wouldn’t it have been cool to imagine a world where a dog doesn’t have to be man’s best friend (or better yet, doesn’t want to be stuck slavishly following some dumb human around fetching sticks and balls)? Who cares about the potential horrors humans might inflict upon one another after returning from the dead? What could we learn from a dog that’s been on the other side and made his way back to life?

I found myself wanting a “Planet of the Dogs” type scenario, where our number one pets figure out how to truly become the top dogs on the animal pyramid. I bet they wouldn’t waste time and resources on creating skyscraping icons and monuments to themselves like humans. In the end, I was just hoping that there might be a few dogs like me, who didn’t care for the idea of turning humans into pets for their own personal amusement. Now that’s my kind of kindred soul.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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T.T. Stern-Enzi
Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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