The back cover synopsis, the artwork, and even the first ten minutes of "Serum" hint heavily at the film being a respectable attempt at recapturing the insane glory of Stuart Gordon's classic "Re-Animator" on an indie filmmaker's micro-budget. The initial set-up gives us an arrogant medical research scientist, Dr. K (David H. Hickey), obsessively working on a rejuvenation serum that can make the crippled walk but has the unfortunate side-effect of turning them into crazed, flesh-hungry killers with puffy pulsating foreheads. This, of course, is just a minor setback. If only he could get more funds to continue the research, he'd soon have that little problem sorted. However, the pharmaceutical company who've thus far paid for the private laboratory (patrolled by beefy gym-bunny security guard types in black t-shirts), now want to close the place down completely so the doc has to go cap in hand to his rich brother, who's less than enthusiastic about the whole idea.
Writer and director Steve Franke has at least here put together a flick that looks half decent. The production values are sufficient for this to be able to pass muster as a mid-afternoon movie of the week if pushed. Unfortunately, a great deal of the content feels similarly bland, despite desultory bouts of nudity and brief gore. The first forty minutes are built around the unremarkable romantic travails of Dr. K's nephew (the rich brother's son) Eddie (Derek Phillips), in the kind of sickly, poorly rendered melodrama one would have expected from a mid-eighties episode of "Falcon Crest" but not from an energetic, comic-book, body horror joy ride, which is what this should have been.
Eddie is heading for medical school like his father and uncle before him; he's also pining for his childhood sweetheart Sarah (Elizabeth Cardenas), despite ending their relationship himself a few months earlier. Not even the nude sunbathing of his busty next-door-neighbour can lift his spirits, and he's made even more distraught when he learns that Sarah is now dating a local meathead called Trey (David Ford). Eddie's also constantly at loggerheads with his stepmom, Norma (played by a wooden Shawn Kurz) a snide, gold digging trophy wife who's only interested in her decent surgeon husband's bank account.
The film spends literally the majority of its running time on this kind of stuff: Eddie's best pal gets into debt to pay for his vile girlfriend's boob job, only to have her cheat on him -- again with the rampant Trey character. Eddie's dad tries to help him get back together with Sarah and invites her to an uncomfortable dinner party along with the hissy wife Norma, the busty next door neighbour, and his brother, Dr. K. If this much time is to be spent on such 'relationship' soap opera issues, we at least have the right to expect a massive payoff to make up for it, but, although Franke's direction seems proficient enough in this bland first half, once the film's horror element (rather reluctantly) kicks in, the entire thing falls to pieces astonishingly quickly. So comprehensively cack-handed is it that it almost feels like somebody else must have taken over control of the directorial reins, a small monkey perhaps?
After Eddie is knocked down in a hit-and-run accident (we assume it's the vengeful Trey getting payback for a bar room humiliation, but actually this is never confirmed and becomes a loose end, never referred to again), Dr. K persuades Eddie's dad to let him look after the crippled and comatose boy back at his private research facility. After deciding that his serum needs brain fluid as a delivery agent for it true effects to manifest without side effects -- this is going to rectify all the previous problems apparently -- he gets his devoted morgue attendant assistant to lure a hooker to the clinic at night, and in the one scene of the film that comes at least somewhere near capturing the crazy bad-taste humour of "Re-Animator", Dr. K tries to reassure the terrified young prostitute when she wakes -- shaven headed and restrained on a gurney in his lab -- saying: 'I have a small procedure to perform on your head; you might feel a slight discomfort, but then, I promise, you won't feel anything at all'; whereupon he buzz-saw's off the top of her skull, sending fountains of blood splashing across the room!
Off course the resulting procedure performed on Eddie has exactly the same effect as before, turning the once urbane and handsome young medical student into a snarling, brain-munching monster, ripe for a killing rampage across town. But it's from here on that the film falls apart. After sticking with it throughout the boring build-up, you'd expect more than a series of disjointed shots of Eddie killing half the cast in scene after scene of poorly handled splatter. The first structural mistake comes when what one would assume to be the main character -- the obsessive doctor K -- becomes the first of Eddie's victims! Eddie changes back to normal long enough to go visit his girlfriend, who notices him through the window of the burger bar where she's a waitress; but then the pulsating forehead takes over again and Eddie scurries off to kill his stepmother -- not via the usual throat ripping and brain-munching method, but, oddly, by clouting her on the head with a heavy mallet! It seems the film is going down the time honoured Jekyll and Hyde route, but there is no purpose in having Eddie occasionally change back into his normal handsome self other than providing another opportunity of watching those Scanner-style inflating head effects again; there is certainly no progression of the story, which simply stops dead in its tracks. Various characters (Eddie's dad and girlfriend) wander about to no avail, the pace begins to slacken; there is a pointless police investigation of Norma's murder (which allows Eddie's dad to figure out that it is his son who is culprit, when he find's the valuable watch he gave him at the start of the film discarded near his wife's corpse), and after a lot of very tedious wandering about by a variety of boring characters, and a few more mishandled kills, things wind up at last at a college student party where Eddie's best friend, the loathsome Trey, and his new girlfriend are all conveniently placed to provide a laughably weak attempt at a climactic bloodbath. By this time, what was once a fairly assured style has degenerated to Ed Wood levels of ineptitude and the rushed conclusion is made no more satisfying by 'shock' coda that holds out the unappealing prospect of a sequel.
"Serum" is another release on the new UK label Brain Damage Films and is presented in fairly decent non-anamorphic widescreen with the usual six trailers for the other Brain Damage titles.