For your consideration, I present to you the bizarre but true story of a real doctor who filmed himself (along with his real assistants) reviving a real(ly) dead dog, and had these real scenes incorporated into a real movie starring himself, that was produced by a real movie production company.

The movie was a 1935 film called Life Returns, produced by Universal Pictures (in association with Scienart Pictures), and starred, among other people, the doctor in question: Dr. Robert E. Cornish.  The movie was no work of art, even by 1930’s standards, but the story is a fascinating glimpse into what amounted to early resuscitation and resurrection, the attempt to cheat death, and our knowledge of that fine line between life and death.

Dr. Robert Cornish, inspired by the medical revelations coming out of Russia at this time, got him started down the road to the resuscitation of the dead or near-dead.  Much of what was produced by Russia and USA were in fact propaganda films used to allay soldiers’ fear of death on the battlefield, but in most cases, were in fact real experiments (done mostly on dogs, re-created for propaganda purposes).

There were several especially graphic films that came out of Russia at the time, that showed the advancement of resuscitation, illustrated by removing a dogs head, keeping it alive using a machine Dr. Sergei Brukhonenko created called the autoinjecktor, which would provide oxygen and oxygenated blood to the head, keeping it alive.  Many of these experiments were met with skepticism.  Skeptics (and I am included in that lot) pointed out flaws in the video — like the dog’s head moving on the table, despite the fact that it is detached from the body, so would be incapable of moving its head.  There were also demonstrations of lungs and hearts functioning outside the body.  Regardless, it is believed that Dr. Brukhonenko did in fact perform these experiments on dogs, and that the films seen on the internet are in fact recreations of a real event.  It is in fact important to point out that Dr. Brukhonenko was not a quack, but a very real doctor who has been credited with developing the first heart/lung machine that in a modern version, is still used today.  I believe he performed these resuscitation experiments, with varying degrees of success, and the recreation films were used by Russia during that time for propaganda purposes.

Below is the Russian, Dr. Brukhonenko film of his experiments.  Please note, some of these images can be somewhat disturbing to some.

Not to be one-upped by Russia, a Dr. Robert Cornish became fascinated with resuscitation and resurrection (in real life), and started to do experiments in the US.  His methods of promoting his work involved approaching a film studio, and promoting his experiments within the confines of a fictional story.  Today, it would likely de-legitimize the film of his experiments (enter more skepticism), but the film industry was new, and in many ways used to promote and create propaganda for the Second World War.  These promo films often played at the beginning of feature films in theatres, and was used to help sell war bonds and recruit solders.  I believe Cornish felt that creating a full length feature film of his work would really drive his message home, and the importance of what he was experimenting with.

So he created a feature length film called Life Returns and managed to to get Universal Pictures on board.  The movie is a weird combination of a boy and his dog, his father– a struggling doctor (played by Onslow Stevens), Robert Cornish playing himself, and the rough life of the times.  The boy’s dog (spoiler alert) gets captured by the town dog catcher, and is gassed. The miserable boy, devastated by his dog’s death, manages to convince his father and Dr. Robert Cornish to try and revive his dog.  This is where it gets quite bizarre.  The last part of the movie, according to Dr. Robert Cornish, is actual footage of him and his team working to revive the animal, which they succeed in doing.  There is a subtle change in the look of the film at this point.  The audio and video are somewhat better than the rest of the film, so it really does appear to be segments filmed independently of the motion picture itself.

The film starts with the following statement:


The actual experiment of bringing the dead back to life, which is part of the motion picture “Life Returns”, was performed by myself and staff on May 22, 1934 at 11:45 P.M. in Berkeley, California.

This part of the picture was originally taken to retain a permanent scientific  record of our experiment.

Everything shown is absolutely real.  The animal was unquestionably and actually dead, and was brought back to life.

May I offer my thanks to my assistants, Mario Margutti, William Black, Ralph Celmer and and RodericKrider, who are shown carrying out their respective parts.

Respectfully submitted,

Dr. Robert E. Cornish

Below is the entire movie, Life Returns (now in public domain).  You will notice that Universal Pictures did not put their name anywhere on the film, because they felt that it was so atrocious.  They felt it was so bad that they also did not use their standard methods of distribution and promotion, which turned into a lawsuit.  It got banned by the British Board of Film Censors for some bizarre reason.  I don’t believe it deserves that attribute.  If you don’t want to sit through the entire movie just to watch the surgery scene, skip ahead to 48:24.  Watch to the end of the film, as there are some cuts interspersed during the operation.

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