THE BOOTLEG FILES: “EXPERIMENTS IN THE REVIVAL OF ORGANISMS” Image

BOOTLEG FILES 177: “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” (1940 Soviet offering about unusual medical experiments).

LAST SEEN: Available on several online sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: A public domain film with fairly sick imagery.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely, comrade!

In November 1943, a gathering of scientists at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel were audience to the first American presentation of one of the weirdest movies ever made. “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” was filmed in the Soviet Union in 1940 and it introduced the American scientific community to the work of Dr. Sergei S. Bryukhonenko at the U.S.S.R. Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy at Moscow.

Dr. Bryukhonenko’s work focused on the resuscitation of clinically dead organisms by use of a machine called the autojector. It might have been a cutting edge design for the Soviet Union in the 1940s, but by contemporary standards it looks like an unholy combination of water cooler, sewing machine and bagpipe. The experiments of the title were not conducted on humans, but rather on dogs – including the astonishing claim that the autojector could keep the severed head of a dog alive.

Viewed today, “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” is impossible to watch without realizing the film is nothing more than a blatant propaganda fraud. It’s a fascinating fraud, to be certain, but a fraud nonetheless.

The American version of “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” (which is the only edition available for viewing at this time) was narrated by the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, who appears briefly on-screen in a prologue. Haldane’s participation in this project has long raised (pardon the pun) red flags since he was a devoted member of Britain’s Communist Party at the time (he disassociated himself from the Kremlin crowd by 1950). And truth be told, the man was a bit of a nut who used himself for wacky medical experiments: a test on measuring the elevated levels of oxygen saturation resulted in his receiving crushed vertebrae while a spell in a decompression chamber resulted in perforated eardrums.

“Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” begins with rather quotidian views of the autojector at work. The machine’s tubes are seen pumping up what we’re told is a dog’s heart, and then the machine is used to pump up a dog’s lung. There is really nothing strange about this, as the autojector is being used as a primitive forerunner of the cardiopulmonary bypass pump that is commonplace in today’s hospitals.

But then things go thoroughly haywire. The film supposedly details how the autojector pumps oxygenated blood to the severed head of a decapitated dog, keeping the animal alive through mechanical means. The exact purpose served in keeping a decapitated head alive is not explained, and the shock of seeing a severed dog’s head on a table will clearly bother anyone who loves our furry canine friends.

But on closer examination, something is very wrong with this picture. At no time does the film show the autojector tubes connected into the dog’s head. The film uses animation to show how the machinery’s pumping of oxygenated blood would keep the head alive; the actual head is filmed in a very tight close-up and is positioned at an awkward angle, suggesting the dog’s body is hidden beneath the surface of the table.

The fraud is exposed with some outlandish tests to prove the dog’s head responds to test stimuli. A hammer is pounded on the table beside the head, causing the dog to rise in response to the disruption. But how could a head without connection to a neck suddenly adjust itself? The dog is then given a cotton swab with citric acid to sniff. The dog responds by licking opening its mouth and running its tongue along the front of its snout. While I acknowledge I am not a scientist and cannot make pronouncements based on medical data, I fail to see how an allegedly “dead” head can lick its lips.

After this demonstration, another dog is brought in for an additional experiment. It is placed on a table and all of its blood is drained from its body. After being declared dead, ten minutes pass before the autojector is switched on and new oxygenated blood is pumped back into its body. Faster than you can say “Auggie Doggie and Daddy Doggie,” the once-dead pooch is wagging its tail again.

The film concludes with a trio of happy dogs running about a lab. Haldane’s narration insists each of these dogs went through the blood draining experiment and are now happy, peppy pups.

Historical data confirms that Dr. Bryukhonenko’s work during the 1930s and 1940s was widely respected and had a great influence on the Soviet health care system (particularly in relation to open-heart surgery). But “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” clearly cannot be taken seriously as a presentation of medical facts. The severed head segment has achieved notoriety for its gross-out concept, but a careful viewing suggests that no dog had been harmed in the production of that sequence.

Likewise, the creative editing in the blood-draining segment makes it impossible to determine whether this was actually staged for the camera or if it was the result of sneaky cinematic trickery. The revived dog itself is only briefly seen after the experiment, and obviously no independent verification of the experiment was allowed by the Soviet authorities.

There is no recording of what the American scientists at November 1943’s premiere thought of the film, outside of this vague comment from the New York Times coverage of the screening: “The scientific audience thought this work might move many supposed biological impossibilities into the realm of the possible.” “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” does not appear to have ever been shown theatrically, and it is impossible to imagine the censors of that era would allow a movie with a severed dog’s head on a big screen.

The Cold War turned American opinion (medical and otherwise) against the Soviet Union, which made “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” an unwelcome movie for many years. It appears there was no copyright registered on this production, thus dooming it to public domain hell. But in the years after the end of the Cold War, the film found a new audience in movie lovers with a passion for nutty ephemeral films from distant decades. “Experiments in the Revival of Organisms” has enjoyed a new life as a bootlegged favorite in DVD collections and web sites devoted to freaky educational flicks.

Anyone who comes to this film looking for an offbeat amusement will get a sick treat. But for those seeking genuine scientific data – well, to employ an Arkansas aphorism, this dog don’t hunt!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    C. S. Lewis must have seen this before he wrote the novel _That Hideous Strength_, which has a character’s severed head revived. Lewis loved movies, both good and bad.