It’s October once again, and our annual celebration of all things spooky: Vampires, skeletons, ghosts, witches, political lobbyists, and everything else that lurks in the shadows under the midnight moon. But there’s nothing to celebrate about the troubled times we live in: democracy is under siege worldwide, the climate is changing for the worse, and a virus is running rampant that causes some people to go mad and attack others for the most trivial of reasons. In light of all these troubles, I thought, in spirit of the season, why not take some time to unwind by watching a movie series about a virus running rampant that causes people to go mad and attack others, eventually destroying civilization and bringing humanity to its knees? The series of which I speak is the long-running, seemingly undead saga of ‘Resident Evil.’
Ever since the introduction of the original Resident Evil on the Playstation in 1995, the series has gone on to encompass 28 games (!), several novels, action figures, and even a freaking restaurant. It’s not surprising that a movie adaptation would eventually come along, and we got such an adaptation with the Paul W.S. Anderson series that ran from 2002 to 2016. While a critical failure, the series was a financial success (they remain the highest-grossing zombie movie series in history), which means that they must have been doing something well. That’s why we’re going to dive into all six films and see if we can discover just what those things are.
Much like my previous analysis of Friday the 13th, the Matrix fight scenes, and the Jaws series, we’ll be taking a look at each movie and seeing what they do well, and what could have used some improvement. And once we reach the end, we’ll see what the series accomplished and what lessons it can offer writers. So without further ado, let’s dive into the world of movies about video game zombies. We’ll start at the beginning, with the simply-named, ‘Resident Evil.’
Released in 2002, the movie follows a group of heavily armed Umbrella soldiers and a lady in skimpy clothes as they infiltrate the Hive, an underground research facility where a killer virus has broken loose and turned the people inside into bloodthirsty zombies, hideous monsters, and other icky horrors that our heroes must fight in order to escape.
What does the film do well?
It has an effective horror location
Any self-respecting horror story has its characters eventually stuck in an isolated, out-of-the-way location where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get help, forcing the characters to rely on their wits and each other. ‘Resident Evil’ is an interesting variation of this: the film takes place almost entirely within the Hive, an underground research facility located beneath a major metropolitan area. This serves a dual purpose: It makes it so that the characters are so close to help, but are still cut off, and since the facility is deep underground, they can’t just jump out of a window, run out through the main door, or otherwise easily escape. Worse still, if the virus breaks free, everyone the surface will suffer the same fate as the poor souls who have been transformed into undead ghouls.
It has an effective ticking clock
One of the best ways to keep a story moving is to have a ticking clock, something bad that will occur if the protagonists don’t accomplish their goals in time. ‘Resident Evil’ features a particularly effective one: Alice and the other security forces heading into the Hive have to get back out or they’ll be trapped inside when the Hive is permanently sealed. That’s a good incentive to keep moving and ensure that the story does, too.
It has a great psychological death scene
‘Resident Evil’ gets off to a good start by having a bunch of innocent workers die during the initial virus outbreak, most by being gassed, some by being dropped to their death in an elevator, and one poor lady getting her head smashed into goo. It’s all suitably unnerving, but I think the most effective part takes place in a sealed lab.
There, three workers realize that, because the lab is sealed, the water pouring in has nowhere to go. If they don’t find a way out, they’ll drown. Later, when Alice and the soldiers pass through the lab area, we learn that the workers did indeed drown.
The other deaths in the opening may be more graphic, visceral, and direct, but for my money this is the most unnerving death scene of the film. It taps into the fear of facing a horrible, painful death and not being able to do anything about it. Worse still, it’s not a quick death: you would have plenty of time to watch the water slowly rise, covering your knees, then your waist, then your chest, and shoulders, until there’s only a few inches of space left for you to breathe… and then there would be nothing. And all the while you’re trying to cut your way out with an axe, only to realize that there’s no way out. You’re going to drown, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s a terrifying thought, and a perfect example of how horror is more than just decapitations and buckets of blood being thrown all over the screen: It’s about suffering and being helpless to stop it.
It has an awesome deathtrap
If the James Bond and SAW series have proven anything over the years, it’s that people get a kick out of elaborate deathtraps, and ‘Resident Evil’ features a particularly infamous one: the laser hallway.
This scene is a doozy because it’s so simple, yet devastatingly effective: our operatives are trapped inside a tight, confined space with nowhere to hide, and their only hope to survive is to dodge the lasers until the system is shut down. But the lasers’ path is unpredictable and constantly changing, culminating with an inescapable grid that chops One into bite-sized pieces.
Yet, like all great traps, it is possible to survive. The people facing it have a chance if they’re fast, flexible, and have taken plenty of Zumba classes, but messing up just once means losing body parts if you’re lucky, or death if you’re not. It’s simple, effective, and memorable, so much so that even the Resident Evil video games featured a homage to it.
It has a villain doing the wrong thing for very justifiable reasons
While Alice and the Umbrella soldiers have to deal with zombies, zombie dogs, a licker, and the man who is ultimately responsible for starting the outbreak in the first place (for money, of course), their main adversary is the Red Queen, the AI in charge of running the Hive. But while it is responsible for killing a few hundred workers and researchers, it was not done out of malice: The Red Queen, in order to prevent the highly contagious T-Virus from escaping the Hive and reaching the surface, decided that killing everyone to keep them from escaping was the best course of action in prevent a planetary pandemic. And considering what happens in the later films, the Queen’s logic is dark, but understandable: Kill a few hundred to prevent humanity being brought to the edge of extinction.
The very best villains are the ones that make audiences ponder what they would do in their place, making them more memorable than the routine, ‘kill ‘em all for money/power/the evulz/etc.’ villains we see so often. It’s hard to beat a villain who relies on logic instead of malice and does horrific things for the right reasons (and is even willing to let Alice and the others escape if they kill the one infected member of their group).
It features a great cliffhanger ending
As is so often the case in action-horror movies, only a few people make it out alive at the end (Alice and Matt) before the Hive is finally sealed. But the movie doesn’t end there: the true ending finds Alice waking up in a hospital and emerging into an abandoned Raccoon City. There’s no help coming, no rescue party, and all Alice has is a single shotgun to face off against the unseen armies of the undead. Even worse is the knowledge that Matt is being put into the Nemesis program, a great tease for fans of the game as to who will appear in the next film. And while it’s always risky to end a movie on a cliffhanger (there’s no guarantee you’re going to get that sequel), this one is terrific, leaving viewers imagining what’s going to happen next in a world that’s on the brink of the apocalypse.
What could the story have done better?
It could have been much more faithful to the games
The biggest flaw with ‘Resident Evil’ is that it has almost nothing to do with the game it’s based off of. While the main elements are here (a team of trained operatives, a mansion, zombies, a licker, and the Umbrella Corporation), none of the characters from the game appear, and we have a plot that bears little resemblance to the source material, a massive disappointment for anyone who hoped to see Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, and Barry Burton’s Jill Sandwich jokes.
When a book, a video game, or other property gets adapted into a film, fans of those properties expect to see the story and characters brought to life on the big screen, and ‘Resident Evil’s lack of faithfulness to the source material leaves it feeling like a In-Name-Only adaptation designed to deprive fans of their cash without giving them what they were expecting.
There are too many side characters
‘Resident Evil’ features the undead horse-trope of ‘large group of individuals go through a horror movie where 80% of them exist to die horribly.’ While there are plenty of deaths to satisfy horror fans, those deaths would have much more impact if we got time to know more of the soldiers, giving their deaths more emotional weight. As with so many other films of this type, it might have been better to have only a handful of characters instead of a lot.
It has a cliffhanger ending
The biggest risk of having a cliffhanger ending is that, unless you’re doing an installment of a major, pre-established franchise or already filming the sequel, a sequel is not guaranteed. People may just not go see the movie, the hoped-for profits never come, and a followup is never made, leaving a cliffhanger eternally unresolved. While ‘Resident Evil’s gamble paid off, it could have also left fans angry at never seeing the coming zombie apocalypse or Nemesis stomping about while yelling about stars.
Cliffhangers, while effective, should be used carefully, both in case a project never gets a followup, or if the followup itself is… well, we’ll get to that later. But we’ve still got five movies to go through, so tune in next time where we’ll see Alice jump out of the frying pan and into the zombie-infected fire in ‘Resident Evil: Apocalypse.’