Shit. I just remember being bored by the plot and annoyed by the film’s choice to use CG for the zombie gore instead of practical effects. But it seems here that Raffi Nakashian, in his second piece for 10YA, really had a bone to pick with the video game adaptation that launched its own film series.
It’s a good time to be alive if you like zombie movies.
I suppose any time is a good time to be alive, as opposed to being dead. But either is far more preferable than walking among the horde of unnatural, soulless, shambolic ghouls that rise from the grave to feed on the living!
I’ve been a big fan of zombie films for a long time, so forgive me if this review is a little self-indulgent. I’m just supposed to review one ten year-old zombie movie. However, as this subject is close to my heart, I feel the need to first give you a run-down of why zombies are awesome. It will come in handy during the review.
Zombies are the perfect movie monster. They encompass so many of our fears and horrors in one simple form. Here’s a bit of Zombie 101 to establish why they’re so goddamn terrifying:
*The fact that they are essentially just dead, rotting people walking around, even when they’re not actively trying to kill you, serves as a constant reminder of our own mortality. It’s like facing death itself.
*They want to fucking eat you. There’s a lot of crummy ways to go, but being eaten alive has to be near the top of that list.
*They are infinitely persistent. Zombies don’t get tired and they never lose interest in you. You can’t reason with them, and even if you outrun them, there’s probably another horde of them waiting for you wherever you end up.
*They only go down when their brain is destroyed, so they’re hard to kill (so to speak).
*Zombies swarm in great numbers, making most practical barriers useless and any effort to kill them pointless. Even if you manage to shoot one in the head, another zombie will just take its place.
*They can come at you in the form of dead friends and relatives, which can really mess with your head. Call your mother tonight, she misses you – and be thankful you never have to shoot her in the face.
*It only takes one little bite to turn you into one of them, which means every encounter is potentially fatal. Let your guard down for a moment, or turn a wrong corner, and it’s already over.
*The threat spreads like a virus and can become impossible to contain, and has the potential to lead to the downfall of civilization.
*Becoming a zombie is maybe the one thing that’s worse than death. You’re dead either way – but as a zombie, you become a flesh-eating monster that will try to kill everyone you used to love.
I can’t think of a more physically or psychologically menacing nemesis than that. Vampires have the nerve to call themselves scary? They’re basically just sexy people with super powers and a UV allergy. Werewolves are a threat once a month for like five hours. You can lock yourself in a basement and literally just sleep through a werewolf attack. Zombies always win.
It’s always easy enough to make a flick about a bunch of poor suckers simply running for their lives, but filmmakers and other artists have taken a scary monster and done some amazing work that goes far beyond cheap scares and an excuse to exhibit obscene amounts of gore onscreen. George Romero’s Living Dead trilogy defined the genre, but it also provided poignant social commentary about racism and consumerism in America, and a glimpse into the nature of mankind in times of trial. Capcom’s Resident Evil video game series created memorable characters and environments that have become iconic over the years.
With a few exceptions, the ‘80s and ‘90s were the Dark Ages of zombie fiction, though. The best thing to come out of those two decades was probably the Thriller video, which, in my opinion, took some liberties when it came to depicting a zombie’s ability to dance.
It wasn’t until 2002 that a movie was released that not only generated new momentum and interest in zombie films, but it actually lifted the entire genre from the B-movie status they had always been relegated to. Zombies were going mainstream! Today we get to enjoy a quality zombie television show (The Walking Dead), zombie novels based on Jane Austen classics (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), zombie movies with Brad Pitt in them (World War Z), and more video games than a zombie geek like me can even keep up with. The Zombie Renaissance began ten years ago with one of the most influential horror movies, and certainly one of my personal favorite films, of all time: 28 Days Later.
Resident Evil also came out earlier that year.
I went into Resident Evil for the first time with unrealistic expectations, I admit that. It was a game franchise that I was very passionate about, and with such a drought of decent zombie movies since the original Living Dead trilogy, I expected it to make up for a twenty-year itch single-handedly. I do remember coming away from it pumped from the “coolness” factor that the movie works hard to resonate and that is so effective on teenage boys, but with the inexplicable feeling that I was somehow disappointed with the experience.
On the surface, this movie had everything I wanted: zombies, people with guns shooting zombies, sexy women, references to the video game, and Michelle Rodriguez dying a horrible death. Then why was I disappointed? I couldn’t articulate it then, but after re-viewing Resident Evil with the added education and cynicism that ten years of life experience bring, I can finally explain to my teenage self why I didn’t like this movie and why a zombie fanatic like myself hadn’t felt compelled to see it since. Prepare yourself for a long-winded explanation of why Resident Evil is a bad example of zombie horror and a terrible movie in general.
Resident Evil is a movie that tries way too hard to be cool. I might be getting a little abstract here, but movies are a lot like people. You should value films that are sincere, smart but unpretentious, or convey passion. Movies that are cool aren’t trying to be cool, and movies that try to be cool come off as obnoxious and shallow. In that sense, Resident Evil is a loud, annoying asshole with no character that listens to shitty music and thinks he’s a badass. All the decisions that went into the making of Resident Evil came down to how cool it was going to look, to the detriment of almost every other aspect of the movie.
One unfortunate consequence of this approach is that the tone of the movie came out completely wrong. I’ve already explained why zombies are horrifying. They’re slow, stupid, and they’re really only scary when the tone of the movie is classic horror. That means dark lighting, eerie music, haunting environments, and a slow buildup of tension. Resident Evil actually fools you into thinking that it’s going to be about a lone woman trapped in a creepy mansion with zombies. The tone is quite moody and appropriate within the first ten minutes of the film.
Then, almost comically, a team of military agents crash through a window under insane, pounding Marilyn Manson music and whisk Alice away to a sterile, brightly-lit laboratory environment where they spend the next hour and a half shooting monsters with machine guns, playing with electronics, and doing silly-looking, inhuman stunts while Rob Zombie’s iPod is blasting on shuffle in the background.
So Resident Evil wants to be an action movie. Fine, I can live with that. In that case, though, you have to resign yourself to the fact that Resident Evil is not actually a zombie movie at all. It’s an action movie with zombies in it. In fact, they face dogs, lasers, a homicidal A.I., and a fast-moving meatball with Stretch Armstrong tongue, so the zombies aren’t even really their main problem. They’re the least threatening thing in the whole movie.
Resident Evil features more of an ensemble of different things for Milla Jovovich to shoot at while wearing a skimpy outfit, and that’s unfortunately all her character comes down to. She never had a chance to develop a personality at all – she spends the majority of the movie with amnesia. How is an audience supposed to get to know a character when she doesn’t even know who she is or what she’s doing? Even Leonard Shelby in Memento, a character that can’t form new memories, had a clear goal throughout the film: to find his wife’s killer. Alice is just pulled along while things happen around her, until she has the opportunity to perform some ridiculously absurd stunt to dazzle the audience, like shooting ten dogs in the head with perfect aim or suplexing a zombie.
Gosh, it really adds a lot of tension to the film when you realize the main character is an invincible, superhuman killing machine. And boy, does it look cool.
The irony here is that the qualities that make zombies inhuman monsters in the first place – that they’re soulless shells of people with no personality – are the same qualities they share with the people they’re trying to eat in this movie. In fact, zombies have a much more well-defined motivation than these characters do: brains.
For the majority of the movie, Alice has amnesia and no idea what she’s doing, she’s just following people around as she’s told. The army guys are just army guys, and they’re just doing what army guys always do – following orders. Their lack of character or personal motivation is what makes army guys great opponents for protagonists in other movies – because you don’t feel bad when they get murdered in cold blood by the good guy. All we needed is one little scene where Michelle Rodriguez says something about wanting to get home to see her dying mother or feed her kitten or something. Instead, she’s just a walking, talking scowl for the entirety of the movie, just like every other role she’s ever played in her life. But boy, does she look cool.
Let’s get to the “plot,” then. I’ve already explained how Alice is taken underground, where a secret virus has turned all the employees of the secret research facility into zombies, and the army guys (Umbrella agents) have to go into the facility and manually shut down the artificial intelligence that killed everyone for no apparent reason, as far as they know.
So the basic premise doesn’t even make sense to begin with since, from their perspective, there’s nothing stopping the Artificial Intelligence from just killing them all as soon as they enter the facility. I mean, they just said that it’s a crazy, homicidal A.I., right? They’re not even wearing their gas masks when they go in, when the employees that were killed in the facility were gassed to death.
Also, why did they gas Alice in the shower? The AI decided to kill everyone in a sealed off chamber underground because the virus got out. So what’s the point of gassing the person living in the mansion above it? She has no way of even knowing what’s going on downstairs. Is there a point to knocking her out for three hours and giving her temporary amnesia? And why do the agents decide to take her into the facility when she’s in that state? I guess seeing her wake up naked in the shower sounded cool.
It also doesn’t make sense why the Artificial Intelligence chooses to gas some people to death, flood a different room with water, and then wait until one lady is sticking her head out of the elevator so she can decapitate her, and then just let the rest of them plummet to their deaths. Why not just gas everyone? Do computers get some kind of pleasure out of watching people die in diverse, elaborate ways? It looked cool though, I suppose.
So the gang shows up, does this or that, they run away from zombies and dogs, they shut down the A.I., and then we find out who the villain has been all along: another amnesiac who they’ve been pulling along for an hour-and-a-half. He finally remembers that he’s supposed to be betraying the group and making off with the virus for financial gain about ten minutes from the end of the film. At this point, I’d almost forgotten he was there at all, since he hasn’t done or said anything the whole time. He runs off and is mauled to death literally five minutes after the reveal that he is in fact the bad guy. So Resident Evil has an antagonist for a total of five minutes all together, and he ends up killing himself. Riveting.
Michelle Rodriguez dies on the train on their way out, and Alice is sad for some reason, despite the fact that she was a scowling, unpleasant asshole to Alice from the beginning. I did enjoy seeing her get bitten on four (four!) separate occasions throughout the movie, though. That’s got to be some kind of zombie record. As soon as Alice and her new boyfriend (I guess?) escape from the facility, they’re captured by Umbrella and the virus is confiscated from them, so when you think about it, nothing they did throughout the whole movie mattered at all.
Alice escapes from a hospital after another opportunity to crawl naked on a cold, hard surface and poses like a badass in the middle of the street for no reason and sets up the first of a series of sequels that somehow end up worse than the original.
I knew this movie was bad ten years ago, but there’s nothing like analyzing it with a fine-tooth comb to help you realize what a mess it truly is. I actually could have gone the rest of my life not seeing it ever again and just thinking that it was just kind of disappointing because it was nothing like the video game, but its problems really run a lot deeper than that. It’s actually pretty amazing how many things they did wrong when a low budget project like Shaun of the Dead, which doubles as a great comedy, turned out to be an infinitely better zombie movie and film.
I don’t think Paul Anderson even understands what makes zombies scary. He portrays them as aggressive people that are trying to bite you. There’s no sense of dread, hopelessness, horror, anxiety, tension, the will to survive, or anything that makes zombie movies uniquely frightening. One character exclaims that all those people that are attacking them should be dead. Another guy just casually quips “Well, that isn’t stopping them from walking around.” And then everyone just continues their business as normal. Nobody cares! You could have replaced the zombies in Resident Evil with enraged monkeys and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the events or tone of the film whatsoever.
This movie now depresses me so much that in closing, I want to offer some great examples of zombie fiction that gives me hope for the future of the genre and that should dull the blow when the nextResident Evil is released. Honestly, the series itself is like a bloated corpse that won’t die. Thanks for reading!
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
28 Days Later (2002)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Zombi 2 (1979)
The Walking Dead (2010)
Day of the Dead (1985)
The zombie episode of Community (Epidemiology, 2010)
And read World War Z, by Max Brooks