Capcom's Resident Evil series has changed dramatically from 1996 to 2012, its humble beginnings as a haunted house survival horror increasingly distant in the rear-view mirror. It’s easy to look back on the original as a dusty curio now, but its influence still lingers, even if the series itself has taken an action-orientated turn.
The same goes for the Hollywood zombie movie. When Night of the Living Dead debuted in 1968, George A. Romero introduced the shambling re-animated corpse to the world and built a sense of escalating dread around it. Nowadays, the zombie movie is often a hard-edged thriller featuring fast-paced creatures – rarely is the word ‘zombie’ used anymore - or tongue-in-cheek schlock intended to be watched with a raised eyebrow through a pair of Buddy Holly glasses.
In fact, the recent drought of decent undead cinema leads us to wonder if the genre has temporarily dried up, or perhaps it's just enjoying its affair with the small screen. The Resident Evil series, however, is continuing to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant, sometimes to the chagrin of its fans.
With Resident Evil 6 on the horizon, it's time to take a look at the evolution of both the iconic game series and the zombie film, as bloody bedfellows.
This article contains minor spoilers. And we’re sticking with Resident Evils 1-5 for reasons of sanity and simplicity.
Resident Evil (1996) / Night of the Living Dead (1968) Famously influenced by early ‘survival horror’ games such as Alone in the Dark and Sweet Home, Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil also shares many similarities with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. An emphasis on escape over combat and survival on limited resources is typical of both, as is the ‘shambling’ zombie. Both are eerily quiet experiences, a nervous mixture of sudden shocks and quiet dread of what could be behind the next door.
Ultimately, both impacted the genres in which they were working in irrevocably – Living Dead serving to popularize the zombie in cinema, while Resident Evil ushered survival horror into the mainstream.
Resident Evil 2 (1998) / Dawn of the Dead (1978) While Resident Evil 2 may not have been as influential, it succeeded in perfecting its predecessor’s formula. The same can be said for Romero’s 1979 sequel, a bloodier affair with significantly more bite. By taking the scares ‘out of the house,’ Resident Evil 2 and Dawn of the Dead serve up a potent array of unique moments. Resident Evil had ‘lickers,’ giant crocodiles and dogs in the sewers, while Dawn of the Dead had an entire mall to soak pulpy red.
Today, Resident Evil 2 and Dawn of the Dead are considered classics, their critical and commercial success cementing the longevity of their franchises. It is only in the brains department that the pair part ways – Dawn of the Dead is a successful allegory on consumerism, whereas Resident Evil 2 retains that dunderheaded charm so particular to the series.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (1999) / Evil Dead II (1987) Okay, this was a tough one. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis never really felt like a 'proper' sequel - perhaps because it was never intended to be. Originally pitched by Capcom as a side-quest story, Nemesis focused on Jill Valentine, leading up to the events of Resident Evil 2. It was a limited exclusivity deal with Sony that demanded the numerical title, despite the ongoing production of Resident Evil: Code Veronica, who many consider to be the purer sequel.
Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, while not a zombie movie in the classic sense (bear with me), built upon the foundations of the original Evil Dead with only cosmetic additions. Set in the same cabin a few hours after the events of Evil Dead, number two was essentially a remake, defining itself by a schlockier tone and an upping of bloody ante. Like Nemesis, it plays like a '0.5,' bridging the gap between its predecessor and a vastly divergent sequel.
It's a stretch, but hey, it's creative.
Resident Evil 4 (2005) / Dawn of the Dead (2004) With a new over the shoulder perspective and emphasis on fight over flight, Resident Evil 4 was a thrill to play. It did, however, remove much of what had become so typical of the series, and indeed, typical of survival horror in general. No longer were we crippled by sluggish controls or a scarcity of bullets; new precision aiming and (relatively) plentiful ammo meant Leon Kennedy had a glut of ways in which to dispatch his foes. It was a resounding success, Pandora's box had been opened, and the genre never fully recovered.
Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake pumped similar adrenaline into the zombie genre. With its alt metal soundtrack, sprinting zombies and frenetic action, the remake hurtled zombies into, somewhat ironically, the video game era. For better or worse.
Resident Evil 5 (2009)/Diary of The Dead (2007) While Romero’s found footage-style Diary of the Dead may not share obvious similarities with Resident Evil 5, both did one thing extremely well: divide their audience. A dedicated audience of fans will flock to anything Romero directs, but Diary’s meditative tone and lack of any real scares lead some fans to question his authoritative grasp on his own genre.
Resident Evil 5 had similar speed bumps to overcome; after the triumphant 4, it was a predictably anticlimactic entry into the series’ catalog. Criticism was leveled at the addition of a chatty partner and the brute power of Chris Redfield, stripping the game of the tension the series was renowned for. Both Diary and Resident Evil 5 were ambitious entries - successful in many ways - yet ultimately burdened by their own legacies.