Zombies are everywhere nowadays. You can’t get away from them. Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, the White Walkers from Game of Thrones. Our zombie outbreak is a cultural one. The rise of the undead is an idea that refuses to die – and every time it dies it’s resurrected.
In 1996 horror made a comeback, the kind of unlikely rise from the dead Michael Myers does at the end of every Halloween film (all great horror villains are zombies of a kind). This is usually attributed to the late Wes Craven’s Scream, which put an ironic teenage sheen on the genre, but the fact that Resident Evil made its bow in the same year surely isn’t coincidental.
Capcom’s zombie thriller, initially released as Biohazard in Japan, was an unusual mixture of the original and the grossly derivative. Unlike Scream and the sleek, nu-metal soundtracked Milla Jovovich movies the series would eventually inspire, Resident Evil announced itself with a cut scene of such clunky, barely acted dialogue you can only hope the writers intended it as a tribute to the B-movie lineage of horror films that sunk the genre into its pre-Craven lull.
I heartily encourage everyone reading this column to YouTube the scene in question. It’s hilarious. The “elite” S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics And Rescue Squad) are thrown into chaos by the sound of a barking dog and hysterically flee towards the imposing mansion that provides the setting for the game. Okay, the dog in question is probably a zombified dog and things are certainly amiss in Raccoon City, but I’ve seen happy-slap videos with better production values.
The situation doesn’t improve once Jill (or Chris, depending on your character selection) reaches the “sanctuary” of the mansion. When Jill is trapped in a tiny room with the ceiling incrementally descending to crush her (a great horror set piece) a comrade kicks down the door and declares “Quick, this way!” – you know, just in case Jill would prefer to stay and be mashed to a pulp rather than leave the room via the escape route that has just appeared.
The great thing about Resident Evil is that none of this matters.
As a kid playing the game in 1996 I wasn’t gawping at bad acting, I was reveling in a game that made you the actor. Resident Evil wasn’t a game, it was a film in which you played the lead role, creeping through the eerie quiet of that mansion waiting for the horror movie moment when everything suddenly goes LOUD – when the cymbals crash and the violins surge and a zombie comes crashing through a plate glass window.
And you’ve got two bullets left.
And your last save point was half an hour ago.
Resident Evil simultaneously invented and perfected the survival horror genre. Gamers used to the frantic tempo and colourful chirpiness of Sonic and Mario faced a rude awakening when RE loaded up.
The gameplay is slow. Players walk rather than run, their footsteps audibly clicking on the floor. The graphics are grainy and sapped of colour. The music low-fi or no-fi; using silence to build a sense of tension that is painfully palpable. Zombies are few and far between – particularly at first. This has the effect of producing a genuine adrenaline rush when a zombie does appear, forcing you to waste precious bullets as you panic and fire wildly or overkill to try and make sure the repulsive thing is definitely, irrefutably dead.
Resident Evil’s ability to bring the tension and fear of horror movies to the interactive medium of consoles changed gaming. Silent Hill followed, exaggerating the silences and slowness of Resident Evil to an extent that was nearly unbearable. Metal Gear Solid and Tomb Raider were third person games that, in their own unique ways, fused realistic locations and survival tension to provide the player with a genuinely cinematic experience.
Like its horde of undead antagonists, Resident Evil is a game that will never die. Its influence lurks in the background of modern gaming, like a Hunter waiting its chance to strike. Once unleashed the T-virus cannot be contained. We’ve all got it.