Zombies are everywhere, and they’ve been everywhere for a while now. From Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead to Zack Snyder’s upcoming Army of the Dead, it’s actually quite fitting that these bloodthirsty revenants have endured in fiction after all this time. Of course, after having been spoiled by quality zombie media like The Last of Us and Train to Busan over the years, it’s easy to take the undead for granted. Believe it or not, there was once a time when it seemed like their scare-factor had run its course and it was hard to take zombies seriously.
Back in the 90s, Romero’s original Dead trilogy was already becoming a distant memory, and zombies were considered cliché, with only the most desperate of creators turning to them when in need of menacing antagonists. Other than Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead, most of the notable zombie media from that decade was comedic in tone, gifting us with satirical classics like Braindead and Army of Darkness while depriving us of genuine zombie scares. This also extended to gaming, with lighthearted titles like Zombies Ate My Neighbors contributing to the undead’s fall from horror grace.
That would all change in 1996 when Capcom unveiled their survival horror magnum opus, a little title called Biohazard, known in the Western world as Resident Evil. Today, I’d like to discuss how this innovative game did more than just redefine interactive horror as we know it, but also revived one of the genre’s most versatile monsters for a whole new generation of scares.
Growing up, my only contact with zombies had been through direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movies and action-oriented arcade games (like the massively underrated Area 51), so imagine my surprise when my uncle showed up one night with a PS1 disc claiming that it contained a truly terrifying zombie game. I was way too young at the time to really appreciate Shinji Mikami’s masterful craftsmanship as I booted up the original Resident Evil, but it didn’t take long to realize that my uncle wasn’t exaggerating.
Exploring the Spencer Mansion while solving obtuse puzzles and managing a limited inventory space was an experience unlike anything I had ever played before, and though I would always instinctively pass the controller to my uncle whenever a zombie showed up, I could still respect the intense (though admittedly clunky) combat. Despite the wonky voice-acting and B-movie aesthetics, the game played everything completely straight, making things that much more intimidating. After the memorable first encounter with an undead enemy, I was terrified by the idea that a single zombie could be a lethal threat if not handled properly, something that no other horror game had managed to do.
No action movie bravado here.
I was a teenager by the time I actually finished the game, having annoyed the hell out of my uncle during that initial playthrough and reluctantly learning to survive by myself, but Resident Evil left a lasting impression and introduced me to what would become one of my favorite sub-genres. Despite being absolutely mortified during most of my experience with the title, I felt a strange urge to face my fears in order to progress, something that I now recognize as one of the most compelling aspects of Survival Horror.
This curious instinct led me to watch (and often become traumatized by) several classic zombie movies, resulting in a life-long love of the genre, and I think many fans have similar stories. At the end of the day, Resident Evil wasn’t a success just because it was scary, but because it allowed players to overcome these horrors with a little bit of patience and perseverance.
Over the years, numerous critics have commented on how the intentionally awkward controls and combat system only served to make the game more intense. Players were always at a disadvantage and felt just as vulnerable as Jill and Chris when encountering enemies and other deadly obstacles, constantly being forced to think on their feet. The limited Saves also added weight to every decision, with players never being sure if they were managing resources correctly, knowing that any false move could lead to disastrous consequences later on.
While it was no doubt the result of technical limitations, the original game’s focus on tight encounters with small groups of zombies rather than hordes also harkens back to the work of George Romero. Despite the occasional large crowds of undead ghouls, Romero’s zombies benefited from quirky mannerisms and unique clothing that reminded viewers that these were once living, breathing people. This made their attacks much more memorable than the generic waves of undead enemies in other media, and this also applies to the shambling horrors of Resident Evil. Many fans actually refer to specific in-game enemies by their location, discussing the “Costume Room Zombie” and the “Bathroom Zombie” like genuine NPCs rather than forgettable enemies, a testament to the planning behind these encounters.
In fact, the possibility of becoming infected is just about the only memorable zombie trope that Resident Evil doesn’t play around with. This makes practical sense, as having the player face a death sentence after a single bite would have made things far too difficult, but it’s still a shame that they didn’t come up with an in-game reason to get around this. The game at least acknowledges the issue by having other characters succumb to Umbrella’s virus and eventually turn against the player, but it’s strange how almost every subsequent zombie game followed in Capcom’s footsteps and ignored this simple bit of lore.
Nothing beats the original!
It’s no secret that Resident Evil spawned legions of imitators as Survival Horror took off, with many of these so-called “RE Clones” also using the undead as a jumping-off point when crafting interactive scares. Over the years, this led to zombies making a comeback as genuinely intimidating foes in classics like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead, with the monsters even making their way into the insanely popular Call of Duty series as one of the franchise’s most beloved bonus features.
Of course, Resident Evil‘s influence extends far beyond gaming, with this multi-media empire culminating with the world’s most profitable movie franchise based on a videogame. While the Resident Evil films were only superficially connected to the games, they turned RE into a household name, and were also something of a gateway for general audiences to discover the joys of zombie cinema. At a certain point, these movies were so damned popular that the Umbrella Corporation became a punchline to jokes about the evils of Big Pharma, even showing up in online viral videos. Capcom’s games may have brought zombies back from the dead, but these blockbusters kept them alive in other media; though they weren’t alone.
With zombies back in the public consciousness, it’s not surprising that the 2000s would see modernized takes on the undead through films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead. After an unsuccessful pitch for his own version of the Resident Evil adaptation, even George Romero decided to revisit his Dead films with a brand new trilogy that reintroduced audiences to his ghoulish brand of social commentary. I’d argue that this zombie-mania reached its peak with the runaway success of AMC’s The Walking Dead, but we’re still living in a zombie-infested media landscape over a decade later.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Shinji Mikami’s horror opus is single-handedly responsible for the 2000s zombie boom, there’s no doubt in my mind that Resident Evil played an undeniably important part in digging up these eerie creatures and putting them back in the spotlight. In recent years, the RE franchise may have moved away from traditional undead cannibals, but I’ll always be grateful to these games for introducing myself and countless others to the weird world of zombie media.