Why the Original 'Resident Evil' Is Still Scary 25 Years Later

With 'Resident Evil 8' on the horizon, it's worth (once again) looking back at how Capcom originally captured lightning in a bottle.
March 22, 2021, 1:00pm
Artwork from the video game Resident Evil
Artwork courtesy of Capcom

Zombies were not a thing in 1996. The golden era of zombie cinema, when George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its many imitators made the monster a resonant avatar for various cultural anxieties, had ended in the late 70s. 

Zombie films in the 80s had descended into parody, culminating in Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1984) and the high-camp of Return of the Living Dead (1985). By the 90s the cycle had effectively run its course, with splatstick comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive (1993) mainly representing the genre. We were completely beyond Romero’s apocalyptic dread by that point, beyond his scathing critiques of post-Civil Rights era society, with its racism, consumerism, and militarism. The Clinton Years papered over the radicalism of the 60s with neoliberal lip service, a world that felt like it was addressing these things but just allowed them to fester. It was only a matter of time before the fantasy would shatter.

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Resident Evil knew this.

In spite of being made in a different culture from the filmmaker’s, it captured Romeran dread perfectly. And while it didn’t use that dread to say quite the same things, it brought back the idea of zombies as formidable systemic problems that can rapidly unravel society. It knew the optimism was a show, that it could all come crashing down at any moment. It knew the old, scary, slow zombies from Night of the Living Dead and its sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) had a primal simplicity that hadn’t been tapped into in years. Something inside game designer Shinji Mikami remembered this when he was tasked with remaking the little known NES-era horror RPG Sweet Home for the new PlayStation. 

He did something daring, something against the prevailing wisdom of game design. He took what was supposed to be a haunted mansion with ghosts, demons, and other varied monsters and filled it with just one primary enemy. Not even different types of zombies with different abilities. Nope. All zombies in Resident Evil, just like in Romero movies, are the same. None are faster or smarter or move differently. It’s just the same enemy over and over, which Mikami, remembering the slow-burn terror of seeing these seminal zombie movies as a kid, knew was enough, enough to carry a whole game.

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As it turns out, it was enough to carry a whole franchise, and ultimately enough to bring a whole genre back to screaming life.

Film critic/historian Jamie Russell calls this “The Resident Evil Effect”, how a Japanese video game paved the way for what would become a massive second wave of zombie media in global popular culture. It may have had cheesy acting and bad controls, but it got one thing so, so, so right that no one cared: it made you feel like you were the protagonist of a Romero zombie film. It was able to transfer that precise emotional and psychological state into gameplay, and threw in some left-leaning anti-corporate politics for good measure. 

George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead'

George Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead' Photo Credit: Image Ten

While this didn’t quite result in the same countercultural vibe as Romero—Resident Evil’s evil corporate villains feel more in line with Robocop or Alien than the deeper anti-consumerism of Dawn of the Dead—it got closer to that spirit than any piece of media had in recent memory. Resident Evil restored the zombie’s elemental power. It reminded us they could be more than just a guiltless target, that they could make us confront our own mortality with vivid and immediate terror, that they could be about something.

I played Resident Evil the summer I graduated high school, only a few months after it came out. As a rare example of someone who grew up on both PC and console gaming in the 90s, I was intrigued by the thought of Capcom, the makers of Street Fighter and Mega Man, making an Alone in the Dark clone, which is what Resident Evil appeared to be at first glance. It swiped that game’s then-novel combination of cinematic fixed camera angles and tank controls, as well as its gothic haunted mansion setting. 

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But whereas Alone in the Dark was a Lovecraft-inspired, puzzle-heavy adventure game, Resident Evil was a stripped down… action game? It wasn’t clear, exactly. It was slow, and although combat-oriented you had almost no control over aiming or movement. If you had enough bullets, you could take down a zombie. If you didn’t… good luck. This made the game almost entirely about resource management, rationing ammo, and controlling territory by creating “safe zones” in the mansion, places you knew you wouldn’t find zombies because you had cleared them out. But you didn’t have enough bullets to clear everything out. The game was meticulously balanced to prevent that. 

“It may have had cheesy acting and bad controls, but it got one thing so, so, so right that no one cared: it made you feel like you were the protagonist of a Romero zombie film. It was able to transfer that precise emotional and psychological state into gameplay.”

You always had to choose. Do I clear out the upper hallway, which gives me a clear shot to the foyer, as long as I can avoid the one zombie in the dining room balcony? Will I use that route enough to justify spending my ammo there? Or should I take my chances and just bring the shotgun along in case things get too hairy? It is this—the way Resident Evil forces you to plan ahead, the way it forces you to do survival calculus in a domestic space-turned-hellish danger zone—that was why it put you so completely in the Romero headspace, in spite of lacking classic zombie rules like headshots and one-bite death. (Things later installments, most notably the 2002 remake, would add). 

In pure game design terms, you could say what it lacked in zombie mechanics it made up for in zombie dynamics. The way it made you afraid of poking your head out a door or walking down a staircase was the same dilemma seen in Night of the Living Dead, when the entire plot turns on a fatal argument over which area of the house is safest.

I remember making this connection back then, no doubt due to the fact that I had discovered Romero’s films not long before, which is why Resident Evil always felt like an unironic horror masterpiece to me, and never the “so-bad-it’s-good” B movie homage that was its reputation at the time. Blame it on early Western Internet culture watching way too much Mystery Science Theater, but pigeon-holing Resident Evil as feeling like a “bad movie” misses the fact that what it obviously feels like is a great movie with a bad dub

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I think anybody who wasn’t coming to Resident Evil through an exclusively Western vantagepoint saw it for what it was: anime Romero, the same way Metal Gear is anime Tom Clancy and Deadly Premonition is anime David Lynch. This is why its infamously terrible cutscenes and voice acting never felt consistent with the rest of its craft, which was all high-quality from the perspective of game design and polish. Even its much-maligned controls and camera served—really created—its Romeran aesthetics. 

Players, then and now, are so used to being overpowered, so used to being superhuman, that when game designers make decisions that relegate them to the realm of what mere mortals might be capable of in a dangerous situation they cry foul. The kinds of mistakes and miscalculations you make in Resident Evil because of its camera and controls are the exact same mistakes you see people making in Romero movies. And as much as players complained, they didn’t stop playing. The game was a hit, because it was a precise and compelling piece of game design married perfectly to a theme. The way it used its limitations to evoke dread were not unlike the low-budget zombie films of the 70s: fixed angles and stiff movement were Resident Evil’s version of black and white photography and non-union actors.

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This is something that the franchise has only recently regained. I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that Resident Evil 4, the game that finally did away with the limited camera and controls, is also the point when the series started its descent into superhero gameplay and overpowered protagonists, not to mention a slippery slide toward the other end of the political spectrum. What are we to make of the fact that Resident Evil 1-3, which all feature slow-burn dread and underpowered protagonists, also mirror a classic left-wing critique of the military-industrial complex and its contempt for human life, while Resident Evil 4-6 feature beefed up superheroes smashing their way around foreign countries—slaughtering endless hoards of locals—in an effort to stop (bio)terrorism?

You can’t just start filling your horror game with big action set-pieces and fast-paced cover mechanics and expect your Romeran sense of powerlessness to remain intact. That sense of powerlessness comes from the player actually not having power. The more power you give the player, the more natural it seems to frame the narrative around having such power, and pretty soon you’re shooting missiles at a teleporting vampire inside a volcano when you should be crying in a closet because you need three bullets to get to the next closet and you only have two.

This is why Resident Evil 7 felt like such an astonishing course correction, not just in terms of its squarely domestic Southern Gothic setting, but also its brutally narrow presentation and gameplay. For years, players complained that the franchise had lost something in the transition to more conventional camera and controls, but no one seemed to be able to figure out how to regain it while also feeling modern. But this is because we’d all kind of forgotten that Resident Evil’s secret wasn’t in one or two elements but in how its particular cocktail of elements interrelated. Turns out, simply moving the camera to first-person leads to a great approximation of the tension Resident Evil created via its fixed camera, but only if it’s combined with incredibly narrow hallways and a similar kind of ammo-rationing gameplay balance. It was never about fixed camera. It was about a particular effect and focus, and how that positions the player as a vulnerable, beleaguered strategist.

Culture goes through cycles. There is no way for a movie, a show, a character, a monster, or a game franchise, to remain relevant and fresh forever. Just before his death in 2017, George Romero expressed his own disdain for what this second wave of zombie fiction had become, calling out The Walking Dead—the most mainstream, longest running zombie story in history—for its endless exploitation of human suffering containing no coherent political point of view. The return to seriousness that Resident Evil jumpstarted, and that eventually found a range of expressions with different political inflections in films like Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and REC, among many others, had ultimately devolved into an exhausting soap opera of misery porn. 

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By most accounts, this has made us ready to put zombies back on the shelf for another few decades. The irony is that this is precisely the moment Resident Evil as a franchise is on the upswing. Having gotten to the party early, it started lapsing into repetition just around the time its influence was being felt in mid-2000s cinema. Now it’s managed to reinvent itself just as the movement it helped shape is winding down, and its secret is in understanding, finally, the broader horror recipe buried in the Romeran DNA of Mikami’s original film homage.

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These days, Resident Evil is about a lot more than zombies. There technically isn’t a single zombie in the whole of Resident Evil 7, but this by no means stops it from capturing the tension of Romeran survival dynamics. By focusing on those dynamics, rather than the mechanics of zombies themselves, the original Resident Evil provided a roadmap for how other monsters, other scenarios, can achieve a similar effect. The thing that makes Resident Evil Resident Evil ultimately isn’t zombies: it’s Romeran dread, and the best Resident Evil games are the ones that pair that dread with resonant framing narratives that speak to the insidious systems of our times, the systems we already feel trapped in. 

This is why the remake of Resident Evil 2, which expanded its boilerplate 90s anti-corporate themes to include a Portal-like satire on office culture, worked so well in 2019, why Resident Evil 7’s decaying rural estate hanging onto visions of its rich past worked so well in 2017.

Trap me in these places. Give far less resources than I need to survive. And let me slowly lose my mind. Because I’m already trapped there. We all are, in one way or another.