Arts/Literature

With zombie movies like these, who needs video games?

After spending a little time video-gaming last week, I decided to hit up the great grand-daddy of zombie video games: Resident Evil. First booted up in 1996, the franchise has spawned more sequels than I can literally keep track of, including the newest installment released in March: Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City.

Except that I don’t play video games. So I decided to watch the movies.

…which, it turns out, works just fine because the movies unspool like video games: There are plenty of zombies as low-level villains, there are monsters of greater ferocity that pose special threats, and there’s a big badass badguy at the end, like the “boss” at the end of a level.

The heroine of the franchise is Alice, a genetically altered woman who spends much of the franchise trying to discover secrets of her past while killing zombies the entire time.

Milla Jovovich, who plays Alice, first came on my radar screen for her 1999 portrayal of Joan of Arc in The Messenger. (Well, I guess she was in The Fifth Element, but she wasn’t on my radar screen.) She has done some odds and ends over the years, including a sword-slashing Resident Evil kind of thing called Ultraviolet, but really she’s made the Resident Evil franchise into her cinematic bread and butter.

The entire franchise leans heavily toward sci-fi action/adventurism over horror. Here’s the rundown.

Resident Evil—Spawned from the video games, the movie offers a classic depiction of science gone wrong. The evil Umbrella Corporation, working on bioweapons in a secret underground complex beneath Raccoon City, creates the T-virus, which rejuvenates dead skin—and reanimates dead bodies. A lab accident sets the virus free, the complex seals itself shut, and a special-forces unit has to go in to sanitize the place. They don’t know what to expect, so the zombies are a big surprise—but they aren’t the only bioweapons loose in the complex. Great mix of sci-fi and horror. The gore’s not too bad; in fact, director Paul W.S. Anderson does an effective job ratcheting up tension by knowing what to show and what to hide. My imagination did a lot of the work—and it freaked me out.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse—The T-virus has jumped to the surface, turning Raccoon City into a zombie-filled nightmare world. Groups of survivors try to find a way out. Zombie mayhem everywhere. It’s like Escape from New York but with less plot and more zombies and some ham-fisted directing.

Resident Evil: Extinction—This is Resident Evil a la Mad Max. The zombie plague has spread beyond Raccoon City and wiped out the world and, in doing so, has somehow caused water to dry up and plant life to die. There’s lots of driving around through deserts in beaten-up vehicles, scavenging for food and fuel. And trying to avoid zombies, of course. It also has an attack of zombie crows—a scene that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but looks cool because it has a flamethrower. The last remnants of the evil Umbrella Corporation, hunkered in an underground bunker and running out of resources, are trying to domesticate zombies. The treatment turns them into fast, rage-filled attack monsters, although the development isn’t used to particularly good effect beyond run-around pandemonium (see 28 Days Later or Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake for harrowing fast-zombie creepiness).

Resident Evil: Afterlife—Nothing says Kill Bill quite like a bad-ass woman using katana swords to slash up some Japanese guys. That’s how Afterlife gets started. The opening sequence is slick and action-packed, and it’s full of Alice clones; by the end of the intro, the clones are all dead and Alice has lost her superpowers. The tone takes a significant shift after that, getting more stark with a washed-out color palette, like Alien 3 meets a Zack Snyder film. Anderson, at the helm for the first time since Resident Evil, makes this the best outing of the series. The zombies run. Other monsters have faces that split open like face-grabbing squid mandibles. There’s a giant axe-wielding zombie monster than doesn’t die when shot in the head. There’s some black trenchcoat, black sunglasses Matrix-ism in the movie, too. Chris Redfield, a character from the video games, finally makes an appearance in the film franchise.

Afterlife ended with an obvious opening for a sequel, and considering that the movie was the highest-grossing installment of the franchise, it’s no surprise that Resident Evil: Retribution is slated for a September 2012 release.