By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
A little dinner music for a pack of hungry zombies while the darkness rushes in.
When I was about eleven years old I stumbled across a television broadcast one friday evening from my local PBS station the memory of which has haunted me ever since. Like some bizarre conjuring trick performed at the darkening edge of an abandoned town, the static rain between signals lost its grip and faded into the middle of a nightmare. The bleached out images, whites bleeding into blacks, were terrifying: a small group of people were desperately fighting a losing battle to keep a mad horde from shattering their way past the fragile defenses. Without even knowing the context, it was a disturbing violation to watch. A jungle of arms waving claw like hands, hysterical screaming, three or four people standing alone against what appeared to be thousands; it was a scene of pure apocalyptic horror. I was enthralled and terrified...and then things got even worse.
One of the women, trying to come to the aid of another, was herself overcome. The threat had broken through, and I watched as damaged looking people dragged her outside and converged around the body. Suddenly I realized what was happening. "They're eating her," I thought and quickly moved to switch off the television. The next day I looked through the tv listings to find out what had so spooked me the night before. The film was George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
A few years later I saw the entire film and was deeply impressed with the powerful impact this low budget "B grade picture" had on the viewer. Romero tapped into feelings which were primal and yet thoroughly modern, the fear of being consumed linked to an apocalyptic dread of civilization falling apart. Together with Hitchcock's Psycho and Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead has been recognized as one of the films which ushered in the modern age of horror. Certainly Romero's film has been very influential. The Italian horror master Lucio Fulci drew heavily from Romero's overall vision in his zombie films and most post-Living Dead zombie flicks feature cannibalism, i.e. the dead eating the living, a feature Romero introduced. Before Romero's film zombies where usually contained within the parameters of a voodoo context and portrayed as the slaves of fiendish taskmasters as in White Zombie and Hammer Studio's magnificent Plague of the Zombies. Romero unleashed the dead and raised the stakes of horror in the process.
Resident Evil 2, developed and released by Capcom in 1998, is a product of post-Romero "zombiedom." The imagery in the cinematic sections could fit right into the Living Dead trilogy (soon hopefully to be a tetralogy), particularly in the more urban feel of the latter two films. It is all quite fitting that Romero directed a lengthy commercial for the game and is preparing to step behind the camera to helm a live action filmed adaptation; the viewer can feel his influence in the game's "filmed" scenes.
The first cinematic tidbit is a brief, well done trailer of what is to follow in the game itself. The viewer is introduced to both of the game's main characters, Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield, in two separate sequences which overlap and eventually link together to form a unified conclusion. After an effective and atmospheric prologue in which the first Resident Evil is summarized, both cinematic sections open on speeding vehicles, Kennedy's jeep on the first disc and Redfield's motorcycle on the second one. Upon entering the city Kennedy stops to investigate a body in the road while Claire simply seems puzzled by the empty streets.
As the characters ponder their varying situations, the "camera" rushes towards them from behind, cutting to the next setting with a flash while continuing the forward movement begun in the previous scene. It is a clever device which simultaneously reminds the viewer that this is a horror game and that sudden frights abound, and it also provides an interesting segue to the next setting. There is also a refreshing sense of movement in the technique, a kinetic release which is a bit startling and which draws the viewer along with it. The next sequence appears in both openings.
The scene shifts to a battered looking gas station. The "camera" fixes at a low angle as a body comes crashing through a window. The "person" looks far from healthy; this is the first of many zombies to come. Overall the Resident Evil 2 zombie is a pretty effective one. They all share the greyish brown color scheme of dead flesh, irisless eyes and stagger about in an almost comically menacing manner. It is in the movements of the creatures that the animators excel. The "filmmakers" manage to capture that lurching yet horribly determined walk which characterized Romero's zombies. A trucker jumps into his truck and pulls away from the station, having been bitten by the dead attendant. Again it's a clever idea, preferring to show the effect rather than the actual event thereby maintaining a sense of mystery. The scene flashes back to Redfield and Kennedy. Leon finds himself surrounded by hungry zombies while Claire wonders into a deserted restaurant, or so she thinks.
It's pretty standard fair with Kennedy finding himself, in fine horror film tradition, surrounded by the enemy and Redfield stumbling upon the shocking discovery of one man eating another. Claire's cannibalistic revelation a la George Romero is handled well, with an appropriate burst of music and a requisite look of horror on Redfield's animated face. The dialogue which the creators choose to put in her mouth when facing the zombie, however, is very awkward. This is a problem for a great deal of videogame films: a high concentration on visuals and a lack of appreciation for dialogue. When it's not a cliche it's simply mind-numbingly insipid chatter.
To its credit the dialogue in Resident Evil 2 is no worse than what one might expect to find in an average comic book. However, it's no better either, and if not for the fact that the action moves along rather well the dialogue would provide more of a problem. The highlight of both cinematic sections comes when the two seperate stories merge. Kennedy, avoiding the ravenous creatures pursuing him, runs into an alley and raises his gun anticipating trouble as a door bursts open next to him. A girl on the other side yells "don't shoot" and ducks as Kennedy finishes off a zombie behind her. When viewing Claire's version of the story, we watch her moving away from the zombie following her and turn to escape through a door. She opens it and comes face to face with Leon who tells her to get down as he shoots the zombie. It is an unusual idea for a videogame film, opening the story from two different perspectives, and it works.
There is a charming sense of closure reached by revealing the background of the mysterious girl who suddenly appeared in "Leon's film," like the sensation that accompanies the completion of a simple jigsaw puzzle. Splitting the action into compatible pieces also adds a three dimensionality to the setting that is beyond even the most skilled animator. On a basic level the technique expands the physical universe of the game's cinematic sections by depicting different locations in a parallel unfolding of the narrative on two fronts. By letting the action unfold on these fronts and eventually merging them the creators give Racoon City, the physical location of the game, a sense of time. It becomes an oddly cyclical universe in which characters can engage in individual adventures while always meeting at fixed points in space and time like the center point in a figure eight. This is the high point of the "film." There is another moment in which this technique is used although it is more subtle. While escaping from the zombies Claire and Leon encounter the truck from the opening. Again, in an ingenious little twist two different narrative points come together to form one linear plot. The viewer is aware that this is a bad sign considering that the driver was bitten and infected, but the two heroes are ignorant of the threat. It is another clever bit used in hightening suspense and is a further sign of thought and an extra smidgeon of effort on the creators' part, always a good thing.
Following Claire and Leon's first meeting the two escape together, encounter the infected truck driver and narrowly avoid being killed. They are separated by the flaming wreck of the truck and agree to meet at the police station. The game begins here...
The conclusion of the "film" moves along quite effectively. The action is dramatic enough that it does not seem silly or too cartoonish. Most importantly, however, by the time the game is set to begin the creators have done a fine job of drawing the viewer in, preparing them for a quest. They have also managed to draw inspiration from an earlier work without necessarily copying the original. The creators of Resident Evil 2 have taken cues from Romero's zombie universe and used them as their blueprint. With a healthy dose of cannibalism, gore, darkened urban settings and sudden scares, the spirit of Romero's Living Dead films is fully invoked but not tarnished. The cinematic sections of Resident Evil 2 are enjoyable, and occasionally clever, glances down a quickly darkening side street splitting off from the main avenue in which a little music calls the customers to dine and the cafes serve the most interesting dishes.
Watching Resident Evil 2 I was reminded of the reactions of that 11 year old who stumbled across a particular late night transmission. Perhaps because of the dream-like nature of my exposure to the wonderful world of cannibalistic corpses, zombie films, no matter how tacky or low-grade (with the exception of Zombie Lake which couldn't possibly disturb anyone, except if they questioned why it was made), have always gnawed at my stoic viewing reserve. Zombies, the dead resurrected to a horrific "life", violate our most basic categories of what should and should not exist. It is because of this violation that even computer animated cadavers leave a lingering dread in the their wake...at least they do for a boy who remembers a black and white moment in which a few souls were caught at the heart of a collapsing world...with nothing left but the darkness rushing in...
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.