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‘Resident Evil’ Returns to Its Horror Roots

For this franchise to survive, it must remember how to be scary.
Resident Evil Michelle Rodriguez
Screen Gems
By  · Published on November 27th, 2018

Just like in the movies, you can’t really escape zombies. Sure, our heroes may outrun the undead, but eventually, in the end, the hordes always catch up. Which, in some ways, is exactly what’s happened to zombie fiction. From television shows to musicals to the Kindle store, zombies have proliferated so many aspects of modern pop culture that we’re buckling under its oversaturation.

Yet after 16 straight years, it’s hard to imagine a time when zombies weren’t in vogue. In the ’90s, the monsters that would define the next decade of cinema found themselves in a lull. Until 1996, when Capcom released Shinji Mikami’s ode to George Romero and Lucio Fulci, Resident Evil, to worldwide acclaim. And subsequently, Paul W. S. Anderson’s billion-dollar film franchise based on that video game brought zombies back to Hollywood,

Now, James Wan’s reboot is bringing the horror back to Resident Evil. From Screen Gems and Constantin Films, the new movie adaptation will be penned by Greg Russo (who is also writing a Mortal Kombat movie that Wan is producing). In an interview with Discussing Film, Russo gave us our first clue as to what direction the future of the Resident Evil series may be headed.

“For me, it was very clear-cut that I wanted to go back and make it scary again like a horror film in terms of the classic James Wan style.”

This is extremely welcome news for fans of the original series. When the first film adaptations came out, the biggest issues raised were how far Anderson strayed from the source material. Nowhere to be found were the dread-inducing dog attacks or the exploding tension from simply entering an unexplored room of the ornate Spencer Mansion. The scares were scaled back, replaced with heavy machine guns and gargantuan villains, a far cry from the original game’s lurking terror.

But as the action-oriented film series began winding down in the mid-2010s, the game series was looking for a revitalization, and they found it in Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. The 2017 game refocused its storytelling away from mowing down an endless barrage of monsters and back to creeping around a dilapidated house, this time avoiding capture from a backwoods family as terrifying as anything from Texas. And according to Russo, this is exactly where his inspiration sprung.

That was the pitch, going back and looking [at] what made the games scary in the first place, so yeah, ‘Resident Evil 7’ was a bit of a touchstone [tone-wise] for my draft…for me as a fan of the original game franchise, I always considered the franchise to be horror at the forefront and action as a secondary feature. So it just made sense to go back to the horror roots.

But that isn’t to say that the story of Resident Evil 7 is the best starting place to reintroduce audiences to the Umbrella Corporation. The game, which ostensibly could be considered a standalone from the rest of the franchise, is still entrenched with the larger lore that the prior games had established. It’s not so much the story that needs to be lifted, but rather its unbearably tense tone, an attribute it shares with the original.

For a Resident Evil film to properly convey the mood of the games, audiences need to feel like around every corner, at the edge of every frame, is a potential danger waiting to ensnare you. The constant fluctuation between tension and release is arguably the reason that we gravitate to these games. The breathless terror accompanied by an eerie calm is an essential element that must be ingrained in the fabric of a reboot to Resident Evil. Otherwise, frankly, what’s the point?

Resident Evil is best summarized by its subgenre: survival horror. And with this new film series, we need to see much more horror with our characters survival. This may be best conveyed by forgoing the franchise’s iconic characters once again in place of an audience surrogate, much like what Resident Evil 7 did with hero Ethan Winters. Someone who can guide us into the mythology of the series but whose ultimate fate remains unknown. We should feel that in this Resident Evil, and maybe our heroes won’t be back for the sequel.

The past film franchise traded in this sense of danger and dread for blockbuster popcorn spectacle and that’s absolutely fine! There is nothing wrong with the unbridled fun that Anderson’s franchise gave us for over a decade. But with Wan’s guidance, this reboot may very well be the Resident Evil adaptation we’ve been waiting 22 years for.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)