Our first encounter with the undead in pop culture changes from generation to generation. We’ve come so far since The Night of the Living Dead (it was 1968) that it’d be incorrect of me to say something along the lines of “for your parents, their first experience with them would have been-” You get it – by now it would have probably been your parents parents that had first watched it.
Or more accurately, maybe for your parents or even yourself it was actually Resident Evil (the original was 1996) or one of the sequels. The image above actually comes from one version of the remake (originally released in 2002). From 1996 to 2002 is a rather short six years looking back on it now, but with the hardware changes that came in that time it felt like an eternity.
Even in the remake of Resident Evil we were mostly still treated to what historians sometimes call the “common” zombie. Slow, ponderously moving – eternally rasping or groaning as if it still was holding onto some part of the life it had while still living deep in its chest somewhere. We don’t ever sympathize with the undead, at least not fully.
The way our concept of the Zombie has changed in the last few years mimics how it did in the six years between the release of the two games just a few sentences above. Now we fully embrace the idea of the Zombie as our fear of sickness and lack of healthcare given form – a disease that can physically hunt you down and kill you, in other words a force of nature.
What I still love about the original Resident Evil, in whichever flavor you choose to play it in the core concept stays the same. The way your interactions are treated with members of the opposite living condition is regularly intimate. There sure is still a big encounter with a zombie shark in a secret lab – but what most people really remember from the game is the way a single Zombie could disrupt or halt your intended progress.
Each encounter with a Zombie in that game is something deliberately placed and chosen by the director and his development staff. Sometimes those encounters definitely seem like a specific and directed fuck you to the player. Especially I’d like to note if it’s the very first time you’re playing the game.
The Zombies that I’m afraid of in Videogames rarely take the shape of the encroaching hordes of Resident Evil 4 or Left 4 Dead. Those capture a more basic fight or flight response of being outnumbered and trying to deal with heavy odds.
Turning a corner of the mansion in Resident Evil and coming face to face with a Zombie is a completely different experience. Sometimes the windows to the outside world (turned away from you at the very beginning of the game) would flash and flicker with thunder, illuminating the still ambulated remains of what once was a person just feet in front of you. Other times it might have been coming into an empty hallway or ballroom, only hearing the telltale wheezing coming from somewhere just right out of the view the camera gave you.
My personal belief is that if you changed the perspective of the original Resident Evil so that the player only had the point-of-view of a Zombie, it would still firmly remain a horror game. Imagine it here, with me: The mansion is still the same. This time, we don’t see the perspective of the heroic S.T.A.R.S. Bravo Team and their entrance to the Spencer Mansion. Maybe all we’re given is the last few desperate moments of a scientist trying to call his loved one as the virus steals that final bit of life away from them. Maybe we’re simply given nothing, and the darkness of the mansion is all we know.
The space we would have to inhabit would be fundamentally the same. Yet it’s also worth noting that all of the incredible sound design that went into the original Resident Evil would still play an important role.
The sound of a door opening wouldn’t simply be the uneasy distraction the game queues up to load the next unknown you’re heading into. As a Zombie, that familiar sound comes with it the knowledge that the very area we’re in has been disrupted. Someone intrudes on the space we inhabit. The soft sounds of feet hitting the carpet are no longer just something to give atmospheric grounding to the action of navigation. Instead, they would be like a radar that tells us with every additional footstep that someone is coming closer and closer to us.
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine a highly atmospheric reverse-horror game being possible from the point of view of a Zombie. I can lay out the situation above as craftily as I might like, but that still doesn’t come up with the mechanics and form we need a game like that to take place. Yet even in that description up there, it’s easy to see just how similar such a game might be to the way the original Resident Evil still played.
Really – we owe the strength of that kind of design to the sheer intimacy of each encounter in the game. In a very macabre game that the late stages of absolutely brim with terrifying biological experiments and goofy lizard men that run like high-school quarterbacks, the real staying power of the series in our pop-culture is still the very common and frequently used shambling corpse.
Maybe that has a lot to do with how many different writers and directors have, in years since, done their absolute best to reduce the Zombie from something worth being afraid of to a common background element.
Characters in popular television voice the concern that the real monsters of the world are people – and do so seriously as if it is a revelation. Also, they do all of that while still existing in a world where the seemingly natural balance of life and death has been irrevocably perverted and almost unstoppable animated corpses freely patrol the ruins of society.
Which is not to say that the plot of the Resident Evil series is really any less self important. Most of the plot developments in Resident Evil still primarily revolve around people that work for pharmaceutical companies deciding to make biological weapons capable of ending all life on the planet because they lost a little sister. At the same time though – the series still firmly understands that for monsters to be effective they can neither simply be horrifying looking, nor can they be a human being that is also simply extra despicable.
There’s a sort of respect of the Zombie and the concept of it as a monster that pervades the writing of the early games in the series. They function sometimes as background elements to the dangers of the world (like they do in The Walking Dead), yet at the same time each encounter is often treated as its own uphill battle to overcome. I respect the Zombies I encounter in these games in a way that I write them off when I watch a show like The Walking Dead.
It’s easy to respect the Zombies that exist in a game like Resident Evil. After all – the nature of these places has been changed by their presence. The normal that the Spencer Mansion knows in the original game is no longer one that is of hallways filled with life and the heartbeats of the people inhabiting it. It is like an antique that has not yet been re-claimed and put up in a shelf somewhere to be sold. The normal is now one of entropy and becoming decrepit.
S.T.A.R.S. Bravo Team finds itself once again bringing something from the outside world into this place in the beginning of the original game. In doing so – the mansion stirs to life in the only way it knows how to. What’s difficult to grapple with, is from the point of view of Jill Valentine or any one Zombie still roaming the halls of such a place, there’s no way to make it less terrifying.