by Rob DiCristino
This March marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil, the landmark video game that helped codify the aesthetic of the “survival horror” genre for an entire generation. Drawing heavily from films like The Shining, the first Resident Evil game emphasized an atmosphere of dread in its gameplay through pre-rendered backgrounds, immersive sound design, and unprecedented levels of violence and gore as it set the player on a quest to escape a secluded mansion full of unspeakable terrors. Resident Evil’s unexpected success has since spawned sequel games, literary adaptations, a line of collectible toys, and a major motion picture franchise helmed by Paul W. S. Anderson. Resident Evil’s journey to the screen, however, began much earlier than some may think: After an initial screenplay draft from Alan B. McElroy (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) went nowhere, CAPCOM turned to zombie cinema’s original mastermind: George A. Romero.
In a flash, special forces teams are cordoning-off Raccoon City in response to a laboratory disaster under an abandoned estate. At their head is the steely Albert Wesker leading a cast of fan favorites like Barry Burton, Rebecca Chambers, Brad Vickers, and -- you guessed it! -- Jill Valentine. The team mows a path through blood-thirsty zombies and rabid canines onto the disused grounds of old Arklay place, wherein Wesker reveals their true objective: Rescue Dr. John Marcus, the scientist who developed the deadly T-Virus. Meanwhile, after finding his family farm in shambles, Chris Redfield traces the sound of gunshots through an underground tunnel system straight into the S.T.A.R.S.’ path. As the mismatched team descends deeper into hell, they battle a colorful lineup of vicious apes, killer plants, and zombified scientists. Will they find Dr. Marcus? What is Wesker’s secret agenda? Will Barry save our heroine from becoming a Jill sandwich? That’s a joke for no one!
Romero’s most dramatic change, of course, is reworking rugged S.T.A.R.S. leader Chris Redfield into a doe-eyed, granola-fed wanderer. This would have pissed off early-internet fanboys to high heaven, but it’s actually a solid dramatic pivot. As Resident Evil’s playable characters, Chris and Jill serve identical narrative purposes, and the differences in their storylines are minor compared to those between characters in future games. Furthermore, developing a romance between them not only satisfies the wishes of Tumblr’s most ardent slash authors, but it creates a real contrast in their characterization leading to a solid bit of tension in the last act. This isn’t to say that any of the characters in Resident Evil approximate the language, emotion, or interpersonal behavior of real human beings, but Romero was clearly trying to play to his strengths by creating drama within his group of survivors. Further drafts may have developed this beyond cliche, but it’s hard to tell.