Resident Evil was my first experience with horror games as a too-small child. My dad was so incredibly into all things video games. He bought every console as soon as it came out and would let me watch him play some of the harder games and help me with any games I played if I got stuck. He also started my love of horror with his flagrant disregard for age ratings.
My earliest horror memories are of seeing the original IT mini-series at 6 and then being taken to the circus a few days later. That went well. Then my other early horror memory is watching my dad play Resident Evil 2 and screaming when the Licker crashed through the window in the interrogation room. I’m saying that Resident Evil is responsible for how I’ve turned out, along with Tim Curry, and I will play and watch anything in the series (frequently to my detriment.)
Resident Evil is one of the world’s most well-known and loved survival horror video game franchises. In fact, it’s one of the most well-known franchises, period. Over the years, numerous games, spinoffs, and merchandise have been produced, along with many attempts to bring the series to the small and silver screen.
The Resident Evil “cinematic universe” is littered with inconsistent and nonsensical attempts to adapt the premise. The original film series starring Mila Jovovich is not without its fans. Still, even they would admit that the films bear little resemblance to the atmosphere and story of the source material.
Translating the Game Play to Screen Is Almost Impossible
Much of the atmosphere of Resident Evil can be attributed to the gameplay. The games utilize exploration and survival mechanics to propel players through the story. Searching and discovering areas and solving puzzles are key to both franchises. Much of this also involves backtracking, meaning getting to one side of the map to activate something that then means you have to go all the way back to find a key item to advance.
Resident Evil frequently features puzzles that require finding different keys to open other areas, most famously in the second game. Throughout the police station in Resident Evil 2, numerous locked doors require finding suite keys that match the suits in a deck of cards. These doors are often found long before the keys can be discovered, meaning that returning to previously visited areas is a large part of the gameplay. This kind of backtracking and puzzle-solving is hard to pull off in a passive medium like film. Yes, you want the audience to be engaged with the action on screen, but it’s a different thing getting them to follow a character and plot back and forth on cinematic fetch quests.
Studios Can’t Balance the Camp and Scares
There’s no denying that Resident Evil is played for scares, especially in the earliest and newest entries in the franchise. However, as the series went on, elements of the games became campier. The first game played almost entirely as a straight twist on the traditional haunted house story with an isolated mansion filled with zombies and ghouls. It played like a horror escape room where the threat was all too real.
The second game retained much of this feeling, with a large portion of play time being confined to the bafflingly labyrinthine police station. Here, the series starts to take some quite large leaps into camp. Cartoonishly evil villains like RPD Police Chief Irons, his ludicrous taxidermy collection, and 80s B movie monsters like William Birkin are just two examples of the series’ flirtation with camp.
What makes the early games in the series so iconic is their balancing act between absolute nonsense and genuine terror. The zombie reveal in the first Resident Evil game has gone down in history as one of the scariest moments in gaming. On the flip side of that, there are moments like Barry exclaiming, “You were almost a Jill sandwich!” later in the series, things like Chris Redfield punching a boulder have become comedic threads referenced in other entries.
There’s already a plethora of movie and television adaptations to the franchise’s name, the most recent being the poorly received Netflix show that was canceled after one season. The show seemed to be aiming for a CW Network-style approach to the franchise, starring the teenage “daughters” of Albert Wesker. The teens slowly begin to discover what their father and his employer Umbrella really do and become drawn into the world of zombies and biological warfare. The show frequently jumped between the present and the future post-zombie outbreak, following the sisters through to adulthood.
While there were some good things about the show, especially the sorely missed Lance Reddick as Wesker, it was generally flat. There were large swathes of nothing happening, and the zombie action that was depicted wasn’t scary in the least. It was predictable and poorly paced. Obviously, before this recent addition to the missteps in the RECU, the film series starring Milla Jovovich did well commercially but bore little resemblance to the actual games.
The closest that an adaptation has come to emulating the games is the 2021 film Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City, which leaned heavily into the early 90s feel of the games but messed up with poor characterization and too many basic plot changes. The worst of these sins came with how Leon Kennedy was portrayed as a bumbling comic relief character, a fundamental misstep from the writers. Everyone loves Leon. The bright-eyed rookie of Resident Evil 2 may be naïve initially, but he is never an outright idiot in the games, unlike his character in Welcome to Racoon City.
Even Animated Films Can’t Get It Right
Let’s look at the most recent entry in the animated Resident Evil universe, Resident Evil: Death Island. This universe is separate from the live-action one and sort of tangentially related to the games. The animations generally attempt to plug gaps between games or tell other stories related to the original games. Death Island does both.
The action takes place after the events of Resident Evil 2 but also features some new characters involved with the Racoon City outbreak. Through flashback, we meet two Umbrella Corporation officers deployed with their crew to help contain the situation. No team member knows the whole story, only that something is happening. Best friends JJ and Dylan are a part of the team and are overwhelmed by the T-Virus outbreak.
Flash forward to 2015, and the T-virus reappears, with all instances seemingly linked to Alcatraz. This new outbreak brings Chris and Claire Redfield, Jill Valentine, and Leon Kennedy together to solve the case and prevent yet another global outbreak of zombies. Of course, the villain is one of the best friends from the beginning, with a massively convoluted and nonsensical reason for wanting to infect the world.
It’s…well, it isn’t good. The film is a prime example of all the issues that have plagued the adaptations of Resident Evil. It goes too far in one direction, in this case, ludicrously over-the-top cheese. It eschews any tension or frights in favor of bad one-liners and fan service character appearances. There is a scene where all of our favorite founding four are battling a gigantic T-Virus mutation (yes, it is also the bad guy but mutated, like usual) that is so ridiculous that I had to pause.
It is slow-motion Avengers-style action where they all do ridiculous acrobatics to dodge the creature. Then they all use progressively larger and more stupid weapons to fight the mutant, all scored with terrible Marvel moviesque music. It dances on the edge of parodying its own franchise, occasionally slipping off the edge, which is a constant issue with any of the adaptations. Studios don’t know how to straddle the line effectively between horror and camp. This is bizarre because it is done so effectively in so many films and television shows, so some filmmakers know how to do it.
What adaptations of Resident Evil need to do is stop trying to please everyone all at once. You can’t. It is impossible. If a pitch-perfect Resident Evil 2 film was made, there would still be people that hate it. Studios are also weirdly apprehensive about horror. Recent years have shown that horror can do big box office numbers. There’s no need to sway so far into the comedy/absurd aspects of the franchise. Is Resident Evil quite absurd at times? Yes, but the best entries are also well-balanced between terror and nonsense, and so far, no adaptation has managed this.