Luke Owen on the George A. Romero Resident Evil movie we never got to see…
NOTE: I can’t remember the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead, but it has stuck with me for my entire life. Dawn of the Dead is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Romero was more than just “the zombie guy”, but it was his movies that influenced myself as a young filmmaker. My first attempt at a mini-feature was The Good, The Bad and The Undead, a zombie movie heavily inspired by Romero’s work. When making the movie we cast sixth-formers from my old school (where we shot the film) as extras, and I went into their assembly to show them the end of Day of the Dead, essentially to show what we intended to emulate. So, as a tribute to the great man, here’s a sample from my book Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!: How Video Game Movies Get Made which looks at the Resident Evil movie he nearly made. Enjoy.
‘Survival Horror’ was a term that didn’t really exist in video games before the release of Capcom’s Resident Evil for the Sony PlayStation, but the genre can be traced back to the early 1980s. Malcolm Evan’s 3D Monster Maze sees the player escape from a T-rex without a weapon in a first-person environment, while Haunted House for the Atari 2600 displayed many attributes that would later be attached to modern-day survival horror titles. These games, and others like it, took inspiration from Japanese horror movies and even slasher genre pictures like Halloween and Friday the 13th in an effort to replicate the fear one would feel when going to the cinema, only this time in the comfort of your own home. But the game that most consider to the first true Survival Horror game was Capcom’s Sweet Home for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1989. The game saw a player navigate through a house and solve puzzles while battling hordes of terrifying monsters, backed-up by a story that explains the house’s 50 year history through scattered diary entries. The game was all about survival. If one of your characters died, that was it – and it would affect the ending you would get upon completion. As the mid-90s rolled around, Capcom would look to replicate the success of Sweet Home by remaking it for Sony’s PlayStation, but instead it became its own property named Biohazard in Japan and Resident Evil everywhere else. The Survival Horror genre was born. “Resident Evil followed a parallel boom in gory M-rated disc-based releases around the same time,” George Weidman, YouTube’s SuperBunnyHop, argues, “but Japan beat the rest of the world to the punch in the 80’s with spooky – and oftentimes bloody – PC graphic adventure games like The Portopia Serial Murder Case and Carmine X1, as well as Sweet Home.”
Resident Evil borrowed many aspects of Sweet Home for its gameplay. Players had a limited inventory space to store items, a mansion setting and death animations played when a character was a killed. It also offered multiple endings, depending on their actions throughout the game which saw you play as either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, two S.T.AR.S. officers from Raccoon City who find themselves in a giant maze-like mansion while investigating reports of people being eaten alive. As the game progresses and more puzzles are solved, the players must survive the onslaught of rabid zombies that are walking the halls while discovering the truth behind The Umbrella Corporation’s experiments on a biological weapon known as the T-Virus. Released in 1996, Resident Evil was heavily praised by critics and gamers. It was a best seller in the US and was one of the top selling games overall for the PlayStation in the year of its release. “Though Resident Evil’s visual design is very Western – operating almost identically to the French Alone In the Dark – the idea of making a terrifying and gory video game for adults was historically a more Japanese concept at the time,” Weidman adds. “And the juxtaposition between Japanese and American aesthetics throughout the series is a big factor to what I think has made it so endearing.” Like Mortal Kombat, Night Trap and Doom, the game was criticized by certain portions of the media for its gory violence, but even then they could see past its red-coated exterior. “I tried to hate it with its graphic violence, rampant sexism, poor voice acting and use of every horror cliché,” Computer Gaming World said of the PC version in 1998. “However, it’s actually fun.” The game would spawn a sequel two years later, and before long it was one of the biggest gaming franchises in history. “Clearly the makers of the game had been inspired by the movies that I loved,” Paul W.S Anderson says of the games. “There were clear influences from Fulchi and George Romero in the first two games. And then the second game had big chunks of John Carpenter – Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York – they were in the second game. The way the camera moved was very Halloween-esque.”
So much of an influence was George A. Romero and his trilogy of zombie movies – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead – that Capcom asked him to produce and direct a commercial for the release of Resident Evil 2. “What we were trying to do for this commercial was to make it look like a movie,” Romero said in the commercial’s Making Of documentary. “We wanted to produce it very much like a movie. I loved making the movies, and it’s great there’s a game that’s a flashback to that genre.” He adds: “It was like a small motion picture shoot. We had extras playing the zombies and a few people who were experienced playing zombies, and the actors Brad Renfro and Adrianne [Frantz] have experience, so it’s like working with an actual cast.”
Impressed with the commercial and his passion for the games, German producer Bernd Eichinger of Constantin Films looked to hire Romero after securing the rights to make a movie based on the Resident Evil franchise in 1998. Initially he had hired Alan B. McElroy, best known for the comic book adaptation Spawn and Halloween 4: Return of Michael Myers, but his script wasn’t working out. Given Romeo’s connection to the genre and experience from the Resident Evil 2 commercial, Eichinger decided to abandon the McElroy script and go in a new direction. With a third game on the way, the Resident Evil franchise was only going to get bigger, and Eichinger knew a movie directed by the master of the zombie genre would be a sure-fire success. Like the commercial, Romero was keen to capture the spirit of the first Resident Evil game and during an appearance in Universal Studio’s Talk City chatroom, he told fans that he got his secretary to play through the first game and record it so he could use as a reference for his script.
Romero delivered his first draft for Resident Evil on October 7th, 1998. It plays very similar to the first Resident Evil game in that it’s set in the Arklay Mansion and features several characters from both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2, but there are some slight tweaks. It centers around Chris Redfield, a native-Indian, and his girlfriend Jill Valentine, a member of the special-ops team S.T.A.R.S. Jill gets called in for a job at the Arklay Mansion to rescue a scientist named Marcus, and Chris, worried about an increase of dead animals in the local area, rides off to his family farm to find out what’s going on. They meet up again at the Mansion and along with the other S.T.A.R.S. members including Barry Burton and Albert Wesker, and discover the place is filled with zombies. As they work their way through the various “levels”, they encounter and fight off hordes of zombies, zombie dogs, green beasts known as Hunters, zombie sharks, a ginormous man-eating plant and a giant snake. When they discover that Marcus is dead, they are told by another scientist named Ada Wong that Umbrella had been conducting experiments to create a biological weapon known as the T-Virus, which was now escaping into the water supply. They also discover that Albert Wesker, the man leading the team, was working for Umbrella the entire time, and he unleashes a creature known as Tyrant, a hulking beast with one giant claw hand who kills Wesker before escaping to the roof. As Chris, Jill and Ada make their way to a helicopter on the roof, Chris kills The Tyrant with a rocket launcher provided by Jill. But as they fly away from the Mansion, they see that Raccoon City is being taken over by zombies, and there is seemingly no escape.
“First and foremost, this script is much more faithful to the video game in that it is essentially a movie adaptation of the first game” blogger Arrow84 notes in his review of the script for Channel Awesome. “However, the speed that the script moves along with is also a detriment to it as some concepts and ideas that could use a bit more explanation or exposition are really just glossed over. Strangely enough, most of what works well for the script could also be considered as working against the movie. It features the characters from the game but alters them, some in minor ways, others is major ways. The script has a very diverse group of monsters to the point that they are really only around for one or two scenes before we move on to the next threat. Other than the zombies, hunters, and Tyrant none of the creatures are in more than one scene.”
Romero felt that Capcom were very happy with the script that but Eichinger had reservations. While he knew the script needed to be gory to pay tribute to the games, Romero’s vision for Resident Evil was far too NC-17 for his liking. As AintitCool’s Quint notes in his 2000 review of the script, “There’s a horse that tries to stand after it’s been mauled and its intestines fall out. There’s about 50 zombie headshots, there are legs ripped off, animal body parts which are trying to crawl, a zombie dog eats out somebody’s heart through the poor bastard’s back. Lots of zombie bites. Another zombie appears suddenly biting out the muscle between the shoulder and the neck. A zombie bites someone’s cheek off. Hunks of flesh are torn from arms, legs, etc. There’s a zombie that gets melted by acid, but still comes after the group because the acid hasn’t reached its brain yet. A man is half digested by a huge snake. The Hunters go to work on an unlucky bastard with their metallic claws. The Tyrant skewers a few people with his huge, bionic hand. The wonderful world of Romero.” While it may have been in-keeping with the video game, Eichinger was simply not a fan of violent movies. “Romero does indeed let heads burst like melons, something you don’t see every day,” he said in an interview with German magazine Spiegel Online. “Seriously, I will put it into context, it is of course in the nature of the genre, that there’s a lot of violence going on. Violence for me [is] something else; if pointless blood spurts out [of a decapitation] and is done as if it were real, I hate that. Equally when hands are cut off people with chainsaws in films.”
Progression on Resident Evil went cold after Romero penned a couple more drafts of his script. In 1999, he told The Chicago Tribune that, “it’s just been a mess. I did a bunch of drafts of the script and, you know, the same Hollywood story. I don’t know if it’s dead or what.” Just a few weeks later, Capcom producer Yoshiki Okamoto told Electronic Gaming Monthly that Romero had been officially fired from the project, but several websites noted that he was still involved in some capacity. Several names cropped up to replace him including Blade’s Steve Norrington and Urban Legend’s Jamie Blanks as well as Paul W.S. Anderson, who was best known for his adaptation of Mortal Kombat in 1995. “I didn’t want to do another video game movie because Mortal Kombat had been such a huge success, and I didn’t really want to revisit that territory, but I just fell in love with the games,” Anderson says. “And not just the games themselves, but also the source material the games were based upon.”
Romero confirmed with DGA Magazine in February 2000 that he was no longer working on the Resident Evil movie, and said that a difference of opinion is what finally pushed him out. “We thought it was a shoo-in,” Romero says. “I thought Capcom loved it, everybody loved the script. But the guy that runs Constantin, it just wasn’t the way he wanted to go. I don’t think he knew anything about video games, or anything else. This is the guy that made House of the Spirits and I don’t think he knew [what] the spirit of the video game was meant to be.” Alan Bryce, editor of horror magazine The Dark Side noted to British newspaper The Independent that Romero directing a movie based on Resident Evil was essentially redundant and felt he was better off moving on. “As Resident Evil is, in effect, the game of Night of the Living Dead, making a film of it seems a fairly pointless exercise,” he said. “And as the computer game audience is made up of young people, the companies which produce them are going to want a movie that gets a 12 or a 15 certificate. They won’t want someone like Romero to make a really horrific, scary, terrifying film that can only be shown to people over 18 and would run into censorship problems in some countries. I’d bet that the film of Resident Evil will never get made.”
Without knowing it, Bryce was nearly correct as Constantin Films were getting ready to let go of the option to Resident Evil following Romero’s exit from the project. However Anderson convinced them to keep hold of them. “There was another option payment they were about to make, and they had kind of lost faith in the property,” he recalls. “They had decided that it just wasn’t going to become a movie. They were about to let go of it and I said, ‘no don’t do that – I really love it let’s do it together’. And they said, ‘well that sounds great, but we’ve spent so much money on it and we don’t want to spend any money’. And I said, ‘that’s okay, I’ll write the screenplay on spec’.” Anderson penned a script titled Undead, which follows the same basic premise of the story that would become the first Resident Evil movie, and sent to Eichinger to see if he wanted to option it. “I said that if they liked it, we can rename it Resident Evil and we can go and make it,” he says. “And if not, I’ve got a good Undead movie and I’ll go and make it with other people. So I wrote the screenplay and they loved it and we moved forward on that basis.” Happy with Anderson’s draft, French producer Samuel Hadida and his company Metropolitan Filmexport stepped in to pay for the new rights fee. When it came to writing Undead, Anderson had decided not to read Romero’s script as he wanted his take to be as different as possible. “I felt that if they liked the earlier drafts, they would have made them,” he says. “I didn’t want to get into too much detail on why they didn’t like them, because they had spent money on them and no one likes to throw money away. And I didn’t want to read something they were unhappy with.”
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth, the co-host of the Flickering Myth Podcast and the author of Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!: How Video Game Movies Get Made (which you can pre-order from Amazon UK and Amazon US). You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen.