From Alice to Zombies: Rewatching the Resident Evil Movies

The Resident Evil series is currently taking its final gore-soaked-slow motion-wirework-Kung fu bow. It’s quietly one of the oddest franchise success stories in horror, not least because it’s a six-movie series with a female lead in a genre where women still tend to appear either as victims or scenery with dialogue. But the franchise is also notable because of its odd relationship with its subject matter, its total inability to back away from a bad stunt, and for just how grim the films are.

To prepare for one last trip to the Hive, I pre-gamed the first five movies. Here’s what’s I found.

(Warning: Spoilers for all five previous Resident Evil films below.)

Bad news first: anyone wanting an adaptation of the games is going to be very disappointed. The movies, after the relatively well-behaved first and second installments, deviate with gleeful, spandex-and-leather-clad delight from the Resident Evil games as fast as they possibly can. Oh sure, you still get elements here and there; the Umbrella Corporation are the recurrent bad guys, and Ada, Leon, Chris, Jill, Barry, Claire and others all make major appearances, but these movies are more remixes than adaptations. In fact, think of these less as adaptations and more as movies infected with the same t-Virus as the games but mutating along radically different lines.

One of the biggest deviations? Gore, or the frequent lack thereof. It’s there, but once past the gnarly physicality of the first two movies, the series dials it right down. The good news, though, is that the films dial the fight choreography up. And the best news is the Resident Evil movies learned early the lesson everyone else needed John Wick to be reminded of: let your stunt people work and sandbag the damn camera down. The “Alice and her meteor hammer versus Tokyo Zombies” corridor fight in the fifth movie is an especially good example of this—not only is a good chunk of the fight performed by Jovovich herself but the whole thing plays out with a really nicely-realised, escalating sense of scale and pace that demonstrates just how good Alice is (and just how little that matters). It’s violence as character and punctuation, which is a little like having your cake and kicking it into someone else’s face in slow motion, too.

Milla Jovovich stars in Screen Gems' action horror RESIDENT EVIL RETRIBUTION.

This “give with one hand, palm strike with the other” approach is pretty much standard for the entire series. For every well-put-together fight there’s a moment of massively obvious wirework. For every impressive action beat, there’s a 3D shot done for no reason other than they can.

The same applies to characterization, too. Let’s be clear: this is a six-movie, commercially successful action film franchise with not one but three (and a half—Michelle Rodriguez is only in two movies) female leads. Alice, Claire, and even Jill, Ada, and Rain are given screen time, varying levels of depth and absolute physical competency. That’s not just impressive; it’s revolutionary. And the fact that it’s revolutionary is very sad. (But who knows, maybe we will finally get that Black Widow solo movie one day, right after Marvel crunches the numbers juuuuuust one more time…)

The downside to the characterisation is that outside the female leads, it can be pretty terrible. On the one hand, isn’t it kind of nice to be able to make that complaint, for once? On the other, when it’s bad, it’s BAD. L.J., played by Omar Epps in Apocalypse and Afterlife, is both charming and a walking checklist of Black Guy In Horror Movie Stereotypes. Similarly, minor female characters are almost always toast within seconds, and everyone tends to have their personalities dictated by their job title. Bradley is a producer, so of course he’s evil. Luther is a former basketball player so of course he’s a physically-gifted natural leader. Spence is James Purefoy so OF COURSE he’s evil, and so on.

Then there’s the costuming, which varies from the delightfully practical to the “no, seriously, what?!” The fifth movie in particular has Alice and Jill poured into bodysuits, one of which is unzipped, for no reason other than…well clearly it’s—LOOK, A ZOMBIE, RUN!

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Joking aside, and on the other side of that particular blood-soaked coin, Alice spends five movies kicking zombie ass in totally practical shoes, which you have to respect. Plus, that combat boots/diagonal cut evening dress/leather jacket outfit she has in the first movie? EPIC.

Looked at this way, you could be forgiven for thinking the series is built on shaky ground. A nodding acquaintance with its source material, trope-o-rama minor characters, and an occasional reluctance to get its hands dirty isn’t exactly the best foundation for a horror movie franchise. The reality, happily, is very different.

Resident Evil is the most well-behaved film of the series. It’s also a pretty solid single location early 21st-century horror movie, the sort of thing Blumhouse would turn out a few times a year right now. Alice, played by Jovovich, wakes up in the shower with no memory of who or where she is. She finds a keycoded gun drawer in her dresser, an AMAZINGLY badass dress and pair of combat boots on the bed, a mysterious note, and a lot of soldiers smashing through the windows. They open the secret door in her closet that leads to the Hive and we’re off to the races. The shambling, angry, homicidal races…

There’s a lot of genuinely smart visual stuff in this journey deep into the heart of Umbrella’s laughably bad ideas. The opening sequence, where a sunny cityscape is revealed to be window dressing for the underground Hive is nicely handled, as is the later moment where Alice remembers what happened and the lab fades from devastated wreck to vibrant workplace around her. Paul Anderson has never been less than fun as a director and he tries some genuinely new stuff here that works really well. He also stages the set piece laser/chicken wire moment with the sort of clinical aplomb that makes censors happy and gore-hungry teenaged audiences just happy enough. The cast are rock solid, too, with James Purefoy, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Salmon, and Eric Mabius all turning in fun performances. Plus it’s hard to not love a movie that involves a homicidal AI in the form of a little girl (aka the Red Queen).

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But the star here is Jovovich. Sneer all you want at how one-note the characters are, but she anchors the entire franchise, physically and emotionally, starting with this first film. Alice’s gradually resurfacing combat training leads to some really solid moments of human-on-zombie martial arts, and her growing comfort with her skills and situation cleverly mirrors the audience’s own. By the end of the movie, Alice has got this. And so have you.

And the script is actually quite good. There’s a puzzle box element to it which unfolds across the entire film and plays a lot like its stylistic contemporary, Cube. You have no idea what’s going on; neither does Alice, and the combination of the vaguely surreal environment with the up close and personal undead gives the filming a pleasingly claustrophobic feel. The actual zombie attacks are well handled, too, and the untidy, slow way their victims turn is way more visceral than you’d expect. This isn’t quite a “nobody learns anything, everybody dies” film, but it’s damn close. Plus the ending—with an injured, traumatised Alice facing off against a devastated Raccoon City with nothing but a shotgun, a lab coat, and a bad attitude—is top pulpy fun.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse is the direct sequel, arguably the closest to the games in style and tone, and directed by Alexander Witt instead of Anderson. It’s…for want of a better word, odd. The best way to describe it is like a Michael Crichton novel filmed for TV, then given a last minute budget boost for a movie release. There are parts that are aggressively, egregiously bad, many of them unfolding in the sort of slow motion footage Bonnie Tyler used to waft through while yelling about heroes back in the early 1980s. It also features the much-loved Nemesis from Resident Evil 3, some massively ill-advised wirework, and a slight sense of the whole thing being done on the fly.

But what works, here, works really well. As Raccoon City falls, Umbrella evacuate vital personnel, one of whom is Dr. Ashford, the inventor of the Red Queen. Desperate to rescue his daughter, trapped somewhere in the city, Ashford tasks Alice, cops Peyton Wells and Jill Valentine, and a STARS team led by Carlos Oliveira (Oded Fehr! Getting to be the good guy again! Yaaaay!) with finding her. The end result smartly drives home the scale of the Raccoon City disaster as the groups converge, and also gives the series a chance to conduct the first of its several cast expansions.

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Sienna Guillory is great as Jill, who really does look like she walked out of the games and refreshingly asks the questions we would in this situation (usually “What the fuck is going on?” Followed by shooting at the answer). Razaaq Adoti is great as Wells, too—although the moment you see him bitten you know the way it’s going to go. Elsewhere in the cast, Sandrine Holt and Thomas Kretschmann have fun and Jared Harris does his usual Jared Harris thing as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Ashford. Throw in a cameo from Iain Glen as future antagonist Dr. Isaacs and a couple of pleasingly hands-on fight scenes and you’ve got a fun way to kill 90 minutes but not much more than that, although the truly horrible reveal of what happened to Matt from the original movie is a nicely executed shot to the liver.

So, two movies in, the series has pretty much set out its stall, and that stall is selling fun mainstream action horror and really, really terrible adaptations of the original games. Items and monsters are picked and chosen as needed and, with Raccoon City destroyed, the series is now free to go places the games haven’t.

And it does. So much so, in fact, that the third movie does the cinematic equivalent of kicking a hole in the speaker, pulling the plug, and jetting.

Resident Evil: Extinction opens years after the second movie. The world has ended. Alice rides the wastelands, alone because of the Godlike superpowers that Umbrella gave her at the end of Apocalypse and terrified that she’ll be forced to use those powers against the people she cares for. It has all gone very Mad Max indeed.

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That is until fate brings her back to the convoy Carlos and L.J. have joined. A convoy led by Claire Redfield (hi Claire!) and staffed by a wide variety of entertaining and clearly disposable newbies (hey guys! Don’t start any long books!) The band are back together, but L.J. has been bitten, Isaacs is cloning Alice for a deeply sadistic set of experiments, and the virus is everywhere…

Extinction is where the positive elements of the franchise really come to the fore. Firstly, this is a GRIM series. We lose at least one major character per movie and even if we didn’t, the world the films are set in really is a Leonard Cohen lyric. The war is over. The good guys lost. Now the only people left aren’t even trying to survive anymore, but simply trying to get to the end of the day. There are a couple of lovely grace notes here that really show just how bad things have got: a running gag involves one of Claire’s drivers being able to tell what’s in a blank food can by shaking it, and, later the convoy stage a daring raid on Las Vegas for fuel. Because without fuel, you’re dead. Your journey, and your vehicle, stops. Then you do.

Then, you get back up.

This is also the best Alice movie of the first half of the franchise. Jovovich’s transformation from worried bystander to terrifying psychic badass is neatly managed, and this is the movie where her screen presence really starts having weight to it. Jovovich has an extraordinary physical work ethic and the training she’s undergone leads to some really impressive action beats. Those in turn also emphasise just how grim the series is: the Vegas massacre wipes out most of the cast, and is followed by Carlos’ heroic tanker charge in short order. All because they needed fuel.

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This really is a Mad Max level of grim and the movie sticks to the tone very well. It also cleverly contrasts Claire’s convoy’s hand to mouth existence with Isaacs’ experimentation on the zombies. He has the luxury of clinical distance and supplies. They have nothing but survival or vengeance. Even the ending, with Claire flying off to the safe zone while Alice stays behind to wage her war, is impressively Mad Maxian.

So, that’s the middle of the franchise.

Afterlife is the closest the series gets to taking things a step too far. Alice, along with the clones of herself that Isaacs was experimenting on, storms Umbrella’s Tokyo HQ to take her revenge on Wesker, Isaacs’ boss. In an action sequence that shifts from terrible CGI to terrible 3D to simply bad wirework to moments of actual jaw-dropping “WOW!”, she takes her vengeance, loses every clone, is depowered, and then apparently killed in a startlingly violent slow-mo chopper crash. Then, she walks out of the wreckage, unharmed, a few minutes later.

In the first ten minutes or so of the movie.

This is what’s technically known as a “big ask.”

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The newly human Alice then flies to Alaska, using the same coordinates she sent Claire to at the end of the last movie. The good news is that Claire is alive. The bad news is the town where they sought refuge, Arcadia, is nowhere in sight. The worse news is that Claire is a homicidal amnesiac with a cybernetic bug attached to her chest. A meaningful exchange of blows later, Alice and Claire head south, looking for signs of life. They find it in L.A. and immediately wish they hadn’t…

By this time you can see the pattern; new location, new environment, new bad guys, new disposable cast. Although this time, that cast does include the always splendid Kim Coates as a super sleazy producer and Boris Kodjoe as Luther West, former basketball star turned group leader. They’re a fun group, although the standout addition to the cast here is Wentworth Miller as Chris Redfield. Miller, in his just-pre-Captain Cold days, is great fun as is Kodjoe. The later games get their moment on screen too, with the Majini Zombies and Majini Executioner from Resident Evil 5 making appearances and being creatively annihilated.

Afterlife has, as ever, a ton of really fun ideas. There’s a multi level run-and-gun through the prison where Luther’s group are hiding that may be the best single action sequence in the series and the new “Quiet Earth” approach really gives a sense of time passing. The reveal of Arcadia being a ship is especially fun, too, although the end fight is a little dull. At least until you get to the now-obligatory sting (Hi, Jill! That does not look comfy AT ALL…)

Retribution brings us almost full circle, and it’s interesting to see the beats the movies keep returning to. We get another “Alice wakes up in captivity” sequence, a second run at Alice as mother figure, a clever revisiting of Umbrella’s fondness for clones, and a second run at the Tokyo outbreak glimpsed in the previous movie. Oh, and there’s a welcome return for the series’ favourite visual gag: zooming around a schematic of a huge underground facility and tracking our heroes through it. Not to mention an opening sequence which is a pretty massive tip of the hat to the Zack Snyder-directed Dawn of the Dead remake.

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Again, what works here is just how deeply grim the movie is: Alice is now little more than a lab rat for Umbrella, who have locked her up in a facility where they stage zombie outbreaks. The movie’s best scene has fan favourite (and arguably least-well-used female character in the movies) Ada Wong explain how Umbrella used the outbreaks to pad their bank accounts one last time via simulations run at this facility. That leads to a welcome, if under-utilised, return for Salmon, Rodriguez, and Fehr, and to urban environments functioning as this movie’s battleground of choice.

Unfortunately, Retribution is probably the least interesting of the series. Aside from some familiar elements, the connection with the games is tenuous and there’s none of the urgency or apocalyptic spectacle of Apocalypse and Afterlife. It’s still big fun but both Giullory and Rodriguez are badly under-utilised and Luther and Barry’s deaths feel cursory, in contrast to the carefully calibrated cruelty of previous cast reductions. The closing fight is great—and surprisingly gnarly for a movie with this rating—and the ending sting is huge fun, too, but getting there is surprisingly hard work.

But even then, even as the movie wraps up with the gloriously OTT image of a fortified White House as the last redoubt against the zombie hordes, the series manages to impress. Not only is this a highly successful, female-led action franchise, but it’s one that has dared to go places almost no other mainstream series has gone. We lose. The world ends, categorically, between movies two and three, and that’s incredibly brave storytelling. Especially in this medium. Better still, in an age where intellectual properties shuffle ever onwards, the simple fact that the franchise is taking a final bow speaks to just how different, and laudable, it is when compared to its peers.

So here’s to you, Alice, the ultimate survivor. Take a rest—you’ve more than earned it, and hopefully there are plenty of fun, badass action heroines ready to take your place.

Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastleCast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

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