It begins as so many of its ilk do: faceless, corporate overlords observing the demise of their employees. Like a butcher watching a slaughterhouse go to work, they’re dispassionate as viral antibodies give way to viral zombies, which even further give way to copious amounts of gratuitous, viral-infected gore. This kind of opening could potentially describe any of the Resident Evil films directed and/or written by Paul W.S. Anderson. But it is also the start of a different type of Resident Evil film. George A. Romero’s Resident Evil film, to be exact… The zombie movie that wasn’t.
Yep, back when Anderson was still “the Mortal Kombat guy” in Hollywood, as opposed to the nominally more respected “Resident Evil guy,” and Milla Jovovich was leading Luc Besson’s ill-fated Joan of Arc movie, the director of Night of the Living Dead was poised to write and direct the first Resident Evil movie. And it would have been decidedly closer to the video game franchise than any film featuring Jovovich’s Alice lost in Anderson’s preposterous Wonderland. So what happened, and why did the master who inspired all modern zombie movies get replaced with the writer/director of Event Horizon? Join us as we revisit this missed opportunity.
Sony Pictures and Capcom tapping Romero for Resident Evil was an obvious no-brainer from the beginning. As the writer/director of the “Dead Trilogy”—Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985)—Romero was the grandfather to the zombie subgenre which has broken into the mainstream in the 21st century with massive hits like The Walking Dead on TV and World War Z at the summer box office.
But back in 1998, zombie movies were still on the fringe, even if they were beginning to become synonymous with A-list video game titles, including most notably Capcom’s Resident Evil. Titled Biohazard in Japan, the video game was revolutionary in its popularization of “survival horror”—where the goal is simply to survive a horde of enemies as opposed to defeating them. And while it added a very ‘90s-flavored suspicion of government/corporate conspiracies, as well as science fiction rationalizations for the biblical nightmare of the dead rising from their graves, it was still deeply entrenched in Romero’s vision of zombies as mindless beasties who have a craving for brains that they just can’t quit.
Additionally, in lieu of the Resident Evil 2 game dropping into Japanese stores in 1998, Capcom hired the undead auteur to direct a live-action TV commercial that showcased the game’s concept: A rookie cop and a young civilian woman are trapped in the Raccoon City Police Department with hell’s army at the gates. In many ways, the below 30-second TV spot, even with its intentionally campy colors and overly young actors, remains the closest that Resident Evil purists have ever come to a faithful adaptation of their games.
So in 1999, Sony officially greenlit Romero’s take on the material, suggesting he’d be filming his first major Hollywood studio effort in almost 20 years. This, of course, never came to pass. Luckily, Romero’s fundamental interpretation of the game franchise remains available for any interested fan or journalist (like ourselves) via his first draft of the screenplay, which is dated Oct. 7, 1998. Admittedly, we have only read this first draft, which could have changed considerably before Romero was officially bounced off the project sometime in 2000. Nevertheless, it offers a singularly different big screen take on Resident Evil… one that doesn’t feature a woman in a short skirt karate kicking a zombie dog in the face.
For research, Romero had required his secretary to play through the entire first 1996 game multiple times, videotaping her progress so he could understand how the Capcom title emulated and diverged from his own zombie films. Consequently, Romero’s Resident Evil script includes all of the major characters from that game, including Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine, Albert Wesker, Barry Burton, Rebecca Chambers, and Brad Vickers. It even includes a highly revised take on Ada Wong from Resident Evil 2, and story elements from both that game and the then-forthcoming Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.
Thus right off the bat, the script accomplishes a small task of simply including game characters in substantial roles and recreating major plot points, a ground-level bar that Anderson’s 2002 Resident Evil film completely failed to clear, and its sequels barely did better when they often reduced gamer favorites to token sidekick roles while Jovovich got to do all the fun stuff.
Still, if this script had been filmed in an alternate universe, I suspect there would still be plenty of hand-wringing on the internet, not least of which would be due to curious changes like moving Raccoon City and the fateful Arklay Mansion from Colorado to Pennsylvania (Romero’s home state), and changing protagonist Chris Redfield from a leader of the special police division S.T.A.R.S. to an outsider and farmer who is half-Mohawk. Yet, that latter change is one of the few concessions to Romero’s better instincts as a storyteller.
Indeed, Romero’s tastes are overall generally muted in the tone of the screenplay. Whereas his original zombie movies are often worshipped to hyperbolic levels due to their savvy and confrontational politics, there is little to no social commentary in the Resident Evil script. Rather, this is obviously meant to be a big, expensive piece of escapism that while clearly planted in the filmmaker’s gruesome horror roots, still embraces a surprising amount of action movie influence. In fact, it is every bit as informed by the plot of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) as the final Anderson movie is: Both have special forces going into underground labs on a simple mission that goes very wrong. By relying on a straightforward survivalist story as its only momentum, Romero attempted to make something far lighter and more commercial than anything in his existing oeuvre.
The choice of turning Chris Redfield into part-Native American would never be accepted in 2017 with its depiction of the hero as a noble soul of bucolic tranquility; he’s so in-tuned with nature that he’s even introduced as sneaking out at night to watch eagles make their annual nocturnal pilgrimage to the nearby woods. Still, by not making Chris one of the team, he is as much an outsider of S.T.A.R.S. as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was with the space marines in Aliens or, admittedly, Jovovich’s Alice was with the Umbrella stooges in the actual first RE movie.
But, unlike what came after him, Romero further exploits this aspect to create several dynamic tensions between his characters that are not present in the games, nor later films. In Romero’s screenplay, Chris is the local boyfriend to Jill Valentine. Her first scene is him sneaking back into their shared bed to offer some rather banal dialogue about potential marital bliss. Tension quickly bubbles, however, because Chris is oblivious to the fact that Jill is really a S.T.A.R.S. agent, which instead of being an elite SWAT force like in the games, are now an even more elite military operation that does covert wet work.
Jill’s responsibility is to maintain security of the Arklay Mansion, so when the T-virus inevitably gets out and starts turning the mansion’s Umbrella Corporation staff into the living dead, the beret goes on and her allegiances shift. In fact, the film’s melodrama is driven by two dynamics: The first is that Jill is really a secret badass, which is an affront to Chris’ anti-authoritarian sensibilities—think a reversal of True Lies—and that she has more loyalty to her commanding officer Albert Wesker. The three of them form an odd kind love triangle, even though there is no romance between Jill and Wesker, just militaristic devotion.
That is also where Romero’s one bit of cynicism occurs since the writer really hammers down on the militarism of Wesker in the film’s other bemusing stab at drama—Wesker’s relationship with Barry. In the script, Barry is an old Army vet and described in such a fashion as one imagines Romero had Michael Clarke Duncan in mind. He and Wesker are childhood friends, and served together in Grenada and the Gulf War, where Wesker apparently saved Barry’s life. So there is a legitimate friendship that is tested with soapy pathos when Wesker is inevitably revealed to be a mole for the Umbrella Corporation, the evil multinational that’s responsible for all this carnage.
Wesker is the best character in the piece, developed to be a hardass but still a generically affable American action hero who tries to save the lives of his men several times. As in the original game, he turns out to be a traitor (which is still telegraphed due to his wearing douchey sunglasses at night), but not because he is a secret mad scientist out to test zombies on his S.T.A.R.S. compatriots. Instead, he’s just a corrupt government man who’s sold his soul to get rich. After he and his team are attacked by zombie dogs (like in the game) and seek shelter in the mansion, he lies that there is a cure for Umbrella’s T-virus at the bottom of the mansion in a secret laboratory. In reality, it’s just data on Umbrella’s Tyrant program.
Consequently, there are a few moments of dramatic tension when Jill must decide whether to help Wesker, and share in her C.O.’s new fortune, or stay loyal to the pure-hearted Chris, who has broken into the mansion and wound up as part of the team trying to survive. Barry also must choose whether to let his old friend get away with helping cover up the tracks of the company whose carelessness caused this zombie outbreak. They ultimately make the right choices, and Wesker winds up killing Barry before being both skewered and decapitated by the Tyrant monster’s giant claws during a particularly brutal failed escape by the villain in the film’s third act.
To be clear, this is not to say the script has high-stakes drama. These are simply the few elements where Romero attempts to tell a story. Still, even as they derive from conventional plotting and archetypal shorthand (it’s “Aliens meets True Lies meets Day of the Dead”), the approach is more effective than the meager attempt by Anderson to ape The Matrix’s action and the amnesiac “who am I” trope that was so popular in the late ‘90s with films like Dark City, Fight Club, and Memento.
The rest of Romero’s Resident Evil plays out like the best hits of the games. Elements from later games include the S.T.A.R.S. investigation beginning with the evacuation of Raccoon City, which was the backdrop of the second two playable installments. The script also rather awkwardly ends on the heroes not only blowing up the mansion, but all of Raccoon City, which would become the finale of Resident Evil 3 in 1999, when Capcom enjoyed some schadenfreude by depicting the horrors of nuclear devastation in an American backdrop (in the script, it’s countless explosives placed underneath the mansion and city by Umbrella with the U.S. government’s consent).
Between this beginning and end, it is the aforementioned characters plus a lot of generic, monstrously written red shirts who are waiting around to die. These include a blatant rip-off of the Vasquez character from Aliens named Rosie Rodriguez here. But since the Anderson film also ripped that character off with Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), perhaps Sony just really liked her? There are also other characters given no more description than “regular G.I. Joe types.”
The entire cast enjoys questionable dialogue too. For instance, upon finding the mutilated corpses of their dead comrades, the bit players act not in anger, horror, or confusion, but with winsome gems like this: “You ever eat roadkill, Sullivan?” / “Aiken… a guy with a brain your size would be better off dead.”
I also was fond of groaning at Jill saying, “There’s no ‘I’ in team, Chris.” His response? “There’s no ‘I’ in dead either.”
Ultimately, Romero’s film never came to fruition. By 2000, he was gone from the project, and years later, Capcom producer Yoshiki Okamoto claimed to Electronic Gaming Monthly that “his script wasn’t good, so Romero was fired.”
While I’d hardly disagree that on the whole that the script was anything special, this statement is suspicious, especially given the level of mediocrity that drifted far further afield from the games in future Resident Evil movies. Hence, I suspect Romero was closer to the truth in his statements from 2000. During an interview with DGA Magazine, Romero said, “I don’t think they were into the spirit of the video game and wanted to make it more of a war movie; something heavier than I thought it should be. So I think they just never liked my script.”
The draft I read of George A. Romero’s Resident Evil clearly needed revision. The dialogue should’ve been mostly jettisoned from the first scene, and the film often bit off more than it could chew. It also disappointingly underuses the mansion, although not as much as Paul W.S. Anderson did. However, it is better structured than any of the Anderson RE screenplays (particularly the meandering sequels), and remains firmly set in horror.
It might be intense survivalist action in the Cameron mold, but it does so with maximum grisliness. Anderson’s script was also influenced by the Cameron film, but focused on kung-fu wire effects and only had one non-zombie threat in its first meagerly budgeted effort, the Licker from Resident Evil 2. By contrast, Romero’s script had all the monsters from the first game: zombies, the Tyrant, the reptilian ‘Hunters,’ zombie dogs, zombie sharks, zombie plants, and even a giant zombie snake.
The truth is that its approach was both less action-friendly and also far more expensive than what Anderson pitched. In its current form, Romero’s Resident Evil read like a $100-plus million movie. The cult director never worked with a budget that high, and the first actual RE movie had a $33 million allowance in total. Also, instead of slick Wachowski-inspired action scenes, Romero wrote about Chris Redfield cutting open a giant snake to find a half-digested friend having his face melted by stomach acids, and a plant that’s touch would cause another human being’s skin to “turn the color of parchment” as his blood was slowly sucked out.
It is easy to imagine a scenario where a script that expensive, and so unlike the kind of genre fare popular at the turn of the millennium, was simply dropped for something far more generic and cheap. That is not to say elements couldn’t have been reduced—I imagine if Romero directed the film, zombie sharks would be out, the destruction of Raccoon City would be scrapped, and he’d have to choose between the giant plant or the giant snake—but it really wasn’t written like a B-actioner, even if the characters spoke with such cadences.
Then again, Romero never did work with a budget of that scale. The above television commercial for Resident Evil 2 suggests he intrinsically understood the visual affectation fans enjoyed, but he always filmed from conservative resources. And his actual next zombie movie, Land of the Dead (2005), while rich in anti-Bush symbolism, was no more coherent and probably less exciting than at least Anderson’s first Resident Evil film. I’d even concede Anderson did a few things better than Romero’s screenplay, such as his own take on a laser booby trap, and the Licker showdown in the actual film being more satisfying than the one with the Tyrant in this script.
Finally, even if she isn’t in the games, making Alice the feminine lead of an action film instead of Chris Redfield was a positive thing to put out in the world… especially for those of us who always preferred Jill Valentine to Chris, anyway.
Hence, could Romero have really made S.T.A.R.S. and their berets work onscreen or look as nifty as Michelle Rodriguez dripping blood on zombies? Obviously, we’ll never know, but Sony/Screen Gems have now made six films out of the Anderson template. So for those most concerned, the poison chosen went viral in the exact right way.