Going Viral: How the Resident Evil series makes Big Pharma its true villain
Few invested in a zombie story or ‘franchise’ care about the exposition that undergirds the chasing, the nihilistic monologues, and the dangling viscera. Popular zombie myths have leaned on aliens (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), demons (Evil Dead), an apocalypse (Romero’s Dead series), posh animal rights activists who accidentally release a ‘rage’ virus (28 Days Later), and, presumably, Brad Pitt’s scruff (World War Z). Even the day’s zombie franchise ne plus ultra, The Walking Dead, has spent only one of its 70-odd episodes lingering on the roots of its zombie brigades.
In contrast, the previous reigning champ of the zombie world, the Resident Evil series, has fleshed out the exact origin story of its zombies — a massive, multi-national pharmaceutical company, Umbrella, engineered viruses in an attempt to create biological weapons — and, in doing so, has opened an unexpectedly political vein within the franchise’s pulsing body.
If horror focuses on the moral, science fiction hinges on the ethical and the political.
While the experience of playing Resident Evil belongs to the former genre — the debut’s most famous scene has zombie Dobermans crashing through windows in a grand, isolated Victorian mansion on a dark and spooky night# — the series’ mythology foregrounds the aims of the latter: The mansion of the first game sits above a cavernous set of Umbrella laboratories; the local SWAT team to which the game’s protagonists belong has been unknowingly sent to provide a test for the first batch of zombie bio-weapons; you find grenade launchers among candelabras; you play Moonlight Sonata to open a trick door; the team leader, a mélange of 90’s cool-bro tropes (flack jacket, aviators, slick blonde hair), turns out to be in Umbrella’s pocket. You get the idea.
The take-away, of course, is that while the zombies are bad, the Faustian old dudes at the Umbrella Corporation are the true villains.
Other games had dressed up their plots with corporate malfeasance, the original iterations of DOOM and Tekken come to mind, but Resident Evil was the first series to make a named corporation the biggest bad, and the series wisely makes Umbrella’s omnipresence in the games tangible and visible. Your character’s most powerful healing tool is a spray manufactured by Umbrella. The Umbrella logo plasters equipment, locations and uniforms. In Resident Evil 2 & 3, both of which take place in the post-zombie apocalypse Raccoon City (a name that still befuddles the mind), Umbrella drug commercials flicker on the city’s remaining televisions.
The games bend to Umbrella’s corporate shadow. RE2’s plot intimates that Umbrella has bought the city’s government and regards the city as a Levittown turned petri dish, a place where Umbrella’s experiments can have free reign. In RE3, it turns out that Umbrella has its own paramilitary branch that they’ve oh so helpfully sent in to wrangle their Übermensch-WMD-zombie, Nemesis, the game’s antagonist.
This fuller take of corporate omnipotence in RE3 serves as a thematic turning point.
The original RE was released in 1996, RE3 in 1999. The remaining sequels would all appear after 9/11 (RE4 came in 2005), after the KBR, Academi (née Blackwater), Project For a New American Century war-speculation machine whirred to public life, after forces within the Supreme Court and within the Federal Government had begun the push toward more insidious forms of corporate personhood, and after a raft of grievous breaches of ethics and controls within the pharmaceutical industry emerged. So while the distinction of the RE games themselves dropped precipitously in these more recent installments, the series’ political aims complicated.
Umbrella’s corporate venom became more realistic and more relevant. Its crimes, and the criminal world that it produced, looked disturbingly like our own. RE5, set in a fictional sub-Saharan African nation of Kijuju, presents a corporate rival to Umbrella, and though many of the game’s scenes are pockmarked by queasy racist imagery, it supplies a world more contemporary than those offered in previous installments: the Umbrella rival, Tricell, has been conducting pharmaceutical experiments on villagers for years; European companies fund militia and riddle the landscape with oil derricks; the rare plant used as the source for all the zombie viruses is exclusively found, you guessed it, in Kijuju’s caves.
Vile as the game’s images are (dangerous, magical Africa; zombie tribesmen with shields and headdresses attacking our white protagonist), many of the game’s plot points echo works like le Carré’s The Constant Gardener (and its superb 2005 film adaptation), and some of the more horrifying branches of recent scientific history. In a twisted way, the crudeness of the game makes its political threads all the more radiant.
The most recent entry in the series, RE6 offers a glimpse of the nightmarish near future that you’ve heard about from Alex Jones or from your neighborhood undergrad anarchist. The game hops among hyperlinked ‘hot-zone’ levels (big glittering Chinese city! American campus during a Presidential visit! Fictional Balkan DMZ!) all in the name of delivering Michael Bay-onic incendiary excess. A Neo-Umbrella merges a post-state technocratic fiat with a dash of master race fetishism, all happily married to a militaristic one-world order.
The viral is the corporate and the corporate is the viral.
As games, with the rare exceptions, become either more mobile and spindly or more communal and dull, the RE series and Umbrella will likely become a totem of how a game mythology shot through with a thread of politics can recall a time, a place, and a social milieu. The series cultivated the idea of the conceptual big bad, the boss that isn’t a warlock or your resurrected deformed partner or an evil scientist in a hovering egg. And other games have followed suit. Gears Of War begins as a twitch-and-cover-shooter but becomes a Conradian examination of power and empire. Hideo Kojima engineered the later entries in the Metal Gear series, from the smallest game mechanism to its overarching plot, as a lyrical reflection of the global military-industrial complex. For all its historically obsessed pseudo-mysticism, the entire Assassins Creed series is about fighting a multi-national, multi-generational corporation.
Fittingly, the only life seemingly outside Umbrella in the series has been the plant life. A reoccurring tool in each installment of the series has been the ‘green herb,’ a ubiquitous fern-ish plant that the player can use to heal. The player can mix and combine the green herb with herbs of other colors, each of which has its own healing properties. Perhaps those off-the-grid types are on to something. In face of a corporatist zombie world order, you can become your very own holistic dispensary.
After all, zombie stories live in the small victories.
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Evan McGarvey.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.