Deus ex machina: Alice’s motorbike crashes through the stained glass window of the church in Apocalypse.
Say your prayers... Alice is associated with the iconography of white European Christianity
Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alice is a slick, emotionless, "professional"…
…who combines extraordinary physical agility with cool objectivity, a distinctly "white" combination in television and film representations.
Doomed by narrative convention: Like many visible minority characters in action cinema, Officer Peyton dies first in Apocalypse.
L.J. takes his place...
...and provides some comic relief.
L.J. is presented as naturally aggressive, here administering additional kicks to a downed Umbrella Corp security guard…
…until he is stopped by Jill.
L.J. crashes his car…
…distracted by the sight of two zombie prostitutes.
Finally, however, the joke's on Umbrella Corp — or is it? L.J. is revealed to be the "chauffeur" of Umbrella’s getaway helicopter, ensuring the heroes’ escape…
…but he is the designated driver again at the end of the film. L.J.'s service role reinforces his proletarian status.
Homage to Romero - a direct visual quotation from Day of the Dead (1985)
The verité style of Resident Evil’s gruesome opening scenes...
...resonates with television images of the World Trade Center attack...
...on September 11, 2001.
The bombing of Racoon City at the end of Apocalypse also recalls familiar images of September 11…
…especially in this low-angle shot of the city streets as the bomb hits…
…and in the image of the bomb’s impact.
Resident Evil's zombies are a relatively undifferentiated mass ...
... as opposed to Romero’s "individualized" zombies. This reflects the less progressive imagining of "otherness" in the Resident Evil films.
In considering patterns of racial representation in the Resident Evil films, these racial issues must not be considered independently from considerations of gender. Although this injunction has become something of a cliché in media, film and cultural studies, it remains an important point to reinforce in general and in relation to the action film in particular. Some recent liberal accounts of the media representations of women maintain a Panglossian optimism in part by neglecting other categories of difference. For example, in addition to its progressivistic and rather undiscriminating celebration of the media’s handling of gender issues, David Gauntlett’s Media, Gender, and Identity (2002) [open works cited in new window] barely mentions racial issues — or, for that matter, considerations of social class. Yet action cinema even – or perhaps especially – when it represents women as capable and active subjects often treats racial minority characters invidiously.
Symptomatically, Resident Evil’s only black character is killed by the Hive’s defences early in the film, while the other visible minority (Latina) character, Rain, is cast in a supporting role in relation to the white heroine, Alice. The characterization of Rain as a violent woman with "attitude’– and of Alice as only belatedly vengeful – also conforms to a racist stereotype. Drawing on the work of Kimberley Springer, Charlene Tung (2000: 110) notes that in action genres, white and black bodies may not be read identically. Visible minorities, she argues, are "always already violent" owing to their supposedly "savage" ancestry, while white women need to be provoked into violent action.
It is also worth noting in this connection that white female action heroines are commonly presented as slick, emotionless and "professional." As Deneka MacDonald points out in relation to the white action heroine of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is "not allowed to get angry" (MacDonald, 2004: 116). In Resident Evil, Alice is the consummate white professional, an impartial paragon of liberal feminist rationality, the blinding whiteness of whose body presents a striking feature of the film’s promotional posters and other materials. Rain’s menacing attitude, on the other hand – signified by her nearly permanent pouting scowl – suggests that she is a creature of instinct, prone to bouts of unpredictable violence.
Racial representations in Apocalypse are equally, if not more problematic. The film once again constructs Alice as super-white, but this time through the mise-en-scène rather than through her attire. Her first appearance in the film occurs when she crashes through the stained glass window of a church on a motorbike to save Jill and her party. As her motorbike clears the altar and candles, daylight floods into the previously darkened gothic church. Later, she battles zombies who emerge from the ground in a graveyard. Thus Alice is associated not just with professional control, but also with the iconography of European (white) Christianity and even angelic heroism (for a detailed discussion of such iconography in Buffy the Vampire Slayer see Kirkland, 2005).
Visible minority characters, on the other hand, are presented rather less heroically. Early in the film, Alice tells the black police officer Peyton (Razaaq Adoti), who has been bitten by a zombie, that if he isn’t immediately destroyed by his colleagues, he will soon be dead, and is then likely to succeed in killing his colleagues. "That’s just how it is," she tells him sternly, perhaps echoing the audience’s awareness of the narrative convention that racial minorities die first in action horror films. (Compare, for example, the early demise of Poncho Ramirez, played by Richard Chaves, in John McTiernan’s 1987 film Predator). Indeed, the officer soon dies and is shot by Jill to ensure that he remains dead.
In order to fill the representational void, the film then introduces another black character, L.J. (Mike Epps). His first appearance occurs near the film's start in the police station Jill inters, where presumably he has been arrested as a criminal suspect. Yet L.J. plays remarkably little part in the action and has practically no narrative function beyond comic relief; on first meeting Jill, he tells her: "You can call me L.J., on account of the informal situation." In an early scene, he crashes his car after being distracted by the sight of two naked zombie prostitutes.
L.J. is also unnecessarily violent, shouting "Yeah! 10 points!" when he runs over a zombie in his car. Towards the end of the film, when another member of the team, Oliveira (Oded Fehr), "takes out" two of the guards around the helicopter waiting to take the survivors out of Racoon City, L.J. administers some additional kicks to the guards before Jill stops him. The scene, to be sure, is light-hearted in tone; but however comic, L.J.’s excessive violence marks him, like Rain in Resident Evil, as "naturally" aggressive.
The survivors overcome the Umbrella Corporation guards and take over the Corporation chopper. When the evil Corporation agent Dr Cain (Thomas Kretchman) enters the chopper, demanding to know why it has not yet taken off, the pilot turns around and reveals himself as L.J. L.J. tells the shocked villain that the take-off delay is "because I normally drive a Cadillac," a quip which indicates a certain consciousness of social injustice and an amusing cynicism about the cultural representation of black males as secondary and/or subservient. Yet his mockingly subversive awareness of racial subordination cannot compensate for his marginality throughout the film, or for the fact that he is indeed – for all his irony – the pilot of the chopper. L.J.’s service role and his proletarian status are reinforced at the end of the film. When the surviving team of Jill, Oliveira and Angie Ashford come to rescue Alice after she has been re-captured by the Corporation, L.J. is the chauffeur of the vehicle which arrives outside the Umbrella laboratories to whisk her away.
The world of the Resident Evil films, then, is primarily a white one (although not as purely white as, say, the aristocratic entourage surrounding Lara Croft in the Tombraider films). It recalls Dyer’s (1997: 210) characterization of mainstream Western horror as a predominantly white genre. While Apocalypse, in particular, shows ironic awareness of racist stereotypes, it stops short of challenging them and, indeed, often deploys them. Moreover, in both films, any progressive gender politics are severely compromised by stereotypical patterns of racial representation. The Resident Evil films are not unique in this regard. In an article on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kent A. Ono has argued that despite Buffy’s ostensibly feminist portrayal of a butt-kicking heroine, visible minority characters are presented as helpless or useless and are also often demeaned through racist language or through their characterization as vampires and other monsters. Thus, in Buffy,
While the Resident Evil films may not "other" visible minorities quite as conspicuously as Buffy does, they do glorify and glamorize active white femininity while marginalizing ethnic identities through comic or violent stereotypes.
Conclusion: from the progressive
While criticism risks anachronism or irrelevance in comparing any set of films with its generic precursors from an earlier epoch, I would like to offer here a brief comparison between George Romero’s classic zombie trilogy and the Resident Evil films to contextualize and summarize this article’s critique of gender and racial representation.
Narratively and cinematographically, the Resident Evil films invite comparison with Romero’s classic "living dead" series, especially the social satires Dawn of the Dead (1979) and Day of the Dead (1985). Many shots in both films explicitly quote Romero. In Apocalypse, to take just one example, a newspaper bearing the headline "The Dead Walk" flutters serendipitously before the camera à la an early scene of Day of the Dead. Yet the Resident Evil films differ hugely from the Romero movies in their cultural politics. As is well known, Romero used his zombies as vehicles for social critique. Indeed, Romero’s undead seem to totter under the weight of their symbolic import, while the zombies of the Resident Evil films deliver no particular social message. Romero had, in fact, originally been commissioned by Capcom to write and direct Resident Evil, but he was later fired on the grounds that his script was substandard. This dismissal of Romero seems remarkable: Romero is, after all, an acclaimed horror auteur with an impressive back-catalogue of socially satirical films containing well-developed characters.
But this is precisely why Romero would have been an inappropriate director of these films, The Resident Evil movies do not aspire to the social critique or complex characterisation. Instead, they rely for their appeal on special effects and the bodily spectacle of their gun-toting heroines. In this sense, the Resident Evil films can be seen as postmodern texts, like the recent spate of zombie films – Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), Edgar Wright’s spoof Shaun of the Dead (2004) and arguably (Harper, 2006) Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. All these pay homage to Romero, but abjure the maestro’s project of social criticism.
In fact, the Resident Evil films can be seen as products of an anxious cultural climate in which the imagining of otherness is particularly attenuated. In this connection, it seems significant that some of the imagery in these films recalls television images of the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Resident Evil opens with an accident at a research silo of the Umbrella Corporation involving the spillage of highly toxic liquid DNA. As a consequence, the Red Queen computer shuts down, drowning or gassing all of the workers. Although the silo is underground, there is a holographic representation of a city skyscape and a bright blue, cloudless sky in the silo’s "windows," evoking images of 9/11. At the end of Apocalypse, meanwhile, the Umbrella Corporation destroys Racoon City with a nuclear missile, which explodes above two massive towers.
The response to these outrageous acts of terror against civilian targets is simple. The crack team led by Alice and Rain (and, in the sequel, Jill) must avenge the slaughter of the innocents, replicating the bellicose response of the U.S. administration in the wake of 9/11. The billboard posters advertising Resident Evil in 2002 proclaimed that "Evil Never Dies," echoing the gritty rhetoric of George W. Bush in what has become his administration’s ongoing battle against terrorism and the "axis of evil." (For more on Bush’s use of the term "evil" and his binaristic "them and us" rhetoric see Kellner, 2005, and for more on Manichean moralism in cinematic treatments of terrorism see Meeuf, 2006.) Like other films emerging shortly after 9/11, such as Andrew Davis’s Collateral Damage (2002) and Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers (2002), Resident Evil taps into an audience taste for narratives of "just war" and military vengeance.
Whatever the correlation between the post 9/11 zeitgeist and the Resident Evil films, the cultural mood of the movies is very different to those of Romero’s living dead films. Collectively, Romero’s films constitute a critique the factionalism and isolationism of cold war United States. They are progressive horror films because they question the classical horror division between "them" (the monster/s) and "us." As Robin Wood famously observed,
Romero’s zombies, that is, are victims quite as much as the human survivors. Resident Evil and its sequel, on the other hand, like the video games on which they are based, more clearly demarcate the monstrous and the human – or at least do not dwell on the possibility that "we" might be morally equivalent to, or even worse than, "them." Moreover, in Romero’s films – especially in Dawn of the Dead – the zombies relay a certain jouissance and are differentiated as nuns, softball players, and even Hare Krishna devotees. The zombies of the Resident Evil films, on the other hand, constitute a pitifully undifferentiated mob. In Apocalypse, for example, the only individualized zombies (excluding the characters who are bitten and later return to attack the living) are the two naked prostitutes who distract L.J. so much that he crashes his car. Although they are the victims of Umbrella, the Resident Evil zombies are nonetheless "othered" as the investigators’ enemies. This "them and us" dualism also underpins reactionary responses to the “terrorist threat” in the post-9/11 context of heightened U.S. insecurity and xenophobia.
Of course, many other cultural movements and interventions have contributed to the general shift from the progressive horror cinema of the 1970s to postmodern horror, not least the supposed 1980s backlash against feminism (Faludi, 1992). George Romero was one horror filmmaker who resisted this backlash. As Barry Keith Grant (1990) showed some time ago, the women of Romero’s zombie films become increasing resourceful and autonomous as the "living dead" series progresses. The Resident Evil films continue this general trend towards depicting women in powerful and active roles who resist and even attack patriarchal forces. Yet equally surely, the Resident Evil women are objectified in a way that none of Romero’s women are.
Additionally, the relationship between monsters and women in the two sets of films is rather different. In Romero’s oeuvre (especially in the second and third instalments of his living dead trilogy), zombies are associated with women insofar as both groups are seen as marginalized. In the Resident Evil films, no such equivalence is drawn. Although both Alice and Angie are infected with Umbrella’s T-virus in Apocalypse, they are not equated with, or compared to the zombies in any other respect.
The treatment of racial issues in the Resident Evil films is also disappointing when compared with Romero’s films. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), black characters are fully-fledged and capable subjects (although "race" is rarely an explicit concern in either film). The Resident Evil films show a nervous awareness of racial stereotyping; yet they nonetheless tend to present visible minorities as marginal and expendable, or as comic stereotypes.
It would be too simplistic to posit Romero’s films as paragons of sexual and racial representation against which contemporary zombie movies should be tested and found wanting. Romero’s films are, after all, rather elitist insofar as they champion the cause of a few survivors in their struggle against the zombified masses. Yet the Resident Evil films’ representations of race and gender do seem reactionary compared with those of their generic predecessors. The handling of these issues in subsequent films in the series remains to be seen (Resident Evil: Extinction is in post-production as I write). However, it can be said that Resident Evil and its sequel oscillate between progressive and reactionary positions on gender, race and sexual identity and offer the kind of "complicit critique" of racism and sexism that many critics regard as characteristic of postmodern popular culture (Arthurs, 2003).