2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
"I could kiss you, you bitch":
race, gender, and sexuality in
Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse
by Stephen Harper
Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse are the first two films in the ongoing Resident Evil series. They are also among the latest examples of action films based on video games — a subgenre including Resident Evil director Paul W. S. Anderson’s previous film Mortal Kombat (1995) and the Lara Croft films, subtitled Tomb Raider (West, 2001) and Cradle of Life (de Bont, 2003) respectively. The two directors of the Resident Evil films (Anderson and Witt) have created films that are rather distinct in terms of atmosphere and pace.
As Bob Rehak (2003) [open works cited in new window] has pointed out, the first of the films – Resident Evil (Anderson, 2002) – is a narratively and generically simple action film "pieced together from Aliens (1986), Night of the Living Dead (1990), Predator (1987), even Die Hard (1988)." It eschews the moral and intellectual sophistry of much recent action and science fiction cinema, such as that of the Matrix films. Yet despite its conceptual simplicity, the film does make a fair bid for cultural capital with its numerous references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (which were added by Anderson and are not present in the video game). A chess motif also runs throughout the film, while the computer that controls the underground Hive entered by the team in the film is called the "Red Queen." The computer's name refers to the Red Queen Principle proposed by evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen in 1973 to describe the fact that evolutionary systems must continually develop just to maintain their fitness relative to the systems with which they are co-evolving (Van Valen, 1973). Together with the Alice references, this allusion lends cultural cachet to what might otherwise be considered (as zombie films so often are) formulaic and mediocre. Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse (Witt, 2004), while narratively closer to the video games than the first film, substitutes fast-moving action for the claustrophobic intensity and intellectual pretensions of its precursor.
Despite such differences, both of the Resident Evil films can be seen as postmodern and postfeminist texts insofar as they help to generate commercial synergy with the video games on which they are based. They also present a highly ambiguous perspective on corporate power as well as on issues of race, gender and sexuality. This short paper offers a critique of the gender, sexual and racial politics of these films, focusing mainly on the leading female characters of the two films – Alice (Milla Jovovich), Rain (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice’s accomplice in the sequel, Jill (Sienna Guillory). The article combines critical textual analysis with extra-textual evidence – including film reviews and actor interviews – to illuminate what I argue are racist, sexist and homophobic elements within the films. Along the way, the paper compares the representational strategies of these films with those of other action movies of the 1980s and 1990s; as noted in the quotation above, Resident Evil, in particular, draws heavily upon the action cinema of the last twenty years. I will also draw comparisons with the hugely popular television drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the grounds that, like the contemporary Resident Evil films, Buffy is a text which combines representations of violent and confident femininity with problematic constructions of gender, race and sexuality. These comparisons, I hope, will help to illuminate how the films – despite containing some feminist and other progressive representational strategies – deploy stereotypes of gender, race and sexuality. The paper concludes by comparing the racial, sexual and gender politics of the Resident Evil films and those of other zombie films past and present, particularly the films of George Romero.
"I just love to do those gratuitous nudity scenes":
gender, sexuality and irony
Promotional texts surrounding both Resident Evil and Apocalypse trade on sexually alluring images of their female leads. In the case of the first film, billboards and other promotional materials depicted a sultry Milla Jovovich in a cocktail dress and black knee-length boots wielding an enormous weapon, with Michelle Rodriguez striking her skulking signature pose behind Jovovich — and in the process exemplifying the film’s hierarchical structuring of racial identity. Alice’s weapon can be read as a phallic symbol and the stances of both women characterizes them as "figurative males."  [open notes in new window] Yet for all their dynamism, these heroines are also presented as hypersexualized spectacles, both in the promotional texts and in the films. Both films certainly offer no narrative rationale for Alice’s glamorous attire.
Jovovich and Rodriguez are differentiated in ways that are consistent with their respective Hollywood careers. Jovovich’s Alice is a glamour girl in a cocktail dress, reflecting her real-life role as one of the "faces" of L’Oreal cosmetics. Like that other horror-femme actress-model, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jovovich’s association with glamour and fashion serve to fetishize her screen character, a process sustained in the film narrative. In her first scene in Resident Evil, for example, the camera lingers on Alice as she wakes up naked in a shower cubicle. Jovovich herself is aware that such representations are problematic. In the DVD commentary accompanying the shower scene, she comments sardonically:
"I just love to do those gratuitous nudity scenes."
This seemingly post-feminist irony suggests an ambivalence about (and certainly not a rejection of) sexualized representations of women. Elsewhere on the same DVD commentary Jovovich remarks:
"If you guys make this movie a huge hit … we can all get breast enhancement surgery."
In another interview Jovovich states that she thought of herself in the film as "a young Sigourney Weaver" and even designed a gown for the film with the intention of recreating the feel of the underwear outfit from the controversial closing scenes of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien (Hayward, 2002). Such statements undermine any simplistic notion that female actresses are objectified against their will by male filmmakers. The DVD commentaries for both of the Resident Evil films clearly indicate the extent to which the films’ female stars relish and identify with the hypersexualized femininity of their screen characters.
Rodriguez’s character, Rain Ocampo, was originally written by Anderson for a male actor. Indeed, of all the female characters in the Resident Evil films, Rain, whether shooting zombies or wielding power tools, is the one most clearly coded as "masculine." An analogy with the Alien films is instructive here, since Rain’s spikiness owes a cinematic debt to the assertive Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), another "brassy" Latina sidekick. In the tense opening scenes of Resident Evil, Rain is teased by a male colleague who asks if she isn’t a little "jumpy." A few scenes later, however, Rain turns the question on her colleague after she saves him from a zombie attack. There is a close similarity here with the much-celebrated sparring between Private Hudson (Bill Paxton) and Vasquez in Aliens ("Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?"; "No, have you?"). Rain’s characterisation, like so much in this film, borrows heavily from action cinema’s stock of progressive gender stereotypes.
Rodriguez seems consummately aware of her hardboiled image in Resident Evil, arguing in an interview that
"men just like to see women as sexy, whether they’re strong or weak, and my characters appeal to certain types of men" (Hayward, 2002).
Like Jovovich’s intention to design a gown based on Ripley’s provocative underwear in Alien, this may be seen as a postfeminist statement. Rodriguez conceives of her filmic appearance primarily in terms of (heterosexual) male approbation. In the same interview, Rodriguez invokes the discourse of marketing to explain both her personal and her professional life, noting that she has acquired a "niche" in Hollywood for playing strong women and is consequently often asked out by "biker types."
Clearly, while Alice and Rain are both "strong women," they are consciously differentiated on the basis of a time-honoured goodie girl / tough girl dyad. This dyad, which corresponds to the Dark Lady / Fair lady dichotomy of Western literature (Greven, 2004: 140), finds expression in films as diverse as Grease (Kleiser, 1978) and Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1992). As in those films, the moral demarcation of "good" and "bad" girls loosely corresponds to distinctions of race and social class. In relation to historical precedents within action cinema, the example of the Alien series is once again instructive. In Alien, Ripley is coded as a middle class woman by her clipboard and only later in the film takes up arms, while Vasquez, in Aliens, is an acerbic gun-toting heroine from the outset. Resident Evil replicates this pattern: Alice carries no weapon in the first part of the film and is coded as middle class by her cocktail dress, while Rain, an engineer, undertakes both maintenance work and hardcore action and consistently speaks in a working class register ("When I get outta here, I think I’m gonna get laid").
For all of the film’s "compulsory heterosexuality" and Rodriguez’s anxious insistence on her allure to men, Resident Evil offers a fleeting lesbian moment. Towards the end of the film Alice tends to Rain, who has been bitten by a zombie, declaring:
"I could kiss you, you bitch."
Mindful of their mainstream audience, the filmmakers ensure that while Alice could kiss Rain, she does not. In fact, the film mitigates any potential homoeroticism in a number of ways. First, any eroticism implied in Alice’s comment is subtly defused by the reaction of her colleague Matt Addison (Eric Mabius), who stands in the background of the shot. Although out of focus, Matt is clearly smiling in kindly, even paternalistic approbation at Alice’s comment, gently de-sexualizing the moment. Second, Alice’s use of the term "bitch" arguably endows her with a masculine, heterosexual subject position, helping to un-queer the encounter. The intimacy between Alice and Rain is also rendered respectable by the nature of Rain’s transformative sickness, which confers upon her a temporary otherness. Finally, the incipient lesbian moment is predictably interrupted by the intrusion of the vicious "Licker" monster, whose arrival demands the full attentions of all the survivors. Thus the potentially disruptive outburst of homosexual desire is neutralized and "othered" by the unusualness and extremity of the situation.
Such recuperation of homosexual potential is of course a feature of many Hollywood films. In Girl Interrupted (Mangold, 1999), for example, the kiss between Susanna (Winona Ryder) and Lisa (Angelina Jolie) occurs in a psychedelically-painted VW camper van while the pair are under the influence of psychoactive drugs. In Thelma and Louise (Scott, 1992) the significance of the famous kiss is largely vitiated by the heroines’ subsequent decision to drive their car into the Grand Canyon. Similarly, Alice and Rain’s fleeting moment of intimacy does not undermine the film’s heterosexual ethic or the "straight" credentials that the actresses have worked so hard to establish in their promotional interviews. As in Thelma and Louise, the "queer" kiss is swiftly followed by death. During the fight against the Licker, Rain finally turns into a zombie, before Matt puts her out of her misery. As it is for action heroines on television, such as Buffy, Xena, or Sydney Bristow, desire – whether hetero- or homosexual – is endlessly deferred.
Before its release, there was reason to believe that Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse would develop politically progressive and even feminist themes. Sony Pictures’ theatrical trailer for the film darkly intones that,
"in the quest for human perfection, accidents will happen."
A teaser trailer for the film contains a spoof cosmetics commercial for the Umbrella Corporation, the mega-corporation responsible for the viral outbreak that is causing human beings to transform into zombies. The words of the commercial are delivered by over an ambient soundtrack by a sinisterly melodious female voice:
"Imagine a world where you can reverse the effects of age, stress and sun. From the leading name in biotechnology comes Regenerate, another breakthrough from the Umbrella Corporation. Regenerate’s revolutionary T-cell formula actually brings dead cells back to life. Now, your youthful beauty can last forever. Always consult your doctor before starting treatment; some side effects may occur."
The final, ominous injunction indicates the inevitably of a disaster, recalling the progressive horror and sci-fi of the 1970s, in which such cool corporate blandishments and reassurances are swiftly followed by catastrophe (compare the hilariously unconvincing tannoy announcement in Michael Crichton’s pre-Jurassic Westworld : "Nothing can go wrong"). On the evidence of this trailer, Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse promises to be more progressive than its predecessor. The trailer suggests that the film will contain not only a critique of the power of the evil Umbrella Corporation, but also a second wave feminist broadside against the "beauty myth," along the lines of that advanced by Naomi Wolf (1991).
However, the "beauty myth" critique is not developed in the film. This can perhaps be explained in terms of promotional strategy. The feminist implications of the teaser trailer might have been intended to attract audiences seeking a "social message" horror film, as opposed to those looking for a "gorefest’; since, in the case of the Resident Evil films, the latter audience is almost guaranteed, their needs are hardly uppermost in the minds of marketers. Whatever the reasons for the disjunction between the film and its feminist promotional material, the trailer’s feminist intimations are not realized. On the contrary, I will argue that any feminist aspects of the film are significantly compromised, if not entirely recuperated. What is interesting about the trailer, however, is that – like the ironic interview comments made by the Resident Evil actresses – it attests to a distinct, yet ironic and ambivalent awareness of feminist concerns.
In Apocalypse, both of the leading female characters could be argued to be objectified through their Lara Croft-style wardrobe of short skirts or shorts and tight vest tops. A somewhat spurious rationale for the revealing clothing of the central characters is introduced (apparently, according to the DVD interview, at Jovovich’s suggestion): namely, that Racoon City is experiencing a heat wave. Yet this attempt to provide a diegetic explanation for the women’s clothing is itself rather threadbare, and it only draws attention to the sensationalism of the filmic dress code. Camerawork is also important in fetishizing the (white) female characters. In the first scene featuring Jill Valentine, we do not see the character’s face at all. Instead, the camera follows her naked legs, which are exposed by her mini skirt. (Valentine wears the same mini skirt and blue tube top outfit that she wears in Capcom’s Resident Evil: Nemesis videogame.) In the following scene, in which Jill reports to the police station overrun by zombies, the initial sequence is shot from a low angle to capture Jill’s buttocks and legs as she shimmies towards the station. In both films, the camera frequently tracks the heroines from behind, fetishizing their lithe bodies.
The relationship between Alice and Jill in Apocalypse is distinctly cooler than that between Alice and Rain in the first film. Unlike the more hierarchical relationship between Alice and Rain, Alice and Jill are presented as near-equals — although Jill is forced to concede a hierarchy on witnessing Alice’s prowess in combat, remarking "I’m good – but I’m not that good." Perhaps because of this competitive element, there is even less camaraderie between the two heroines in the sequel than in the first film; as in the videogame upon which the film is based, the two women hardly ever interact. This is consistent with Yvonne Tasker’s observation that
"though the elaborate description of sentimental, homoerotic relationships between men is commonplace in the popular cinema, the successful female partnerships of Thelma and Louise or the television police duo Cagney and Lacey, for example, have generated in their wake no new wave of female buddy movies or television series" (Tasker, 1998: 140).
While the last few years have seen some developments along these lines (McG’s 2000 film version of Charlie’s Angels and its 2003 sequel are notable examples), Tasker’s observation generally holds true. Certainly, Alice and Jill remain more or less separate throughout the course of Apocalypse. Even in those scenes in which both characters are present, there is no banter or bonding, and little co-operation between them.
Although they operate separately rather than in tandem, both of Apocalypse’s female protagonists adopt a maternal role, as Jill and Alice seek out and rescue Angie (Sophie Vavasseur), the young daughter of Umbrella Corporation’s heroic scientist Dr Ashford (Jared Harris). The protective and nurturing relationship between the two heroines and Angie Ashford recalls that between Ripley and the young Rebecca Jordan (Carrie Henn, also known in the film as "Newt’) in Aliens. In addition to a readiness for violence, it seems that the action heroine must also show a flair for motherhood: Uma Thurman’s The Bride, in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), is a recent example of an action heroine who, having adopting various roles throughout the film, finally yields to her biological "destiny" as mother. (This message is reinforced by the pro-life message of the Japanese hotel room scene in the same film, in which The Bride pleads for her life on the basis that she is pregnant.) Indeed, like so many "kick ass" heroines in contemporary action cinema, Alice and Jill, unlike the male characters in the film, adopt a parental role.
The Resident Evil films are not, however, entirely without feminist import. First, the heroines of these films are not punished for their transgression of gender norms, insofar as they actually do transgress them. Moreover, patriarchal power is threatened or at least undermined at several points. In Resident Evil, the traitor Spence (James Purefoy) is bitten by a female zombie when he reveals his treachery to Alice. In Apocalypse, meanwhile, Sergeant Nicholai Ginovaeff (Zack Ward) helps to save Jill and Angie Ashford from marauding zombie dogs. Afterwards, he introduces himself, somewhat smarmily, to Jill, but is attacked and killed by a lingering hound before he has a chance to complete his seduction. The unexpected intrusion of the dog attack into the hackneyed seduction scene, together with the ludicrously swift destruction of the patriarchal "protector," humorously undermines the sergeant’s flagrant machismo. Indeed, Ginovaeff’s demise can be read as the death of a patriarch. As the sergeant fights with the dog he shouts to Jill:
"Take the girl; I’ve got this bitch" (my italics reflect the spoken emphasis).
The implied equation between Angie Ashford and the dog ensures that the destruction of this sexist male provides a moment of anti-patriarchal pleasure.
This anti-patriarchal sensibility is evident in the violence actions of the genetically enhanced Alice at the end of Apocalypse. In the slightly confusing scenes after the team has escaped from Racoon city and saved Angie, Alice finds herself inside a tank, under the supervision of Umbrella Corporation scientists at the Umbrella Medical Research facility. Her physical and mental powers, one of Umbrella scientists observes, have been massively augmented. When she is removed from the tank, Alice attacks a young male scientist, thrusting a pen towards his eye. A close-up shot shows the pen as Alice brings its tip to rest, just before it pierces the scientist’s eye. Although Alice elects to beat up, rather than mutilate, the scientist in order to escape from the facility, the threatened ocular penetration conveys Alice’s rejection of, and opposition to, the male gaze, and it recalls the classic Freudian linkage of the castration complex to the male fear of damage to the eyes. Afterwards, as Alice escapes from the medical research facility, she is spotted on a CCTV monitor by a security guard. Alice returns the guard’s gaze, staring back at the camera with a vampish glare and causing the guard’s nose, and then his eyes to bleed, before he drops dead to the floor. The provocative (drop dead gorgeous?) pose Alice adopts as she stares at the guard through the camera recalls the conventions of fashion photography. Yet Alice now has a deadly beauty, reversing of the objectifying gaze with which Jovovich is associated as a L’Oreal model.
In conclusion, the gender politics of both of the Resident Evil films are complex but ultimately troubling. The films depict patriarchal attitudes unflatteringly and frequently undermine such attitudes, while they embody an approved model of masculinity in Resident Evil’s gentle anti-corporate activist Matt — notwithstanding his typically liberal naiveté in worrying primarily about whether Umbrella’s activities are legal or illegal. The films' women, meanwhile, are active, violent agents. Alice even reverses the male gaze in spectacularly literal fashion at the end of Apocalypse. Undoubtedly, such images destabilize gender representations such that, as Yvonne Tasker argued some time ago,
"it would be possible to see the centrality of action heroines in recent Hollywood film as posing a challenge to women’s social role, and to her representation within the cinema’s symbolic order" (Tasker, 1993: 123).
As in the videogames on which the films are based (which allow female avatars), femininity is both dynamic and potent. At the same time, however, a phallocentric mode of address constructs both films’ white heroines as sexual objects. Indeed, Jill seems far more active/resourceful in the videogame Resident Evil: Nemesis than in the film Apocalypse. And in both films' narratives, homosociality and homosexuality are thwarted or precluded for the heroines. The way the sequel has the heroine adopt a maternal role is also problematic from a feminist perspective. Finally, the actresses’ speak about the films’ stereotypical sartorial codes with an ironic complicity that shows their critical awareness of the films’ objectification of women, at the same time as the films work to recuperate and naturalize hypersexualized femininity.
"I normally drive a Cadillac":
race, violence and comedy
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) 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,
"anything other than Anglo-European cultural values and logic is marginalised" (Ono, 2000: 187).
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
to the postmodern zombie film
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 a là 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,
"the progressiveness of the horror film depends partly on the monster’s capacity to arouse sympathy" (2003: 171).
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).
1. Here it seems appropriate to anticipate a possible objection. In an article on action heroines a few years ago, Elizabeth Hills argued, perfectly fairly, that interpreting gun-toting women as "figurative males," as psychoanalytic critics such as Carol Clover (1992) have tended to do, may suggest that resourcefulness and aggression are essentially "masculine traits." Following Deleuze, Hills suggests abandoning binaristic male/female models of gender. There are indeed dangers in any critical paradigm which underwrites a binary model of gender.
However, it could be argued (as I am sure Clover herself would argue) that "masculine traits" are not essentially masculine, but have rather been coded as masculine through the patriarchal signifying practices of Western culture. From a historicist and materialist perspective, such as my own, a discussion of the dualistic (male/female) system of gender representation remains useful, since this framework is the one within which understandings of gender identity are popularly framed (and contested) in popular culture. Thus, while Hills is right to assert that a gun cannot always and everywhere be read as a "fixed referent for the phallus," the psychoanalytic connotation of guns is undeniable, at least within contemporary Western contexts. Although guns are not always referents for the phallus, I would argue that the appearance of Jovovich’s Alice with a gun in the poster for Resident Evil implies, for a western audience habituated to such imagery, connotes "maleness."
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