As part of my PhD thesis, which revolved entirely around live-action and animated adaptations of videogames, I decided to dedicate an entire chapter to the Resident Evil films. Helmed by director Paul W.S. Anderson, these six movies largely veered quite far from the source material, only including popular franchise characters and situations when it was deemed necessary and financially lucrative. While I, personally, have come to loathe the series (with the exception of Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Witt, 2004), purely because it’s the closest adaptation of any of the Resident Evil videogames) because of Anderson’s insistence on pushing star and wife Mila Jovovich over recognisable videogame elements and his blatant disregard for the shitty continuity he created, they nevertheless reaped over $1,233million in worldwide gross over six movies. This, whether I or any one else wants to admit it or not, makes the Resident Evil films the most successful live-action adaptation of a videogame franchise to date.
While researching Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise, I discovered that the first movie was mired in a tumultuous period of development hell. Before Anderson was given the reigns to the survivor-horror videogame franchise, legendary grandfather of the zombie genre, George A. Romero, was offered the chance to direct a feature film adaptation. Although not a videogame fan, Romero’s 1998 script, available to read here, was produced from a screen story by himself and Peter Grunwald and is surprisingly closer to the aesthetic style and atmosphere of the original Resident Evil videogame than Paul W.S. Anderson’s eventual 2002 film. However, the script contains many issues that, rather than being addressed in subsequent re-drafts, were ignored in favour of a complete overhaul. These range from clichés often closely associated with Romero, to a close, almost uninspired fidelity to the source material. In this article I’ll go through the script and describe some of the plot points and characters and talk a little bit about how Romero’s efforts differed from those seen in Resident Evil.
Like the videogame, Romero’s script features Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield as the central protagonists. Jill is largely similar to her videogame counterpart, being somewhat overwhelmed by the events surrounding her, rather insubordinate to her superiors, yet militaristic and direct in her actions and capabilities. Chris, however, undergoes a significant alteration; rather than being a member of Special Tactics and Rescue Service (S.T.A.R.S.; here a military organisation rather than being associated with the Raccoon Police Department), Chris is depicted as a “part Mohawk” Native American who has strong ties to the Arklay land and a close association with nature. As part of her cover story, Jill initiates a sexual relationship with Chris in order to gather intelligence on the Arklay Mountains and the mansion where the Tyrant-Virus (T-Virus) outbreak occurs; Chris is swept along due to his need to find answers concerning both the infected and Jill’s betrayal. These alterations are apparently intended to make Chris the voice of reason among the other S.T.A.R.S. members, who mostly follow orders or are concerned with their own survival rather than the implications the T-Virus has on natural life. Chris’s capabilities are severely downgraded from his videogame counterpart and he spends the majority of the script brandishing “an old Winchester rifle” in contrast to the well-armed S.T.A.R.S. members.
Jill’s Alpha Team, made up of Russo, Williams, and Disimone, is quickly massacred, leaving Jill the only survivor. Albert Wesker leads Bravo Team, twelve additional commandos (including Barry Burton, Brad Vickers, Rebecca Chambers, Richard Aiken, Kenneth Sullivan, Rosie Rodriguez, Forest Speyer, and Laguardia) to assist, and they are immediately beset by zombie dogs and forced into the mansion, as in Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996). Wesker and Barry are portrayed as old friends, almost like brothers; Rodriguez, ironically much like Michelle Rodriquez’s Rain from Anderson’s film, is a trash-talking tough girl, while Rebecca is a nearly non-existent and inconsequential medical officer. Nevertheless, they closely resemble Resident Evil’s S.T.A.R.S. members rather than being entirely original characters as in Anderson’s film, yet Anderson’s Umbrella Special Forces Commandos fill a very similar role.
Wesker also serves as Romero’s principal source of exposition as he relates the mansion’s history, the experiments being performed there, and their mission to rescue Dr. John Marcus and recover key research data. Much of this dialogue is mirrored by the Red Queen (Michaela Dicker) and serves as blatant exposition, sandwiched between moments of gore-filled action, reading very much like the videogame’s passive cutscenes. The team also navigates the mansion using various coloured key cards, solving some familiar puzzles involving grandfather clocks and crests, and utilising a map similar to the computerised system seen in Anderson’s adaptation. These aspects, excised completely from Anderson’s films, are depicted as security measures built in by the mansion’s eccentric architect, yet they make the mansion much bigger than usually depicted in order to encompass the script’s large, shifting labyrinth-like rooms and puzzles, and the decision to replace these with Anderson’s more practical key card/password system seems a wise and realistic aesthetic decision, especially considering the majority of Resident Evil’s puzzles simply provide keys to open new areas.
Depending on the avatar, either Jill or Chris can go missing after S.T.A.R.S. take refuge in Resident Evil; in Romero’s script, both Jill and Chris rendezvous with S.T.A.R.S. at different points to reference this, with both eliminating multiple zombies along the way. Though Jill and Chris both exhibit an uncharacteristically aggressive disrespect for Wesker (Resident Evil depicted both as frustrated by Wesker’s secrecy but nonetheless trusting him until the finale), Chris is far more vocal, turning his confusion into anger at the events which have left his homeland a bloody mess. He directly blames Wesker for these events, and Jill for her betrayal, and he continues to butt heads with both throughout their investigation. Romero’s script draws principally from Resident Evil alone –Resident Evil 2’s (Capcom, 1998) only influences are the mysterious, bloodcurdling, roar echoing throughout the mansion similar to G’s and Ada Wong (albeit as a scientist who assisted in developing the T-Virus and delivering yet more superfluous exposition, rather than being a double agent).
The mansion is beset by Plant 42’s destructive growth, infected sharks, a giant snake, and even the murderous Hunters, all lifted directly from the original videogame, and showcasing the scale of Umbrella’s research and the impact of the T-Virus beyond “simply” reanimating dead tissue. Whereas the exact implications of the T-Virus in Anderson’s films is left mostly unclear, Romero’s script openly lifts its purpose – to create nigh-indestructible bio-organic weapons (BOWs) for use in warfare – from the videogame, while this only become relevant in Anderson’s films after the T-Virus was released in the Hive.
This research culminates in, like the videogame, the Tyrant, and its subsequent rampage mirrors the closing moments of the videogame very closely. By including these creatures, most of which are rather large, complicated, and cumbersome entities, the budget for Romero’s vision would conceivably far exceed that of Anderson’s originally far more low-key, fixed approach; in Resident Evil: Apocalypse’s director’s commentary, he claims that the Licker was only included in the final stages of the first film’s development, implying that the film lacked even that lacklustre “final boss”. Additionally, the script’s extremely graphic depictions of zombie and creature attacks, with victims being ripped apart and torn open and copious gore that mirrors Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1978) and Day of the Dead (ibid, 1985), takes it far from an R-rating. Although these comparisons are not only fitting due to the influence Romero had on the creation of Resident Evil but also his involvement in the script, they were clearly at odds with the film studio and Capcom, who desired a more manageable budget and wider audience range, which is also at odds with Romero’s surprising faithful adaptation.
In addition to incorporating more recognisable Resident Evil elements, Romero is not shy about self-gratification: characters draw comparisons to Night of the Living Dead (ibid, 1968) and call zombies “ghouls”, and the increased emphasis on both military presence and Umbrella’s surreptitious nature is extremely similar to the military’s depiction in The Crazies (ibid, 1973). Romero’s cynicism regarding government and corporate power is reflected in Wesker’s superiors being devoid of personality and appearance: “We see no faces. But expensive watches, sleeves with high-ranking stripes, indicate wealth, power, and a military presence”. Wesker’s depiction is much more military-orientated; his focus on the mission and barking orders reflects this, and it is easy to see how his characterisation could have evolved into One (Colin Salmon). Seemingly the only line of Romero’s to reach Anderson’s is “we live here now”, originally delivered by Rodriguez throughout the script in extraneous reference to her childhood. While the line becomes over-emphasised and is far from relevant in Romero’s script, when delivered by Rain it highlights the dire situation that she and the others are in.
Romero’s closer adherence to gameplay mechanics is again evident in the conservation of resources; having been beset by enemies and rendered expendable, Wesker orders the division of ammo and supplies, mentioning that they came unprepared for the odds they face. While Anderson’s Commandos are similarly unprepared, they nevertheless enter the Hive fully equipped and fully armed; such resources allow the protagonists to gun down their zombie attackers without the fear of running out of ammunition, though their armaments are inevitably useless against the Red Queen’s defences. These, specifically the laser grid system, surprisingly appear in Romero’s script, though only as a quick jump-scare, with the true danger coming from the acidic steam the lasers trigger, which causes a gruesome death.
Thus, both Romero’s mutated creatures and Anderson’s laser grid serve the same ends – the deaths of minor characters, though Romero’s approach to this is much closer to the videogame than Anderson, who has often openly voiced his appreciation for the source material, as opposed to Romero, who largely dislikes videogames. Whereas in Anderson’s film, the lasers are significant, in Romero’s script they are glossed over in favour of an overly complex battle against Plant 42 and a mutated copperhead snake, both more suitable inclusions to a Resident Evil adaptation given their prominence in the videogame, yet clearly more expensive to incorporate than Anderson’s more subdued lasers.
As S.T.A.R.S. navigates Umbrella’s laboratory, they are beset by Hunters, which are given an extreme durability upgrade. In Resident Evil, the Hunters were far stronger, faster, and more aggressive than zombies, providing an effective difficulty spike, yet they could still be dispatched using small arms fire (though close-range weapons like the shotgun were more effective). Romero’s Hunters are practically indestructible as their skeletal structure is protected by a metallic coating – the only effective tactic is to aim for their joints (an action that Resident Evil’s stiff, restrictive controls would not allow), and even then they continue their relentless pursuit, crawling and dragging themselves along the floor.
The survivors take refuge with Ada, who wishes to atone for her part in creating the T-Virus. Her videogame counterpart’s lost love, John, is amalgamated with Professor James Marcus, the videogame creator of the T-Virus, to become Dr. John Marcus, a markedly different character whose work Ada describes as being “for humanitarian purposes”, rather than specifically creating the T-Virus for military applications. This is pinned directly onto Umbrella, who corrupted Marcus’ research, and this concept was later explored through Resident Evil: Apocalypse’s Dr. Charles Ashford. Ada, far from her deceitful, untrustworthy, and sultry videogame counterpart, awkwardly explains the film’s events directly to the audience and the characters before the finale, rather than this information coming naturally.
Ada’s attempts to keep Wesker out of D Lab are unsuccessful, as Wesker’s true motivations are revealed and he activates the Tyrant, confiding in Barry his intentions to retrieve the creature’s data, sell it to Umbrella, and split the money between himself and Barry as payback for Barry’s loyalty and friendship. Once Romero’s script enters D Lab, it closely follows the videogame’s finale, with Chris, Jill, and Barry openly opposing Wesker’s schemes and the Tyrant escaping and going on a rampage.
By not resorting to a mid-level enemy like the Licker for his finale, Romero’s conclusion is considerably augmented as the Tyrant is practically unstoppable. Its physical threat, imposing stature, unrelenting nature, and iconography as the classic Resident Evil final boss give the finale a danger and tension that we must be convinced of in Anderson’s finale as his Licker has to undergo a significant mutation into a less-recognisable version of itself in order to match the Tyrant. As in the videogame, the Tyrant tears Wesker apart during its rampage, although Romero’s script describes this death as being so total and horrific that it seems unlikely that Wesker could have revived himself as in the videogames. However, as this was retroactively introduced in Resident Evil – Code: Veronica (Capcom, 2000), Wesker’s gruesome death can be understood as being his much-deserved and overdue fate, rather than a deviation from the source material, as Wesker’s death seemed to be total and final in Resident Evil.
As the final countdown to the destruction and eradication of all the evidence of the T-Virus takes place, the survivors are beset by zombies and infected crows, and forced to solve contrived puzzles to access a secret passage. The tension is somewhat numbed by these distractions; typically, Resident Evil players face relatively few enemies and some rudimentary but necessary puzzles while an ominous countdown flickers onscreen (like in Resident Evil 2 when players must activate an underground train to allow the survivors to escape) but few distractions that slow progress to a crawl, as in Romero’s script. Like the videogame, though, the final confrontation between the Tyrant and the survivors is short-lived, as a single Stinger missile is enough destroy it. This ending is more predictable than Anderson’s, which mirrored Resident Evil 2’s ending, but the specifics and fundamental impact deviated quite considerably due to Anderson’s belief that to simply copy the videogame eliminated any suspense or tension for Resident Evil veterans.
Instead, Romero adheres closely to the source material’s finale, with the Tyrant dispatched almost identically and the final survivors escaping just as and the mansion explodes. Romero deviates by making this explosion powerful enough to eradicate Raccoon City, which has been overrun with zombies, effectively encompassing the ending of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (Capcom, 1999) and seemingly eliminating the possibility of a direct sequel. Quite how the protagonists survive this is left unresolved, but the imagery suggests Romero intended on a big, gory, explosive finale, one that reads as being very abrupt and total rather than Anderson’s cliffhanger or the videogame’s various endings.
Overall, there is very little doubt that Romero’s script is a very (very!) rough first draft; there are clear elements, such as dialogue and characterisation, which require re-drafts to make them less contrived, and the characters more three-dimensional. Largely, it ironically reads very much like the original Resident Evil videogame, with cheesy dialogue and awkward, flat characterisations. These issues were addressed in subsequent sequels and remakes, with the localisation improving over time and characters becoming more detailed and intricate. Thus, it is not too unbelievable that Romero’s script could have been improved and the constant repetition of “we live here now” and Chris’s cringe-inducing speech about evil “[residing] in all of us”, in a contrived justification of the film’s title beyond the simple and obvious fact that evil literally resides in the mansion, could have been eliminated altogether.
Additionally, rewrites could possibly eliminate the larger creatures and emphasise zombies, as in Anderson’s first film, which avoided BOWs completely. The Licker was the obvious exception, serving as the big effects finale, but Romero’s script is littered with BOWs – virtually every Resident Evil enemy is present. While enemy variation is important in videogames to maintain player interest and increase difficulty, on film the appearance of so many different creatures could potentially overwhelm it with underexplored monstrosities. Anderson’s films, after all, rely heavily on traditional zombies and utilise BOWs for the finale, rather than focusing on them, ironically making Anderson’s films more zombie films than Resident Evil movies, as the videogames are generally concerned with addressing the T-Virus’s communicability, and zombies are simply a by-product of this rather than the main objective, and this is very much reflected in Romero’s script.
The result is that, oddly, Romero’s Resident Evil is less a Romero film infused with videogame elements, and rather more like a slavish videogame adaptation, with certain elements and characters altered in order to create, or force, friction between the characters and unpredictability. Rather than critiquing society, consumerism, or even videogame culture, Romero delivered a banal gore-fest, one that attempts to cram as much from its source material as possible to showcase its fidelity, rather than attempting to adapt gameplay elements and characters in smarter, more sophisticated ways. While Anderson failed to produce direct adaptations, he nevertheless strived to include a fresh, perspective; beyond Anderson’s quickly-redacted claims that his first film was a prequel to the first videogame, his films have always been more inspired by the videogames than adapted from. Romero’s script, however, is the opposite; even though he utilises videogame characters, they all read very similar, especially supporting characters, and utilising the videogame’s puzzles seems unrealistic within the mansion’s confines, whose architecture, on film, promotes realism rather than fantasy.
Finally, while videogame purists and fans may yearn for absolute fidelity, there is a considerable difference between adapting smartly and adapting directly, and Romero appears to have produced the latter. For all Anderson’s faults, particularly in his first Resident Evil, Romero’s script reveals how attempting to incorporate every aspect of Resident Evil into a single movie causes characterisation to suffer and the impact of the various creatures to be lessened.
Where Anderson infuses a sci-fi, action-horror aesthetic, pulling visual inspiration from various other successful action movie archetypes, Romero relies solely on gore. By creating a more marketable, accessible, and audience-friendly film, Anderson was able to improve upon any faults in sequels and introduce other videogame elements, even though they clash with their source material. As this aligned with the intentions of the multiple production companies behind the Resident Evil films, it is hardly surprising that Anderson’s vision won out over Romero’s, whose adaptation reads, for all its attempts at slavish fidelity, as unimaginative and lacklustre, literally as though he was given crib notes concerning the general aspects of the videogame and worked from them, rather than attempting to incorporate these elements in a smarter, more inspired way.