Resident Evil: Apocalypse

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Alexander Witt

Written by Paul W.S. Anderson

With Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Oded Fehr, and Mike Epps

Call me conservative, but something in me recoils at the idea of a big-budget zombie flick. The genre, after all, was born out of economy–the unsurpassed Night of the Living Dead (1968) was George Romero’s solution to the problem of how to make a monster movie with no budget for a monster. He got his friends to slap on some white makeup, drizzled them with Bosco chocolate syrup (cheaper than stage blood, looks great in black and white), and made one of the scariest and most imitated movies of all time for just $114,000. His two follow-ups, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), were big budget only compared with the original, and the very best knockoffs on the theme–Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet (1984), Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002)–were also all made for next to nothing.

I’m not claiming that poverty is a virtue in and of itself: low budgets certainly didn’t prevent Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Dead series from blowing chunks, and the last time I saw the original Dawn of the Dead (it was remade by Zack Snyder this year) I was both stunned and bummed at how crummy the makeup and effects looked. (How could I not have noticed during all those midnight screenings back in high school?) But even if its zombies are just dorks in green paint and wide-leg pants, Dawn of the Dead still does a way better job of selling the basic premise than a megabucks extravaganza like Resident Evil: Apocalypse.

The standard middlebrow rap on Romero is that he’s a trenchant social critic who just happens to make horror movies, but I always found his forays into satire to be the least interesting aspect of his work, especially because he’s never picked a target smaller than a barn door. (Say, deep down aren’t we all really just shopping-mall zombies in this here vapid consumer society of ours? Gosh, isn’t redneck gun culture crude and stupid? Boy, racism sure is dumb. And how about organized religion–is that bogus or what?)

The real power of Romero’s Dead trilogy, and of all good zombie flicks, isn’t metaphorical but literal: they should succeed in putting you right there in the middle of things, evoking that sickening zombie-specific combination of claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and free-floating metaphysical dread.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that a truly great zombie flick needs soul, and the Resident Evil franchise has none. Which

doesn’t mean it has zero entertainment value–anyone who liked the first installment will surely like the second, probably about as much. Both were scripted by Paul W.S. Anderson, a specialist in adapting video games to the big screen (as in this case) or making movies suitable for adaptation as video games. Anderson also directed the first Resident Evil (2002), but here he’s turned over the helm to a novice, Alexander Witt, with absolutely no detectable difference of tone. Both films are certainly much better than Anderson’s other current blockbuster, Alien vs. Predator. The few junctures at which Resident Evil: Apocalypse begins to suck as bad as the latter coincide with its attempts to be funny. Where AVP has its lame comic-relief Scotsman (Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner), REA has lame comic-relief homey LJ (Next Friday’s Mike Epps, betraying a serious lack of self-respect). In an early misadventure LJ totals his car while ogling two bodacious bare-breasted zombie hos, and his bits go downhill from there.

Like every other thoroughly depersonalized corporate sci-fi picture these days, the Resident Evil series is all about bad stuff perpetrated by an evil multinational, this one called the Umbrella Corporation. The zombie plague in Resident Evil is caused by a designer virus that Umbrella Corp. hopes to develop as a bioweapon. In the first installment the virus gets loose in a secret subterranean office complex called the Hive, where Alice, played by the gorgeous if not entirely human-looking Milla Jovovich, is head of security. For reasons too arbitrary to explain, Alice is thrust into the infected Hive in a state of total amnesia. She arms herself and falls in with a cadre of gung-ho lock-and-load commando types, and they fight a lot of zombie office workers, zombie Dobermans, and some big red gargoyle critters who I assume correspond to the harder-to-kill guys one would encounter in the upper levels of the video game the movie’s based on. Only Alice and an anticorporate insurgent make it out of the Hive alive, but before they can expose the Umbrella Corporation they’re taken prisoner by that same concern.

In Resident Evil: Apocalypse the virus has reached the earth’s surface and is spreading like wildfire through the Umbrella company town of Raccoon City (gamely portrayed by Toronto, which has already been put through one zombie epidemic this year by the remake of Dawn of the Dead). Alice wakes up on a lab table to find that the whole city has been quarantined by her ex-employers, who intend to nuke it clean later in the week. She arms herself and falls in with a cadre of gung-ho lock-and-load commando types, and this time they fight a lot of zombie Torontonians, zombie Dobermans, big red gargoyle critters, and a really, really big mutant who, I assume, represents the hardest-to-kill guy one would encounter in the final level of the game. There’s also some stuff going on involving the rescue of a little girl, the daughter of the research scientist who invented the virus, who’s actually a good guy, but everything here is subordinate to handsomely mounted gun battles, explosions, and stunts.

Some of the imagery is striking enough that it’s bound to reappear in other, similar movies next summer, but none of the pretty pictures are going to stay with me as long as one inadvertent narrative effect I’d never before encountered in all my moviegoing years. There’s a certain plot point I took to be completely overt and transparent, but in the final reel it became clear that I’d been misled by Anderson’s industrial-strength foreshadowing. The surprise, in other words, came from the realization that I was meant to be surprised.

At the end of the day Resident Evil: Apocalypse isn’t the worst zombie flick I’ve ever seen. I’d rank it somewhere above Bob Clark’s Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) and below Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979). But since it’s clear that these game-based blockbusters are here to say, I have to hope they become less aggressively stupid. Hellboy and the Spider-Man movies have shown that comic-book-based properties don’t have to be soulless, stupid, or humorless. Is it utopian to expect better of the next first-person shooter that comes to the screen?