Here are some elements of the early 2000s action-horror movie: pretty people get killed using a mixture of cool practical effects and dated CGI. There will be moments where the movie slows down to make sure you can see how cool it looks, especially when people are getting killed. These movies all stood in the shadow of The Matrix, which came out in 1999, and would soon be overshadowed by Saw, coming down the pipe in 2004.
Then there’s Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil, which pulls from a large number of sources to create a pretty decent action movie (and arguably the best video game movie of the time).
Resident Evil starts off as a slightly surreal office horror movie. The viewer is told that 9 out of 10 people use Umbrella Corporation’s products. The company has incredible power in every hall of power — more power than even some of its employees know about through selling weapons and diseases to the government.
After all of this power, Resident Evil takes us directly inside Umbrella. What are the employees of this incredibly effective, high-powered corporation like? Well, Anderson says, they’re not too impressive. Their workplace begins to betray them, locking office workers in elevators and meeting rooms. They are told fires are breaking out in their labs, which they can plainly see is not true. One starts looking directly at the camera, yelling over and over again that there is no fire. But the camera, the viewer realizes, is watching back.
The camera turns out to be The Red Queen, an A.I security program of the company that’s taken on a life of its own. A security team works to take down the A.I. However, challenging the Red Queen brings problems of its own, as it was holding off legions of undead created by the company.
Even at the time of its release, Resident Evil was seen as something of a compromise. The initial idea had been for the man who had inspired the video game series specifically and zombie movies in general, George Romero, to claim the franchise as the latest extension of his Night of the Living Dead legacy. Romero didn’t understand gaming, but he was intrigued: he watched an assistant play the game and wrote up a relatively faithful adaptation of the first entry in the series, taking place within the spooky Spencer Mansion.
Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. Robert Kulzer, a producer, told horror mag Fangoria at the time that “with George, we could have done a great zombie movie for a very, very limited audience.” Whatever Romero was making, Kulzer seemed to think that it wouldn’t get into mainstream theaters, wouldn’t have been carried by family-friendly rental stores like Blockbuster, and couldn’t have made it onto television.
As fate would have it, at the same time Paul W.S Anderson was becoming a huge gamer. Burnt out from a disaster shoot with Kurt Russel, he began writing a script that he would later tell Fangoria was “very much a rip-off” of the horror game. As talks with Romero fell apart, Anderson — who had directed the original Mortal Kombat, the lone video-game movie to make a profit at the time – found himself stepping in to create a new vision.
That vision centered less around the games and more around Mila Jovovich, who had proven her action chops years earlier while wearing very little in The Fifth Element. She was initially only interested in the role as a joke, auditioning because her brother loved the games, but soon found herself taking things very seriously. When she found that her action scenes were being given to co-star Michelle Rodriguez, she later told The Guardian that she stormed into Anderson’s hotel room and demanded to be given back a scene where she runs up a wall, kicks a mutant dog, and breaks the neck of the zombie by crushing his head between her thighs.
Anderson and Jovovich, who began dating on set and would later marry in 2009, have clear chemistry throughout the movie. When viewers are first introduced to her, she’s wearing just a shower curtain. From there, she’s upgraded to a little red dress. These early scenes focus on Jovovich alone and paint her in the same loving light that Alfred Hitchcock would use with Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
But for Jovovich, the glamor of the role was short-lived. Doing her own stunts, she told Fangoria, meant 16-hour days getting dunked into freezing water wearing barely anything 30 to 40 times a day. Jovovich’s Alice starts the movie with amnesia, slowly understanding her connection to the dastardly Umbrella Corporation.
While it’s a little frustrating to know so little about a lead character at the beginning — there’s not much backstory given — watching the scenes where she kills a zombie with her thighs and kicks a zombie dog in the face tells us all we need to know. And while it was hard work, it was clearly enough for Jovovich and Anderson to return, over and over again, for their many sequels.
While Resident Evil helped revitalize zombie movies, nobody would confuse it with Romero’s initial masterpiece. Rather, it sits alongside movies like Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea: an action movie that knows exactly what it wants to be.
Resident Evil is streaming now on Amazon Prime in the U.S.