What's a nice girl like Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees doing in a review of this zombie flick? Good-looking guys in commando uniforms may have something to do with it.
Our reviews of Resident Evil (published July 22nd, 2002), Resident Evil: Superbit Edition (published December 17th, 2002), and Resident Evil (Blu-Ray) (published January 7th, 2008) are also available.
"It's scary, it's disturbing, and then you can go home and have a nice cup of cocoa."—Pauline Fowler, special effects makeup supervisor
Since this is the third DVD release of Resident Evil, chances are that you know by now if you're a fan or not. But if by some chance you haven't yet seen this underrated film—or, worse, if you saw only its noisy, tiresome sequel, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and assume that the original must be more of the same—you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Until I saw it, I myself would never have guessed I'd become such a fan of Resident Evil: I'm a Jane Austen-reading, non-video-game-playing, non-horror-movie-watching girly girl, and normally I curl my lip at the idea of a zombie flick. But this one completely won me over. I would call it a guilty pleasure, but I refuse to feel guilty for admiring this well-crafted, visually striking movie.
Resident Evil never has gotten much love; even the disappointing RE: Apocalypse received a more favorable response from some critics. But this stylish, suspenseful movie looks all the better in contrast to its busy but heartless sequel, and the newly released deluxe-edition DVD gives viewers a closer look inside the making of this übercool flick.
Facts of the Case
When an experimental Umbrella Corporation virus contaminates the work area known as the Hive, the central computer, dubbed the Red Queen, establishes a state of quarantine…by ensuring that no one who has been exposed is left alive. The corporation's security forces investigate, but their investigation is complicated by the memory loss of one of their operatives (Milla Jovovich, The Fifth Element), the presence of an unknown quantity with a fishy story (Eric Mabius, I Shot Andy Warhol), and a close-mouthed amnesiac whose agenda no one knows—including, perhaps, himself (James Purefoy, Vanity Fair). In addition to facing the hostility of the Red Queen as they seek the reason for the outbreak, the operatives must contend with the reanimated corpses of the Umbrella Corporation employees, who have been terribly altered by the T-virus—and a still more dangerous creature that also resulted from the corporation's genetic experimentation.
In the featurette on the video game's transition into feature film, both Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez, who plays one of the primary commandos, praise the "stillness" of the first Resident Evil video game. Therein lies the secret to much of the film's power: After the harrowing opening sequence, writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson brings the volume down, relying on the slow buildup of dread, the accumulation of silence and enigmas, and eerily empty spaces to create tension and suspense. The striking production design by Richard Bridgland (as well as the filming locations in Berlin) enhances the sense of unease, giving us cavernous, echoey settings like the mansion and the underground train station that impart a sense of sterile isolation, as well as the more claustrophobic spaces that contain a labyrinth of containment units or systems of air ducts and pipes, which offer a grittier, more industrial element (and make it more difficult for the characters to elude attackers). The delayed entrance of the zombies is also effective, as is the way they arrive in a trickle instead of a flood: The threat they pose thus unfolds gradually and is able to accumulate. We can see the first few zombies as individuals, noticing in them vestiges of the humans they once were, which makes them more involving than a faceless undead mob (such as we see in the sequel). All of these decisions contribute to creating a suspenseful, tense film rather than a simple butt-kicking exercise.
Another highly effective decision in the making of Resident Evil is the way the plot unfolds through the eyes of its amnesiac heroine. We are able to vicariously experience the strangeness of the locations, the other characters, and the unfolding story through her, since she arrives on the scene metaphorically newborn—naked and empty of knowledge. It's a clever way to draw us into the story, giving us a surrogate that knows as little of the situation as we do. Her vulnerability makes her seem out of place among the uniformed commandos, which we can also relate to. We're drawn to her for these reasons, and we personally invest in her journey toward understanding—which makes it all the more powerful when it begins to look like she may have been the bad hat who released the T-virus.
Extras for this deluxe edition include almost all of the original edition extras, with the exception of the making-of featurette (some of whose interview footage has been incorporated into the new featurette "Playing Dead") and the Slipknot music video—whose loss I, for one, do not mourn. The zombie makeup test sequence, the other apparent deletion, is actually present as an Easter egg. The new additions include the teaser trailer for RE: Apocalypse, which is far better than the film itself; a clip from RE: Apocalypse (taken from a late point in the film, so it is a spoiler of sorts); updated filmographies; an alternate ending, introduced by director Paul W.S. Anderson; a visual effects commentary track by Anderson and visual effects supervisor Richard Yuricich (Blade Runner); and the following featurettes:
•"Playing Dead: Resident Evil from Game to Screen" (15:03)—The most substantial of the featurettes, this offers lots of commentary on the games that inspired the film, not only from cast and crew members but from video game developers and, for no good reason, from co-composer Marilyn Manson, who can't resist inserting gratuitous political commentary. For viewers like me who have no acquaintance with the Resident Evil video game series, this is a great chance to see lots of visuals from the games and to learn what specific elements of the first game inspired Anderson when he adapted it for the big screen.
•"Storyboarding Resident Evil" (6:25)—After a short introduction from Anderson, this featurette shows three film sequences—the elevator, the laser chamber, and the zombie dogs—side by side with their storyboards.
•"The Creature" (5:15)—Here we see the way the Licker was created from a combination of puppetry and CGI. Truth to tell, the puppet Licker impresses me more than the final screen incarnation—this critter is about the only part of the film that makes me roll my eyes.
•"The Elevator" (1:08)—This brief featurette shows the model that was used in combination with a full-scale elevator for the memorable opening sequence.
•"The Train" (2:20)—Another brief featurette, this shows how footage of a model train was combined with shots of an actual train.
•"The Laser" (5:04)—This detailed breakdown of the slice 'n' dice effects shows how the effects crew created models of the actors who would fall afoul of the laser chamber and filmed those models coming apart in carefully calibrated ways. My favorite part of this segment shows crew members trying to sort out the pieces of one minced character—a Humpty Dumpty moment that fits well with the Alice in Wonderland parallels in the movie.
•"Zombie Dogs" (3:40)—Here we get to see some of the dog stunts in rehearsal, raw footage from which the famous kick shot was put together, and one patient canine actor being dressed in full-body zombie makeup. No tips are offered for getting one's own dogs to put up with this treatment, unfortunately.
•"Zombies" (4:30)—This featurette offers a close look at the zombie makeup and illuminates the way the designer arrived at the looks for the zombies in the film (which vary according to means of death). We also get to see Michelle Rodriguez being made up in zombie-face. My colleague Judge Patrick Naugle has noted that the zombie makeup is more impressive when we see it in these behind-the-scenes shots than it is in most of the zombie closeups in the film, and I agree: The longer the camera lingers on these guys, the creepier they are.
The original release's featurettes on the music, costumes, and production design also appear here. Sadly, however, the original main menu, with its sinister computer-generated images of the Hive, has been replaced with a ho-hum new menu that shows off some of the ickier zombies. I also miss the behind-the-scenes footage from the making-of featurette on the original release—shots of the actors in fight training, of director Anderson demonstrating blocking, and of some of the more ambitious stunt work being filmed. The case insert containing production notes and a chapter listing has also been dropped. Fortunately this edition retains the original commentary track with Anderson, producer Jeremy Bolt, Milla Jovovich, and Michelle Rodriguez, which is one of the single most entertaining and flat-out funny commentaries I've ever heard. Hearing Rodriguez caressingly describe her firearms and Jovovich evaluate her level of commitment to her role according to number of exposed nipples is an experience no Resident Evil fan should miss.
One of the reasons I have eagerly awaited this edition is that it contains a technical commentary track, presumably the track that Anderson mentioned in the original commentary but which has not been available in Region 1 until now. Casual viewers may not find this commentary much of a selling point, but I adore getting the inside scoop on how cinematic effects are created, and I found it fascinating to learn how the zombie dogs were trained, how sets were enhanced with computer imagery, and how the stunts were created. I was also impressed to learn how the crew used computer magic to overcome their tiny budget and inexpensively enhance the film's style and impact. The new featurettes also illuminate many of these areas, to greater or lesser extent; taken in isolation they leave many gaps, but together with the technical commentary they provide an intriguing education in the considerable work that went on behind the scenes to create some of the most arresting and effective sequences in the film.
The alternate ending, although brief, is dramatically different from the ending of the finished film—Anderson calls it a more "up" ending. Although the conclusion that was released is the one he originally planned, for a time it was considered to be too depressing, so he wrote and filmed this one. It's a little difficult to gauge the alternate ending's impact since it was left unfinished; Anderson returns at the end of the clip to describe the effects shot that would have taken place if the ending had been completed.
Regarding audiovisual quality, there's no difference that I can discern from the original DVD release. Both the sharp, saturated visuals and the immersive, resonant audio track are exceptionally fine. Whatever your feelings about the film, you can't deny that it's beautifully transferred.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The widespread contempt for Resident Evil would suggest that, if you haven't yet seen it, you should probably rent before deciding whether to purchase. This may be a case in which my relative ignorance of the zombie subgenre makes me more easily impressed than the average filmgoer, so if you are steeped in zombie films and have very high standards for them, your mileage may vary.
As to whether fans of the film (and I know I can't be the only one) will find it worth upgrading from the original release to the deluxe edition, again, that's probably a matter of individual preference. If you already own the original DVD release, you may not need to get this one unless you're really into the technical elements of filmmaking or if you are a Resident Evil completist and simply must have the alternate ending. (Of course, fans of the bodacious Ms. Jovovich will want to snap this disc up for the few extra minutes of cool Milla footage it offers. A word to the wise: She finally gets to change into another costume, and it rocks.)
Take it from a most unlikely fan: Resident Evil is worth checking out. It's genre filmmaking at its most stylish and atmospheric, with a deliciously creepy plot that confirms our worst fears about corporate control. This new edition offers some lovely treats for the long-suffering fans who have had to listen to others malign it for the last two years…or for those who are only just now discovering the merits of the movie.
All previous verdicts are dismissed as prejudicial. The court proudly flies in the face of legal precedent and declares the defendant not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer-Director Paul W.S. Anderson, Producer Jeremy Bolt, and Actors Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez
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