I still remember the first time I encountered the Resident Evil series of videogames. It wasn’t until Resident Evil 2, and it was on my Sony Playstation, both of which still sit in my living room beckoning me for an encounter with the undead. My family’s appreciation of this series continues to the present day with my teenage son currently enjoying Resident Evil 5.
But it was an article by Jeff Jenson in the March 27, 2009 edition of my wife’s Entertainment Weekly on the current edition of the game that got me thinking about two facets of zombies, one common to all expressions of zombie apocalypse, and the other unique to RE5.
Jenson states at the outset that he does not find the threat of zombies scary (which I doubt), but in his view zombie horror offers “a single, disturbing thrill – guilt-free homicide. Because, after all, zombies may look like humans, but they technically aren’t humans. So watching their heads get blown off with a shotgun? It’s all good!”
Popular and academic analysis of zombies in popular culture indicates that they function in a variety of ways in horror, such as Romero’s exploration of racism and consumerism, but Jensen raises an interesting and disturbing facet of zombies that may also contribute to our enjoyment of them. Is it possible that these semi-human, or now undead and perhaps less-than-human creatures provide a safe place for us to engage in homicide and mayhem without the guilt that goes with pursuing such acts in the real world?
Jensen also raises a second point about zombies which is peculiar to RE5. The story takes place in a fictitious region in Africa where the Black Hawk Down film was an inspiration. Jensen states in this regard, “while that point of reference accentuates the impressively rendered Third World squalor, it makes for uncomfortable moral ambiguity…for a few minutes, at least. I found myself asking: Is it okay to enjoy killing mobs of impoverished Africans?” Then, bringing the previous issue together with the concern over the games location Jensen concludes: “Then I remembered they were only zombies, and proceeded to slaughter with impunity.”
Does Jensen raise an additional point of significance with the story location for RE5? It wouldn’t be the first time that varous forms of entertainment in America have used such locations and their inhabitants as foils for our subconscious explorations of racism. King Kong is a primary example of this, but other films have followed suit.
I don’t want the reader to misunderstand me here. I am not the type that wrings my hands over the dangers videogames pose to our youth, and I think we need to be careful in making connections between various forms of entertainment in popular culture and how it may or may not reflect conditions related to our social and cultural contexts. But Jensen raises issues that might give us pause as we engage in deeper reflection on zombies in videogames, and why so many of us love them. Zombies in film have been probed deeply by scholars, but their expression in videogames still awaits closer analysis. Perhaps raising these questions here can contribute to the beginnings to such exploration.