The Resident Evil movies were a camp cultural reset

This hetero-friendly video game adaptation is an unlikely entry into the camp cinema canon. Watch closely and you’ll see why.

by Jack King
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16 April 2020, 7:00am

Trying to give camp a straightforward definition defies the entire point of what camp is. Camp is bent. It can be self-aware, and not self-aware in the slightest; it is both Drag Race’s Sharon Needles and Sharon Watts from EastEnders. What unites all cultures of camp is their relationship to ridiculous and the overtly theatrical, an active rejection of tastefulness. As Susan Sontag put it in her seminal, heavily cited essay Notes on ‘Camp’, “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

Some distinctions could be made, though. Harry Styles on the cover of Fine Line wearing big white trousers? That could be considered camp (and very, very hot). Harry Styles at the 2019 Met Gala, on the other hand, in a sheer Gucci number, was more femme than camp (though still, inarguably, very hot). So while camp is married to gender performance, it should not normally be taken as a synonym for feminine or gay, regardless of what brutish football lads or British colloquialisms might have us believe.

So, while it almost certainly doesn’t know it, Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise, about a world overrun by zombies and the figures enlisted to fight back against them, is unequivocally camp as fuck. It isn’t gaudy or grotesque like John Waters Pink Flamingos, nor does it flaunt tasteless flamboyance like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s hard to sturdily argue that the series is queer-adjacent, but a plethora of characters throughout the series can be queer coded. Milla Jovovich’s feisty series protagonist Alice and Michelle Rodriguez’ no-fucks-given, elite soldier Rain, for example, might be read as lesbians in the series’ first film -- their sexual tension (“I could kiss you, you bitch!”) is palpable throughout. Albert Wesker, the slick-haired, leather adorned, queenish antagonist of its follow-up Resident Evil: Afterlife, like all good villains, could have been snapped up from the beaches of Fire Island.

So where does camp come into Resident Evil? Well, the essence of Resident Evil is, like Susan Sontag alludes to, its love of the unnatural. At its most wondrously tasteless, the series is epitomised by its jarring language of artifice – from its trashy technical choices, such as Anderson’s clear adoration of Michael Bay-style slow-mo, to its jangly, video game-level written dialogue. Resident Evil’s Red Queen, the film’s A.I. antagonist, is the worst offender here. From explaining that zombies have only “the need to feed” to describing herself, an avatar of a ten-year-old, as having been “a bad, bad girl” in gassing five-hundred people with a nerve agent. High trash. Iconic.

The series begins in a state of banality that it sometimes slips back into. But even at its most po-faced, the lines of camp are blurred. We first meet the aforementioned Alice after she has collapsed in the bathroom of a grand, remote house, flamboyantly draped by a torn shower curtain -- kind of like Janet Leigh in Psycho, minus the blood-soaked death. What’s more, she’s suffering from amnesia. Alice throws on a deep red cocktail dress (appropriate apocalypse couture) and, before she can even say “cold brew and an aspirin”, macho super soldiers swing in through the windows and sweep her away to the Hive, secretive labs stored underneath a mansion. Because where else can such an establishment be found?

A later scene sees Rain annihilate a zombie with a machine-gun, the creature (read: extra) flying a good 12 feet into the air, dragged by glaringly obvious wires. “I shot her five times,” her rattled partner says, “how was she still standing?” Dramatically wrapping her hand in gauze, and missing not a single beat, Rain coolly retorts: “Bitch isn’t standing now.” Cut to us snapping our fingers furiously.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse introduces us to the staple characters of the original video game franchise, including the iconic heroine Jill Valentine -- an officer of S.T.A.R.S., a highly-respected police squad -- via a close up of her stilettos. She chucks her handbag on the floor of her apartment. The city around Jill is descending into chaos, yet she’s just back from a night at the club. Jill’s police radio calls her into action. She struts into the Raccoon Police Department with an airy cool, those heels swapped for boots, and quickly takes out four zombies causing chaos. It’s the epitome of extra efficiency. Valentine gets it done, and with style.

Much of this might be inspired by the unwitting camp of the Resident Evil video games, iconic and popular enough to spur a billion-dollar cinematic adaptation while also functioning as cultish schlock. The games, particularly the initial PlayStation releases in the late nineties, riff on every B-movie horror stereotype in the book. Their campiness is heightened by some of the most wonderfully bad voice acting out there (did I hear you say “Jill sandwich”?), for which – despite the series’ ongoing success, most recently being a well-received remake of Resident Evil 3 – they remain infamous.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse is the most enjoyable movie of the series, as well as its most emphatically artificial and ridiculous entry. It also enjoys the worst Rotten Tomatoes rating of the series. Resident Evil, on the other hand, is a critical darling in comparison, with a positively glowing 37% on Rotten Tomatoes, yet its best scenes are those in which the sincere, conventional façade is pierced by tasteless melodrama. Like when Alice slo-mo karate kicks a zombie dog to death, or when a terribly rendered CGI monster called a Licker flings Spence, the film’s macho antagonist, around like a ragdoll.

The only bad Resident Evil films, really, are those that try to actively mean something, or to offer more than just abstract, hilarious, tasteless artifice. Resident Evil: Extinction, for example, attempts to segue the series into a critique of the climate crisis, but just ends up feeling like a falsely preachy version of The Book of Eli, or Mad Max with zombies. Resident Evil: Retribution, meanwhile, brings the series under the dull spotlight of self-aware metanarrative. This is most annoying. The fun, almost magical schlock of a b-movie is lost when that schlock is self-interrogated.

We don’t watch Resident Evil for didactic musings on the Military Industrial Complex, we watch these movies to see Milla Jovovich theatrically snapping zombie necks with her thighs. It might be entirely unwitting and clueless in its own campiness, but when this ultra successful zombie killer series leans into tasteless, overly performed, garish artifice, it flourishes. And that, more than anything, is why we love it.

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it was a cultural reset