Italian Cinema and Survival Horror

[ Editor’s Note: This feature was commissioned as part of the RetroPitch 2017 event. ]

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When Tokuro Fujiwara, Shinji Mikami, and their team created Resident Evil, they drew from a variety of horror fiction to help create the creepy settings and iconic moments of the series’ earliest games. We often see Resident Evil compared to the Living Dead movies filmed throughout the US east coast by George Romero. There are quite a few references to Romero’s work throughout the series, and his association with Resident Evil became so strong that he not only directed a commercial for Resident Evil 2 (when you get a chance check out this informative eleven minute documentary about its production) but even wrote the earliest script for what would eventually become Paul W.S. Anderson’s 2002 Resident Evil movie. Romero’s impact on both film and on Resident Evil games cannot be overstated, but it’s fascinating to see how Capcom also built the visual and audio vocabulary for the original Resident Evil not on the foundation of Romero’s Dead films, but instead on its many Italian ripoffs and pseudo-sequels.

When Resident Evil players finish exploring its creepy mansion and reach the research laboratory at the end, we see a rendition of the dank, cluttered, noisy warehouse lab of Contamination rather than the spartan laboratory in Romero’s own Day of the Dead. When we receive exposition in Resident Evil it’s through a mix of distant photos and harried diary entries of the recently deceased rather than the clinical series of televised talking heads in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. And the build up to the very first clear shot of a zombie in the original Resident Evil has a strong resemblance to a similar scene in Anthropophagus: The Grim Reaper.

That last film is what we’re going to stick with here. While not important and arguably not even a good movie, it’s a great encapsulation of everything in Italian horror of the time that makes the original Resident Evil great. By comparing the two it’s easy to see how these movies had a huge effect not just on the tone of Resident Evil but on the groundwork of the survival horror genre. There are near-infinite examples of video game developers of the 80s and 90s ripping off a song, or tracing an actor’s image, but with Resident Evil we get a setting and story that transcends words like cashin or ripoff and stands as a complement to the films that inspired it. One that keenly understands the qualities that make these movies stand out and capture fans’ imaginations in ways beyond the graphic violence.

One would be completely justified in dismissing Anthropophagus as one of many low budget made-only-to-shock slasher flicks from the early 80s, because that’s exactly what it is. Just knowing it’s a movie directed by the same guy – That guy is the infamous Joe D’Amato, learn more about him here – who brought us films with titles like Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Porno Holocaust and that it features George Eastman will be enough red lights to turn some people away. But despite it featuring a group of mostly irritating characters, an exceptionally dull first act, and only one very resilient antagonist, Resident Evil fans might find it worth a watch for its location shooting. D’Amato’s direction works for the most part outside of a not so great setup. He’s also a master of creating disturbingly realistic violence with no budget (check out Buio Omega for a great example of this, or better yet, don’t).

Anthropophagus and Resident Evil both give us our first look at their most common antagonist as they’re finishing up a meal.

Most of the action in Anthropophagus takes place in an old mainstay of the genre, a dead town and creepy European mansion in which something has just gone very wrong. Both the film and Resident Evil even feature a character pushing some furniture aside to reveal a hidden alcove of sheet covered furniture and a corpse! But it’s not just any mansion. Anthropophagus was filmed in one of several estates throughout the Lazio region of Italy, in this case the current home of the Conservatorio di Sant’Eufemia in Villa Crespi. Many of these were built in the early 1900s on the grounds of once even larger villas created in the late 1500s, and if you’ve watched a few Italian horror movies made between the late 70s and mid 80s it’s likely you’ve seen the interior of one of these homes. Resident Evil first came about as a way for Tokuro Fujiwara to do things that weren’t technologically feasible with an older horror game, Sweet Home, but the Resident Evil’s Spencer Mansion’s appearance bears a much stronger resemblance to the Conservatorio di Sant’Eufemia and other homes of the area than it does to the mansion in Sweet Home (both the one in the Sweet Home game and the film it’s closely tied to).

That unique place and time in film history matches up perfectly with the design of Resident Evil. A space that was once glamorous (we later learn that the Spencer Mansion’s existence was a longform Umbrella plot but don’t worry about that for now) is full of rooms that are just as dead as its inhabitants. Resident Evil’s mansion perfectly conjures up one of these massive homes, family crypt and all. But even in this very first game of the series we see the beginnings of that merger of gothic European horror film elements with modern technology that would play a huge part both in the stories of later installments like Resident Evil 4 and questionable spinoffs like Resident Evil: Dead Aim alike.

We see that conflict between old and new, normal and almost supernatural-seeming surroundings, told just in the layout and notes scattered throughout Resident Evil’s mansion long before its more obvious visual retellings in later installments. To the point where in Resident Evil: CODE Veronica, a common nitpick of the game among fans is the haphazardly made locations, with seemingly Victorian style corridors opening up into high tech labs and modern army barracks with medieval torture chambers next door. But even in the original game we see the influence of real life spaces that have been constantly added to and modified, in some cases for centuries, making them a perfect setting for games like Resident Evil which work best using a small but unique set of locations.

Let’s go on a very brief tangent about Silent Hill. Silent Hill is very heavily inspired by horror fiction from the US, with touchstones like Twin Peaks, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jacob’s Ladder often at the forefront. Now, Silent Hill only came out three years after the original Resident Evil‘s release, and is firmly in the genre Resident Evil popularized, yet the two games give us completely different experiences.

Looking at Anthropophagus, we can see a parallel of the effort taken in the Resident Evil to use single strong light sources on most screens to make the player suspect every dark corner and shadow. Early in the game, these screens also showcase a mix of antique architecture with electric lights wired through it. A precursor to the series’ regular merger of ancient surroundings with high technology.

Those differences are perhaps the result of home video availability. Twin Peaks was huge in Japan (Check out this New York Times article from 1992 and go here to see some of the Japan-exclusive merchandise). With its success came a flood of inspired products, the Silent Hill series being one of them. The same thing happened a few years earlier with Italian horror movies. Controversial films like Cannibal Holocaust – the second highest grossing film in Japan in 1983 according to this documentary – and Anthropophagus were heavily edited for home video release to general audiences, and in some cases made illegal to even sell or possess in the United Kingdom. Many of these late 70s and early 80s films were rapidly released in Japan from 1984 to 1985 after Cannibal Holocaust’s success. Anthropophagus was among the batch that hit Japan in 1984, four years after its original release in 1980 and at a time when many of Resident Evil’s creators were just reaching adulthood. In a 2014 interview, Shinji Mikami talks a bit about his love of the more spiritual side of Japanese horror stories, and with that in mind it’s easy to see how the vaguely defined merger of paranormal happenings with viciously physical consequences in many of these Italian films would garner a cult following. One can also see the influence of it on later games he directed like The Evil Within and Resident Evil 4.

Every time you load up a game, Resident Evil reminds you that you’ve “entered the survival horror,” striking the same downbeat note of inevitable death films like Anthropophagus embraced.

But that’s also a what makes the first Resident Evil stand out so much both for its time and today as a throwback to a very specific type of horror story. When we look at an average, by the numbers zombie movie, whether zombies are around because of a virus, genetic engineering, magic, an ancient curse, whatever the reason, they’re invasive. They’re an existential threat to the status quo, an external horde of outsiders that’s taking over. We see that reflected in plenty of zombie-themed games and the obligatory “zombie level” that many video games contain as well.

When we look at Italian horror of the 70s and 80s though we see something very different. Instead of being beset upon by the unknown, characters often instead thematically enter a new world. The investigative bent of these films draws characters into isolated and successively more twisted revelations about the dark nature of a family secret or some hidden corruption. This adds an extra layer of intimacy to the buildup and bloodshed in these films that helps them continue to resonate with audiences. That sort of violent, forced introspection gives their stories the feel of a twisted fairytale, something that the best Resident Evil games capture successfully and which  keeps them enthralling no matter how campy the writing may be.

Bizarre family drama directly (and thematically) tied to the story’s over the top carnage is a regular occurrence in both Italian horror cinema from over thirty years ago as well as in Resident Evil games. The series’ pacing often mimics the bit by bit reveal of the truth.

Horror games with a veneer of investigation about them are plentiful, and we can experience even more brazen examples of games borrowing their structure and feel directly from Italian films in the first two Clock Tower games. But where that series offers a more cinematic structure with its intense ebb and flow alternating lethal sequences of hide and seek with moody investigation, Resident Evil brings all of these elements together in a more organic way thanks to its consistently moody locations.

The strongest testament to that is in the game’s hokey writing. It’s borderline awful, very campy, and often amusing. Even reviews of the game from when it was new were quick to point this out, yet the game’s perfection of the atmosphere that made those films harrowing carries it. The game confidently understands what it’s going for in a way that few games in the genre do and, like the best Lucio Fulci movies, is less concerned about writing that makes sense as long as everything else creates a hopeless and nightmarish world for its characters to survive.

When players begin a game of Resident Evil today, some of that may not come across due to the technological limitations Capcom was working with in the 90s. However, when Shinji Mikami’s remake of it was released on the GameCube in 2003, he and his team took things in a smart direction. Rather than modernize the game’s feel, they doubled down on the sensibilities that inspired the game in the first place. There’s a level of commitment to this that’s so strong that two additional homages to George Romero’s films created specifically for the remake take place during the game’s prologue rather than in the game itself. Once our heroes enter the mansion and willingly decide to investigate its secrets, they’ve effectively entered an early 80s Italian horror movie until the game ends. Limits on room sizes, doors slowly opening to hide loading times, the occasional awkward camera angle, and other things that had to be worked around to help deliver a game as good as Resident Evil are fully embraced and exploited in the remake to create an even more perfectly executed sense of danger. This is most strongly felt in the game’s new areas and some re-worked camera angles. Most of these stick to a dull green palette that works great with the subtle grain filter cast over the game to make things look as creepy as possible – and also keeps them in line with Liberty style Italian architecture of the early 1900s.

Areas exclusive to the remake are carefully framed in ways evocative of the mass of Italian zombie and horror films localized for Japan in the mid 80s.

That devotion can not only be seen, but heard. The original Resident Evil‘s sound has some ambient tracks, but it mostly goes in a more sensationalist direction. The 2002 remake heads the opposite way and is all mood punctuated by some of the more bombastic stuff the Resident Evil series is known for today at key points. It’s hard not to notice the similarity some tracks have to what we hear in Anthropophagus. But again Resident Evil isn’t a simple ripoff, and we see a certain level of nuance even in the game’s audio. A good example can be heard via these links. The remake’s soundtrack crosses a line into the otherworldly, and one only has to watch any horror films made in the early 2000s (like the film adaptation of Resident Evil) to see how unique it is for its time. The Resident Evil remake is a game that succeeds not just by embracing elements from original, but by embracing the original’s roots and inspirations.

The remake even goes the extra mile with its sound effects. Unlike the rest of the game’s soundscape Resident Evil’s (both versions) zombies are not in stereo. In a perfect complement to the game’s sometimes disorienting layout, zombie groans only come in two varieties, loud when a zombie is close to the player’s character and soft when one is further away. This works both on the immediate level of making it less obvious what part of a room enemies are moving through, but also on an emotional level of creating the suspense the films that inspired Resident Evil are also known for. It’s both a way for the game to maintain that sensation of being completely surrounded by (resident) evil, and another sign that while Resident Evil’s creators understand what makes those movies work and worked that into their game instead. “Survival horror” is a genre name Capcom came up with for marketing purposes, but Resident Evil owns it, and through the impact of its pacing and settings solidified a genre that can still trace its routes a distinct time and place in cinema.

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Images in this article come from the PlayStation 4 version of Resident Evil HD Remaster, the film Anthropophagus: The Grim Reaper, an old poster for that film, and the PlayStation cover of the original Resident Evil.

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Chris has been writing about old video games for a long time, and you can find most of his work on Hardcore Gaming 101. His unhealthy obsessions include horror movies and anything published by SNK. More recently, he created a site called GamingDetritus from which you can find original articles along with videos and the occasional piece from some of his friends.

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Eric Bailey is Top Frog of SkirmishFrogs.com. He also blogs at NintendoLegend.com. You can follow him on Twitter, @Nintendo_Legend.

3 Comments

  1. That is a fascinating read, thanks for shedding new light on the subject.

  2. Great article!

  3. Italian horror cinema and Resident Evil?! You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!

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