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Dawn of the Dead and Resident Evil: consumers, workforce and the cycle of recession

Written by Film

Upon its release in 1978, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was showered with praise for its advancement in practical effects and tongue-and-cheek satire of contemporary Western society. Romero’s follow-up to his 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead, has retained much of its legacy. Unfortunately for Paul W. S. Anderson, Resident Evil (2002) – a film adaptation of the acclaimed eponymous video game – received something of a cold welcome upon release and, although its reputation has slowly become more favourable, it continues to be undervalued critically.

Despite the 30-year gap between the films and their starkly contrasting critical backgrounds, Dead and Evil share more in common than their infectious undead foes. Though Romero and Anderson have rather different directing styles and attributes, the shared themes of economic recession and culpability seems like more than a simple coincidence. Whether influenced by Romero and his use of space or not, Anderson’s Resident Evil makes for a sensitive zombie pairing.

Arguably the most famous aspect of Dawn of the Dead, the shopping mall setting has become a long-standing metaphor for the pull of consumerism on Western society in critical reading. Of all the places that this small group of survivors could go to wait out the apocalypse, they choose the familiar hub of retail. And it’s not won at any little effort. A whole sequence is illustrated with the survivors mobilising lorries and the herd of zombies to barricade the building, with one of the characters being bitten in the process.

What follows is yet another sequence of the group enjoying the facilities that stores have to offer, fulfilling consumerist fantasies now that their world is no longer shaped by economic gain.  As Dawn of the Dead’s critical legacy pertains, the mall acting as a beacon for both the living and the undead exposes the stripping of humanity through this joint compulsion.

In contrast, Resident Evil disassociates itself with any overtly consumer-based locales or characters, and instead presents an array of conflicting spaces. The headquarters of the Umbrella Corporation is introduced in the film’s exposition, depicting a breach of contamination in the air vents from the pharmaceutical laboratories as it enters a more stabilised, office-space. The headquarters immediately feels paradoxical, with the image of the clinical laboratories conflicting with the more socialised offices.

Evil takes a particularly poignant stance against capitalistic cycles and the harm passed down to lower-levelled workers.

However, by making this direct tie, Resident Evil constructs a corporate chain that exists within close proximity to each other. The outbreak of the T-virus directly effects the office space through an immediate and technologically automated lockdown of the entire facility. Doors become magnetically bound and the lift is programmed to shut and crush, effectively terminating and imprisoning any chance of life. Quite literally, the Umbrella Corporation ensnares its workforce in a successive chain from departments, while members of corporate leadership continue to be hidden and removed from the central facility.

During both its production and release, Resident Evil was conceived in the midst of an economic recession in the United States. As such, Evil’s depiction of consumerism and corporate workforces takes a particularly poignant stance against the capitalistic cycles and the harm passed down to lower-levelled workers.

In contrast, Dawn of the Dead, which was produced and released in the later 1970s, originates from a context of economic revival, sandwiched between the recessions of the early 1970s and the early 1980s. From this, the shopping mall beacon for survivors acts as a vehicle tochastise its viewers for persisting in their support of big business, even in the wake of a global pandemic, despite holding a self-awareness of the cyclical repercussions (though one could see how Dawn of the Dead contributes to the financially driven film industry itself).

Resident Evil poster’
Image Credit: IMDB

Meanwhile, 28 years later, Resident Evil chastises the big businesses themselves for their ethical vacancy in the face of an endangered workforce. Evil’s aforementioned lockdown sequence reflects the corporate crunches that take place during recession, eliminating the stability and security of the lower-levelled workers despite the crisis originating from a different source. The use of automated networks and the Red Queen A.I., which runs the facility, only accentuates the systematic pressure that’s placed on these workers indiscriminately, with any hope of a leadership presence being met with absence.

Resident Evil’s sense of entrapment runs deeper than Dawn of the Dead’s. Although the zombies surround the shopping mall in Dead, the survivors’ possession of a helicopter reflects the autonomy that they ultimately have. The only limitations presented with the helicopter are the expertise needed to fly it – a problem solved by an exchange of flying lessons – and the accessibility to fuel. This is a problem not so easily solved, and presented as a downfall in a bleaker alternative ending to the 1978 classic. As a result, the autonomy being given to the survivors in this mode of transportation emphasises their own culpability in preserving capitalistic consumer cycles.

On the other hand, Resident Evil presents a direct train commute to the underground facility during the first act. Accessed through a slowly decaying mansion, which is inhabited by employees Alice (Milla Jovovich) and Spence (James Purefoy) as a way of disguising the mansion as a residency, is a train network operated for workers’ access to the facility. The private train network streamlines the path of the lower-levelled workers, making a direct connection between the nine-to-five office workday and the mansion. This connection cements the persistent delusion of the American dream, that a steady income in the world of corporate management may lead to an inhabitation of wealth; the mansion’s own hollowness reflecting these crumbling aspirations.

The feeling of imprisonment in both films comes from a space of convenience akin to complacency towards the cycle of consumerism.

Of course, despite being released almost three decades prior, Dawn of the Dead shares a motif in the aforementioned use of the lift. Resident Evil utilises the everyday service in eliminating its infected employees in spite of their attempts to escape. Although being trapped in the lift and the failure of suspension being an infamous fear, the attempts of escape depict an inversion of Dawn of the Dead’s lift sequence.

Near the climax of Dead, Stephen (David Emge) finds himself in a closed lift after fleeing through the ventilation shafts during a raid on the mall. Unlike the safety of stair wells, which are used to access their saferoom in Dead, the lift becomes a cage when zombies swarm it. The feeling of imprisonment in both films comes from a space of convenience akin to complacency towards the cycle of consumerism.

Resident Evil may not receive the credit that it deserves for its exploration of economic hardship in Western society, but its alternative lens to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead weaves a more complex tapestry in this legacy of societal subtexts in the zombie sub-genre. Evil‘s attention to the workforce connects with Dead‘s obsession with consumerism to complete a larger cycle of grievances.

Perhaps the real world’s current pandemic and looming economic recession will cast a more open-minded light onto Anderson’s video game adaptation, and appreciate its own contributions to the horror canon.

Last modified: 10th June 2020

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