Having rekindled Kate Bush’s career with Stranger Things, for its next trick Netflix is hoping to revive not one but two moribund genres. The first is the post-apocalyptic zombie thriller – a milieu that peaked with season one of The Walking Dead and then flatlined with every subsequent season of The Walking Dead (that putrid smell wasn’t the zombies, it was the script).
The second challenge Netflix is taking on with Resident Evil – based on the popular console franchise – is to turn a cult video game into riveting drama. Many have tried and most have failed. The solution this eight-part series comes up with is to ignore the source material almost entirely – some of the characters share their names with protagonists from the games but that’s about it – and set off on its own trajectory (one entirely unrelated to the popular Resident Evil movies starring Milla Jovovich).
The destination at which it arrives is B-movie nirvana. There are lots of ravenous zombies – technically humans whipped into a killer frenzy by a lab-made virus. And the ghoulish excitement is topped off with a delicious early set-piece in which heroine Jade (Ella Balinska) flees a giant rotting spider while trying to cross the Channel from Dover to Calais.
Riotously ridiculous in other words – and great fun for those who like to switch off their grey matter before parking on the couch. It’s also considerably more charming than Zack Snyder’s ponderous Army of the Dead, which wheezed and huffed onto Netflix in 2021 before sinking without a trace (though spin-offs are threatened).
Yet if essentially braindead with a vengeance, Resident Evil shows glimmers of intelligence around the edges. The action is split in two, with the parts taking place around Dover and Calais recycling the relentless cheerlessness of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian classic Children of Men. However, the emotional core of story is set two decades previously in fictional Racoon City in South Africa.
Racoon City is a company town (the name comes from the video games) which looks like something Mark Zuckerberg might create if let loose with a Lego set. And it is the new home of pioneering scientist Albert Wesker (Lance Reddick, aka Cedric Daniels from The Wire), who has just relocated with his adolescent daughters, a younger Jade (Tamara Smart) and her half-twin, Billie (Siena Agudong).
The vibe is Euphoria meets the Stepford Wives. Jade and Billie are mutinous teenagers with dyed fringes and fashion-forward hoodies. They have lots against which to rebel, as all the adults in Racoon City have sold their souls to the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. That’s especially true of Daddy Wesker. Under pressure from ruthless Umbrella boss Evelyn Marcus (Paola Núñez), he’s developing a new wonder drug with potentially apocalyptic side-effects.
Fast-forward to the present day and a grown-up Jade is fleeing a London over-run with mindless marauders (insert your own joke about Boris Johnson’s cabinet etc etc). She’s been conducting field research into zombie physiology and is eager to get back to her family. Jade must also evade the Umbrella Corporation which, for reasons that gradually become clear, has her on its most wanted list.
With subscriber numbers dipping, Netflix has been trimming budgets from non top-tier properties (everything that isn’t Stranger Things or Squid Game). So it perhaps isn’t surprising Resident Evil has a shoe-string feel in places.
The production values for Racoon City, for instance, are more Hollyoaks than HBO. And yet the CGI zombies are wonderfully abominable and the pace cranks up a gear whenever they lumber into view. Low-key political commentary has meanwhile been smuggled into sequences in which the citizens of a crumbling UK try to flee across the Channel to the promised land of Calais.
Don’t worry – you can ignore that. Resident Evil is a zombie caper that knows what it’s here for. And that is to fill the screen with rampaging hordes of undead and to reassure horror fans that there is life after The Walking Dead. Those boxes are ticked in dead impressive fashion.