Johannes Roberts delivers a hard-R adaptation of the Survival Horror series that gets everything right
Simply stated, survival horror would be nothing without the original Resident Evil game for PS1.
The game quickly became the best-selling of all time when it was unleashed for the OG Playstation back in 1996, and has been remade and released on countless consoles since. I remember saving up for months and picking it up a year after release due to the hype surrounding the game in the horror fandom. Now, keep in mind this was before zombies were as ubiquitous in pop culture as they are now, so a highly cinematic video game that featured zombies as antagonists was actually quite unique—especially since it felt very much inspired by the films of George Romero, who would later direct a commercial for the sequel. Romero would also be in the running for the requisite film adaptation, which would be directed by Paul W. S. Anderson coming off of Mortal Kombat.
That first film starring Milla Jovovich would be a very loose adaptation of the first game, and each entry would drift farther and farther from the source, devolving into a fun yet mindless sci-fi action franchise that would span more than a decade.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City was announced mid-pandemic, and to be honest I didn’t know what to expect. But after seeing the trailer I was all in; not only did the visuals appear to be lifted right from that original game, but the plot also seemed to go back to that initial outbreak at Raccoon City for this back-to-basics reboot. The trailer also felt a bit more intimate and while the earlier franchise tended to go big, with hordes of CGI undead, instead this felt more like a modestly budgeted horror film that would rely on its atmosphere to supply its scares.
Written and directed by Johannes Roberts who gave us the massively underrated 47 Meters Down series, Welcome to Raccoon City is a period origin story that’s essentially a mashup of the first two games. Transpiring in 1998, the film follows Kaya Scodelario (Crawl) as Claire Redfield, who’s been lured back to Raccoon City by conspiracy theories of what the Umbrella Corporation is really up to; she hopes to get some answers with the help of her police officer brother Chris. This happens just as the town is going into lockdown by Umbrella — the fallout here being a mix of mutant zombies and radiation poisoning as the population of the town appears to be falling apart before our very eyes. This path eventually leads us to the Spencer Mansion and a race against time.
Doing the source justice, Raccoon City leans into its hard R rating, delivering some effective scares and plenty of the red stuff. It also feels a bit more grounded given its more realistic—at times claustrophobic—take. While the previous films felt more sci-fi than horror to me with their slick, almost futuristic production design, Raccoon City is first and foremost a horror film and makes that abundantly clear over and over, borrowing the grittier creature and location designs from the games. This is the film I feel like fans were originally promised, and while it may be too late for some, I am here for it. The solid cast of mostly up-and -comers solidifies the deal for me and further allows me to look at these folks as new takes on the characters, rather than stars slumming it in a video game adaptation. The film also brought to mind those real world cinematics that blew me away the first time I booted that black disc up in 1997.
The Blu-ray comes with a few featurettes that dig into the film’s production and connections to the source, spotlighting director Johannes Roberts’s fondness for the games. I would’ve loved a commentary here to dig in further on his take and what exactly influenced what, but sadly I have to settle for a few interviews that show a real connection to the material from a director who just nailed it. The disc looks great and sounds better, especially since sound design played such a crucial role in the game; you can tell the team spent some time on the mix to replicate that effect for the cinema. The sound field is your traditional horror—quiet when it needs to be and aggressive when it hits you with a scare—and it works.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City exceeded my expectations with its sincere take on the material and left me hopeful for another film in this series. Johannes Roberts isn’t trying to put the film in a more relevant or avant-garde genre, instead keeping true to the source and the world that Capcom created with the series. It’s the rare adaptation that really captures what it was like to play the games while making it a fit for the motion picture format. I said it when I reviewed Crawl and I will say it again: Kaya Scodelario is great here and understood the assignment. She really fleshed out Claire Redfield in a way that felt true to the character and didn’t feel forced, like some adaptations can be when trying to translate a character from a game to a movie, where the flourishes can feel disingenuous or unnecessary. That being said, if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to dig the hell out of this. If you’re just looking for a solid zombie film, you’re in luck too!