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‘Resident Evil’ Director Paul W.S. Anderson Muses on Zombie Zeitgeist

Variety logo Variety 12/16/2016 Carita Rizzo
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In a pop culture climate in which zombies abound, it’s hard to imagine a time when the undead weren’t being unleashed on every available platform. But when the team behind the adaptation of the Japanese video game “Biohazard” started their journey to the big screen, the film landscape was mostly inundated with pre-adolescent wizards and hobbits.

“ ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Lord of the Rings,’ they were studio movies, and we were an independent at the time,” says “Resident Evil” director Paul W.S. Anderson.

“I think the fact that the first (‘Resident Evil’) movie was a German-U.K. co-production, shot in entirely in Europe, with a primarily British and German crew, allowed us to force through a few things that if we had been developed within a studio system may not have happened.”

One of the greatest impacts “Resident Evil” has had in film and television is the influx of strong female leads in action franchises.

“If you look at the landscape now, how many kick-ass chicks we have, it’s almost cooler, sexier, hotter, to have a female protagonist,” says exec producer Robert Kulzer.

This was not the case in the early 2000s, when casting a female lead was the producers’ greatest obstacle to getting the film made.

“I’ve always loved strong women in film, but at that point in Hollywood there was very much this unwritten law — it was certainly verbalized in many meetings I was in — that female-led action movies just don’t work,” Anderson says.

The remake of “La Femme Nikita,” “Tank Girl,” and a few other unsuccessful attempts were proof enough to financiers that a woman could not carry an action pic.

“I didn’t think any of those films were particularly good, which is why they didn’t work,” Anderson says. “But at that time, definitely in Hollywood, it was hard to get traction with a film like that.”

“In terms of success, it’s always hard to tell with genre films as to which ones will break out of the pack,” adds Anderson’s manager, Ken Kamins. “The thing that made this one unique was Paul’s creative decision to add the Alice character, who didn’t appear in the games.  He had a strong point of view about how to honor the fans of the game while appealing to people who might not have ever played the game.”

While the original game was inspired by the work of George Romero, and Anderson as a filmmaker pays homage to classic horror auteurs John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, the past 15 years have opened up the doors for creators of post-apocalyptic franchises to become more and more inspired by each other.

“I remember when ‘28 Days Later’ came out, and the undeads were moving quickly,” says producer Jeremy Bolt. “That was something we talked a lot about. With ‘Walking Dead,’ the struggles of power within the group, that was something that we discussed. We were very impressed with the way ‘The Walking Dead’ managed to keep you connected to all these characters.”

But what the producers feel sets the “Resident Evil” franchise apart is that you never lose sight of who the villain is.

“In ‘Walking Dead,’ or ‘World War Z,’ it’s really a little bit more obscure what the genesis of the apocalypse is,” Kulzer says. “In ‘Resident Evil,’ Paul has really latched on it from a western point of view, that it’s man-made. It’s almost like the evil in us. We are describing two sides of the same coin: Yes, there is a utopian idea behind it, that the world could be so much better if it was designed by a brilliant scientist. But then, there is the flip side. But what if it goes wrong? And I think people have that sort of deep‑rooted anxiety about what’s happening to our world and who is really in charge.”

As far as our current obsession with the end of the world, Anderson suspects it’s two-fold.

“Listen, ‘Resident Evil’ came out and made a shitload of money. I think anyone who had any doubts about whether zombies are commercial or not, didn’t have those doubts anymore because there was living proof right in their face,” he says. “And I think it’s the classic thing that people say about science fiction: it may be set in the future or in a fantasy world, but what it’s really dealing with is the obsessions of the present. Apocalyptic movies tend to thrive when people are concerned about the state of the world. ‘Resident Evil’ was just ahead of the zeitgeist.”

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