For nearly a decade, the popular video game series Resident Evil has been giving us excuses to shoot the living hell out of pale, pasty, flesh-eating zombies. Machine guns in hand, players have traditionally faced these nasty brain munchers in creepy old mansions, or (not-so) abandoned rural towns. The zombies themselves have been Westerners—unlucky ex-Americans or Europeans with undead faces as white as the series is dark.
Until now, that is. Development team Capcom recently released a trailer for Resident Evil 5, the newest incarnation of the survival horror game. It doesn’t take place in backwoods U.S.A., though. It seems to take place in Africa.
Though the full details of the storyline aren’t public yet, the trailer makes a few things clear: you play as a white Chris Redfield, the same all-American boy who has been taking down old-school leg-draggers for years. And the zombies? You guessed it: the local villagers. Which means that the hordes of undead you’ll be pumping round after round of ammo into—they’re all black.
Resident Evil 5 is already raising questions about racism (White good guys vs. black bad guys? Is this some kind of race war?), or maybe questions about Capcom’s judgment (Who okayed this for production?). As one forum commenter wrote, “Is it just me, or is there something subtly racist about gunning down mobs of angry Africans?”
But the point isn’t to smack one more label on mainstream video games (violent, sexist, racist). The point is that—for this white girl, at least—the Resident Evil 5 trailer is strangely disturbing.
Of course, it’s possible that Capcom is just throwing around novel combinations willy-nilly here (“I don’t know, how about a zombie game in Africa?”). When it comes to a piece of pop culture like Resident Evil though, we have to consider the possibility that our interest in the supernatural is actually mirroring our anxieties about real-life problems. So, in America — a country still tangling with the legacy of slavery, racism, and oppression—what does Resident Evil 5 give us to be anxious about?
First, there are the obvious cultural connections: otherness and race, blackness and monstrosity—as Public Enemy puts it the “Fear of a Black Planet.” It’s Heart of Darkness meets PlayStation.
Plenty of Resident Evil fanboys are standing up for the game by claiming that Africa is just a setting like any other. After all, why shouldn’t zombies be black? On one level, that’s true.
But looking again at the trailer, I see a different message: it’s not just that these zombies are black, but that the uninfected black villagers are zombie-like too. See all those spooky shots of the villagers before they get infected? It’s as if race itself were a disease. The white protagonist has to fight back or be infected.
And that’s the other issue with setting a zombie movie in Africa. The whole idea of zombies is based on our fear of contamination. Get bitten by a zombie, or just drop a tiny bit of undead blood in an open wound, and you’re a goner. Soon you too will carry the disease of the living dead.
Sounds familiar yet? Yup, we could be talking about the HIV/AIDS crisis, which has killed 15 million Africans, and infected 25 million others on the continent. Especially since one of the few sentences spoken in the Resident Evil 5 trailer is, “Casualties continue to mount over the long years I have struggled.”
Or maybe we’re reminded of the “one drop rule,” concocted by racists who feared miscegenation in the era of slavery and Jim Crow to create a definition of whiteness. Is that what’s lurking behind the premise of this game?