Zombies, as anybody that was attentive and deigned to complete their homework assignments in Gameology class (“Hey, dad! Help me with my essay! The title is ‘How Would You Dissuade the Undead Hordes From Chewing on Your Genitalia?’) will attest, are the scourge of modern gaming and popular culture. Video games, movies, Michael Jackson’s much-acclaimed Thriller video… there is nary a medium on the planet that these festering fools haven’t embraced. Not the manner of ‘embrace’ that leaves steaming entrails, viscera and terror-urine in meaty puddles on the pavement, although they’re quite adept at those too.
Movie aficionados would allege -as they consumed their extortionately priced cinema popcorn and tried to stave off the need to urinate for three hours of buttock-numbing entertainment- that George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead marks the inaugural appearance of our festering foes as we know them today. This magnum opus was released back in the cloying sands of time, 1968 to be precise. Did it feature contemporary hippie zombies, with their excessive body hair, unwashed crotches and ramblings about pacifism? It did not. Instead, we were presented with a monochrome apocalypse perpetrated by ‘undead monsters’ unknown.
Buoyed by the controversy the movie evoked -in the usual “It’s horrifying! It’s ghastly! I must see it!” sort of way- it was obscenely successful. Night of the Living Dead infused our perpetual festering foes with that cannibalistic desire to eat your face in the face and characteristic shambling like they’ve crapped their pants movement. The original humans-possessed-by-voodoo-shenanigans sense of the word was diminished somewhat, and some of the most beloved horror stars in the cosmos were born.
In the gaming sphere, survival horror surfaced in the early nineties. Infogrames’ 1992 venture Alone in the Dark is often regarded as heralding the boom of the genre. Because presumably, when the very cover art proclaims it to be ‘A Virtual Adventure Game Inspired by the Work of H.P Lovecraft,’ you know this is going to be a whole cavalcade of bowel-loosening lunacy right here. While some manner of zombie foes inhabit the faeces-stained mansion that is the game’s setting, they could hardly be seen as a focal point. Most pertinently because your other opponents include IMMENSE BIPEDAL RAT-FREAKS. Needless to say, when there are hideous abominations from the depths of the devil’s rectum like that running about, the limelight is oftentimes stolen.
I’d venture, then, that it was the much-vaunted original Resident Evil, four years later, that forged the irrevocable zombies-and-horror-gaming bond. It is rather unfathomable today that this B-movie camptacular extravaganza was once so terrifying (Lest we forget the master of unlocking, Jill sandwiches, the kind of appalling live-action action that makes us fervently wish to punch our own eyes and ears in the face, and other such crimes against quality), but gamers of a certain generation can still attest to the IS THAT CRAP IN MY UNDERWEAR? Yes, yes it is fright-factor that this seminal release (somehow) delivered.
How? Not because of those infernal, emaciated dogs that leap through windows and resemble the neighbour’s evil rottweiler (if it ever left the house neglecting to put its goddamn skin on first). Or not solely because of those buggers. It’s those madcap happy funtime undead. Since they are introduced in that extreme close-up cutscene in the opening moments of your travails in the Spencer Mansion, gleefully consuming some blood-bleeding man face, you are afraid. Paramount to this notion are the horrendous ‘tank controls,’ which may induce players to defecate in a FedEx box and mail it to Capcom in outrage at their very mention. If you were not also deliberately constrained in your maneuverability, these lobotomized amblers would constitute more of a figure of fun than a legitimate and formidable threat.
Which, lamentably, has seemingly become the case of late. Resident Evil’s latest iterations, with their look at my action-tacular new Hollywood cojones! Look! At them! sensibilities, saw zombies making a meagre cameo appearance (see Leon’s campaign in Resident Evil 6), sideshows to the more prominent Ganados, Majini, J’avo et al.
Our undead friends are now so ubiquitous that their impact is increasingly stifled. They are able to flit from genre to genre, like a vast, malevolent and leprous insect; retaining their relevance in whichever title they opt to grace. One of the most remarkable ‘casual’ gaming coups of recent years was PopCap’s Plants vs Zombies, a toon-tinged and humorous strategy game. These tower defense shenanigans find you cast as a zombie-beset homeowner, festooning your lawn with an array of sentient war-plants with which to defeat the maggot-ridden horde on your lawn. In a similar vein to Zombie Tycoon, in which you’ll dress your pet undead in clown outfits and so forth, it is plain that the festering fortunes of these guys have turned in unwholesome directions. From that moaning thing that would emerge from a cupboard, swipe its fists at your delicate groin and make you evacuate your bowels involuntarily to… garishly coloured, cartoon jokes that you must shoot huge, moronic-grinning melons at; objects of cheap laughs.
In summation, it’s undignified. Even by the standards of moldly guys that shuffle ineffectually like OAPs and have blood and faeces stains on their overcoats. (Hygiene may not be of the utmost concern, but pride in their scare-ification abilities? We’ll sacrifice that for no man!) We can hope, nonetheless, that a resurgence may be in effect. Wii U launch title ZombiU endeavours to adhere to survival horror lore. With its cumbersome combat and less-than-resilient protagonists, apocalyptic London’s festering denizens are always a threat. There are few more apt fits for the genre than these buggers, but the law of diminishing returns continues to raise a mocking middle finger at their efforts. Perhaps accompanied by a Hey, Zombies! You Suck dance. Let us, then, harken back to the glory days of the undead. REmake’s Crimson heads, dashing after you like Usain Bolt and brandishing those talons of theirs? That was several kinds of holy crap. The very sight, then, that us with a proclivity for all things macabre are clamoring to see once more.