When Resident Evil was first adapted from video game to feature film, there were two things missing from the zeitgeist: Zombies and female action heroes. Two decades later there is no shortage of either in film and television. This was the challenge creator Andrew Dabb faced in adapting the horror franchise for serialized television.
"How do you make [a new adaptation] feel different from every other zombie show out there? Almost every zombie show deals with what happened the day after the outbreak, or two weeks into the outbreak," Dabb tells Metacritic. "We wanted to tell the story of what happened leading up to it. And then, what happened after humanity has, in some ways, come to terms with the zombie apocalypse."
Dabb decided to focus his version of the story on the Wesker family. To those familiar with the video game, Albert Wesker was the accomplished virologist seeking to replace humanity through mass extinction. In brief, Wesker was not the good guy of the franchise.
"That was, to me, what was most interesting," says Dabb. "What happens when you are, or believe that you were, part of ending the world?"
In the series, Wesker is played by Lance Reddick, who delved into the games in order to capture the essence of his character.
"I watched people play on YouTube, to get insight into how he moves. I thought that that was very important, in terms of finding the character, finding the accent, finding their vocal rhythm," Reddick tells Metacritic. "But I felt like who he is on the page is so compelling, it's so complex, that for the most part it's all I needed to figure out."
And at its core, Resident Evil is a thriller with one huge problem at the center. "The problem is zombies," says Dabb. "How do you solve that problem if it's solvable, how do you survive that problem if it's survivable? And how do you make your characters relate to that problem in a way that is interesting for them, but also hopefully for the audience as well?"
Here, Dabb talks to Metacritic about the challenges of adapting an iconic intellectual property, the powerful women at the center of it, and why the franchise remains so polarizing.
When the first Resident Evil game came out, it reintroduced zombies into pop culture. What's different now that they're all over the place?
To your point, they're all over the place. So it's, what more can you do with zombies as your antagonists? In so many zombie stories it's less about the zombies and more about the people. That's what we tried to lean into here. These are characters with very specific stories. They've lived through a pandemic, but a pandemic on an even wider scale than what we've dealt with the last couple of years. How has it changed them and how has it shaped them? And what's great about the Resident Evil universe is everything can be a monster. They have shark monsters and caterpillar monsters and spider monsters and plant monsters. So, we try to lean into that as well, and have a lot of fun with that.
This game has inspired seven films and now a series. What is it about the franchise that's so great for narrative interpretation?
I think it's two things. One, it is iconic in a lot of its design work and its pacing and the survival horror and how it's evolved over the years into a bit more of an action focused game. The other thing that I keeps the franchise fresh, speaking of the games, is that it does evolve. If you look at the first game and you look at the most recent game, they are very different games. It evolves and grows. The show is taking advantage of that as well. Another thing that's interesting is, that at the heart of Resident Evil, the game story, our story as well, it's a family story. It's a really, really dysfunctional family story. I think keeping it grounded in family really works. I think that always works in television.
Why was Albert Wesker a good connective tissue between game and series?
Because Wesker in the games is a villain. The opportunity to take one of the most, if not the most iconic character from the games, and re-explore him in the way we do and reevaluate him in some ways with some twist and turns along the way was really interesting. It's almost like, what if you gave Hannibal Lecter kids? What does that do to that character, but also, what does that do to those kids?
Alice Abernathy was a creation of the movies, but you decided to go another way yet keep it female-led. Why is the female lead important in this?
I think Resident Evil has always been really female forward and pretty inclusive. When you're talking about Jill Valentine or Claire Redfield, these have been major characters from the jump. It felt organic. And I had just spent 15 years dealing with a brother relationship [on The CW's Supernatural]. So it was fun to explore somewhat similar, but in some ways, very different things, from a pair of twin sisters.
How are sisters different than brothers?
It's interesting because it's both a sister thing and also weirdly the twin thing. When you have a one sibling that's older and one that's younger, there's a natural, "I'm the older, so I'm the adult and you're the kid," even if they're both kids. With twins, there's much more of a struggle for the power dynamic, in terms of, "We were both born at the same time. Who's going to take the lead?" And I think that's something we have a lot of fun playing with and evolving over the course of the show.
Tell us about the sisters at the center. What was important for you in creating these characters?
It was important to create believable characters that had a relationship that people could understand, but also could evolve, both the relationship and them as individuals. When you look at Jade (Tamara Smart), she's very outspoken, humorous, take charge and social. And then you see her in the future (played by Ella Balinska) and she's really isolated and tortured and very different. And with Billie (Siena Agudong), it's the same thing. In the present-day storyline, she's big-hearted and vegan and cares about animals. And without putting out any spoilers, the Billie you meet down the road (Adeline Rudolph) is maybe not so much those things., How did one character become the other? That mystery is the journey we hope to take the audience on.
What is the involvement of Constantin, the company that produced the films?
They're great. They've been there since day one. They weigh on the scripts. They had representatives on the set. They've shot all the movies, they've shot a huge amount of stuff internationally. We were shooting in South Africa, so they've been a great resource, both creatively and production-wise.
Do they have expectations, or are there limitations in terms of that partnership?
No. The movies went very far afield in some ways, so I think they're very comfortable with that. Obviously, we all want to stay true to the core of the show, to the core of the games, the core of the lore, to the core of the stories. We're all well aligned there. I was never bringing them anything that felt like, "In this episode, we're going to do our Busby Berkeley song and dance number." And they weren't really bringing me any ideas that didn't fit with the vibe as well. We were happily aligned.
So, in terms of creating new characters, it's a free for all?
It's a bit of a free for all. Obviously, you want to make sure you're not introducing new characters for new character's sake. But at the same time, you want to make sure you're not bringing in old characters just to check boxes. We want to do something that felt organic for the story.
What was important to keep from the game or the movie franchise?
What's important to keep is the sense of terror, the sense of being hunted, the sense that nothing really is safe, both in the present and the future, but ultimately the sense that — with some ingenuity and a lot of bullets — you can get through it and humanity will survive. Because Resident Evil, the games and the movies and the show, is about these crazy things that happen, but ultimately, it's about what humanity has to do to survive and overcome. I would argue it's a hopeful story, despite all the craziness.
This has been a very polarizing franchise. What is it like to prepare for extreme reactions?
I'm used to it. I worked on a show for 15 years that had an incredibly passionate, but sometimes divisive or divided fan base. We're telling the best story we can. You know going into something that there's about 20% of the audience that, no matter what you do, are not going to like it, because it's not what they want. That's fine. You know what I mean? And then hopefully, the other 80% is willing to at least give you a chance.
Do you think the movies did something that warranted that kind of polarization?
I think when you're dealing with something like this, where people — myself included — sat down with that controller and played that game when they were 13 years old, it's a formative experience. There are people who, when they sit down to consume another piece of Resident Evil content, ultimately want to feel that again. Which I get. That's what nostalgia is. That's why we're attracted to it. But the truth is, no one's 13 years old anymore. It's going to be a little bit different. I will say that Resident Evil fandom by and large has seemed really open to new interpretations. Again, there's always going to be some people that aren't happy with whatever you do. But overall, I actually feel like they're more open than some fan bases that I've seen in the past.
What do you think Resident Evil says about the times we're living in right now?
Well, it was written before all this happened, pandemic-wise. So certainly, life is imitating art in a way that we did not expect, nor, frankly, want. Beyond that, it becomes about challenges. We are presenting these characters with this extreme challenge. How does it change them? In our case, it's the zombie apocalypse, but it could be anything. It could be a COVID pandemic. It could be a war. It could be a recession. We're all changed by our environments. That's really what I think makes this more universal. But again, the pandemic meets pandemic of it all was not planned. And sometimes you don't want art to reflect reality quite that much.
You did sprinkle it in a little bit.
After it happened, we went to go shoot and we're like, "We've got to put some references in here," but we didn't want to overdo it. It's also a case where, in the last year and a half, a lot of pandemic shows came out that were started before COVID was a thing. So it does seem like it was, in a very weird way, in the zeitgeist.
Resident Evil is streaming now on Netflix.