In 1978, John Carpenter understood that his rough cut of slasher-film granddaddy “Halloween” was not scary enough. Already running out of money, Carpenter wrote a soundtrack specifically intended to make the audience jump during the film’s scarier scenes. At the time, it was an ingenious way to turn a low- budget horror flick into the (at the time) highest grossing independent movie ever.

Paul Wong
A bunch of people that are wholly forgettable. (Courtesy of Columbia Pictues)

Carpenter’s use of loud noises to scare audiences was the only way he could save his breakthrough film from celluloid oblivion. Now, a quarter of a century later, big-budget zombie-fest “Resident Evil” spends too much time over-utilizing the technique. Hong Kong action directors will be embarrassed by the sound air makes (and a bevy of other inanimate objects) as it simply moves. It’s a telling sign that director Paul Anderson cannot squeeze enough suspense from his claustrophobic, genetic-zombie-monster-corporate-conspiracy thriller that he must resort to turning up the THX sound to the ear-bleed setting.

“Resident Evil” is not the worst horror film to come out in the past few years, but it is a case study in what’s wrong with the genre as a whole. The creepy atmosphere so prevalent in films from “Psycho” to “The Exorcist” has been replaced by clever quips and CGI monsters. What made films like “Halloween” work was the feeling of entrapment. “Resident Evil” has plenty of enclosed places, and they’re even racing the clock, yet the audience never fears for the characters, or even cares whether they live or die. True horror only comes when the audience identifies with the characters on the screen, and it’s hard to identify with trash-talking post-comic-book characters that retain their good looks and sharp wits even after being chewed on by skinless demon-dogs.

Like every other zombie film released on Earth since 1968, “Resident Evil” borrows liberally from George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and its superior sequel “Dawn of the Dead” (“Resident” even goes so far as to swipe aspects from the least of Romero’s efforts, 1985’s “Day of the Dead”). The recently dead rise, devoid of all personality and only interested in feeding on the blood of the living, who invariably turn into zombies after attack. While it vainly attempts to, “Resident” does not capture the sense of reality and desperation Romero achieved by shooting his films in quasi-documentary style. The loud, pulsating energy of the new film does not make up for its complete lack of social conscience.

No, it is not imperative that zombie films speak to the ills of society, but a movie that goes to great length to describe how an evil corporation can nearly take over the world, it abandons its own premise rather quickly.

The plot is wholly disposable and involves THE mega-corporation of the 21st century, The Umbrella Corporation. The arrogance in naming a company The Umbrella Corporation has apparently paid off, as, a brief prologue helpfully points out, 90 percent of U.S. homes now contain items produced by Umbrella. Despite this fruitful vice-grip on the American populous, the very same prologue explains that the bread and butter of Umbrella comes from secret government genetic testing at a gigantor underground laboratory. Now, seriously, what secret government genetic testing underground laboratory wouldn’t have some sort of serum or pill or something that turns people into zombies?

There are a handful of characters in this film, though I’m really not sure what their names are, and no one ever calls anyone the same thing twice (or, if they do, they’re one of those stock “good looking” cookie-cutter straight-to-video action types that all look the same). Milla Jovovich (“The Fifth Element, “The Messenger”) plays a woman who wakes up naked in a bathtub with no memory. Then a cop shows up and a bunch of Navy Seal types fly through the windows, “Brazil” style. They explain that Jovovich works with them, she is a security specialist posing as the female half of a married couple living in a mansion that is just an aboveground front for the central laboratories called “The Hive.”

Huh? Just as “What the hell is going on here” crosses the mind, it becomes clear that none of this matters. The security folks (not really sure what their job titles are, exactly) including Michelle Rodriguez (“Girlfight,” “The Fast and the Furious”) and Eric Mabius (“The Crow: Salvation”), and the whole merry group goes down into the Hive, finds everyone is dead yet still walking around. They can, of course, kill the zombies by shooting them in the head. If you get confused on what, exactly is going on, Anderson is nice enough to help you along by playing scary music when things get intense, so you can prepare yourself for the loud noise.

Jovovich and Rodriguez are attractive in their roles, and they even bring a certain lesbian subtext to the film. Why, exactly, is not clear, but judging from the amount of 14 year-old boys at the movies on a Saturday night, the slight addition (and slight nudity) probably won’t hurt ticket sales. One hopes Rodriguez will get out of her current slump of action filler and capitalize on some of the potential and raw emotion she showed in her first film, “Girlfight.”

Though it is based on a video game, the flick is not a complete wash. The special effects and brainless nature throughout make it a painless Saturday night popcorn schlock. “Resident Evil” fits firmly into the derivative genre movie pantheon simply for is unabashed, unbiased and shameless pillaging of the great films of horror history that preceded it.

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