Netflix’s Resident Evil Brings New Life to Well-Worn Zombie Franchise

TV Reviews Resident Evil
Netflix’s Resident Evil Brings New Life to Well-Worn Zombie Franchise

When word broke that a new Resident Evil project was brewing down at the Netflix labs, fans were almost to the point of pulling out the apocalyptic flowchart to try and keep up with exactly what was going on with the long-running horror franchise in live action.

Inspired by the hit video game series of the same name, Resident Evil has already been adapted into a hexology of live-action films that made more than a billion dollars at the box office over the past two decades. The films diverged and remixed concepts from the games, focusing the action on a new original character (Milla Jovovich’s Alice) who would eventually cross paths with familiar characters from the games. But once that film series ended, two new seemingly unrelated Resident Evil projects entered development and caused a bit of confusion in regard to how they all did (or didn’t) fit together.

The first was the 2021 big screen reboot Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, which aimed to create a more reverential adaptation of the first two video games in the franchise (it even turned back the clock and set the action in 1998, the same year the original game took place). Despite its deference to the games, the film was DOA with critics and barely made a dent at the box office.

Next up is Netflix’s mystery project—with the streamer aiming to do something a bit more narratively ambitious with the tried-and-true zombie franchise in a bid to differentiate it from everything that’s come before. The result? The aptly titled Resident Evil, a new eight-episode television series that splits its story straight down the middle between a shiny New Raccoon City run by Umbrella Corp in the present day, and an infected-filled future wasteland long after the world has come to an end 14 years in the future.

The series follows the life of Jade Wesker (a last name that should be familiar to longtime fans), played as a rebellious teenager by Tamara Smart in the present day and by Ella Balinska in the future, after she’s grown up into a badass scientist adventurer who is also among Umbrella’s most wanted. The series revels in the expansive lore of Resident Evil, remixing ideas, themes, characters, and creatures that fans will almost certainly recognize from across the games, animated films, and live-action lore.

Instead of focusing the narrative on soldiers, cops, or soulless Umbrella goons, centering this new story on Jade and her family does help provide a fresh perspective for a franchise that’s been around for decades. We get to go behind the walls of the sterile, weird world of Umbrella’s rebuilt Raccoon City, where Jade and her family are trying to carve out a new life. The present day story has some major The Walking Dead: World Beyond vibes, doing its best to thread the melodrama of high school with the surreal and deadly stakes all around it.

The future-set story is more in line with the kind of zombie-filled post-apocalypse fans of the franchise have come to expect, featuring some ambitious set pieces and locations a bit outside the norm from the usual creepy old mansions, underground labs, and overrun Raccoon City fans might expect. We also start peeling back the layers of how this post-apocalypse works, including the key role Umbrella still plays long after the T-virus has decimated the globe.

Showrunner Andre Dabb (Supernatural) has a strong grasp on the story he wants to tell, and how he wants to place it within the wider, nebulous timeline and tone of Resident Evil. Instead of straight-up survival horror, or silly sci-fi horror, the Netflix series frames its action around a layered Umbrella conspiracy and mystery (itself a trademark of the franchise), as we dig deeper into exactly how Jade and her family fit into it all.

Telling a story broken cleanly across two timelines can be a risky approach, but Resident Evil does an excellent job of establishing a through line that carries the story across these two settings seamlessly, doling out reveals and twists that play out across both eras to effectively fill in the gaps as it goes. It’d be easy for one side of the story to fill like filler, but both are compelling enough to keep you hooked. It also uses its soundtrack to full effect with plenty of needle drops at key moments (which are sometimes a bit on the nose) and cliffhanger hooks.

The first four episodes made available to review weren’t quite as scary as fans of the OG video games might expect, but there are still some nice creature effects, well-timed jump scares, and compelling characters to keep you coming back for more of the mystery. With the live-action future of the franchise in a state of flux, Resident Evil marks an ambitious new direction to start charting the next phase. Where the latest big-screen installment faltered by looking too hard in the past, Netflix’s entry finds its stride while looking to the future.

Even after all these years, it seems this shambling undead saga still has plenty of life left in it.

Resident Evil premieres Thursday, July 14th on Netflix.

Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.

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