Gaming's Greatest, Romero-Worthy Zombies
With the late George A Romero claiming games have done more to popularize the (mostly) brain-hungry undead, let’s look at some of the best.
'Resident Evil' screenshot courtesy of Capcom.
George A Romero, the celebrated director, co-writer and editor of the hugely influential 1968 zombie movie Night of the Living Dead, has died following, says a statement from producing partner Peter Grunwald, a "brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer." He was 77, and with his wife and daughter when he passed.
Romero was a legend of horror cinema, whose "The Dead" series counted six entries, the most recent being 2009's Survival of the Dead. Without his iconic depictions of the reanimated monsters, zombies may never have impacted on fantasy media in the way they've managed, across TV, movies and, naturally, video games, which have long used the sometimes shambling, sometimes sprinting nasties as cannon fodder, level-ending bosses and, just sometimes, something rather more unsettling.
Romero himself acknowledged the role that video games played in popularizing the undead. Speaking to the Telegraph in 2013, he said: "I do think the popularity of the creature has come from video games, not film. [2009's] Zombieland was the first zombie film to break $100 million at the box office, and therefore Hollywood got interested. The  remake of Dawn of the Dead did about $75m… But dozens of hugely popular video games have had a bigger impact."
Arguably, none more so than Capcom's 1996 survival horror classic, Resident Evil—and you simply can't run an article looking back at gaming's greatest zombies without the "Turning Around Zombie," the first encountered inside the game's scares-filled Spencer Mansion. When you saw it, you may well have shit bricks. It's not like players hadn't seen zombies coming towards their avatars before—I'd personally died countless times to the burrowing-up bastards in another Capcom game, Ghosts 'n Goblins, before seeing Resident Evil for the first time. But this really was something else.
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There was the cutaway, from the behind-Jill (or Chris) perspective to what she was seeing, unfolding before her eyes. That snap, from turning around a corner blindly, immediately foretold of Bad Shit. A figure, clearly humanoid, hunched down over… something. A gross old carpet, sure—but that's not what is so obviously being snacked on, the sound here as vital as what comes next, the cracking, the slippery slither of something soaked in blood, preceding the shifting of focus. A glance over the shoulder—dead eyes now eager for fresh meat.
I remember it so vividly, still. Late 1996. The evenings had been long for weeks. I was making my way back from town, having been shopping for records—this one in particular (so, naturally, whenever I hear it now I think about Resident Evil). I was with a schoolmate, and we took a brief detour to another pal's place. He'd had a PlayStation a while—few of us did so early, as still-at-home teens, due to the price—and we knew he had a new-to-him game. And this was it. Three of us squashed into his small bedroom, taking turns to open doors, passing the pad between us—not scared, but excitedly anxious about what awaited us. And then we came upon That Scene, and That Zombie.
Above: the original "Turning Around Zombie" from 1996's 'Resident Evil'
The head-turner, the "Turning Around," has still got it—put on 2015's remastered remake, the HD-enhanced version of 2002's GameCube original, and still the fear grips you. The sound is sharper, stabbing into your sides before you so much as see its face. You're in a tight space, limited ammo, or perhaps none at all. This thing is lurching your way, arms outstretched, forcing you back, all the way back, from where you came—a narrow corridor, no escape save for the door you just came through. Fight, or fuck it to hell and flee? There's no shame in opting for the latter, none at all. (And luckily, it turns out that zombies aren't so great with door handles.)
Such is the impression left by Resident Evil's first zombie that every one that follows—so many, so, so many—can't help but have its power somehow lessened. There are encounters with more than one at a time, situations that force you into dodging, into ducking past flailing arms, so keen to grab a shirt and pull its wearer towards them. But nothing "beats" that grotesque ground zero, the repugnant reveal, and when it comes to slow-moving depictions of zombies in video games, I can't think of any quite so striking as those of the Resident Evil series.
Even the less-explicitly-horror focused Resident Evil 4 could cause a panic, surrounding Leon with the not-exactly-undead Las Plagas-infected masses, forcing the player into that same fight or flee response. And the significantly more human j'avo, appearing in Resident Evil 6, have a certain charm, if that's quite the word. They're sure as shit not zombies in the traditionally stumbling, shuffling sense, and are partial to popping off a few rifle rounds in your face; but their regeneration abilities and propensity for hideous mutation make them fearsome foes.
Thinking broader, wider, across the gaming spectrum, and it's zombies that do something different that stand rotting head and skinny shoulders above the mass ranks of identikit enemies, there to rack up points with, or simply to butcher for visceral kicks. So, the hordes of the Dead Rising series do little for me, likewise any Call of Duty zombie mode.
There are moments in The Walking Dead, the initial Telltale series, that have stayed with me—protagonist Lee finding his brother, and then having to swallow his most natural reaction before doing what needed to be done, was some powerful stuff. The zombies in that game are an ever-rising tide—you run, you hide, but it catches up to you.
The many and varied zombies of Left 4 Dead and its sequel typically conform to stereotypes, but if its witch never fucked you up, you're a player of sterner stuff than I am. The cries of those things, they chill you to the bone. And to stay with Valve's survival shooter for a second, if its regular undead staggered around like Romero's famously sluggish first-iteration horrors, rather than charge you in numbers, no way would it have been such an exhilarating game. The speed of those things, and the volume, is what keeps you always on edge.
And it's the speed, and the sheer lethality, of another great gaming zombie (of a kind, given the term has become so incredibly broad) that I'll end on—but please, do feel free to discuss your own favorites on our forum.
The clickers, fuck me, the clickers. How many times did I see the game over screen in The Last of Us because of those things? (A lot, don't @ me, it's not an easy game.) The strongest of all regular infected in the game—let's all please forget the awful, but mercifully rare bloaters—the clickers are almost always an instant kill proposition when up close and personal with Joel's jugular. (Or, worse, Ellie's— eeew, those deaths.) The attack, so fast and wild, is crowned by the game's excellent sound design—that sharp uplift of a shrill scream, I don't know exactly what makes it, but I never want to hear it IRL.
I don't know if I can totally agree with Romero that video games have done more than movies to make zombies a staple of fantasy fiction—but then again, if anyone was in a position to make that call, it was him. I do know that no game scene so far has made my skin crawl like seeing Night of the Living Dead's Karen eating her own dad before murdering her mother, or the baby reveal of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. And watching the latter again on YouTube, just now? Nope. Nope, nope, nope. That's me done for today, thanks. Some people laughed at that? Sickos, everywhere.