Apocalypse: c.1384, “revelation, disclosure,” from Church L. apocalypsis “revelation,” from Gk. apokalyptein “uncover,” from apo- “from” + kalyptein “to cover, conceal” – Online Etymology Dictionary
Fiction is a mirror. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, it reveals the truth that reality obscures. Horror fiction in particular, for through its fictional terrors, we begin to see glimpses of what truly frightens us, the fears we’d prefer to hide.
In the ’50s, during the first nuclear age and the rise of global communism, our fears were of malformed monsters and invading aliens, and our fiction reflected those fears. In the ’70s, after runaway industrialization taught us to fear our own inventiveness, disaster films led us through the dark night of our terror of a global catastrophe. In the ’80s, when we learned that our own blood and lust for life could be our undoing, visions of vampires helped us keep things in perspective. After all, what’s HIV and an SEC investigation got against eternal damnation?
We face our fears in fiction so that we may be stronger, more capable of dealing with them should they ever erupt into reality, and so that lesser fears, like getting in a car accident, or being robbed, take on a paler shade of terror and become more manageable. We also fictionalize the imagined outcomes of our worst, darkest fears out of hope that by showing that the world ends not with a bang, but with the accumulation of thousands of nuclear weapons (for example), we may prevent or forestall the very holocausts we fear.
This decade’s fictionalized menace would appear to be the zombie. Mindless, crazed, hungering creatures created from our own kin. As the representation of a seemingly unstoppable, never decreasing army of mindless thugs bent on destroying the beauty and culture our society ought to represent, the zombie is the perfect enemy. You never know where they’ll come from, where they’ll strike or how to take them down. Our Second Amendment guaranteed firearms don’t harm them, and free speech can’t sway them. We, the most powerful people on Earth, are powerless to stop them. They are the unknowable, the unkillable – the ultimate American terror.
It’s no surprise then that Capcom, the storied Japanese game developer, has turned to this most American of hysterias in an attempt to “Westernize” their offerings. Following up their immensely popular, 30-million unit selling Resident Evil games, Capcom turned again to the reliable zombie for their first “true western” title for the quintessentially western console, the Xbox 360. The result? A best-seller.
” “Response to Dead Rising from the trade, press and consumers has been tremendous,” said Charles Bellfield, Vice President, Marketing, Capcom Entertainment. “The success of the game is a result of Capcom’s recognition of Xbox 360 system’s possibilities and starting development early on in order to deliver such a high-quality game.”
” “The fact that we’ve reached the important one million milestone with our first two 360 titles (Dead Rising and Lost Planet – their other “Western” game – Ed.) makes our success that much more phenomenal,” said Mark Beaumont, Executive Vice President and Officer, Capcom Entertainment and Capcom Europe. “It speaks volumes for the quality of games Capcom produces, as well as the potential for Japanese publishers and new intellectual properties on the system.”
” “Dead Rising delivers a truly unique, exciting gameplay experience and has been an incredible addition to the lineup for Xbox 360,” said Jeff Bell, Corporate Vice President of Global Marketing, Interactive Entertainment Business, Microsoft. “Quality titles like this attract additional gamers to the system and exemplify the amazing capabilities that next generation gaming has to offer.”
” “We’ve already seen great results for Dead Rising which has been fueled by the national coverage it has received from its various marketing campaigns,” said Bob McKenzie, Senior Vice President of Merchandising, GameStop Corp. “With the additional exposure from Capcom’s expanded TV campaign, we look forward to continuing the momentum into the crucial holiday season.”
“The zombie story is less about zombies than the human survivors; a tool for social, psychological and economic commentary.” – Joshuah Bearman, writing for LA Weekly
Once the dead have risen, all bets are off. Society, necessarily, breaks down, and the Maslow pyramid contracts to a single tier. Facing off against the undead horde, therefore, we find our petty insecurities erased; clothes, cars, who’ll win American Idol – all become meaningless. What’s left is what will get us through the night, and the day, and the next night … until the zombies are vanquished. And it’s this deconstruction of the pillars of our culture, this sifting through the waste to find what’s really important – a gun perhaps, or a propane tank – that makes for such cathartically good storytelling. By fighting zombies, in other words, we’re actually fighting ourselves.
Which is why Capcom’s take on the zombiepocalypse is so telling. Dead Rising stars an American photojournalist named Frank West who breaks past military and police roadblocks to infiltrate a once peaceful Colorado town and discover the truth behind the rumors of a mysterious disturbance at the local mall. The answer, and there is one (at least – depending on how you play the game), is that we did it. Not humanity in general, the other we: Americans.
Dead Rising‘s plot suggests that scientists tinkering with the genetics of plants unleashed a killer swarm of insects which, instead of killing humans, zombified them. Plot-wise, this isn’t breaking any new ground in zombie horror circles. Most zombie tales feature some form of “man tampering with nature” scenario, but the agricultural take is a new twist, playing on the perception of Americans as over-fed gluttons swarming over the globe like English speaking locusts, and adding a new dimension to the “man vs. himself” archetype. (Man taxes man’s agricultural infrastructure, man accidentally zombifies man in response, man must then begin bashing man’s brains all over the place using every imaginable household implement as a weapon, and for this, man earns Xbox Live Achievements.)
As a mirror, then, Dead Rising exposes a fear of ruining the Earth and destroying nature’s balance with science. But is this an American or Japanese fear? Dead Rising holds a unique place in the horror fiction genre as a Japanese constructed nightmare designed for American consumption, and as such it’s apparent that many of the scares therein seem designed less to inspire fear in the hearts of its audience than to illuminate the fears of its authors.
As Bearman says, in zombie films origins are irrelevant, so we’ll instead look at the game’s survivors, or to be more specific, those survivors against which Frank must battle as he goes about his business subjugating zombies and uncovering The Truth. Dead Rising, in addition to about a thousand and one ways to kill a zombie, features that uniquely Japanese staple of game design so inured in Capcom titles, the Big Boss Battle, and these Big Bosses are no mere monsters. In fact, a list of them reads like a menagerie of American stereotypes: the deranged clown, the gun store owner, the lesbian law enforcement officer, a diabolical cult leader, gun-toting hunters and the black ex-cons riding a gigantic SUV. In these characters we see ourselves, reflected in the mirror of a different culture, and we slowly begin to imagine how we’re viewed from the outside.
The boss enemies aren’t given a plausible excuse for behaving like crazed lunatics, they’re just drawn that way. One assumes they happened to be shopping at the mall on Zombie Day, and the unimaginable strain of finding themselves seemingly alone against the teeming horde of undead unhinged whatever shred of sanity had been holding back their mania. The clown, with no more children left to entertain, turned mad and took to chainsaw juggling. The cop, with no more order to maintain, revealed her true, sadistic nature. The father and his sons, with expired hunting licenses, took to chasing larger game. It’s also telling that so many of these characters are licensed to carry firearms. Japanese society abhors firearms, yet we embrace them and lawfully allow certain people to carry them in public places. Each of these people, it would seem, is represented in Dead Rising as a menace, capable of going mad at a moment’s notice and turning their weapons – or ours – against us.
“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” – Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski
The Dead Rising team reportedly visited a number of American shopping malls in order to perfect the virtual look and feel of that most American of edifices for their game. And in this regard the game succeeds magnificently. As has been reported here and elsewhere, the mall depicted in Dead Rising is spot-on, and the eerie accuracy of the displays and layout adds an extra dimension to the game’s horror. The sound of Muzak blaring from a tinny speaker as one attempts to evade the assault of the undead is uncanny and strangely terrifying. One has to imagine though that Capcom’s cultural investigators brought home far more than detailed architectural drawings and decorating plans. Perhaps they, on their own journeys, discovered their own fears.
It’s important to reiterate here that the blame for the horror and carnage presented in Dead Rising lies entirely at the feet of America, whose scientists, attempting to feed its gluttonous people, caused the outbreak in the first place. Considering America is a global, scientific, military and consumer superpower rivaled by none, this blame is not entirely unwarranted, but what’s remarkable here is that this isn’t the first time Capcom has pointed its finger Westward. In the Resident Evil series (games arguably designed first and foremost for the Japanese audience), it was also an American concern, The Umbrella Corporation, which started the zombie fire, unleashing a plague that threatened to destroy mankind.
This fear of American creations threatening the survival of the human species harkens back to one of our previous cultural fears – that of nuclear devastation – which was more than a theoretical neurosis for the Japanese once upon a time, and perhaps remains a visceral concern to this day. To make matters worse, in Dead Rising it would seem we’ve once again encroached on lands belonging to indigenous people to practice our nefarious nematode niggling, this time ruining the lands of certain native Central Americans. The game’s “antagonist,” Carlito, is actually a freedom fighter working to expose the damage done to his homelands by the evildoing American Scientists. Thus, the circle is completed, American gluttony forces expansion and experimentation which leads to the destruction of a foreign civilization. Again.
All of this paints a uniquely disturbing portrait of the American Self, which Frank West, as observer, is unable to alter. The major players in this tale, Carlito, the government agents sent to stop him and the scientist who holds the key to solving the mystery, are not playable characters, and are not influenced by Frank’s actions. Frank, and therefore the player, is merely a witness, the action undertaken in the playable portion of the game merely serving as interactive placeholders, busywork, while the story tells itself. West, the eponymous avatar of the American audience, is helpless to affect the outcome of this story, or make amends. The only thing we can do is survive, but even then it’s not clear what reprieve that grants us, if any. In one version of the game’s ending, the player survives but misses his chance to escape, and the credits roll over Frank standing alone, surrounded by a growing mob of zombies.
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion.” – Stephen King
If the apocalypse is a revelation, Dead Rising‘s apocalypse reveals an America immediately identifiable, but through a distorted mirror. It isn’t our America, and its characters aren’t us, merely funhouse recreations, but it’s an America we can easily recognize if not identify with. But perhaps all of this is digging too deeply into what, by all respects, is merely popcorn entertainment. Perhaps a game sometimes is just a game, fiction just fiction. If so, what lesson do we learn from Dead Rising? That a shower head is an entertaining and effective way to stave off the zombie horde? Perhaps that’s a valuable lesson in any case. But if there is a deeper cultural message in Dead Rising perhaps it’s that, even though America is an unrivaled world power, our actions still have consequences, and that we should learn to tread lightly, out of respect if not deference. For although our fears are of mindless zombie hordes, some cultures are clearly afraid of Americans, and if it entertains us to spend hours on end mutilating the objects of our terror, imagine what they would do given the same chance at one of us.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.