For all their focus on gore galore, zombie movies have traditionally been rife with social commentary and allegory. George Romero's Living Dead series of films have touched on terrorism, class warfare, rampant commercialism, and in the original Night of the Living Dead, race relations.
The two subjects are intersecting again, as the recently released trailer for Resident Evil 5 has a number of commentators concerned about how the trailer portrays a white hero--the returning Chris Redfield--against hordes of black zombie foes in what could be an African village. In an editorial for The Village Voice's Runnin' Scared news blog, Bonnie Ruberg notes one forum-goer's concern that gunning down mobs of angry Africans could be "subtly racist." Ruberg herself says she finds the trailer "strangely disturbing."
"It's not just that these zombies are black, but that the uninfected black villagers are zombie-like too," Ruberg wrote. "See all those spooky shots of the villagers before they get infected? It's as if race itself were a disease. The white protagonist has to fight back or be infected."
She also notes that according to the zombie mythos, the barest contamination, a bite or a single drop of blood in an open wound, spells doom for a person. That could be a parallel to Africa's ongoing AIDS and HIV crisis, Ruberg wrote, or a reminder of the segregationists who used a "one drop rule" stating that black ancestry of any sort was justification enough to deny a person access to basic rights.
Ruberg is not the only commentator to blog on the issue. In a post titled "Blackface Goes HD?," Jason from Microscopiq takes issue not only with the race of the parties involved in the trailer, but also in the setting.
"With all the positive steps being taken of late to raise awareness of the good things happening in Africa as well as the urgent need in some parts of the continent, we really can't afford this kind of step back. We need to find ways to humanize Africans, not dehumanize them."
On Black Looks, a group blog focusing on African women and social concerns, Kym Platt briefly recaps the trailer, noting that it's apparently the white character's job to destroy the black people and save humanity.
"This is problematic on so many levels," Platt wrote, "including the depiction of Black people as inhuman savages, the killing of Black people by a white man in military clothing, and the fact that this video game is marketed to children and young adults. Start them young… fearing, hating, and destroying Black people."
Platt's blog--like the others--has spurred a number of responses, most overwhelmingly in defense of the game or against the original author. One response to the "Black Looks" post points out that the Resident Evil series has seen its share of zombies of European origin.
"According to the statistics of racial make-up in the world, I'd actually say that whites have been unfairly discriminated against in the series, if anything, since so many of them have been enemies in RE," said one commenter. "It only seems fair that Africans get treated equally, and with only one game full of primarily black enemies to six games full of primarily white, from a racial viewpoint I'd say that the Africans are getting off easy."
"There is plenty of real racism alive and well in the world today and words cannot describe how disgusting it can be," wrote another, "but it is garbage rants like this that take attention from real problems. It is absurd and insulting to everyone to suggest this game is in anyway being designed to teach anyone to hate black people."
A third poster merely commented, "That game looks so awesome."
Over on the Village Voice blog post, one commenter approached the issue from another direction, writing, "Many of these games, including [Resident Evil 5], are being made in ethnically homogenous Japan, where concepts of race are hugely different from those in America. On some level, I think Japanese developers simply don't understand how potentially flammable these kinds of scenarios could become, let alone some of the even more blatant stereotyping often found in Japanese games (think Barrett's penchant for Ebonics in [Final Fantasy 7], just for starters.)"