In Dead Rising, Dawn of the Dead came back to life
Finding ennui in the apocalypse.
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When you break it down, Dead Rising is just a bootleg tie-in game for George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It’s a zombie survival game set in a tacky mall in the American Midwest – the only way you could miss the connection is if you’ve never heard of the film or the remake. I mean, they’re so similar that Capcom was even sued over it (unsuccessfully).
As an adaptation, though, Dead Rising is smarter (and better) than most. It’s more than just a copycat: Capcom breaks the original film down and crafts something new from the pieces. It pulls out from well-trod zombie canon – survivalism, helpless strangers, social roles, conspiracies, violence, insanity, cults – and stirs it all into the ultimate zombie survival pseudo-sim. It gamifies zombie tropes, pays spirited homage to the Romero legacy with a touch of satire and parody in its own right, takes some junk from the 2004 remake, and ties it all together with that campy Capcom style.
…Yes, this is definitely an excuse to rave about Dead Rising for a while. Let’s buckle in and compare!
(SPOILERS AHEAD for Dead Rising and both the original Dawn of the Dead and its remake.)
The original Dawn of the Dead was filmed in the 70s and, more than anywhere else, this shows in its sterile and garish shopping mall. The generic stores, the pastel colours, the carousel music blaring through the tinny loudspeakers: it lacks any sort of personality or character. It’s like if a mannequin was a building – which is sort of the point.
In Dawn of the Dead, the shopping mall is just an empty conglomerate of vapid storefronts. It wears down whoever’s inside it into mindless cultists obsessed with buying stuff – i.e. zombies. The film’s ultimate enemy is the shopping mall itself, capable of both saving and hurting people in the same way malls both saved and hurt smaller communities throughout the US.
Dead Rising’s Willamette Mall is just as intentionally dull and blah as Dawn’78’s but it’s for a very different reason. Instead, the mall is designed around your experience as the player. It’s to fulfil your role as the hero of a zombie survival tale.
Each store is a basic archetype where you only value what’s inside it. With names like Cam’s Camera, Fanfare Fashions, Huntin’ Shack, Colby’s Movieland, Jill’s Sandwiches, all they’re meant to do is hold stuff for you to loot later on. Where Dawn’78 uses this obvious charmlessness to highlight how manufactured and cold the shopping mall is, Dead Rising does this to sell the mall as a place of utility. You’re not meant to feel attached to it; it’s just a tool. It’s a place to learn and exploit until you can successfully save yourself and the rest of the idiots stuck in the mall with you.
Meanwhile, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead ignores the mall almost entirely and cuts out the whole idea behind the premise. The (much larger) cast of survivors live in total comfort inside the mall until they end up driving to the harbour in two tank-ified buses with chainsaws sticking out the side. Ignoring all the stupid in that last sentence, Dawn’04 is closer to how The Walking Dead and its own pseudo-adaptation State of Decay would treat a shopping mall: as a temporary urban survivalist stronghold with no interest in social commentary.
This one’s easy: Dead Rising’s zombies are pulled straight out of the Romero classics. They’re slow and shambling, they aren’t much of a threat by themselves and they can quickly overwhelm you if you need to push through a crowd of them.
In other words: Dead Rising uses Zombie Classic™ and it’s another clear pull from Dawn’78.
The Zombie Killin’
The Dead Rising series is best known for its scrappy weapon-based zombie combat, but the original game is never really about the combat at all (at least against zombies; the psychopaths are a bit different). Planting a shower head in a zombie’s head or smashing one with a dumbbell isn’t really meant to be all that interesting or fun after the first time. They are just a means to an end. They’re ways of getting rid of the zombies in your way.
Like in Dawn’78, the zombies of Dead Rising become tedious. They’re roadblocks between you and whatever your goal is. Therefore, the gameplay is pretty straight-forward and your makeshift weapons (or actual weapons, like guns and swords) are simple and dependable. You slowly learn which are more effective against what, where they are, what’s easier to find at certain points in the game, and so on. It isn’t meant to be flashy or addictive because that just wastes your time, your health and your weapon durability all at once – you save all that for the stuff that matters.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do flashy shit, though. Using medieval swords to slice zombies in half? Doing a Zelda spin with a chainsaw? Driving a Hummer through a horde of zombies? Suplexes?! That’s all Dawn’04, baby, at least by comparison – the Dawn’78 didn’t have much fun with zombie killin’.
The original Dawn of the Dead has just four main characters and, in contrast to almost every other story with zombies in it, all four of them are genuinely rational people. We don’t learn much about them individually but they’re smart, likeable survivors who act almost exactly how you want them to, and whenever they don’t, there’s a reason for it. It’s a stark difference from the remake, where every character is simple and senseless. They’re more like characters from a (bad) horror movie, where you don’t really care about any of them until they’re getting their faces eaten off for your entertainment.
This time, Dead Rising takes a bit from both.
The core cast of Frank, Jessie, Brad and Otis are far more endearing and sensible than anyone in Dawn’04 and feel more like the cast of the original film. They’re serious, stressed-out people who come off as somewhat realistic. On the other hand, all the survivors — the ones you’re actively rescuing from around the mall — are empty stereotypes by design. They might as well be named Scared Guy or Coward #3 or Drunk Man or Rich Man. They’re personified zombie tropes for you to rescue, NPC’s that exist for the sake of the player and for no other reason. They work the same way the rest of the mall does: as objects for you to interact with that let you fulfil your role as Hero.
Dead Rising’s Psychopaths are the insane boss enemies who appear around the Willamette Mall, usually in specific stores, and they’re another obvious riff on Romero. Not just Dawn’78 but also Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead and oh, every other zombie story after Romero? The remake has some too but it’s not very consistent. Just some mild cabin fever with one specific instance of super-crazy involving a zombified baby.
Like the police officer giving into his raging racism and rampaging through apartments of innocent people; the bikers becoming a full-on tribe who destroy everything in their path; or even the two main characters who die over the course of Dawn’78, the Psychopaths in Dead Rising are people who have lost their place in a broken society. Without these roles to fall back on, the ones they’ve come to base their entire personality on – soldier, clown, pastor, supermarket manager, butcher – they lose themselves to the bloody madness around them.
The Smart Stuff
Dead Rising is absolutely a satire in its own right and takes after the original Dawn of the Dead yet again (even if the rest of the game series doesn’t).
It’s most obvious in the overarching conspiracy plot, when it’s revealed that the zombie outbreak is not just a failed government experiment to mass-produce meat for the USA but also a large-scale revenge plot against the United States for its destructive interventionism. Like Dawn’78, Dead Rising isn’t subtle in its theming.
The smart stuff in Dead Rising goes beyond that. In fact, where Dawn’78 was a sombre look at consumerism and societal roles in the 70s, Dead Rising is a deconstruction of modern zombie fiction as a whole.
Today, most modern zombie fiction is pretty mundane. Instead of viewing its story and world as an emotionally-engaged viewer, suspending your disbelief for the sake of the story or the characters, you scrutinise every little thing for how logical or rational they are. You start judging fictional characters for every individual action because it’s fun and entertaining in its own right, as hypothetical roleplay. So many modern zombie stories either fail at giving us characters to care about or just play into it knowingly like a slasher movie would, so it’s become almost automatic for people to just immediately take their emotions off the table. Like a whodunit, you start thinking on who does what or gets eaten by whom (zombies, probably) in terms of “what happens in a zombie movie” instead of genuinely empathising with the characters and their goals.
Dead Rising takes the piss out of all of this. It shows you how emotionless and robotic zombie fiction is and how you, as the player, have come to expect this.
In Dead Rising, the Groundhog Day-style gameplay loop pushes you to see the entire game as a defined system. You start to see each part of the game – the weapons, missions, survivors, psychopaths – as pieces of a gameboard. You see how it has its own rules and limitations that need to be figured out and overcome before you can succeed.
The way zombie killin’ comes off as intentionally dull plays into this. There’s even a counter at the corner of the screen to track how many individual zeds you’ve killed. The longer you play and the higher that number gets, the more pointless it feels. It’s like a jab at the whole idea of killing zombies as a form of “entertainment”. Congrats, you got another one! You get to add another strike to the tally, yay!
Combined with the strict time limits on missions, Dead Rising seems to explicitly undermine the novelty of killing zombies with dumb weapons. It pushes you to realise how worthless it is to kill zombies for the “fun” of it, and how worthless that idea is in general. It subverts a big part of the genre fantasy in a way that’s similar to the early Resident Evil games (also from Capcom), changing zombies from slow target practice to significant resource drains. It recontextualises the entire ‘threat’ that zombies are meant to represent in a way that’s very similar to Dawn’78.
Then there’s Frank’s camera, which lets you take photos in-game to earn PP (experience points). In-universe, taking photos could be a way for Frank to dwell on specific images for zombie-killing techniques or survival prowess – but since you also earn points for “erotica” and slapstick “outtake” photos, too, this doesn’t exactly hold up. What it does do is highlight that emotional disconnect yet again. By letting you exploit every photo for entertainment or literal progress, it’s just another exploitive, unemotional lens through which to view the apocalypse.
Even the dumbass AI of the survivors you’re saving plays into this, getting stuck on walls or crouching into a trembling ball when they pass by a zombie. They act exactly how you hate survivors acting, their stereotypical idiosyncrasies dialled up so high you wonder how they even got to the mall in the first place without jumping legs-first into a woodchipper.
As a work in the zombie genre, Dead Rising shows how emotionless modern zombie fiction has become by taking the illusion of emotion out of the equation entirely, or at least from the player. There are emotional moments in the story but they all fall flat when you’ve seen it for the fourth time or you’re wearing a Servbot mask and ring gear. Survivors can also “have emotions” but they’re all just variables in a speedrun, factors that tweak your increasingly rigid playstyle. This one can’t use weapons, this one can’t run, this one gets scared easily – in the end, all they do is adjust how you get them to safety, not encourage you to care about them. If anything, it just highlights how much of a burden they are. It might as well be a daycare.
By shifting away from the fun of playing out Braindead to the rush of strict time management (I’m not even being sarcastic, it’s a blast), Dead Rising tears apart the entire idea of “fun” in a zombie apocalypse.
There’s no fun in the apocalypse, says Dead Rising. Only work and ennui.
“Who the Hell cares, let’s go shopping!”
Dead Rising is almost perfect, both as a game and as an adaptation, and I’ll fight anyone who says different. Like the Dawn of the Dead remake, it takes the central concept and creates something new with it (but way, way better). By mixing the methodical and almost bureaucratic nature of George A. Romero’s original film with the urgency, action and larger cast of idiots from the remake, Capcom created an incredible Dawn of the Dead simulator that dissects the zombie survival genre as a whole.