Resident Evil came into Johannes Roberts’ life at a vital time. Living in England, he was struggling to find horror that scared him. A self-proclaimed “horror nut,” Roberts described a bleak landscape where he had to travel miles to watch his fave creators like John Carpenter. Stephen King had been relegated to TV adaptations. Scream had arrived and upended what horror was, and it was a movie that Roberts said “just didn’t work for him.” But in this desolate unspooky time, he discovered something truly terrifying that he felt was in love with all the same horror that had shaped him: Resident Evil. Decades later, Roberts has just directed the riotously fun and gruesomely great Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Nerdist chatted to the director about his influences, his love of the game, and the joy of horror!
Nerdist: You clearly love the Resident Evil games and you really manage to translate that creeping sense of dread to the screen in this movie. What was the process of bringing that to life? And was that a big drive for you?
Johannes Roberts: Yeah, 100%. I came on as the horror guy. Let’s go back to the games. Let’s make this scary. You’ve got to balance people that are fanatically passionate about the games to people that love the previous franchise or people that just want to go and see a horror movie. The one thing I believe they all have in common—because that’s the one thing I want—I want them to go into that movie and be scared. I want to have a John Carpenter movie that’s just Resident Evil. That’s how I approached it. I was like, “I want to be scared. I want to have fun. I want to have everything that this game has given me.”
I was obsessed at the time while we were making this with the reboot of the second game. It’s just phenomenal. And it became a cornerstone for how I would go and create the film. Everything drenched with rain, atmosphere, and everything lit with flashlights. I just wanted to scare the s**t out of people, and it really was as simple as that.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City obviously takes a lot from the first two games, but you mentioned Carpenter and there are some big nods to his body of work there. So what were some of your other big non-game influences?
Carpenter rules how I saw this movie in my mind. As a storyteller, I approached it as Assault on Precinct 13. This is an ensemble coming together. And it’s going to have the humor and the suspense and that’s how I that’s how I looked at it. Then let’s bring in something like the atmosphere of The Fog. As a film director you always have that nadir moment when you’re filming when you think you’ve f***ed everything up. And once we shot all night, I remember going home to my wife and saying, “I think I f***ed this up. I think it’s terrible. It’s not working.” Then she went to bed and I put on a DVD of The Fog and everything was right with the world. So yeah, obviously, Carpenter is in my DNA.
Then the world it’s set in is very Stephen King. When Claire comes into town, and people appear from behind curtains. You have this dying Americana and that’s my love of King. Even “Itchy Tasty” being written on the wall with blood, that’s “IT” being written on the wall with blood. I’ve always wanted to do that. There’s definitely some Exorcist in there. And definitely some Exorcist III in there!! Slowly just building these scenes within the camera so that all comes through there. I think with the music there’s definitely Argento. There’s definitely Ennio Morricone and Goblin. We used The Bird with a Crystal Plumage in the temping a lot actually. And when Mark came on his brief was: Assault on Precinct 13 but as if Goblin did it!
Taking on the zombie movie in 2021 is no easy feat. It’s been niche, mainstream, over-saturated, and has even had a resurgence with films like Train to Busan. So how did you approach creating the legitimately terrifying zombies in your film?
That was f**king hard! That night I mentioned was the first night of shooting the zombies. I suddenly realized that I had like 50, 60, 70 years of zombie history now, “I’ve got to get this right.” The big decision that I took which really paid off through the movie was that I was obsessed with Chernobyl which had many thematic similarities to what the story I was telling with Resident Evil. I found that show so disturbing with the makeup and how when people got sick, like I have never been as scared watching something in a long time. So that was the way I decided to go. We’ve got to make these zombies scary again. You know, Shaun of the Dead has definitely made zombies not scary. The Walking Dead is on TV all the time. How am I going to go back to making this scary?
It all came down to really feeling the human within the zombie. So we cast only actors to play the zombies. Even if they were stunt people they had to be actors first. We did all the makeup in-camera, there’s no CG. Steve Newburn did this incredible prosthetic that was very much based around radiation poison. I wanted to really feel these human beings falling apart and that was really how we got into that world.
The cast in this movie is absolute dynamite and I left the film wanting to see them again. So the big question is are there more stories you want to tell in this world?
Oh very much. I think the key for me if we get to go on from here—which I really hope we do—is that we approach it as we adapted the first and second game by looking at them and saying this is a novel. This is like adapting the novel, we take it seriously. We’re faithful, we believe and love this material. Whether we go into Resident Evil 4—which is a game I love very much—or into the bonkersness of Code Veronica or Resident Evil 3, there’s a lot to explore. And when we do it and how we do it—it’s not as clear cut as the first two—is just to take that source material seriously. We don’t just change it up and go into our own world. We keep that horror and intimacy, that scare and mystery that’s here and just keep going.