By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Dead Rising juxtaposes the zombie multitudes with American shopping culture. In death as in life, consumption reigns. Using the “sandbox” style of gameplay pioneered by Grand Theft Auto, Dead Risingmakes the metaphor meticulously explorable. Muzak still plays as you dodge hungry zombies to explore stores like Granma’s Fanfare and Ned’s Knicknackery for potential supplies and weapons. The food court is an important stop for sustenance. With every path blocked by undead, you have to grab what you can for defense, from planters to skateboards to bowling balls to the ever-favorite zombie killer, a chain saw from the hardware store. Learning how the improvised attack of each new item works is part of the dirty, feral fun. A showerhead planted in a zombie’s head sprays blood like a fountain. A scythe in the garden allows you to catch a zombie around the neck, put your foot on its chest, and yank its head off for an extra few style points. Capitalizing on zombies’ dim wits, you can plop a pail, orange traffic cone or stuffed-animal mask on their heads for comedic effect. Or take in a free shopping spree. I’ve had Frank run through zombie crowds in a summer dress, hot pants and crop top, and a tuxedo, all the while wearing that stuffed animal mask on his own head, alternately throwing pies in zombies’ faces or slashing them clean in two with a souvenir battle-ax. As with Dawn of the Dead, the wild bloodbath of Dead Rising is strategically leavened by camp, except that now, both are endlessly customizable.
Why is this so satisfying? As in zombie flicks, the violence works because it’s guilt free. Slaughtering the undead isn’t pathological; it feels more like God’s work. And in Dead Rising, that slaughter is wholesale. I haven’t played very long, and my zombie kill count, which racks up like pinball in the bottom-right corner, is already topping 3,000. And I haven’t even found the submachine gun yet. Or the .50 cal. Or the sniper rifle.
Oh, and there’s a plot too, I guess — as absurd as one expects from a video game. There’s Jessie, in a sexy peach business suit, and Brad, who looks and talks like Principal Blackman from Strangers With Candy, trying to find Dr. Barnaby and unlock the mystery. Standing in the way is Carlito, a villain who apparently moonlights with the Gipsy Kings, gallivanting amongst the zombies as he does with long, luxurious Latin-lover hair and a billowing white-collared shirt unbuttoned to his waist.
Besides being a ridiculous bore, Dead Rising’s story centers on discovering the mystery behind the zombie outbreak, a stinker by definition because, as true connoisseurs know, origins are irrelevant. As zombie culture widens and strays from its roots, a whole host of zombie provenances have been posited, including radiation, toxic chemicals, mutagenic gas and cosmic dust. No elaborate back story, however, rivals the simple, direct and far scarier original explanation Romero provided, which is no explanation at all.
In proper hands, the zombie story is less about zombies than the human survivors — a tool for social, psychological and economic commentary. Or even metaphysics, as eager academic interpreters with cultural-studies backgrounds and perhaps too much time on their hands have wondered about the implications of zombies on the philosophy of mind; if the body can walk as undead, the induction goes, perhaps the soul is a separate spirit from our material beings.
Dunno if Romero is a Cartesian dualist, but there was certainly a broad political critique behind his original black protagonist who survives the night only to be killed by the roving white vigilantes. Ever since, we’ve been watching zombies act as a cultural lens, a means to measure human frailty under pressure.
As the undead converge, the humans often become petty, bloodthirsty and predatory, little better than the monsters outside. Romero’s Land of the Dead has wealthy yuppies living in a fortified high-rise surrounded by a teeming slum of human peons on the edge of zombified terra incognita. In Max Brooks’ World War Z, the postzombie world stabilizes after the outbreak through a massive apartheid system. Hey — drastic times mean drastic measures; or, as C.J., the vaguely bigoted asshole security guard from Dawn of the Dead, menacingly proclaims with gun in hand: “America always takes care of its shit.”
But Dead Rising is a game; unlike in the movies, the system of choice allows as much self-sacrifice and redemption as you want. Frank need not be a heartless hack. Forget unraveling the mystery — a waste of time, anyhow — and be a hero instead. As with Grand Theft Auto, the missions aren’t vital to Dead Rising. Instead of fucking around with Brad and Carlito, it’s more fun to scour the stores for humans, convince them to join you, and assemble the ragtag team of survivors befitting the zombie end times. You can even arm your crew, and then hack and shoot your way together to the next survivor — by far the most satisfying experience to be had in the Willamette Mall. Together, we’ve proudly saved 32 people so far, some from among the human psychopaths who lurk in the mall and use the disorder to prey on others. At the heart of the Zombie Idea, after all, lies the hopeful opportunity for reasserting humanity on the brink; because when the shit goes down, true survival isn’t just staying alive, it’s staying human.
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