George A. Romero, who put zombie horror on the map with movies like Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, never got to make a film adaptation of the Resident Evil video games. But the celebrated filmmaker did have one interaction with the franchise that we can all look back on today: He directed a commercial for 1998’s Resident Evil 2.
“This is a commercial for Biohazard 2, but we wanted it to look like a movie,” said Romero in a nine-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, using the game’s Japanese title. “So we basically wanted to produce it very much like a movie, instead of like a commercial shoot.”
Capcom hired two Tokyo-based firms to make the commercial, so it’s unsurprising that Romero would refer to Resident Evil 2 by its Japanese name. It’s unclear if the ad ever aired outside of Japan, since it contains the release date (Jan. 29, 1998) and price (6,800 yen, which would have been about $54.21 on that date) for that region in Japanese text.
Romero and his crew shot the ad at the Lincoln Heights Jail, a decommissioned jail in Los Angeles, and he described the production as being “just like a small motion picture shoot, with extras playing the zombies.” The zombies’ impressive makeup was handled by Screaming Mad George, a special effects artist who is also interviewed in the featurette.
The production circumstances weren’t the only unusual element of the 30-second TV spot. Romero is credited as the director right at the start, a rare practice for commercials. The ad features two young actors whose stars were rising at the time: Brad Renfro (Apt Pupil) as Leon S. Kennedy, and Adrienne Frantz (The Bold and the Beautiful) as Claire Redfield.
“It was an honor to work with a legend like Romero,” Frantz said in an interview with Variety last December. She recalled that “every little detail counted to him,” adding, “I remember he taught me how to pump the shotgun correctly!”
In 1999, the year after Romero’s Resident Evil 2 ad debuted, Sony Pictures hired him to write and direct a film adaption of the series. Romero produced a script that was faithful to the story of the original Resident Evil game from 1996. However, Sony and Capcom passed on the screenplay and ended up going with writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson, who kicked off a billion-dollar six-film franchise in 2002. Anderson’s Resident Evil told an original story and leaned heavily into the sci-fi aspects of the series, de-emphasizing its horror elements.
As for why Romero didn’t get the gig, Capcom producer Yoshiki Okamoto told Electronic Gaming Monthly at the time that “Romero’s script wasn’t good, so Romero was fired.”
“I know George was really disappointed that he didn’t do it,” Frantz told Variety. “Still to this day, I just can’t believe that his version didn’t end up making it.”
It’s a sad story in and of itself, but particularly because Resident Evil’s makers owed a great deal to Romero’s work. He knew it, too.
“I loved making the [Dead] movies, and it’s great that there’s a game which is, you know, it’s like a flashback to that genre,” Romero said of Resident Evil 2 in the making-of featurette. “And I can feel maybe a little bit like I had some influence on it, and so I feel very flattered.” Capcom is now working on a remake of the classic game.
Romero’s association with gaming didn’t end with the failure of his Resident Evil movie project. Most notably, he appeared as himself in Escalation, a 2011 add-on for Call of Duty: Black Ops. It featured a new map and story for the Zombies mode named Call of the Dead, which was inspired by Romero’s films.
Romero, whose films were well-regarded for their social commentary and satire as well as for establishing the modern concept of the zombie, died yesterday after a “brief but aggressive battle with lung cancer,” according to a statement his family provided to the Los Angeles Times. He was 77.