Survival horror video games have changed a lot over the years — especially as the technology evolved along with our sensibilities. Soon, we’ll be able to play RESIDENT EVIL 7, OUTLAST 2, and DEATH STRANDING with VR options, putting players in the midst of total terror. But to understand where the subgenre is today, we must go back into the roots of this special brand of fear in video game form… and oddly, perhaps one of the greater links can be tied into a distinct subgenre in film: Italian horror!
It all makes sense when you consider the maestros who created classic movies that mainly feature defenseless civilians up against murderers, monsters from beyond, and claustrophobic environments — all make for terrifying movies, and just as terrifying games where you are in danger.
Let’s start with a simpler age of gaming, and a franchise less associated with outright horror: METROID. Though the game is far more clearly an ALIEN homage, Yoshio Sakamoto, the creator of the series, outright admitted that the works of Dario Argento were a direct influence its inception, name-dropping two of Argento’s most popular movies, SUSPIRIA and DEEP RED. “I discovered that without a doubt, I wanted to create things in the same manner that Argento did,” the designer said, noting that the color scheme in SUSPIRIA matches METROID heroine Samus Aran’s own colorization, and the game features similar eerie synthesized music and surreal neon backgrounds.
PHENOMENA — one of my personal favorite Dario Argento movies — directly led to the creation of the CLOCK TOWER video game series. Released on Super NES in 1995, the game followed “Jennifer Simpson” and her fellow orphans being adopted by the Barrows estate in the titular “Clock Tower” mansion… only to find her new home haunted by a maniacal, deformed imp with a giant pair of scissors named Scissorman (go figure) who would stalk Jessica throughout the mansion, intent on killing her. All she can do is evade the scissor-wielding madman — either by hiding or momentarily fending him off — but always in the stalker element of a giallo movie. The game features numerous references to PHENOMONA and the rest of Argento’s filmography — including the lead character looking exactly like the film’s protagonist, Jennifer Corvino (played by Jennifer Connelly).
The plot also follows similar beats (minus Jennifer’s insect control abilities), including the Scissorman’s weapon of choice — a reference to the opening of the film, when a pair of scissors is prominently used to stab a victim (played by the director’s daughter Fiore Argento). Game director Hifumi Kono also personally cited Argento and PHENOMENA as direct inspirations for the creation of the game. Aside from the more outright details, it also captures the haunting environments of those films, as well as the sense of dread; a deranged killer could pop up at any moment, and he cannot be stopped by force alone.
Though there are definitely roots in the first generation of gaming systems, survival horror didn’t truly take off until some of the linchpin franchises established themselves with technologically-advanced games.
Take for example the fan-favorite series SILENT HILL, which got its start on the PlayStation system. These games usually send you into the accursed title town as it shifts between our world and a darker dimension, filled with all manner of abominations and creatures. The series evokes a number of traits from the surreal works of Lucio Fulci and his “Gates of Hell” trilogy of movies in particular. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is evident through the ample use of fog and mutilated spirits hiding within that mist.
Many of the major character antagonists are supernaturally-charged cultists, not unlike the undead priest of CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. We also get elements of THE BEYOND’s shifting dimensions and grey tones, as well as vengeance from beyond the grave from occult artist Schweick, which parallels tied to the plight of Alessa in the game. I feel there’s a bit of a HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY in there too, reflected in the enemies — undead, deformed, and slashing with butcher knives like tiny Dr. Freudsteins.
One of my personal favorite survival horror franchises, RESIDENT EVIL, has been going strong since it hit the PlayStation system in 1996. The original followed a small special ops unit sent to the outskirts of the fictional Raccoon City to investigate a series of murders, only to find themselves trapped in a strange mansion filled with zombies and all manner of biological terrors created by a viral experiment gone wrong.
Though the George A. Romero influence is quite apparent, and it owes a lot to the NES game/movie SWEET HOME (also created by the original developers as a predecessor), it was Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE that served as a key influence in the creation of the game — though not in the way you’d imagine. Shinji Mikami, the original game developer, cited ZOMBIE when making the game, though he says he found the film disappointing, and wanted to craft a zombie horror game with none of its perceived failings. There’s also an homage toward the beginning, when the first major zombie rises… much like the infamous “worm-face” zombie prominently featured on the ZOMBIE poster.
There have been a few references to Italian horror through RESIDENT EVIL. Such as numerous puzzles inspired by the mysteries of SUSPIRIA and feature things like crystaline animals and such needing to be assembled or placed in certain levels in order to find secret rooms and areas. And in RESIDENT EVIL 3: NEMESIS, there’s a side character named Dario Rosso, a combination of Dario Argento and the title of his film DEEP RED, known in Italian as PROFONDO ROSSO. He’s emotionally crippled by watching his family eaten by zombies and is eventually eaten himself. Go figure.
And in the remake of RESIDENT EVIL, we were introduced to Crimson Heads. An evolved form of zombie with flesh rending claws, razor shaper teeth that push their old teeth out, and the capability to run after you! Evoking a bit of the image of the Dario Argento produced, Lamberto Bava directed DEMONS.
The most recent entry in the franchise, RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD, has already stirred a lot of buzz in no small part to its return to form of the franchise. The past few entries became more and more actionized, and 7 seeks to go back to its survival horror roots – now in 1st person POV! Instead of hordes of enemies, the main antagonists of the game seem to be an unstoppable cannibal clan called “The Baker Family” inhabiting a derelict mansion you’re trapped in. They’re capable of healing everything from gunshot wounds to immolation almost instantly.
Though the TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE influence is evident, it appears that these new antagonists may find their inspiration from a more obscure source, the works of video nasty director, Joe D’Amato and his duology of near invincible cannibal movies ATHROPOPHAGUS and ABSURD. While the two aren’t directly connected, both feature Italian B-Movie icon George Eastman as two different cannibals with bizarrely regenerative capabilities. The in-game model for invulnerable cannibal patriarch Jack Baker even resembles Eastman’s killer characters a little bit.
Of course these are just the bare roots of survival horror video games, many of these games showing their influences from genre films and translating them into a virtual experience for players to get just as terrified from. But, without Italian horror in particular, gaming could have been a whole lot different!