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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Evoking Horror Through Contrast in ‘Dead Island’

Dead Island is a game I appreciate all the more in retrospect, now that I’ve played its lesser sequel. While it dragged on in its latter half, its first half contains an interesting subtext concerning class warfare that’s only apparent now after playing the subtext-fee Riptide. The first game also subverts the typical zombie origin story as well and again does so in a way that’s only apparent after playing Riptide, which falls back on clichés.

Let’s start with the resort because that’s where everything starts. The resort environment at the beginning of Dead Island is great because it evokes a scary contrast between the swanky, slick façade of upper class escapism and the merciless reality of death lurking just outside the hotel doors. It’s like Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, though in this case the elite aren’t hiding from a specific disease but the more abstract horror of reality. They ignore the poverty of the hotel workers around them, and they’re blissfully ignorant of the fact that the hotel is built on an island that’s home to a diseased cannibal tribe. They even go so far as to mock the natives through cultural misappropriation. The houses and huts that line the poolside, docks, and roadside are styled after the native dwellings, now reimagined as part of a fictional tropical paradise. It’s a tribal aesthetic meant to evoke the feeling of being close to nature without actually having to get close to nature.

After the resort, we visit the city of Moresby, a densely populated place filled with narrow streets. Moresby isn’t as inherently scary as the resort because it doesn’t offer the same contrast. It’s a drab place that looks like it’s always been part of the third-world. Life here was always hard, so the zombie apocalypse wasn’t as big of a change for the citizens of Moresby as it was for the resort goers. The citizens were always struggling to survive; the zombies just made things worse. This is reflected in the way that combat works in this space, but probably not on purpose. Moresby is an incredibly frustrating environment due to there being too many zombies in too small an area. While this is annoying from a gameplay perspective, it tells us something about what the city was like before the zombie outbreak. It was still overcrowded then, the streets were still too small, and it was still a tough place to live. Moresby is not an inherently happy or relaxing place; it’s very much the opposite.

By contrasting these two locations against each other, Dead Island turns the zombie outbreak into an allegorical class war, the hotel workers rising up against their ostentatious employers. The game smartly doesn’t pick a side. It never points to a group of people and says, “You deserved this.” As we explore the pools of the resort, we see a man knee deep in the blood of his family, and as we explore the streets of the city, we see the results of various failed escape attempts; both sides are suffering. The zombies are like a spark that instigates a class war that destroys both sides.

The zombie myth itself also gets explored from different angles in Dead Island. The zombie myth originates from Haitian voodoo folklore, but since Night of the Living Dead, zombies have become a malleable pop culture myth. Sometimes the dead come back for revenge or because of toxic waste or scientific experiments or demons or celestial events. Sometimes cutting off their head kills them. Sometimes not. Sometimes they walk. Sometimes they run. You get the point.

Dead Island combines these multiple myths into something that manages to feel unique for the genre specifically because it harkens back to the zombie’s voodoo origins. The game doesn’t follow that folklore directly (there’s no sorcerer in control of the undead), but the ritualistic voodoo origins are still kept intact. We’re told that the zombies are the result of a virus, a mutant variation of Kuru that spread throughout the indigenous tribes because of their cannibalistic practices. It’s an interesting origin story combining elements of real-life zombie voodoo myth and the more commercialized Night of the Living Dead/28 Days Later zombie mythos.

However, the main reason this is such an interesting origin story is because anything even remotely related to voodoo stands in stark contrast to nearly every other zombie origin story in gaming. Video games seem to have latched on to the idea that zombies can only spawn from some kind of corporate malfeasance. Dead Island: Riptide even changes its own mythology to fit this cliché.

The problem is that Resident Evil has been doing this for 16 years. This kind of story has been played out, but the voodoo origins have been so ignored that they now seem fresh. This may be personal taste, but I find a long lost disease kept alive though cannibalism and justified by the practice of voodoo a way more frightening idea than an evil corporation trying to create or test a bio-weapon. One story you almost never hear, the other you hear all the time, and it’s always the unfamiliar story that scares us the most. Dead Island contrasts our expectations of what zombies are with something more in line with their original origin, and thus the undead of Dead Island seem far more intimidating than the undead from Resident Evil or Left 4 Dead.

Dead Island toys with the zombie myth and (at least in one case with the resort) uses the zombies as an allegory for another kind of disaster. There’s a fascinating subtext to its story that elevates it (slightly) above its C-level horror movie roots. Techland clearly struck a small bit of gold with that first game, and I hope they can find it again.