The Joys of a Selection Box of Rotting Meat

All horror fans have an avenue of the genre that really got them into it. A thing that tipped a curiosity into full-blown love. Sure, there’s some formative stuff to get out of the way first, even if you do know what aspect of horror is destined to be your ‘forever freaky’. Before I slammed head over heels into mine, I had dalliances with ghost stories, vampires (a combination of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, The Lost Boys, and T.M. Wright’s The Last Vampire), and werewolves (American Werewolf in London, of course). But then I discovered the world of zombies, and I saw the twinkle in their glassy eyes that enchanted me like no other horror thing before it.

I’m still hazy on the exact order of when it started, but I know for sure it was a one-two punch of Night of the Living Dead and Resident Evil 2 that acted as the catalyst, closely followed by a book that went into the voodoo zombie and the history behind it. I was obsessed, and when UK television finally allowed Zombie Flesh Eaters and Dawn of the Dead to show, I was smitten. I couldn’t get enough of zombies, and before I knew it, the monkey’s paw of enjoyment curled a finger to make sure I’d never want for zombie content ever again. Thankfully, the 9000 variants on what zombies are that followed meant that what I loved about zombies was becoming an increasing rarity within the genre. I like them slow, rotting, trance-like, and with shreds of humanity that make them just a bit more chilling.

So, when Jordan King (Bloodwash, The Booty Creek Cheek Freak) announced he was making a retro zombie game styled after the Italian zombie movies of the 70s and 80s, I felt like I’d found the golden ticket in my chocolate bar. A game that does classic survival horror with all the zombie stuff I love? Surely it wasn’t going to be everything I hoped? Well, in a surprising turn of events, Night at the Gates of Hell ended up being absolutely, 100% my shit.

Gates of Hell ax

The makeup of Nights at the Gates of Hell is slow-paced, claustrophobic combat and survival, and with that comes the understanding that overconfidence in such a situation is the deadliest of kisses. I’d almost forgotten how much I love that. I love it for the unabashed throwback vibes it so perfectly captures, but the biggest draw for little old me is the zombies I had to fight along the way. King has ensured that they feel like distinct variants without delving all that deep into that bag that contains ‘brute, spitting undead, fast fuckers, and sneaky shits’. 

When it comes to enemy design, there’s long been importance on making them feel ‘distinct’ by giving them different forms and abilities. What’s great about Night at the Gates of Hell is that King and company largely stick to slow zombies, and make fun little twists on that along the way. Occasionally breaking out something spicier for a big set piece, but still in keeping with this world. For the most part, the undead is pretty standard shuffler fare, albeit with unique models for each. 

Despite the low-poly models, Night at the Gates of Hell manages to put real personality into each individual member of the undead. There’s something intimate and disturbing about gunning down zombies that look different in substantial ways. They stop being a horde of husks, and start becoming a throng of former humans that make you hesitate just a tiny bit before killing them. There are no picture day winners here, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a bit of tragic humanity to them.

It also opens up the door for the absurd. Night at the Gates of Hell already revels in absurdity (and crassness), but it was still a surprise when certain zombies cropped up and left me with a strange dread-tinged bout of nervous laughter. There’s a section in Night at the Gates of Hell where you need to go through a dance school in a Mediterranean coastal village, and somehow, I didn’t put two and two together and when the ‘special’ zombies of that building showed up I was genuinely taken aback. As with King’s previous games such as Bloodwash and The Booty Creek Cheek Freak, there’s a puerile, silly sense of humor with a dark edge that compliments the horror, and this section alone was a fine example of that. 

Gates of hell zombie

Another, more specific zombie that caught my eye was one that was bent backward so that its head was basically peering out from behind its legs like some grisly innuendo. It’s a strange and slightly silly sight, but in the moment it really discombobulated me because ammo is just sparse enough that you need to not waste it on anything but headshots. So suddenly being presented with a head where it shouldn’t be was an exquisite piece of disorientation.

There’s one more thing that makes the undead great in Night at the Gates of Hell, and that’s how they sound. The smorgasbord of unpleasant groans, gurgles, and grumbles on offer here has the power to unnerve long before you’ve put a rotting face to them (and then blown that face off of curse). At a moment early on in the game, the player has to walk out of an apartment and into a long dark hallway full of flickering lights and rubble. The eerie screech that wafts along the corridor as I entered it, taking in that scene, was a really strong scene-setter. It put me in a cautious, nervous place straight away, selling the grim oppressive atmosphere. 

I can’t remember the last time I felt so happy to be wary of the sight and sound of zombies.

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