Earlier this week, Dead Island 2 got the "one more thing…" treatment at Gamescom Opening Night Live. After a lengthy presentation in which host Geoff Keighley showed off a wide variety of upcoming games, we took a brief detour back to 2014. It was June of that year when Deep Silver debuted the original CG trailer for the forthcoming sequel to its 2011 zombie action RPG. It's an iconic trailer — so iconic that Coffee Stain parodied it when announcing Goat Simulator 3. Maybe more iconic because the game it promised never came.
It's difficult to separate the trailer from the promise — empty for nearly a decade — that Dead Island 2 would eventually launch. And, in some ways, it isn't a good trailer. It sets a tone, but it tells you almost nothing about what the game would actually be like. But, if you can mentally remove the crimson Dead Island 2 logo from the end of the clip, you're left with a smart and well-executed animated short film.
It begins with a blonde man in immaculate white exercise gear preparing to go on a run. As the intro to “The Bomb” by Pigeon John plays, the man brushes off his sneakers, flexes his biceps, lets the sun shine on a “Living the Dream” tatoo on his shoulder, runs his tongue over his perfect teeth, and smooths back his blonde hair. Last, but not least, he moves his white and gold sweatband down over a nasty-looking bite on his wrist. Though the final game would have likely packed an arsenal of gnarly weapons, the trailer boasts Chekhov’s Gun.
As the man runs down the street, headphones in his ears, all hell breaks loose behind him. After doing a smug little dance for a woman in a pink bikini who roller skates past him, the man continues to jog, oblivious as the woman flips him the bird and is immediately mauled by ravenous zombies.
From there, the chaos escalates. A man wielding a shotgun bursts out of a store, fires on multiple undead, then gets taken down and ripped to shreds. A white limousine driving down the street swerves as it is beset by several ghouls, with the trunk coming perilously close to ramming into the man, but ultimately missing him and knocking down a palm tree. The camera tilts up to reveal a news helicopter, infected hanging off it, spinning through the air, then crashing into a nearby building.
At this point, the crisis finally hits home as the infection visibly climbs up the man’s arm. In extreme close-up, we see the same body parts the man flaunted earlier, now in disarray. His perfect chiclet teeth are flecked with red blood. The flesh erodes on his tattoo, leaving visible only the word “Dream.” His hair — a toupee, it turns out — peels off his head. His flesh quickly decays. Instead of jogging, he’s shambling like the rest.
As the crowd shuffles forward, a black van appears behind them, fishtailing through the horde. One of the people in the van extends some sort of weapon out the open sliding door and the man is reduced to a squelching splatter as the camera, briefly, fades to black.
When it fades back in, we see the man in pieces on the asphalt. His mouth and eyes continue to move, but his prized sneakers are on the ground next to him. The guy in the black van pulls up, hops out and, realizing that the man’s still immaculate white shoes are his size, grabs the sneakers, complete with severed foot, and hops back in. When he drives away, we see a billboard for Californian Gym Emporium. “Get the body you deserve” it reads. Our hero mirthlessly smirks down from the ad, where he gestures at his well-defined abs. Cut to the Dead Island 2 logo.
This trailer became iconic because it is a tightly constructed bit of storytelling in its own right, requires no prior knowledge, and efficiently takes viewers on a complete narrative arc in just three minutes. It introduces us to the dramatic question early on — when will this guy turn into a zombie? — then builds tension until the chaos behind him reaches a crescendo. It works as a tone piece on the game’s setting, too. Though “L.A. is full of superficial people who are fanatically obsessed with maintaining perfect bodies” is not a new line of critique — John Carpenter, for example, parodied the city’s love of plastic surgery nearly two decades earlier in Escape from L.A. — the game smartly threads the needle with the final double entendre. In turning, the man is revealed to be as dead on the outside as, the short implies, he always was on the inside.
We’ll never get the version of Dead Island 2 promised by the trailer, but what even was promised in the first place? It communicates a tone, but shows no gameplay and suggests no mechanics. It’s a conceptual piece, that’s all. And now that Dead Island 2 is actually, really, for real this time releasing in February, maybe we can begin to enjoy this short for what it was, not for what it purported to promise.
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