Undead Nightmare, Expansions, and the Lost Art of the B-Horror Game
Red Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare expansion hit me like a lightning bolt when I first played it over 11 years ago. A new story and recontextualized world where John Marsten faced off against a horde of the undead, with a decidedly spaghetti Western/B-horror movie feel absolutely rocked my world, leading to countless late nights spent huddled close to the TV, the growls of nearby zombies rumbling in my headphones.
As a teenager who was never interested in horror, it opened up doors for me—but as far as gaming experiences go, many of those doors have ended up leading to nowhere. Over 11 years after the launch of Undead Nightmare, I find myself wondering: Where have the B-movie inspired horror games gone?
Red Dead Redemption is a formative game for me. Upon receiving it as a gift for Christmas in 2010, I tore through the main story of cowboys, lawmen, and a changing world, utterly consumed and shocked that games could have narratives like this. After completing the story, I quickly gathered my pennies to buy Xbox Live Points (remember those?) from the local pharmacy to purchase Undead Nightmare. When I booted that experience up for the first time on a cold winter night, my expectations were shattered—again.
It’s hard to express how crazy an expansion like Undead Nightmare is with the current state of DLC. The experience completely recontextualized and altered portions of the entire map, trading in bandits for zombies and sunsets for fog. I was immediately plunged into the world of a cheesy horror movie that I sometimes caught glimpses of late at night on the TV after everyone went to bed—only this time, I was in control.
Not only were the map and enemies different, but the entire tone was too. Characters that I came to know across Red Dead’s main story were also changed in Nightmare. John Marsten’s sense of humor was played up, as was the case across the entire cast. This was the zombie apocalypse like never before—in a world full of cowboys, commoners, and Herbert Moon, none of whom knew how to deal with what they were experiencing. This more pronounced comedic throughline and over-the-top scale of violence took a Spaghetti Western-influenced game straight into camp territory, and it was glorious.
From watching NPCs getting eaten and letting it happen to hunting down the Bigfoot (who, as it turns out, doesn’t eat babies), the expansion leaned completely into its B-movie tone, embracing the absurd and allowing Rockstar to have a bit of cheesy fun in its Western universe. It’s been reported that Rockstar wanted to make a zombie game that pays homage to roots of the horror genre—films like Night of the Living Dead and their portrayals of the American countryside come to mind. The world of Red Dead Redemption was perfect for matching that vibe and then adding a layer of mischief and outlandish elements made for the perfect concoction of entertaining, spooky, and absurd. This is the expansion where you find and tame the four horses of the apocalypse, after all.
Undead Nightmare was something of an anomaly when it launched, and all these years later it still remains one. Expansions for single-player games to date still struggle to feel this substantial or passionate, especially as the industry inches ever-closer to all titles having a live service model and away from meaty expansions such as this (an especially contentious point in Rockstar games themselves recently). In revisiting Undead Nightmare, we dig up the graves of two ideas: B-movie inspired horror games and substantial, innovative single-player game expansions. Here’s hoping they both come roaring back to life in due time.