Zombies and Vampires

One of the problems with exam leave is that the prolonged inactivity and isolation gives one little to do but think. Obviously that’s the intent: to think intensively about a particular subject and try to retain and consolidate a pretty large amount of information. Really broadly, for me to explain what, in theory, I know about Greek Society should take 2 1/2 times 12 times 50 minutes because that’s how long it took Dr Rosenbloom to explain it to me. Study therefore becomes a more focused activity, where main points are touched on, and areas of specialty chosen that will hopefully turn up in the finals.

Unfortunately, I am not especially displined and my mind tends to wander. I can sustain perusal of factual notes for only an hour or two at a stretch, and reading secondary material for somewhat less. Literature I am better trained to deal with.

In my various wanderings, I have returned to think a bit more about a topic that I’ve been discussing with various people recently: the Vampire Grammar. It occured to me recently that there are not a great number of good Vampire movies out there. I must have watched hundreds over the years, from Nosferatu to Bordello of Blood and back via way of From Dusk Till Dawn, and the movies that I thought were good were:

– Shadow of the Vampire
– John Carpenter’s Vampires (and this suffers a bit on re-watching)
– Interview with the Vampire

In comparison, I’ve watched far fewer Zombie movies. I think probably only about 10-15. Of these, I would more confidently list as good:

– Shawn of the Dead
– Dawn of the Dead (remake)
– Day of the Dead

Okay, so they’re not numerically superior, but they are a bigger proportion of what’s out there in their genre. 🙂 Possibly more telling are that badly done Vampire movies are often almost unwatchable (let’s not talk about 2004’s Vampires: Out For Blood or A Vampire in Brooklyn. Zombie movies seem to achieve a basic mastery of their topic with much greater ease. Even the campy Return of the Living Dead still manages to cover the basic Zombie concepts and be slightly watchable.

Well, my theory is in several parts, but boils down to the concept that the Zombie and his story have a simpler underpinning logic, and a stronger story grammar: broadly that they’re all pretty similar in plot and motifs. Vampires, in contrast, are almost all unique. The exact constitution of any given Vampire in any given movie will be slightly different from pretty much every other.

This very versatility probably encourages people to make more movies. There are simply more things to try and do with Vampires than Zombies. I don’t have hard numbers on this, and I suspect that Romero’s efforts have helped reverse the trend, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were twice as many Vampire movies as Zombie movies.

Thing is though, with their arguably longer history, and greater rate of production, why are Vampires the lesser of the two evils in cinema? You’d tend to think that more practice=> better skills. Perhaps this is the case, and it is merely that I have unrealistic standards, that is difficult to comment on. I am at a loss about how to easily catalogue and group the various failings of each Vampire movie either: their failings are as diverse as their mythology.

It seems to me that the key ingredient in the Vampire movie is the Vampire. This may seem a bit obvious, but in Zombie movies, for example, the key ingredients are the living characters, and in most action movies the vital bit to get right is the hero rather than the villain. Vampire movies, in my experience, stand or fall on their monster. Having said that, the Vampire is fundamentally differentiated from most monsters in that they represent both a menace and a choice: it is de rigeur for any vampire movie hero to be offered the chance at Immortality, and whether this dilemna is interesting is all about the hero. This seems to me to be the most common failing: the seduction is treated as a moment where the plot pivots rather than as a theme across the whole movie or a general guiding force in the plot. All too often, the choice is ad hoc, offered as a last-ditch “don’t kill me” plea from the woe-begotten Vampire.

Of the three movies I’ve selected as the best, this motif is not substantially present. Shadow of the Vampire explores a different kind of fall from grace: the seduction of fame on the part of Murnau. John Carpenter’s Vampires does have a minor character give in, but follows a more general cat-and-mouse plot borrowed from movies about serial killers. Interview with the Vampire picks up after the choice is made already, but I suppose you can argue that Louis’ dilemna is a prolonged and tantalizing choice of morality or expediency, in which he ultimately never makes a firm choice.

The difference, therefore, between a good Vampire movie and a bad one is the same as between “erotica” and “porn” in relation to sex. Erotica builds a story so that sex seems the inevitable result, while Porn simply and brutally does ‘what has to be done’ without regard to the niceties. A bad vampire movie takes the tropes and ensures by any means necessary that they’re included, a good one teases them out of a naturalistic and consequential world. Ultimately though, neither is about love, and just so: the best Vampire movies aren’t about the crudity of a moment of choice, but the act of living and what it means to really be human.

(The best zombie movies are about brains. duh.)

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7 Responses to Zombies and Vampires

  1. Worst vampire movie ever: “The Vampire Journals”. Especially if you’ve ever played V:tM.

  2. menchi says:

    Dude! Shadow of the Vampire? I thought that was a pretty bad film. It was all over the place and could never make up its mind what it wanted to be – a comedy, a drama, a satire or a melodrama. It kept mixing these styles without ever committing or keeping consistent as an entire movie. Even the music score suffered from being in appropriate to certain scenes – too heavy in parts and too light in others.

    I really REALLY didn’t like the film. Definitely one of the worst vampire movies I’ve seen.


  3. cha0sslave says:

    I have noticed a couple of differences with Zombie movies, and these are important features that are influenced by the times of their release.

    The original Night of the living dead, (Romero) is one of the earliest to feature the Zombies and it was around the time of Hitchcock so that’s the image they were going for. More suspense than action and effects, with the usual buff man and screaming woman and only a handful of Zombies. And maybe a landmark film of the era for having a Black man as the lead.

    The 70’s with it’s vivid colourisation proudly bought us Dawn of the Dead. This had a much higher budget than typical splatter/teen exploitation films of the era as they were trying to cash in more on the disater movie audience, which was pretty big at the time (Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno etc). These movies made the Zombie threat more menacing because you saw literally hundreds of them all over the place and not just a few lost souls wandering a graveyard. These Zombies attacked a MALL for chirst’s sake, the epitomy of modern convenience and the encaptulation of modern youths social recreation and interaction, how dare they menace “The Mall”. This movie also really emphasisied the “bitten and you’re a zombie” method of spreading the disease.

    Day of the dead, sequel to Dawn, is more of the same but different, here we have a bit of the “Planet of the Apes” saga, with the scientists wanting to study the undead and find a cure or at least stop the spread. Understand your enemy and you can defeat him better. While the militant group just wants to kill them all. In the end everyone looses, but after a couple of years of zombies stalking the earth everyone was strung a bit high. This film investigated the inner workings of a Zombie and showed us how they could be semi domesticated and acted a lot on instinct based ontheir past lives.

    Then there was a whole new look with Return of the Living Dead in ’85, same year as Day of the Dead. This was more of a teenager comedy -special effects movie definately custom built for the young adult. A naked punk girl dancing on a tomb ws not what Granny Smith and co wanted to see. This was also a new era of special effects too, and one of the first films to feature the whole “BRAINS” thing. Indeed the whole existence of a Zombie in these films was to eat brains, and if you’ll remember, althought still a bit clumsy and awkward the Zombies had far more ability than anything to date, and were more like hunters than opportunists, working to overcome problems more effectively. Audiences of this time wanted more action and a bit of comedy which explains the comic relief that the previous movies didn’t have. A sequel was sure to succeed, the third one however, NOT required. Memorable moment: The skeletal remains, sans legs, dragging itself across the ground and writhing round sqwaking after being tied to the table. Creepy in any language.

    And then came The remake of Dawn of the Dead. A whole new attempt at cashing in on the only thing that Romero was half good at. With a mainstream actor (Vhing Rhames) and some pretty new meat it was sure to work. However in a world of high paced action and big budgets we could no longer afford slow mangy zombies. Now we had olympic champion zombies, a real deadly threat that you couldn’t just walk away from. This made the Zombie threat even deadlier. Running, jumping, chasing, freaky stuff. Still strong on the human nature aspect though. They try to save everyone but, if you stay to help your fellow man, or risk your own life to save others, you DIE!, at least when Zombies are invloved. I still say they should have saved poor old Andy though, best character in the whole film.

    The latest crap, Land of the Dead and Day ofthe Dead 2: Contagion are some of the worst bullshit ever.

    For a real mouthful that sort of features Zombies however, try this:


    Sadly thereare more Zombie films coming in the next coupleof years.

    • mashugenah says:

      Cool summary. 🙂

      • eloieli says:

        28 days later is effectively a Zombie movie. It switches genres well during it’s course as well, going from horror to road movie to splatter action.

        Driven on the back of good characters I found it to be very well done, scary, creepy, freaky, funny (in places) and generally cool.

        That it had me worrying for the characters even in the nices bits (the road trip fro example) I took as sign that it was cool.

        There are also the resident evil zombie movies. I’ve only seen the first one and it was pretty good.

        I am not generally a zombie fan though.

        As for vampires I liked Jon Caprenters Vampire 2000, mostly becaus it had an interestingly different origin myth.

        I tend to agree that vampires as villians are not generally well thought out. They should have the same scariness and hardness to find that you get in good serial killer stories like “Silence of the Lambs”. Heck, in some ways you could say Hannibal Lector was a vampire of sorts. Certainly the scariest I have seen.

      • mashugenah says:

        There have been a few movies which snuck into the Zombie genre while nobody was watching. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that From Dusk till Dawn is in fact a Zombie rather than Vampire movie. Once the fighting starts, the behaviour of the “vampires” is so similar to Zombies I don’t know why most people still think of it as a Vampire flick. Ghosts of Mars and Pitch Black also have a very Zombie-movie feel about them in places.

        I found Resident Evil to be very formulaic. It took all the necessary elements and voila: movie. It lacked, in other words, originality in style or approach. I also found the characters to be very flat, and the setup very heavy handed. Little in it felt naturalistic. Having said that; what it attempted it did well. The Zombies were menacing, the action sequences heart-pumping: the whole thing was a very slick production.

        John Carpenter’s Vampires had a few problems on re-watching. These are mostly problems of Logistics. Valek apparently disables the whole hunter operation in one fell swoop, and yet is clearly shown gathering forces about him for the bulk of the movie. Crow, despite this removal of support, never really looks to be on the back foot. There’s also the commonplace weakness of “magical artefact brought to new world” that was a staple in the Buffy universe for setting things in Sunnydale.

        I appreciate that Crow was a hard-ass, but it severely undermined the credentials of Valek as a worthy foe. I am resistant to ever offering up the “origin” of vampirism. There is a tendancy in these movies to try and offer up some origin story almost as a justification for the Vampire, as if that will build sympathy for him. Well, usually it doesn’t. Even Dracula 2000, whose origin for Dracula was pretty sympathy-worthy just undermined the movie IMHO. Having said that, JCV’s version is just about the most plausible I’ve seen.

        I also found the romance between Montoya and Katrina to be very plot driven rather than chemistry driven. They needed to be in love to add intensity, rather than their love added intensity.

        I put it in the top 3 because, for all its manifest failings, it took its subject seriously. It never tried to undermine itself in order to obtain a quick thrill, it never tried to play the situation for mood-lightening comedy. And I thought that generally the offered ecology for the Vampires seemed plausible. I also liked that it didn’t really try to romanticize Vampirism to any large degree. Vampires were powerful, but not sexy. In this type of gritty story, I think that was definitely the way to go. In a more conventional Dracula-esque story, you’re wanting a bit of sex appeal.

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