Monday, September 04, 2006

Vampires Vs Zombies or Why the Vampire will always win

detail from 'Vampires vs Zombies' dvdAnd by that I mean as a genre and not some ghoul based Celebrity Deathmatch and, before you continue, I know that I am courting controversy here but the blog is named Taliesin Meets the Vampire, and not the zombie. With the latest rash of zombie movies and I am Legend looking like it is to be a buddy zombie movie, I thought this was an ideal time to look at this and I will state that I do like zombie flicks.

The vampire and zombie movie genres are incredibly closely linked, despite somewhat disparate traditional myth sources. Myth-wise the vampire is a feature, in one form or another, of most countries’ superstitions. However, in the main, we are concerned with the rich lore that hailed from Eastern Europe and was adapted and evolved through various writers, such as Stoker.

The zombie seems (and I admit that I am no expert) to hail from a much more specific source, a creature from the lore and mysteries of Voudon. Yet, with notable exceptions, the modern on-screen zombie rarely follows this lore and our popular conception seems to be born of the imaginings of George Romero. He, in turn, was inspired, in part, by the novel I am Legend - a vampire story.

In truth the two genres have many similarities, and I am by necessity looking at this in broad brush terms. Both concern themselves with the walking dead and both have creatures who (one way or another) feed upon mortal humans. Certain films such as Jean Rollin’s “The Living Dead Girl” (1982) and Lief Jonker’s Darkness (1993) very much straddle the two genres.

There are of course differences, zombies have no fear of daylight and pass their plague on exponentially (not necessarily features of the vampire genre) but the biggest difference seems to be sentience.

The zombie is not a sentient creature. Later Romero films showed a growing level of basic intelligence and self awareness but it seems to be less constructive thought and more Pavlovian in the main. zombies in 'Dawn of the Dead'From the zombies drawn to the mall in Dawn of the Dead (1978), as it was such an important place in their mortal lives, all the way to Big Daddy in Land of the Dead (2005) who continues his living job, of course this is simply wandering towards the petrol pumps when a bell rings – we are watching Pavlovian responses. I am aware, of course, that Big Daddy also taught another zombie how to use an assault rifle but this, generally, feels like the exception that proved the rule but may also indicate the way in which the zombie genre, which as a film medium is younger than the vampire genre, is going to evolve. If this is the case than the genre will eventually open itself up to more scope

To me, as the genre stands, the power of the zombie film lies within fear; it is quite simply a terrifying baseline concept. the borg from 'Star Trek'They represent a mindless, relentless march that you can fight but you cannot defeat. The borg, in Star Trek, were little more than space zombies and, although they had a hive intelligence, the story writers tapped into that slow relentless march and they became one of the franchise’s most popular villains.

It seems too real. It is plague, it is epidemic and it is the mindlessness we recognise from the mob and yet cannot truly comprehend as individuals. Of course the comparative difficulty to kill, compared to vampires, who have more Achilles’ heels than feet, and the lack of fear that zombie’s display – from holy symbols, the bane of many a vampire, to plain old weaponry the zombie doesn't seem to care - doesn’t help.

Comparatively the vampire is a fantastical creature. They are intelligent, yes, individualistic and self aware but they also have supernatural powers – dependant on which film you are watching. bat form of Dracula from the 1992 filmThey can turn into animals or mist, they can control minds, they can fly. They do so much that is unreal that perhaps we fear them a lot less.

More than this, we understand them. They can be intelligent and erudite and more often than not have motivations that we mere mortals can actually grasp. They represent power, be that supernatural, financial, physical or sexual. As they represent power, subconsciously, we are drawn to them; we want to be them.

As a genre, however, the reason vampires win (as such) is due to their adaptive natures. The vampire can be many things and thus they act as a cipher or a symbol within a movie.

It is true that the zombie genre can have a social message within its movies. Romero invariably put such into his films as did the film Homecoming (2005) from the Masters of Horror series that was strong in its pro-democracy message and the Resident Evil series seems to have an anti-corporate message. Yet, in my experience, these tend to be the exception and not the rule. The generic movie falls back on march (or sprint, in some of the newer films), bite, fight and survive.

The vampire can represent the powerful and the bourgeois. It can be the lonely, the rejected and the mourner. It can be the outsider, a persecuted race or the persecutor. It is sensitivity and beauty but it is also ugliness and pestilence. In the excellent film Moon Child (2003) the vampire can be broken down to little more than a filmic device that can observe, and thus allows the audience to observe, the passage of time and the aging of the protagonists.

The vampire genre can allude to addiction, it can represent a blood born disease (especially a venereal one) and it can be the future shock of genetic manipulation or even evolution.

The creature can be motivated by greed, lust, remorse, love, hatred, vengeance and any of the plethora of human emotion. Louis the ultimate remorseful vampireIt can be the hero as well as the villain. Further the vampire need not be real, it might represent psychosis or breakdown, and it might be a ploy to manipulate another.

There is also the aspect that a vampire’s life span, ostensibly, seems more prolonged. Whilst both creatures are already dead (or undead) vampires do not rot. The same cannot be said for zombies for whom a decayed visage seems almost a given. This not only leads to more scope with a vampire from a storyteller’s point of view, but the lack of rotting also leads to another aspect (tied in with the vampire’s sexuality) and that is the scope for more adult entertainment. The number of exploitation and pure adult vampire flicks is, quite frankly, astonishing. The scope for adult orientated zombie flicks is somewhat limited and undoubtedly for the depraved.

It is within this wide adaptability that the strength of the genre lies and it is the reason that, for me, the vampire will always win.

Many thanks to regular reader and zombie film aficionado Zombiepunk who suggested concepts for this piece, let the debate begin (though I ask for a good, clean fight, after all they’re only movies).


zombiepunk said...

Many thanks for picking up on one or two suggestions. Only too glad to have helped, no matter how little the help may have been. Thanks also for the mention

Taliesin_ttlg said...

No probs and thank you for some of your zombie genre insights

zombiepunk said...

Do you feel, although this is REALLY stretching a point, that Freddy v Jason could be used as a comparison piece. Both evil without redeeming features, yet there is intelligence in Freddy, albeit twisted beyond belief, whereas Jason is just march forward, kill, march forward, kil, repeat until end of film, start again in sequel.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

I'll have to take your word for it as I've only seen a couple of the Freddie films and about the same number of Jason films (and the first one doesn't really count).

I've not seen Freddy Vs Jason itself, though the Vampires Vs Zombie cover was a direct homage - no scrap that, rip off - of the other films cover.

Mateo said...

To me the reason zombies are scary isn't just the swarm of them (though that certainly factors in). It's more that they are humans, or at least look human, yet have no compassion, show no mercy. They are killing machines that look like you or me, and that's what I think is truly scary about them. That's why I think giving them intelligence is a travesty. It forces the authors to give them a reason to kill, instead of it just being their way, as in the case with unintelligent zombies.

Mateo said...

Ohh, as for the real debate... I think vampires have the stronger potential, for sure, but I think zombies are probably used better. We consistently get a good zombie movie every few years, and the gap seems to be larger for the vampire film. Vampires have been boxed in too much, so the advantages that you mentioned aren't really utilized IMO. They are either some variation of the Anne Rice introspective, sensual vampires, or the Blade et al cold, brainless killer vampires.

I think vampires are used as a subject of a story, but without really trying to bring it around to be truely frightening. I think zombie authors have a handle on what makes zombies scary, but vampire authors don't (as much). So it's hard to even call vampires a horror genre any more. They focus so much on the immortality and whether or not that's a good thing and then forget that the fear has to come from the human perspect, not the vampires'.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Mateo, thanks for that very good points.

The showing no mercy aspect - yes, to me that is the mob, the unthinking crowd that riots, that lynches... or in this case relentlessly eat.

Your right, of course, that the vampire has suffered with the Anne Rice, Blade and even Angel sereotypes. I think it is more the problem that so many films are produced, you get a load of rip off films that rarely add anything of substance. Often it is obscure, small indie films that then add a new aspect. (I'm hoping that I have just found one of those, it is winging its way from the states and I shall say no more at this point in case I'm wrong, it is just a gut feeling). Perhaps what I am looking at is a potential that is utalised, just not enough.

There have been some very good zombie movies released, and they certainly used to be fairly paced (in a release sense) and of a generally good quality, although one feels that they have hit a bandwagon at the moment and there are so many pedestrian ones being produced at the moment also.

I agree that the horror of the vampire movie has been largely lost. Wierdly, one of the few films to recapture a horror aspect, in recent years, was Blade 2 - I felt the reaper strain were actually, potentially, scary again. Part of the problem is locking into the vampire's perspective. When we side with the monster they are no longer the monster.

Crabstix said...

I am no fan of the zombie (in movies or in my local) however, I have to side with my shuffling, though recently surprisingly sprinting deceased cousins in this sort of glam-vs-grunge debate.

Despite attempts to rationalise the fiction and give some scientific credence to the genesis of the Vampires, the tragedy of their species is that they are essentially born of the prejudices and superstitions of, and tragically buried within, deeply conservative, Christian (catholic) and romantic impulses that once gave them their potency to frighten. (The unholy trinity of sex, death and sin.)

Zombies on the other (usually someone else’s tasty) hand, are a product of some actual THING; such as, a voodoo priest wielding catatonic pharmaceuticals, meteor showers as in the “Day of the Triffids” etal, or whatever viruses and/or nano technology you care to imagine injected, infected or insested (you know what I mean) into them.

Therefore, I posit that, in the bright light of a sceptical and secular world (Militant Islamism and George W[habi]-Bushism aside), the vampires are eventually doomed to the dust of long forgotten libraries where once frightening tales of the fantastical creatures of the then newly discovered worlds and far distant seas silently decay in eternal sleepless repose. Furthermore I contend that the great unwashed and slowly rotting mass of un-humanity will wander randomly, though at exponentially increasing speed, towards a bleak, futile and/or distopian, though delightfully vegan free future.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The one flaw in your (eloquent) arguement is the presumption that vampires are born of Christian mythology. Whilst it is true that the common view of the vampire is born from a distinctly christian-centric view point, thus icons being effective against them, the truth is that the myth predates christianity and also sources from many none-Christian countries as well as christian ones.

Perhaps the move to a secular society will see the need of fantastical creatures, no matter the original source, vanishing. Perhaps the human psyche will not need such nightmare symbols but I suspect that we will always feel the need to express our hopes, our fears and our sexual drives in symbolic forms.

If this is the case then the futures of both the zombie and the vampire, along with the werewolf, the ghoul, the spectre, the spirit and the vast conucopia of scooby doo enemies are assured. Why mention scooby doo? Because invariably the monster is a mask and the enemy is the man behind the mask - as the monster in myth, film and literature is an expression of the psyche of man.

Then again I might have just typed a pile of tosh. ;-)

zombiepunk said...

just a quick comment. the zombie is here to stay. go to any uk town centre at the weekend to see them shambling amongst us in all their burberry clad, baseball cap wearing, tracksuit tucked into socks glory. mindless automatons following the mob mentality or am i just being harsh?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

ahhh... shaun of the dead

Anthony Hogg said...

Hi Taliesin,

Interesting discourse on the vampire vs. the zombie there.

Both beings have common threads: movies and fictional literature have greatly distorted their origins and characteristics.

The zombie is the most obvious example.

The zombie, in Haitian lore, was essentially an undead slave revived by a bokor, a sorcerer. For more, read here.

It certainly didn't eat human flesh, nor did it infect others with its bite.

Our current concept of the zombie comes from Night of the Living Dead (1968). Which is a bit strange, because the word "zombie" isn't once used in the movie.

But the term "ghoul" is ("kill the brain, kill the ghoul").

The ghoul was an Arabic demon that fed on the flesh of the dead.

Indeed, as you said, Romero was heavily influenced by Richard Matheson's vampire novel, I am Legend (1954), from which his movie takes its basic premise.

Including the shambling "ghouls" infecting others with their taint.

What probably isn't as well-known, is that zombies, by actual name, had already appeared on the big screen, decades before: White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943).

These films were obviously more influenced by Haitian Voodoo lore, from which we get the name and basic concept of a zombie.

Now, as to vampires, they haven't escaped such distortions in their make-up either.

We commonly think of them as aristocratic, suave, elegant, sensual...yet if we go back to original vampire lore, we'll find that these descriptives don't mesh.

In fact, as Paul Barber writes in Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988):

"If a typical vampire of folklore, not fiction, were to come to your house this Halloween, you might open the door to encounter a plump Slavic fellow with long fingernails and a stubbly beard, his mouth and left eye open, his face ruddy and swollen. He wears informal attire - in fact, a linen shroud - and he looks for all the world like a disheveled peasant." (p. 2)

And more importantly, he wouldn't have any fangs.

The metaphoric interpretative possibilities of the vampire became evident quite early on, especially in its "bloodsucker" capacity. Or, a drainer of life and vitality.

Polidori's Lord Ruthven is a fusion of the two.

The vampire, like the zombie, has survived its folkloric roots by being reshaped and remoulded by a variety of authors and film-makers into a more (pardon the pun) digestible form.

Each successive generation embraces a new spin on the old-favourites.

As long as both creatures are open to this, as long as their base appeal remains, then both will continue to thrive in the future.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

cheers Anthony.

I have to say that I love the Barber book - one of my favourite factual discourses on the origin of the myth.

I was running on the level of the Romero zombie and, I guess, the post Stoker/Lugosi vampires. As you say the baseline creatures that the media has developed from where very different beasties. As you have said, their survival has probably been facilitated by their own evolution.

I sincerely hope that both genres continue to blossom and, amongst the inevitable dross, we continue to get some classic films in both areas and you ended your thoughts on just such a positive note.

I still feel that the vampire vs zombie niche of media has not been exploited in decent terms (in film, at least, the excellent book roses of blood on barbwire vines managed to do the concept justice literature wise). I understand that a new film is in development in those terms - a post about that will come when I have more detail.

Many thanks for the input.