Monday, January 19, 2009

Zombies vs. vampires

I saw four movies yesterday.

As far as I'm aware, this ties a modern personal record. (I say "modern" because when I was a toddler, I regularly watched six, seven movies a day. This was before MTV killed my attention span.) I can see myself having watched five movies in a day once, but I don't recall those particular circumstances, so I won't swear to it.

I also feel pretty confident saying this is the first time I've watched movies featuring zombies (Diary of the Dead) and vampires (Let the Right One In) in the same day. Diary of the Dead -- or, George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, depending on your level of formality -- follows the recent Cloverfield/Quarantine model of crazy events spiraling out of control, being captured by someone who'd been filming something else entirely. Let the Right One In is the 2008 Swedish chiller that's already being hailed as one of the best vampire movies of all time -- enough that they are remaking it this year as an inevitably horrible Hollywood film. (Though the director of Cloverfield is directing, so I have some hope.)

But I'm not here today to talk about the merits of these films, only their thematic similarities. As I watched them yesterday, it got me thinking how much vampires and zombies actually have in common. They are both undead creatures. They both spread their infection through the bite. They both feed off humans, though vampires are clearly only in it for the blood, while zombies like chomping whatever flesh and bone they can get their hands on. (And don't think I consider this some great revelation that no one else has ever identified.)

Of course, vampires and zombies differ in many important ways as well -- vampires are sexy and usually have personalities, while zombies are vacant and erratic.

But one of the biggest differences between them -- and this is where I think I've struck an original thought -- is what the people in their worlds know about them. And I realized something very funny about vampire movies and zombie movies:

In vampire movies, all the characters know what a vampire is.

In zombie movies, none of the characters have ever heard of a zombie.

To make this a little more explicit, vampire movies almost always contain the word "vampire"; zombie movies rarely contain the word "zombie." It's almost as though the word "vampire" refers to a known creature in the mythozoological universe, whereas the word "zombie" refers to a genre of film, meaning that using the word stigmatizes and demystifies the actual zombies in the film.

Yesterday's films were a perfect example of this phenomenon. In Diary of the Dead, the word "zombie" is never uttered. The characters refer to the happenings in generic, descriptive ways, like "People who are dying are not staying dead" or "He's become one of them." In Let the Right One In (and this is not giving much away), the little boy starts to get suspicious of the behavior of the 12-year-old girl next door, and asks her directly, "Are you a vampire?"

This familiarity/unfamiliarity extends to knowing the rules that govern both types of creatures. In Diary, they have to learn as they go. "Shoot it in the head! That's the only way it will stay down!" We've seen characters figure out the whole "shoot it in the head" thing in dozens of zombie movies. No one knows it instinctively. In Let the Right One In, the actual title refers to one of the known rules about vampires -- that they have to be invited in to a person's home. When vampires appear in vampire movies, no one needs to tell a person what they have to do to protect themselves. In under five minutes flat, they're wearing a necklace of garlic and sharpening a stake in the shape of a cross.

Now, I may be playing dumb here a little bit. There may be a very simple explanation for all this. After all, the concept of vampires, in all cultures, has been around for millenia, and the Oxford English Dictionary records the first usage of the actual term in the year 1734. Conversely, the zombie has its history in Afro-Caribbean culture, and the word itself did not enter English usage until 1871. But does the relative newness of zombies excuse the fact that no one seems to know about them?

Let's take it one step further. In movies where there are aliens, everyone knows what an alien is. If they see something they can't identify walk out of a space ship, of course it's an alien. They don't have to learn the concept of "alien." But people are always having to learn the concept of "zombie." If people know aliens from the alien stories in our collective subconscious, and people know vampires from the vampire stories in our collective subconscious, how come none of these movies posits a world where there are zombie stories in our collective subconscious? The world of Diary of the Dead does not have a single zombie movie in it?

(I should pause here to acknowledge that there are, in fact, plenty of zombie movies where they use the word zombie -- but these tend to be the ones that are tongue-in-cheek, better categorized as "zom coms" than horrors.)

This is something for a much longer discussion, but every film, regardless of genre, must first ask itself: "What exists in our world?" You could drive yourself crazy with this question. In the world of Spider-Man, does the Superman comic book exist? Or is this crazy spider dude the person who is actually introducing the characters to the concept of a superhero? If they're aware of the concept of a superhero, which superheroes do exist? I'll be interested to see how they tackle that when the Marvel characters start to appear in each other's movies, namely, the Hulk and Iron Man. If Iron Man was like nothing they'd ever seen, and the Hulk was like nothing they'd ever seen, but they both exist in the same world, which phenomenon appeared first? Let's say it was the Hulk. When Iron Man came along, why didn't somebody say, "Ah yes, this guy is kind of like the Hulk. He's an unusually strong creature who has the ability to fight bad people in a way that's beyond heroic -- almost super-heroic."

You can even extend it to real people. If Mel Gibson is playing a character in a movie, does the actual Mel Gibson exist in that world? What if Mel Gibson's character has a reason in the story to refer to Danny Glover, the real actor? Was that version of Danny Glover ever the star of a movie called Lethal Weapon? This can be dangerous territory, as Steven Soderbergh found in Ocean's 12, where Julia Roberts (playing a character named Tess) is conveniently mistaken for the actual Julia Roberts -- and it's one of the main plot points.

Sometimes these debates are better left rhetorical.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

Your question about the establish rules of the world of a movie is a very good one. I ask this of a lot of the projects I work on. It's important to know the rules of the universe and I spend a lot of time making sure they are clear.

I have no problem with real references creeping into movies, it can enahance the realism of the world the movie is creating. However, as you mentioned, I can't stand when movies reference the actor in the movie as a real life person. It pulls me out of the movie immediately. The Julia Roberts thing in Oceans 12 was the final straw for me in that movie.

Coincidentally, I was watching JAY & SLIENT BOB STRIKE BACK, which has Ben Affleck playing a character talking about Ben Affleck. But since that entire movie is a spoof, it's hard to take it seriously.

Don Handsome said...

I think that Zombies in film have always represented the unknown outcomes of our current lifestyle and they have served as a thematic warning to the viewer...that is why they are never "known" by the people in Zombie movies...Vampires on the other hand are a romanticized version of an old world lifestyle so of course they are known to the inhabitants of most film worlds.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of one movie where the character recognize the Zombies as such - of course, I'm talking about Shaun of the Dead. In that movie, they clearly observe the rules of the genre even though the characters have the "knowledge" of video games and other films on the subject.

There are few rules in Zombie movies (though some would argue that there should be more and movies like 28 Days Later where the Zombies are fast are not true Zombie movies) but those rules that do exist are followed faithfully (I'm pretty sure that a head shot ALWAYS kills a Zombie). Maybe this will change over time, but I hope not because I think that the "newness" of the Zombie is a key part of the genre.

Conversely, I think that many effective "Vampire" films of late have been based around blowing up the rules of Vampires. Some aspects of typical genre lore are accepted and some are rejected and are often played off as dismissible common 'misconceptions' of the Vampire Myth, thus giving the made up story some instant credibility for having "insider information".

Vancetastic said...


Totally agree on Jay & Silent Bob. Shit, does that movie hold up? Are the dick jokes as bad as I remember them?


I think we're talking about different rules here. I'm not talking about the rules the movie (or its genre) establishes, because those are allowed to differ according to the desires of each filmmaker. I'm more referring to the rules that the characters understand to be true based on a preexisting knowledge. For as brilliant as Let the Right One is -- and don't think I even momentarily consider it a "typical vampire movie" (whereas Diary of the Dead is certainly a typical zombie movie -- I'm only comparing them because I happened to see them the same day) -- I don't think it actually changes any of the rules of vampire movies that we're aware of. What I like about a good vampire movie is that it depicts those rules in ways we hadn't considered, and explores the logistical problems of what it means to be a vampire. That's what I consider to be the strength of LTROI (not to be confused with LOTR).