My original plan for this article was going to be Zombies vs. Dragons. Commenting about why it is that zombies have risen (gettit?) to cultural supremacy while dragons languish in animated kids flicks. But then I realised, “Hang on, that’s not fair!”
Dragons are expensive. You can’t exactly rent one from the local zoo. You either need a top quality Harryhausen studio, which is hard to come by nowadays, or you need at least several million pounds of funding so you don’t end up with the dragon computer effect equivalent of Birdemic.
Consequently, aspiring film directors and writers are better staying away from dragon flicks. And aspiring film directors and writers eventually become established film directors and writers. This is probably why, more than anything else, that the last major live action feature to have dragons as the main antagonists was released in 2002. (Reign of Fire, if you were asking. And, yes, it was terrible).
Of course the much fairer comparison is Vampires.
Zombies vs. Vampires for cultural title contention.
Both of these monsters are in the appropriate financial-weight class of either needing a costume department and a set of sharpened dentures or just several out of work extras and a lot of ketchup.
And it’s a good time to be looking at these revenants. What with the Edward-Cullen-in-everything-but-name Christian Grey being the talk of the town for the past month, and BBC Three starting their own Zombie apocalypse-based reality TV show, it’s a good time to learn where these respective phenomena come from. By examining their history and what they mean to us now we can perhaps predict a bit of their future. And see if either side will come out trumps in the oncoming battle of cultural cross pollination.
Zombie and Vampire Origins
Interestingly for such large staples of western culture, both Zombies and Vampires are imports.
Vampires and variants were commonly the subject of folktales in Eastern Europe and the Balkans’ territory. They have existed as a subject matter for millennia, but they made their way into the western mainstream through a surprising source.
Romantic poet, Lord Byron, and his fellow aristocratic playboys, the second generation Romantics, travelled extensively around Europe. Being literarily inclined they would have undoubtedly come across folk legends of revenants on their travels.
Now Byron never wrote anything about Vampires, but his Doctor who accompanied Byron on his travels, John William Polidori, who knew of Byron’s reckless exploits with women, did.
Basically our first western Vampire is Byron. In a nutshell. A dangerous and charismatic figure whose surface charm concealed a deranged impulse to prey on young vulnerable women. I’m talking about both Byron and the Vampire here. And this novel, published in 1819, was the source material for all successive literary vampirine endeavours.
Zombies, on the other hand, are actually less traceable. The idea of flesh-hungry undead is as old as literature itself, but the idea of Zombies as things that walk slowly around, look a bit peaky, and attack in swarms probably came into western culture from Haitian Vodou traditions, which had many beliefs and traditions about the undead coming back to life. Whether these traditions were passed down from imported African slaves or from Haiti’s indigenous population is up for debate.
Zombies existed in western culture from the 1920s all the way through to the 1960s as a sort of obscure monster that horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft would use when he’d got bored of Cthulus and trans-dimensional fungus. But it was only with George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead that Zombies truly became a cultural staple.
For What Do Zombies and Vampires Stand?
Apart from the obvious visual difference our denizens of the afterlife tend to possess, the major difference tends to come in setting.
Vampires tend to live among us. When Zombies are present, our time of living is generally coming to an end.
Whether it’s the creepy young girl who befriends you as a lonely kid, or the handsome mysterious young man who won’t do it with you until you’re married, Vampires tend to exist as an unrecognised part of our society. Sitting in the background, silently preying on their victims.
With Zombies, on the other hand, when they turn up you’ll know about it. Watching a George Romero film last night for the first time I was struck by the amount of times I was screaming at the television, “Don’t Split up”, “Don’t leave your Girlfriend on her own”, “Don’t hole up in a bloody shopping mall!”. Zombie apocalypse clichés are firmly engrained in our minds. In fact it would be fair to say that Zombies are really just a subset of the apocalypse genre.
Vampires are the evil, or threat, within our society. Zombies are depictions of the evil and threat that’ll come unless we change our ways. (Or at least stop spending so much time in shopping malls).
Additionally, though, Zombies are about death, Vampires are about sex.
People who dismiss Twilight Vampires as not being horrific, or manly enough for Vampires are entirely missing the point. Twilight Vampires, as empirically provable by the sheer amount of Bella/Edward fan fiction, are entirely in line with the vampiric tradition of being about sex. From thinly veiled Byron as a Vampire, to Bram Stoker, to The Vampire diaries, Vampires have always been about the human fascination with seduction.
Beyond the deep sense of horror a Zombie brings in its fundamental contradiction of being both dead and a threat, there’s really nothing else to them. But are these two archetypes about to change?
The Future of Zombies vs. Vampires.
Recently a movie based on a successful book, Warm Bodies, made its way into the cinemas. It’s about a Zombie who falls in love with a human. Initially derided as a cheap Twilight fad cash-in, it actually proved to be quite well critically received and was commercially successful. Obviously this Zombie has a bit of the sex thing going on.
On the other side, Dracula Untold, a film which obviously wanted to present Vampires in a less “Twilight” fashion, was recently released. While it wasn’t exactly the film of the century, it was commercially successful and interestingly enough, while it still was heavily sexualised, it obviously attempted to distance itself from that side of Vampirism in its promotion.
Might Zombies and Vampires be starting to switch places? After all, if Fifty Shades of Grey proved anything it’s that sex without the whole Vampire element sells well enough. A sexy vampire might actually be becoming redundant. But as It Follows shows, revealing sexual anxiety with horror can be a very effective tactic to create fear. Might vampires prove to have a role to play in that?
The question of this article is, if Zombies and Vampires are starting to step on each other’s turf, who’s going to win? Well, I have no idea. I don’t imagine their original cultural niches dying out for quite a while, but if they do, maybe the two will swap so quickly that suddenly we can’t imagine an apocalypse without Vampires or not going on a date with the undead in a Zombie film?
It would surprise me if either of these monsters were to become completely culturally irrelevant. They are both now so ingrained that it would require a huge stretch to imagine a world without them. All I know is, whatever the future brings, if it is a Zombie Apocalypse don’t hole up in a shopping mall.
If goes without saying that your thoughts and comments are greatly appreciated. Tell me what you think in the comments below.