Cultural notebook: days of the undead

Prospect Magazine

Cultural notebook: days of the undead

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Our fascination with horror films reflects the anxiety of the middle classes—caught between proletariat zombies and vampire toffs

Zombieland: the prole undead have strength in numbers


Which would you rather be bitten by: a vampire or a zombie? I only ask because we are up to our necks in the undead these days and both fates seem preferable to reading a column on—or, worse, watching—Strictly Come Dancing or the The X-Factor.

Zombieland is triumphing (deservedly) at the box office. Not far into the past lurk the films I Am Legend, 28 Weeks Later and Dawn of the Dead. With Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the undead are colonising literary history. Charlie Higson’s new book The Enemy is about zombies. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series has filled bookshops with vampires; HBO’s True Blood has done the same to television schedules. You can’t move for the undead blighters. But why now?

Being a Marxist for a minute, you notice that both vampires and zombies embody profound bourgeois anxieties—as you’d expect given their origins in the novel and orientalist travelogues, and their blossoming in mid 20th-century cinema.

Jocular variants have always been with us. The regrettably forgotten film Hysterical (1983) gave us zombies who wore turtlenecks and moaned “what difference does it make?” In The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) a bloodsucker is confronted with a crucifix, and exclaims: “Oy vey, did you ever get the wrong vampire…” But the mainstream of horror film-making has always been poised somewhere between a fright and a giggle. Freddy from Nightmare On Elm Street was as camp as he was scary.

Yet spoofs have not laid to rest the idea of vampires or zombies as scary. That’s because the anxieties they embody are the Scylla and Charybdis of middle-class life: exploitation from above, and overthrow from below.

Vampires are monsters of the right; zombies are monsters of the left. Vampires are toffs; zombies are proles. Vampires are individualists; zombies are the mindless, nameless, faceless mob.Vampires are about hierarchies, tradition, bloodlines. They have mittel-European honorifics, live in castles, dress up and have manners. Vampires are the blood-and-soil nationalists of the undead world. Literally. Kipping in the soil of their native land is, in most versions of the myth, vital to vampiric survival.

The excitement of the vampire story is that the girl half-wants to be bitten. Buried in there is a highly suspect rape fantasy—but the myth also encodes the envy and fascination of the bourgeoisie for the aristocracy. It fears the lord of the manor descending on its women, but it is also slightly titillated by what he gets up to in that castle with those hot dead chicks.

Vampires are sexy. Zombies are not; they have poor personal hygiene. The vampire’s bite is voluptuous and penetrative; the zombie just chomps down on foot, leg, hand, bum, nose… whatever comes within range, like a drunk teenager at a disco. Vampires are clever. Zombies are not. They want to eat your brains—but not to make themselves brainier; just to make you stupider. They want to bring you down to their level. Braaaaiiiinnnsss!

Vampires use guile and concealment—they are vulnerable while sleeping, and rely on stooges to keep mobs of peasants at bay during daylight. They know that they lack democratic legitimacy. Zombies, on the other hand, are legion. Knock one off and ten take his place. Until 28 Days Later turbo-charged them, a zombie could be outpaced by a brisk amble. They have strength in numbers; they know about historical immanence and the inevitable triumph of the revolution. They’re in no hurry.

And how perfect that the great primal fear of the property-owning cinemagoer—probed in both myths—is home invasion. Once you’ve invited the vampire across your threshold, your house is no longer secure: an image of the ritualised, semi-consensual landlord/tenant relationship. Zombies, fired with revolutionary fervour, will simply smash their way in through the windows. Get some planks and nails and get hammering!

Once inside, the vampires, like the boss class, bleed you dry slowly and over the course of time. Once the zombies are inside, it’s all over: think guillotines and a new order. Vampires represent social climbing—you’ll join the aristocracy after you’re bitten. The zombie is a leveller. No more is an Englishman’s home his castle: private property has been abolished and you, citoyen, will lurch through the streets with the rest of us.

That, I reckon, is why you seldom if ever see vampires and zombies in the same film. They represent two opposite and incompatible social crises. It’s a sign of how anxious the culture is at the moment that we are fixated simultaneously by both.

Oh, and the answer to the question? You’d much rather a vampire, obviously—class traitor that you are. That’s why the great socialist experiment failed. Too many bloodsucking kulaks.

  1. November 23, 2009

    EN

    This really is a question of class..I have Vampire, Thank u

  2. November 23, 2009

    JM

    Great article! Check out the Movie “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” for a hilarious Marxist-tinged interpretation of the Dracula myth. The impoverished aristocracy invite the vampire in, not realizing the danger. The working class hero knows a bloodsucker when he sees one and becomes the vampire killer.

  3. November 24, 2009

    Ange1ina

    What about intellectual snobbery? Zombies are brain dead.

  4. November 24, 2009

    Pippa

    I would have to go with Vampire, as they are better looking and they only leave two little holes where as don’t Zombies want to eat my brain…

    Plus I look better pale than I do with bits of skin falling off me!

  5. November 24, 2009

    CJ

    Excellent analysis!

  6. November 28, 2009

    Paula Varley

    There is a lot of truth in what you say:)

    Every ad generated by google on the side bar on this page is for aspirational vampires – from dating to gaming. The market evidently sees no future in zombie dating and gaming. No-one aspires to be an undead chav. Not sexy, innit?

  7. November 29, 2009

    Fogbraider

    What about Terry Pratchett’s insight in various books set in Ankh Morpork – that the undead etc are unassimilated immigrant minorities? I can’t be bothered to watch the Twilight films, but from what I’ve picked up by osmosis – those vampires as Muslims. Maybe that slightly exotic guy your daughter fancies is an ordinary hard-working bloke. Maybe he’s a sleeper waiting for a chance to kill her – or at least convert her to an alien way of life.

  8. December 8, 2009

    GE

    I wonder where Martin (by George Romero) fits in. Not really an aristocrat, living in a working class neighbourhood, but still a vampire (albeit a banal one, without fangs and has to use a razorblade to get to the blood).

  9. December 16, 2009

    John Frederick

    then were-wolves must be anarchists.

  10. January 11, 2010

    krista smith

    This article is so true down to a T. It gives all the examples of each vampire and zombie, and describes why they are total opposites. When it talks about the vampires, it explains why every person would prefer to be that rather than a zombie. Anyone in there right mind would prefer to be a vampire unless your messy and dont care about manners. Vampires have to follow certain rules; such as having to be asked to come inside rather than just busting in. This is manners that we humans take on. I think its an awesome article and explains alot about both vampires and zombies.

  11. January 5, 2011

    ian

    hahaha, nice article, really enjoyed it!

    One small thing, perhaps vampires (at least originally) were also to do with the early fear of immigration, especially eastern European, and also the idea of racial bloodlines (especially those of the ‘delicate’ and ‘defenceless’ women) needing to be protected and kept pure to stop racial ‘decline’.

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Author

Sam Leith

Sam Leith
Sam Leith is author of "Are You Talkin' To Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama" (Profile) 


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