Zombies Vs. Vampires

Expressions of Socio-Political Fears in Horror Film

by V. Caine

zombie, democracy, vampire, aristocracyTrends in fiction and cinema reveal more than just our deepest wishes and aspirations – they also reveal our fears, not only individually, but also for the collective consciousness of generations as a whole. The horror genre is especially useful for examining mass psychology because it reveals our fears, and over decades of film, how these fears evolve and change. When one particular type of motif in horror film becomes predominant in popularity, it defines the mindset (and consequently the fear) of an entire generation. Oddly, the defining point of the modern generation in cinema is an unexpected one: like a risen corpse, the zombie has stirred to amble across our screens, spewing decay and dropping body parts at random. The zombie appears to be our new fear, but other trends have also taken place: ‘sexy’ vampires that are for all intensive purposes, just humans with an odd taste for sanguine fluids. So what does this mean, and how does it reflect the psychology of the masses in the wider socio-political perspective? To answer this, we need to look at two critical factors – why are zombies becoming more frightening whilst vampires are becoming less so? My answer is going to evoke something even more frightening than both these types of undead: politics.
Zombies – The Ultimate Consumer

The zombie is a creature of mythology and magic – a corpse raised from the dead by either Vodouists or by black magic in another occult tradition. Even today, some parts of the world still fear traditional zombies, such as Tibet, parts of South East Asia and rural Haiti. There, many people will attest that zombies do indeed exist. But their zombie, the creature of myth which is controlled by the will of magicians, is very different to the cinematic zombie of today. The modern zombie, for the most part, is almost exclusively created by science. The theme of the zombie being created by a disease or an experiment which has gotten out of control is featured in a number of films, with perhaps the best known example being the plague of zombies caused by the ‘rage virus’ in both 28 Days Later and the sequel 28 Weeks Later. In the sequel, reinfection occurs and the US military, in an effort to contain the virus, in typical American fashion, manage to destroy everything and end up killing more people than the zombies. Another popular zombie epic, World War Z, features exactly the same theme – the rapid onset of a plethora of zombies in a bustling city results in the imminent collapse of America, and later, most of the world. Israel manages to survive the zombie plague for a while by sealing it walls and allowing no one to enter – unfortunately however, the zombies manage to penetrate their defenses (agitated by loud prayer apparently) and Israel, being walled in, is now subject to a mass invasion of zombies of legendary numbers. Even trying to exclude these new monstrous products of science doesn’t keep them out. Unwanted zombies just have a way of getting in everywhere.

The key to understanding this plague of rampaging zombies in cinema is to analyze their symbolism. The zombie is now almost exclusively a product of science and divorced from its previous supernatural background. Western society, no longer afraid of magic, is now terrified of science instead. Not science as a subject itself, but unrestrained, improperly conducted science which is divorced from all moral components. It is the fear of humanities dabbling with nature, and science uncontrolled by ethics. The zombie grows inside the mind as a symbol of modern man’s distance from nature and his blind faith in scientism – much like Dr. Frankenstein meets his fate at the hands of what he created, it is the fear that we cannot trust science not to make a terrible mistake.

This brings us to another recent zombie film: Frankenstein’s Army which combines extremely ‘modified’ zombies with the good Doctor Frankenstein himself. Set in WWII Poland, Dr. Frankenstein is recycling both German and Russian soldiers into his own army of ‘Silent Hill/Cenobite’ style undead. Dr. Frankenstein, now Polish instead of German, has quite a refrigerator full of recruits. Dr. Frankenstein however, has a noble sentiment – he wants to stop the war in Poland, and even attempts to get the Communists and the Nazi’s to talk to each other via a brain transplant to create a ‘Third Positionist’. As usual, the ‘Third Position’ goes horribly wrong, and being both ‘Left and Right’ leads to the victims mental collapse. Once again here the theme is that of science run amok. War is destroying Poland, but the solution proposed by Frankenstein’s science is more brutal and twisted than the war itself.

The other defining characteristics of zombies are their endless hunger and sheer mindlessness. The zombie has few purposes; to attack, infect others and eat…or more precisely, to consume. It is in fact, the perfect consumer and does nothing constructive at all. The sole purpose of the zombie is to consume and to infect others with this state of mindless consumption. Obviously, as a metaphor in mass psychology, it is a metaphor not for a true democratic society, but for a consumerist one. True democracy is long dead – only a few naïve children still believe in this fairy-tale – it has long since given way to becoming a consumer/producer based model of control. Corporations and the finance industry control society, and as such they are producers. In a finance driven social power model, they achieve and hold power by producing goods which are then consumed. As long as there are consumers, this model of financial control continues. The zombie, unable to think and constantly hungry, is of course, the perfect consumer.

The zombie is the dark side of our collective mind, the fear that our own narcissism and hedonistic impulses want more and more. They are never satisfied and out of control, creating a generation unable to think beyond the wants and needs of the moment. That which does not produce has no value; that which consumes does so heedlessly. And the zombie, the metaphor of modern man’s dark side, represents the political fear of democracy turned consumerist. A seething faceless mass with no individuality, always hungering for more and more, until finally, our hunger turns on each other, destroying the whole of civilization. The zombie is the fear of ourselves and the monster we are becoming. Fear of each other as mindless, raging beasts.

Vampires and Romanticism

The once terrifying Nosferatu of folklore has also had a dramatic surge in popularity like the zombie, but of an entirely different kind. Whilst the zombie has had a meteoric explosion in horror over the last few years, the imagery surrounding that of vampires has had a much slower and more subtle transformation. Since the original vampire films of the 1920-30’s, the vampire has become increasingly less frightening, and correspondingly, more sexualized. From its original roots as an object of fear, the vampire has become an object of desire. Representations of vampires from Dracula though to films such as Underworld, Twilight, and even Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, are increasingly portrayed as desirable and not in the least bit frightening. Moreover, the vampire in popular film is no longer represented as a monster – they are now the main characters. They are personalized and the same as humans with a few exceptions: firstly they still drink blood, and secondly they are superior in terms of abilities and longevity.

The vampire, though also undead, belongs to an entirely different class to the zombie. The vampire is almost exclusively upper class. A count, countess or a member of a privileged secret society, without fail the vampire is always aristocratic, save in the case of a few under privileged Nosferatu left over from 30’s. The vampire, once feared as the ultimate creature of the night, in modern cinema and fiction has had a very drastic makeover. The vampire is no longer scary or hideous, and instead has been portrayed since the early 1980’s as attractive, suave, educated and sexually desirable. Even in Twilight, despite the sparkles and it being a romance for school girls, the vampire is still the ultimate seducer.

This of course, is the horror of the vampire, that beneath its aristocratic veneer of charm, wealth and seduction –the hapless seduced victim is in fact just dinner and the ever gullible fodder cannot resist the vampires allure. Just as the zombie is the metaphor for fear of democracy, the vampire was the representation of fear of the aristocracy – sleek and beautiful, but like a serpent possessed of deadly fangs. These ancient aristocratic creatures would rise at night and shed their facade of civility to drench their thirst on poor under privileged innocents and common village folk. The vampire is an obvious metaphor for the old aristocracy, bleeding the peasants literally dry to satiate their lust for power, wealth and privilege.

The aristocracy of old is fallen however – it now longer holds power or is an object fear, so the fear of the dark side of the old aristocratic regime is gone. No longer terrifying, the vampire became instead a rarity – and because of its scarcity – started to become desirable….

Zombies vs. Vampires: The Redemption of the Aristocracy

If zombies represent the fears of our generation – of democracy, consumerism, science and nature out of control – then vampires can be said to almost be their mirror opposite, in a state of undeath that is no longer frightening, but instead is becoming something attractive. An immortal bloodline, power, beauty and culture. As much as the zombie is the feral, uncontrollable consumer that represents our fears in a modern democracy, the traditional monster, the aristocratic vampire, has simply ceased to frighten us – it has even been sexualized in cinema and seen as desirable. The old aristocracy, dis-empowered, now enchants us.

As much as the zombie is the mask of our social fears, the vampire has been transformed to represent our desires. The aristocracy, thus, no longer frightens people where the faceless impersonal mass of democracy does. Aristocracy, represented by the vampire on the other hand, has been redeemed, and on the subconscious level, is now desirable. Our darkest fear, as revealed by fashions in contemporary horror, is no longer the rule by a select few, but rather our own degeneration into a formless, mindless, raging horde of consumers that inevitably destroys civilization through our own greed and lack of self-restraint. Against this new horror, the vampire, the symbol of an older social system, now becomes redeemed….and even desired.