Vampires & Zombies 2 – Genre Definitions and Intermingling

I thought I should elaborate further on the somewhat odd situation of me liking vampire stories very much while disliking zombie stories with just the same intensity.

Maybe I should say something about the characteristics that I ascribe to both “creatures” and their genres. Because if those criteria for vampires are subverted, or interchanged with zombie characteristics, I am very unlikely to love the film.

“Ideal” vampire portrayals in fiction do, for me, include the characteristics of vampires being “thinking” creatures, who are often intelligent or cunning (something to do with age/experience), and who are trying to live and “work” hidden from public perception. That is my “traditionalist” point of view, and one that, I believe, is the basis for most classic vampire fiction. And the fact that vampires (traditionally) are creatures of the night and cannot endure sunlight is highly symbolic of that very characteristic: that vampires need to act in the shadows and would struggle to survive if the world knew of their existence.

These classic vampires may have feeding instincts that are often strong and overwhelming, but typically last for only a brief period of time. In general they are rather keen to not endanger their food supply by either making humans aware of their existence (and therefore wary) or killing off too many humans. So apart from living in hiding, vampires usually also exist only in small numbers (compared to humans).

My genre expectations for zombies are quite the opposite. Zombies are more or less brainless killing machines, only following base instincts. They do not operate in the shadows or hide from the public, and of course they do not possess the mental capability to plan ahead to manage their numbers sustainably. They present a danger to the humans in the story, because they are hard to kill and are highly infectious. So in spite of being slow and brainless, they threaten to overwhelm the humans by sheer numbers, with the final prospect always being one of a dystopian future with humankind on the brink of extinction.

This, for me, is the core of the zombie genre: zombies represent a disease, a plague. They are the physical, highly visible manifestation of the many invisible threats humans face in that respect: most prominently viruses like influenza, Ebola-type viruses, MERS, SARS, etc. This is where the genre has its cultural and psychological roots, and – to a certain extent – its raison d’être.

The contrast to vampires could not be any greater, and while vampirism has also been seen as symbolic of disease, culturally it is much richer, much more complex, both psychologically as well as sociologically. I cannot elaborate any further here, but the roots of the genre include culture clash, xenophobia, sexuality, and even political systems.

Vampires and zombies are simply two different cultural phenomena and are reflecting two entirely different primal fears. Consequently, vampires are almost always written as individual personalities, while zombies are traditionally merely an anonymous mass.

So, the contrast could not be greater and that has, of course, immense impact on the way vampire and zombie stories are structured and told. Or at least, it should have. Because what we have increasingly seen in recent years is a blurring of the genre lines, an assimilation process in which characteristics from one creature are being transferred to the other, to the point of them virtually melting into one. “Fast zombies” are probably the best-known trend, the one most talked about, because it irritated purist fans of the zombie genre.

The concept of “fast zombies”, which some say was first introduced in 1985 by The Return of the Living Dead, was spreading quickly (like a zombie virus) after the turn of the millennium. 28 Days Later (2002) and the Dawn of the Dad remake of 2004 are most commonly mentioned when “fast zombies” are discussed. It is a concept that has divided fans of the zombie genre to this day (see, for example, Simon Pegg’s passionate article in The Guardian)

Apparently, The Return of the Living Dead deviated even further from the traditional zombie lore, by giving the zombies the ability to speak and enough thinking capability to be able to plan and co-ordinate attacks, etc.

On the other hand, vampires too have suffered from experimental writing that goes beyond genre variation into genre deviation. Thus, vampires have occasionally been portrayed as ravaging beasts rather than as humanlike predators. 2010’s Stake Land seems the most obvious example, a (fast) Zombie Apocalypse film that uses the term “vampire” instead of “zombie”; but the film adaptation of I am Legend (2007) could also be mentioned. Steven Seagal’s Against the Dark is another so-called “vampire film”, in which the vampires have much more in common with “fast zombies” than traditional vampires.

In some cases like these, where the genre lines are blurred to such an extent that neither term seems really appropriate, you cannot help but think that the decision whether to attach the term “vampire” or “zombie” to a project is probably based purely on marketing assumptions: which term is more en vogue; which one is overused; which genre is tired or over-saturated; which genre could do with a counter-point film?

Another example with vampires that are reminiscent of zombies (slow and dim-witted, this time) is the TV show The Strain. But the vampire master in that show has also the ability to create a “ruling class” of intelligent, human-like vampires. In fact, having such a sub-division of the species into intelligent masters and non-thinking worker bees seems a popular yet feeble excuse by writers to keep all options open for their story: you can have the one intelligent mastermind (or a handful of them), whose personality, schemes and motives can be explored in the script; while at the same time you are able to employ all the horror potential of a swarm-like zombie flood in your writing. The vampire hive in Priest (2011) comes to mind, and to a much lesser extent also John Carpenter’s Vampires.

The reason I object to the zombification of vampires is not because I am a genre purist – on the contrary, I like variation and innovation. The fact that I hate zombies has also very little to do with my objections. For me, the biggest problem is that fact that if you take away a few key attributes of vampire behaviour, you automatically threaten the whole concept of vampire existence.

Vampires who behave either like feral beasts with no self-control, or like zombies with no cognitive abilities, or both, inevitably lack one key element: rational behaviour and decision-making. And because of this, there is no way they can keep their existence hidden from humans. More importantly, the behaviour of vampires in such films nearly always threatens to exterminate humankind, like a plague, etc., just as a zombie-outbreak would. They would therefore wipe out their own food supplies, and that is something that vampires traditionally would never risk doing. (Exceptions are films such as Daybreakers, which deliberately uses such a “vampire overpopulation” as an allegory to our current problem with managing resources in a sustainable manner.)

This blurring of lines therefore not only threatens to blur what makes zombies and vampires unique; in the case of vampires it also risks to entirely subvert the nature of the vampire and the point of its (parasitic) existence.

All this genre-mashing creates a pop-cultural environment in which creature characteristics are used at random, and capabilities and attributes are ascribed haphazardly. It is all arbitrary and it confuses audiences to the point where it is no longer clear what kind of creature it is that you see in front of you. This helplessness is illustrated by the use of such terms as “vampire zombie”, a term that has been used by an imdb-user in the summary of Against the Dark. It is also the term Screenrant chooses to describe I am Legend [WARNING: video contains extreme spoiler for the film]. And the imdb keywords used for both films contain not only the word “vampire”, but also the words “zombie” and “mutant”.

In a way, this blurring of lines with I am Legend goes back all the way to the original 1954 novel, of which Wikipedia says that its infected resemble vampires while stressing the books importance for “the development of the zombie genre”.

All genres need variation, innovation, and subversion in order to stay fresh and alive. But all this must happen in a way that keeps enough key characteristics so that the creature stays easily identifiable; and it must never lead to a blurring of the lines that leads to a straight merger of genres. Such mergers are the opposite of innovation, they are cheap cut-and-paste hybrids that re-hash old ideas, just in a dismembering sort of way. By picking and mixing elements of different genres at random, film-makers more often than not ignore that many elements are linked to others (or to the cultural roots of their genre) and loose all value by being separated from them.