The vampire, though, would immediately prove a hardy horror-movie perennial. Transplanted to Hollywood, it bloomed with Bela Lugosi and Dracula (1931). You’d think that such an elitist creep, especially with the mitteleuropäische accent, the greasy hair, and the cape, would arouse fear and loathing among hard-working, xenophobic Americans dispossessed by the Depression. Instead, they loved the guy, starting a vampire trend that would continue to the present day.
The direction this trend took was toward tarting up the monster. As Tim Robey points out in an April 14, 2009, London Telegraph essay entitled “Zombies and Vampires: Why Do We Love the Undead?,” “If you trace the successive generations of Draculas on screen, from Bela Lugosi in the original Universal version, through Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman to Gerard Butler (in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000), they get younger and more sexually rapacious every time.” The logical progression leads to pretty boy Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward Cullen in the Twilight series.
Actually, Edward Cullen and his killer elite coven face serious competition from Taylor Lautner as Twilight’s Jacob, the hunky teenage werewolf. Not a zombie by any means, Jacob and his ilk nonetheless partake of zombie class consciousness. He’s a Native American — a member of a dispossessed minority — and a working-class kid as opposed to the genteel, colonialist Cullens, not to mention the ruling vampire clan of the Volturi, the epitome of epicene, ruthless parasitism.
So maybe Jacob and his lupine brothers will eventually rise to overthrow their capitalist exploiters. Just don’t count on the zombies to be revolting (in the political sense) any time soon. Of late, they have lost their revolutionary ardor. While the vampires have declined from terrifying autocrats to frivolous sex symbols and dandified celebrities, zombies have become the clowns of horror, literally so in last year’s farcical, box-office-busting Zombieland. Or they have become whack-a-mole-like targets in video games, and in movies based on video games (Resident Evil Afterlife, the fourth in that series, is scheduled to open September 10).
The irony of fans and viewers delighting in the decerebration of deadheads is that, in a sense, they are rejoicing in killing themselves. Perhaps the most horrific aspect of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, already a Rorschach test of period issues including Vietnam, civil rights, media manipulation, and the encroachment of a police state, was its emphasis on the similarities and bonds between the desperate survivors and the hordes out to eat them. The dead are family members, friends, the people next door. Romero would maintain that chilling insight through each sequel, a series that can be read as a dead people’s history of the United States for the past five decades.
“I didn’t think of them as zombies,” Romero said when I interviewed him. “To me, they were dead neighbors.” Or, as one of the last of the living holed up in a shopping mall in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) puts it, “They’re us, that’s all. When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”