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Voodoo economics

By PETER KEOUGH  |  May 21, 2010

Sounds plausible — maybe. As Marx put it in Capital: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”

Is he talking about vampires? Or is Marx describing zombies? Both versions of vigor mortis have no other function than to consume — Porsches and other costly toys, as well as blood, for the Cullens and their kind; living human flesh for the zombies — and by consuming create more consumers like themselves. They don’t produce anything; they survive only by feeding off those who still do.

The only difference between the two is that the vampires are sexier. Who wants to sleep with a zombie? Then again, as witnessed by poor Bella’s futile wooing of Edward Cullen in the Twilight series, no self-respecting vampire wants to sleep with you, either. So in a sense, the zombie/vampire dichotomy reflects the current state of postmodernist pop culture. The world is divided into two classes: zombies, who take comfort in the solidarity of their fellow ciphers, mindlessly submitting to the swarm, engorged by mass consumerism, and vampires, the ever-elusive beautiful people, the inaccessible celebrities who offer audiences the vicarious intimacy of their cold, dead, useless immortality.

Sounds like a dead end to me. Such has not always been the case, however. In their past on-screen incarnations, zombies and vampires have been signs of life as much as they have been harbingers of death.

Count me in
Significantly, the vampire and zombie were born nearly simultaneously, both on the page and the screen. The first written manifestations, as cultural critic Franco Moretti points out in his 1982 essay “Dialectic of Fear,” occurred during that famous ghost-story contest that took place in 1816, when Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein and Lord Byron wrote an abandoned tale that his friend John Polidori would later turn into his story “The Vampyre,” about a murderous, decadent, undead nobleman. (Okay, I stretch a point by calling Frankenstein’s monster a zombie. Technically, he is a zombie, a reanimated corpse — and solidly working class. Admittedly, however, he’s an offshoot on the evolutionary tree of zombiedom.)

A century later, a variation on the evolving zombie myth would appear on film in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), in which the title hypnotist engages a deathly sleepwalker to do his lethal, venal bidding. Vampires would keep pace, appearing a couple of years later in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.

Two of the most lauded masterpieces of German Expressionism, these movies also reflected, according to Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler, the ambivalent attraction of the German audiences to a seductive despot, who would provide a tyrannical alternative to the country’s political and economic chaos, but also would, especially as demonstrated in Nosferatu, likely lead them to disaster. Clearly, this cinematic warning went unheeded.

The descendants of Caligari’s sleepwalker would take a while to fully awaken. They would pursue the voodoo route in White Zombie in 1932 and in Jacques Tourneur’s uncanny tone poem I Walked With a Zombie in 1943. They would gestate as the pod people in 1956 in the many-times remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers and slum as vampire plague victims in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, the first of many adaptations of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. But it wouldn’t be until Romero’s Night that they would spring fully to life.

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  Topics: Features , Entertainment, Entertainment, Jacques Tourneur,  More more >
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