Beware of the Mexican Dracula!

Posted by Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodriguez on September 18, 2014 in Blog, Gabriel A. Eljaiek-Rodriguez tagged with

“They have fangs, and they die when you stab them in the heart, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Mexican Dracula”. This is the accurate guess that Seth Gecko, one of the main characters of From Dusk Till Down: The Series, shares with his group of fellow survivors of the attack on the nightclub Titty Twister. This 2014 version – developed for television by Robert Rodriguez himself and based on his 1996 film – reunites viewers with the Gecko brothers, the Fuller family, and the vampires they encounter on the Mexican border, delving deeper into their stories and providing some of the background that was omitted in the first movie.

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But the series also adds a twist that destabilizes what seems to be demonstrated in the original film: the Mexican vampires that Seth Gecko identifies are in fact more complex and more deeply rooted in Mexican tradition than originally thought. These “Mexican Draculas” that the characters encounter in the nightclub are Culebras (Spanish for ‘snake’)— human-snake monsters that drain the blood and souls of humans, turning them into culebras in the process. For both the horrified survivors of the massacre and the show’s viewers, they appear to be traditional vampires that zero in on the necks of their victims and drink their blood, but upon closer inspection they have certain particularities that set them apart from more recognizable cinematic vampires.

If anything, they seem reminiscent of the creatures in Ken Russell’s film Lair of the White Worm (1988): their fangs are retractable and curved, emerging from the maxilla instead of growing in line with other teeth. They also resemble a snake (particularly cobras) in their movements after they attack, and some of them manifest snake-like skin when transformed (as if an indication of what is to develop in the series, the character of Santanico Pandemonium—portrayed in the film by Salma Hayek— has skin that is covered in what resembles snake scales).

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The confusion about their nature dissipates after anthropology professor and adventurer Aiden Tanner – who in the series is also the infamous Sex Machine – explains that western representations of vampires are a misinterpretation that the Spanish conquistadors applied to the myth of Mexican Culebras. Following this logic, the Culebras are immortal creatures that both predate and informed the vampire myth, thanks to the Spaniards’ confusion and conflation of indigenous names, places, ideas, and concepts. These creatures appear thus as sophisticated and powerful Mexicans, who, much like vampires in literature and film, drain the life of those that surround them (literally and metaphorically) and disguise themselves as industrialists, drug lords, and politicians among other positions of power.

The turn of the screw that the writers and producers of the series (Rodríguez and Tarantino, along with a group of directors that include Fede Álvarez [responsible for the 2013 version of Evil Dead] and Eduardo Sánchez [co-director of The Blair Witch Project]) give to the vampire myth is strong enough as to change the origin story of these bloodsuckers, displacing them far from their native Europe and relocating them in a Mexico full of Aztec gods in snakeskin making blood sacrifices. Unlike the 1996 film, these vampires/culebras don’t just happen to live in Mexico (residing there after moving from another location), they are originally from Mexico and, after centuries of feeding on humans, decided to hunt in the proximities of the Mexican/ American border.

This narrative change, apt to explain the presence of these creatures in the Latin American country as well as the Mesoamerican pyramid at the end of Rodriguez’s movie, works also as a political statement that calls into question the role of Mexicans in the borderlands and, more specifically, the image that conservative America has of them and the place that they occupy. That is, the writers and directors view Mexicans through this conservative lens, as a threat to the American people, ready to suck the resources (or the blood) of the country and its inhabitants. Thus the geopolitics of vampirism change dramatically, and, thanks to the black and critical humor that characterizes Rodriguez and Tarantino, the exploited group becomes a potential threat, the monstrous menace waiting on the other side of the border.

This twisted representation and new mythology plays with the stereotypes of Mexican culture – as clinging to barbaric and pre-modern rituals – but it is also decidedly empowering, by giving it the monstrous ability to create new myths and stories.
As Rodríguez asserts in an interview with the digital magazine mySA, “I delved a little deeper into Mesoamerican mythologies and Aztec and Mayan mythologies and where a vampire culture could have existed back then and found fascinating stuff”.

Despite the mutation of the vampire myth that the series carries out (in reference to the geographical and zoological estrangement) the Culebras are still recognizable as vampire-like creatures, with the additional power of being able to cast a critical eye towards social inequalities and exploitation in Mexican society. In this sense, part of the struggle of the series is not only the survival of the fugitive brothers Gecko and the captive Fullers, who seek to escape from both police forces and the Culebras, but also the internal fight among the upper-class ruling Culebras and the subaltern ones, who, although equipped with the same supernatural capabilities as their more powerful counterparts lack the social status and tradition necessary to ascend to their ranks.

The idealistic and powerful Santanico Pandemonium represents this struggle, calling for equal conditions for every Culebra and the recognition that all of them are “brothers and sisters”. This petition is not well received by the elites of the group, granters of the traditions and self-proclaimed ‘embodiments of the Gods’ will’ (gods even more powerful and bloodthirsty than the Culebras themselves). Again, the vampire mythology serves here a political purpose, criticizing not only the geopolitical issues related to the Mexican/American border, but also the social inequalities that emerge as a byproduct of the strong class divisions present in Mexican society.

As the series is still in its first season it is certainly possible that these Mexican Draculas will mutate even further, either deepening the innovative connections with Mesoamerican snake figures (in the last episode Seth Gecko escapes with Santanico Pandemonium, the Mexican Queen Culebra, to the United States), or going in a different direction entirely, by associating them once again with the traditional vampire/bat archetype. Perhaps hinting at the latter possibility, in the final episodes of the season viewers get a peek at another kind of vampire that lurks in the dark expanse of the nightclub/pyramid, more similar in appearance to characters of familiar vampire movies like Nosferatu or Salem’s Lot. Whatever strange creatures end up emerging from the depths of season 2, let’s hope that Rodriguez and Co. continues to use the series to explore new and and transgressive myths.

Bibliography:

-Jakle, Jeanne. “TV’s ‘Dusk’ delves deep into the horror”. mySA. San Antonio’s Home Page. http://www.mysanantonio.com/entertainment/movies-tv/article/TV-s-Dusk-delves-deep-into-the-horror

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