Gregory A. Waller, The Living and The Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies

Posted by Kelly Doyle on May 22, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , ,

Gregory A. Waller, The Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies. U of Illinois P, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-252-07772-2

Reviewed by: Kelly Doyle, University of British Columbia, Okanagan

Gregory Waller examines the interactions between the living and the undead via a broad range of classic and contemporary films, plays, novels, stories, and made-for-television movies.  While the book first appeared in print in 1986, it has been reprinted in paperback and features a new preface. Given the resurgence of vampire television shows and films, Waller positions his analysis in relation to the explosion of vampire and zombie films, fiction, and criticism in the past twenty-five years. He offers an insightful and nuanced analysis of how vampire and zombie narratives speak to and inform our comprehension, and sometimes fear of, patriarchy and gender roles; ritualism, faith and secularism; evil, mastery, desire; and egotism. According to Waller, scholarship around the nineteenth and twentieth century stories of the inarguably ubiquitous undead fails to acknowledge that the stories are not just about monsters but about killing monsters; a process that is neither simple nor ambiguous, but invokes “serious and troublesome ideologically loaded questions about violence, the monstrous, boundary making, and the limits of heroism” (vii).

Waller is concerned with interrogating how encounters between the living and the undead are worked through, resolved, or alternatively, remain open and unburied; predominantly in the context of the vampire figure. His primary focus is to examine how the stories of victims and hunters, the living and the undead, scrutinize personal desire, the dichotomy of public and private, and the status quo. Waller’s observations about the ritual narrative progression of the threat of the monster to family, society, and the individual, and the subsequent strive of protagonists to return society to normality, are not new contentions in the theorization of monstrosity and horror; nor is the notion of the living and undead as embodiments and enactments of the hidden fears and desires of humanity. However, these critical moves help lay the necessary groundwork for what is at stake in the field, particularly for readers who are not specialists, and are pivotal considerations insofar as they consistently re-emerge in both film and literature.

What is particularly interesting about this book is the way in which Waller frames his subject matter, via its many interpretations of the undead, as a range of opinions and dramatic renderings of what violence has come to mean in the 20th century, from obligatory sacrificial holy butchery to the rejection of heroic violence.  Encounters between the living and the undead are worked through to resolution or irresolution by examining a wide range of English language popular culture from the 1890s to the 1980s: juvenilia, paperback originals, low budget films and classic films, as well as Masterpiece Theatre. Key in Waller’s analysis are: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), as well as several film adaptations of the book; Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla (1872); F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922); Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampire (1979); Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975); Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (1954); and segueing into zombie narratives, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1975) and Dawn of the Dead (1979). In working through these (and many other) narratives/films that he mentions in various degrees of depth, Waller unveils the role of the conventional in tales of the living and the undead; how the ignorance of wisdom, ritual and the sacred often (but increasingly less in contemporary stories) means death, and how the living in said tales often respect the iconographic significance of tools such as stakes, crosses, and holy water. Waller argues, quite well and often through comparative means, that these stories must be understood in the context of previous struggles and stories. Methodologically, Waller efficiently teases out this understanding of the genre while building on, and frequently making reference back to, the works he examines in four distinct parts of his book.

Part one of The Living and the Undead, “The Moral Community and the King Vampire,” begins fittingly with Stoker’s Dracula, which Waller credits as the most influential of all horror stories. Waller uses Dracula as a reference point and situates it in the context of The Vampyre (1819) and Carmilla (1871), other vampire stories between 1890-1925, and Stoker’s other works, such as The Lair of the White Worm (1911).  In these works, Waller explores the notion of Dracula as Freud’s “father of the primal horde” (29) arguing quite convincingly that especially in Lair, where Dracula is the primal father destroyed by the outcast sons, Freud and Stoker are telling the same basic story. Waller compellingly addresses the importance of community and the closed ending in this section. He asserts that in Dracula, the vampiric threat forces the living to form a new community that must carry out ritualized violence to rid the world of the undead. Waller stresses in all renditions that the isolated individual is not sufficient to complete this task, and that parental ineptness in terms of protection is a recurring theme in terms of Dracula himself, Van Helsing as surrogate father, and the parents of the victims.

Part 2, “Dracula Retold,” delves into a 1927, 1931 and 1979 rendition of Stoker’s novel, Hammer’s Dracula films,  Dracula (1973) and Count Dracula (1977). Waller’s focus on comparative literature is exceptionally clear and useful here, as he draws upon these adaptations to trouble violence, ritual, and the role of victim and hunter. Ultimately it becomes evident that the 1927, 1931 and 1979 adaptations cast doubt on the ability to distinguish monster from human. Further, all three secularize the holy crusade of vampire slaying and focus on the vampire hunters; in Dracula (1979) for instance, Van Helsing is ‘staked’ by the vampire, and Mina, Helsing’s daughter, is reborn as an abject corpse instead of a beautiful but deadly siren. The narrative reversals, Waller’s commentary on filmic conventions, and the depictions of madness as disease that Waller points out illuminates the key tensions and/or synergy between the adaptations. In his analysis of the Hammer Dracula films, Waller notes the visual transition of Dracula from black and white to color, the uselessness of knowledge in general, the sole protagonist in the form of Van Helsing, the living as being either in the service of or against Dracula, and the reinstating of faith and ritual in the vampire story. Rather than limit his exploration to content analysis, Waller critically calls the directors of the films to task for their stylistic choices, which in El Conde Dracula results in camp. By the time Waller moves to Dracula (1973/1979), he is able to demonstrate the convalescence and variations between all these works: the fiancé turned hunter for whom love, desire, and revenge make insignificant everything besides the quest; Dracula’s changing rendition as villain and not monster; the importance of community for the living; and the evolving role of female characters as being both heroic and independent. This notion segues nicely into the role of woman as heroine and willing sacrifice that is addressed in part three of the book. Waller makes clear that studying each retelling in depth breaks down the biases that encourage generalizations about horror which can overlook very telling and fascinating nuances of the genre.

Part 3, “The Sacrifice of the Pure-Hearted Seer” presents the role of the female protagonist as pivotal in destroying the vampire, the notion of contamination and disease, and Nosferatu’s salvation and humanization in Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampire. In Murnau’s retelling of the Dracula story, Bremen is infected by Nosferatu’s presence, madness that cannot be cured is removed from society, and Nina’s passive sacrifice results in the defeat and humanization of the vampire in a way which starkly contrasts the men’s futile, meaningless activity. Waller positions the film as a primary inspiration and precursor of later postmodern narratives that interrogate epidemic and disease, such as Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) and Romero’s zombie trilogy. As such he highlights its influence and importance to the genre. Both Murnau and Herzog question whether the city is worth saving at the expense of Nina’s and Lucy’s purity, respectively. Notably, Lucy is uncontaminated by her environment and Herzog’s Nosferatu suffers and has more emotional range and humanity than Murnau’s. Through Lucy, Herzog’s Nosferatu  finds death and salvation, albeit painful. The focus, then, is brought back to the victims, who in both cases include the females and to some extent, the vampires. Inevitably, Waller demonstrates the destabilization of the common tropes of the vampire narrative.

Part 4, “Legions of the Undead,” explores a shift from traditional to contemporary depictions of vampires to ultimately discuss zombies in contemporary horror, in order to clarify the uselessness of ritual, knowledge  and  sacrifice for the good of the community and/or the individual in an America invaded by the undead. Using King’s Salem’s Lot (1975) and Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) as a springboard, Waller postulates that in the modern horror story, sacrifice yields no reward and the evil that threatens survival is absolute; not grounded in complex human evils such as war. In discussing I Am Legend, Waller points out the focus on routine rather than ritual; a situation that is survival based and where the human becomes the monster.  Interestingly, he compares Neville’s experimentations to those of the Nazis in order to take up a major concern of Romero’s zombie films: to demythologize the role of sacred violence in previous portrayals of the living and undead. The point, as Waller contends, is extermination versus defense or holy crusade. Waller makes some very salient observations about Romero’s zombies as a logical and valid extension of his vampire analysis, particularly the continuing trend of women as active participants in the narratives. He notes the zombies as being united in sameness, but ordinary; not evil in the way that vampires are. However, his claim that the creatures project humanity’s desire to destroy and challenge the fundamental values of America, while not invalid, is quite limiting in its scope. Waller provides an in depth study of the vampire that is lacking, perhaps necessarily so, in his discussion of the zombie, which is just as fraught, convoluted, and evolutionary as the vampire itself. The zombie, after all, has been appropriated from Haitian folklore and colonialized by America for its own discursive purposes. While Waller’s analytical moves from the vampire to the zombie are sound, it felt as though the discussion on zombies, partly because it occupied a small fraction of the text as a whole, was unable to address what is at stake in terms of the zombie’s own potential for cultural resonance. The title of the text itself is somewhat misleading in its suggestion that both figures will receive equal attention. That said, on the whole this is a thorough, provocative, insightful and accessible book that is skilfully and critically executed for scholars and fans of the horror genre alike.

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