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30 Days of Night and the Oppositional Reconstruction of Vampire Symbolism

Over the weekend I had the chance to watch several films that have recently been released on DVD. I was especially looking forward to taking a look at 30 Days of Night given that it is vampire film (one of my favorite movie monster icons), I enjoyed the graphic novel by Steve Niles upon which it was based, and I had seen the film positively reviewed in various forums. After watching the film I came away with the general impression that this is a good vampire film with the potential to breathe new life into cultural treatments of the vampire icon, and it is the cultural reconstruction of the vampire through this film that I will touch on with this post.

As horror movie fans and culture watchers know, the vampire has a long history of popularity in film and pop culture, so much so that the vampire has enjoyed great dominance as a horror figure in any number of pop cultural expressions. But the cultural dominance of the vampire has given way in recent years to that of the zombie. Zombie films have been made with increasing frequency, and this may have resulted in the impression by some that the vampire may have lost some of its “edge” as a social and cultural symbol of horror. It appears to this writer that those associated with the cinematic treatment of 30 Days of Night (perhaps those associated with the graphic novel as well) have made a conscious effort to address this phenomenon through the reconstruction of the vampire as a figure that moves far beyond its expressions in the past as a romantic, brooding, and at times comical figure to a fresh embodiment of evil, perhaps a figure reconstructed through this film as a form of opposition to the zombie.

The idea of the 30 Days of Night vampire as oppositional construct occurred to me in various ways. Before the film’s release I read an article in a horror magazine where specific comments were made by those involved in the film’s production noting that the vampires in this film would represent a much stronger sense of horror hubris than that found, for example, in television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel. These comments were bold in light of the great popularity and unique nature of Joss Whedon’s vampire treatments, and it set forth for me the initial idea that the 30 Days of Night folks felt the vampire had been somewhat domesticated of late and was in need of reconceptualizing for contemporary audiences. A second clue came to me in the form of the featurettes for the DVD. One featurette looks at the creation of the vampires and it featuress the director and acting coach working with the actors portraying the vampires in the film. The actors are specifically coached not to move their arms and bodies like zombies, but instead to walk confidently and with attitude as focused, no nonsense killers. On the one hand it is understandable that the actors would need to be coached on how vampire body movements would differ from that of the zombie given the prevalence of the cinematic image of the zombie, however, it appears as if those associated with 30 Days of Night took this one step further in coaching the actors to move in different ways that reflects a deliberate sense of purpose in evil for the vampires that makes them more threatening than the zombie.

The visual look, physical abilities, and social characteristics of the vampires in the film also seem to support the notion of the reconstruction of the vampire icon in oppositional fashion. The creatures move beyond the traditional enlarged canines to sport a mouthful of sharp teeth that function in razor-like fashion as they attack their victims. In their physical abilities the vampires not only have great strength, but also great agility as they leap from building to building and descend upon their fleeing victims. As to their social characteristics, the vampires have their own unique language that moves them beyond their traditional mythological function as lone hunters to bind them together as a social unity creating a viscious tribe that rules the night. All of these elements work together to provide the vampires in the film with the elements necessary to make them far more terrifying than many vampires in recent television and film treatments, and in the process they also contribute to the reconstruction of the vampire icon with features that make them more terrifying than the zombie.

The icons and symbols of horror change like any other elements of culture as society changes. If there is any merit to my idea that the 30 Days of Night vampires represent a conscious reconstruction of the vampire icon, and one developed in opposition to the cultural dominance of that of the zombie, it will be interesting to watch the possible impact of this film and the graphic novel upon the ongoing development of the vampire myth, and whether the zombie mythology, a rapidly evolving mythology in its own right, adapts in response.

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