Hollywood has been writing stories about both of these supernatural creatures for many years now. It is a well explored topic, and as such it is hard to screw up. Over the years we have sort of figured out what works and what doesn’t.
Zombies are best when they are ferocious, mindless and served in great numbers. They are ferocious, bestial, seemingly unstoppable and they are everywhere. A good zombie movie will depict protagonists either trying to outrun the hungry hordes, or hole up and fortify somewhere and try not to kill each other in the process. It will also depict a moral dilemma of a survivor who has been bitten and is slowly turning into a zombie. How will others treat that person? Will they isolate him? Will they shoot him? Will the infected hero sacrifice himself for good of others? Or will he sabotage their defenses out of spite? Will he succumb to the illness sooner than expected and go berserk?
The movie scripts just write themselves.
Vampires movies are a whole other ballgame. The blood suckers are at their best when they are sexy, cunning, conflicted, mysterious and morally ambiguous. The most interesting characteristic of a vampire is it’s dual nature: half man, half beast. Some vamps embrace their bestial side, and become evil monsters. Others struggle to maintain some level of humanity, while dealing with the necessity of feeding on human blood.
A good vampire movie will depict this internal conflict, and show vampires as social beasts. It will depict complex relationships between vampires and their mortal kin, and the ever-present political intrigue, cunning plans, betrayals and century old feuds. Ideally, you need a vampire who strives to be good, a vampire who strives to be evil and bunch of mortals forming a complex social web of romantic, professional and supernatural relationships.
If don’t deviate from this standard, the worst you can do is to make a bad zombie/vampire movie. It won’t wind many awards, but the fans of the genre will still lap it up.
The only way to fail, is of course to deviate from this formula. Curiously enough, this is also the only way to really succeed and get good reviews. The safe thing to do is to take a working formula and introduce original effects. Alternatively you can try to shake things up and abandon the usual schematics and try to do something different. This exactly the path taken by 30 Days of Night. The movie seems to be an attempt to combine the Zombies and Vampires together to form something even more frightening. On the surface it seems like a great idea. Take the ferocity, stubbornness and horrifying appearance of a Zombie and give it the cunning and intelligence of a vampire as well as it’s only weakness as a counterbalance. What you end up is a fearsome bestial hunter that lurks in the dark, and then pounces on it’s prey with a horrifying shriek and rips it apart spraying blood everywhere.
It is quite an interesting concept which wasn’t really implemented that well. These new blood sucking beasts are indeed ugly, ferocious and brutal – but they are nowhere near as effective as a real zombie horde, and nowhere near as fascinating to watch as real vampires. They are stuck somewhere int the middle, trying to be both, and failing. This shows in the script. The writers couldn’t really decide how to use these new monsters since the standard approaches did not apply. In one scene they function as a small zombie horde running around, grunting, shrieking and attacking everything on sight. Then they switch to vampire mode when they actually rummage through people’s houses, or lurking on the roofs stalking their pray. The have conversations in some odd language and seem to have some sort of agenda, but they quickly forget about it and go into berserk frenzy every time they spot a new group of people they could rip apart and devour. They seem like a very confused lot.
Maybe the movie would work better if we could at least try to relate to them. But they are to bestial for empathy, and to human to be truly frightening in the way the dehumanized walking corpses can be. The only vampire that actually seems to have some sort personality is their leader. He has actual speaking parts, and facial expressions that do not include bearing fangs, howling or laughing like a maniac. Sadly his range his range seems to be between surprised, intrigued and angry. Still, it’s better than most of his charges. He actually reminded me a little puppy – he would crook head from side to side with this wide eyed stare all tie time. This is exactly what my dog used to do when she heard me saying a word he remembed – usually her name, or something about food or going for a walk. Is this really the sort of image you want to project as a fearsome leader of vampire gang?
I usually enjoy zombie and vampire movies even when they suck. Sadly I can’t say I enjoyed 30 Days of Night. The concept for the movie itself, is great – it’s the execution that killed it for me.
Picture this if you will: due to it’s geographical location a remote town in Alaska gets plunged into darkness for 30 days every winter. Most locals choose to use up all their vacation days during that month and escape the depressing perpetual night. So the town is half deserted, and most facilities are running on skeleton crews. Since it is a middle of Alaskan winter, strong snowstorms roll over the town every couple of days making travel and communication with the outside world difficult. During one of such tough polar nights, the town gets invaded by a band of ruthless vampires. They cut the phone lines, sabotage the airport, destroy the satellite complication relay and kill all the sled dogs. Then taking advantage of the 30 days of darkness they take over the town. It is up to the town’s Sheriff to round up the few survivors and figure out a way to stop the invasion or escape from the doomed town.
It sounds cool, doesn’t it? Sadly, as I mentioned above the zombie-vampires fail to be anything but laughable. Same goes for the human part of the cast. I really found it difficult to care about any of these characters. I don’t know if it’s bad acting, bad directing or bad script. Probably a combination of all these factors.
Josh Hartnett seem to be incredibly uncomfortable in the role of the flawed experienced, honest, wise and world weary sheriff. The way this character is written, it makes me think he should be played by someone much older. He walks around town brooding over his broken marriage, dispenses little nuggets of insight to everyone he meets, exhibits excellent judgment of character and can always tries to diffuse situations without even drawing his gun. The only problem he cannot solve, is his broken marriage. You know the type – Tommy Lee Jones played that character in just about every movie he has ever been in. Hartnett is the last person I’d suspect being cast in a role like that. Poor guy tries as he might, but this role is just not for him. Thankfully, when the vampires show up he can switch to the action-hero mode with which he is much more comfortable.
Not only that, but he has no chemistry going with Melissa George who plays his estranged wife. There is not tension between them. No spark. In fact, I sort of detected the opposite – this sort of sucking social void that you sometimes detect between people. The overpowering ambivalence and lack of interest toward each other. I imagine that if you would put these two in a room, and left them to their own devices they would probably sit there in silence being profoundly uncomfortable after trying and failing to strike up a conversation. Or maybe it just their acting…
Same goes for most of the other characters. They are bland and uninteresting. To compensate for that, the level of violence and gore is ramped up to the maximum. The vampires walk around literally covered in blood. When they feed they rip and rend their victims spraying their bodily fluids all over the walls or into the snow. The only way to kill vampires seems to be decapitation with an axe rather than the quicker an more humane head-shot known from Zombie films. It is depicted repeatedly in more and more detail. It always takes the hero 3 or 4 swings to actually finish off the vampire. Initially the camera cuts away during the first swing and shows reaction shots. Later in the movie, decapitations are shown explicitly. There is even a scene where the survivors decapitate a little girl who turned into a vampire. I presume this was supposed to be edgy and controversial, but it struck me as unnecessary and tasteless.
What bothered me the most about this movie is the behavior of the vampires. At the beginning of the movie they seem to be incredibly stealthy and fast. They disable town’s communication and transportation network, and pick off bunch of unsuspecting people without ever being seen. They seem to be incredibly adept at playing this cat and mouse game where they bait and lure their victims into a trap and then attack with incredible speed and ferocity to disappear into the shadows again. At some point this ends abruptly – they abandon their finely honed stealth tactics and simply go berserk killing everyone in town. They are not even feeding – they are just slaughtering people left and right. Why?
I understand that they are monsters and they are supposed to be evil – but they are also intelligent. They are wasting food! Instead of organizing a huge orgy of violence they could have just laid low and piked off the unsuspecting townspeople one by one. They could move from house to house, feeding on a different family each night and the sheriff would be none the wiser. It would have made for a much more suspenseful, and interesting movie.
Or they could have used their speed, strength and invulnerability to round up the humans like cattle, put them in some holding pens, feed from them and torture them at will. They could also live in their houses and play on their Wii for fun. Seriously, the whole bloody rampage made no sense whatsoever.
Neither did the ending for that matter. It was stupid, and inconsistent with respect to what have we learned about the vampires up until that point. But I’m not going to spoil this part for you in case you are planning to watch the movie. I’d recommend against it though.
Despite all the gore, violence and explosions it is a very bland movie. I was actually bored to tears while trying to watch it. Halfway through actually left the couch and wandered off to my desk to browse the web for a bit peeking at the TV screen over my shoulder every few minutes to see if something interesting was happening.
30 Days of Night fails as a Vampire flick, fails as a Zombie filck and fails as a movie in general. It was a huge waste of my time, and it almost put me to sleep. At most give it a rental, but you will likely regret it afterward.