You might expect that after being repeatedly overrun by hordes of the undead in recent years, we’d need a break. At some point, vampires and zombies will have been bled dry as a cultural resource. But the undead are notoriously hard to kill off, in part because they’re useful tools to think with.
Vampires tend to be elite, foreign, rich, queer, and intellectual. Zombies, by contrast, tend to be lumpen, local, poor, gruntingly conventional in their desires, and stupid. Vampires are cartoonish one-percenters, in other words, and zombies are cartoonish ninety-niners. If whenever you see a vampire you think “elite” and whenever you see a zombie you think “the masses,” even splatter-by-numbers genre exercises can get more interesting.
Take, for instance, the movie “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” which opens Friday. It employs a clever premise — interweaving known facts of Lincoln’s life with the story of a secret war against a vampire cabal — to set up a number of scenes in which our axe-virtuoso of a 16th president takes out acrobatic foes, producing elegant stop-motion gouts of dark blood.
Timur Bekmambetov, who directed, has clearly paid attention to Hong Kong action movies. His Lincoln fantasy’s loopy inventiveness, loosey-goosey plotting, and spectacle-above-all priorities turn Abe into an American cousin of Wong Fei-hung, the Chinese folk hero who battles colonialist outlanders in kung fu movies. It took a director from Kazakhstan to point out the kinship between the two iconic figures.
All that stylishness might distract you from the movie’s truly astonishing move, which is to use vampires to somehow let Americans off the hook for slavery. It reimagines Abe’s great achievement as exposing and defeating the invisible and parasitical foreign ruling class that imported slavery, and sending its remnants scuttling “back to Europe.” As a problem of vampiric origin, slavery becomes a taint imposed from outside and above, which can be excised from the American body politic by a regular guy with an axe who rises up from under.
Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, is also the author of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” another novel no doubt soon to be a major motion picture. (I’m not entirely convinced that there is such a person, by the way. I mean, yes, there’s a guy originally named Seth Greenberg who grew up in the suburbs of New York, went to Emerson College, and wrote “The Big Book of Porn,” “The Spider-Man Handbook,” and “How to Survive a Horror Movie” before hitting the jackpot with his zombie and vampire mash-ups. But “Seth Grahame-Smith” could just as plausibly be the name of a data-mining program that trolls popular culture for market-tested material to recombine into product, processing our undead-overpopulated zeitgeist into narrative sausage links.)
Grahame-Smith’s Austen vs. zombies novel derives most of its kick from juxtaposing high and low. As a literary send-up, it forces canonical literature and schlock to meet cute. And as a comedy of manners, it has fun forcing Austen’s characters, so sharply attuned to niceties of status and ever-alert for an advantageous marital match, to confront shambling subhumans who lust only for human flesh.
The undead are, it turns out, particularly good for thinking about class. There’s a left-critique strain in the tradition: think of zombies besieging the mall in “Dawn of the Dead,” a slapstick lampoon of consumer culture. And zombie stories also have a strong right-vigilante theme: If the proper relationship to others is to blow their brains out when they trespass on your property to eat you, then the prudent individualist should stockpile firepower and forget about appealing to the state for help.
You can see, then, why it wouldn’t do to sic Abe on zombies. We don’t want to watch our greatest man-of-the-people president slaughter the people. But he’s perfect for dispatching depraved aristos from elsewhere who are secretly responsible for everything bad that ever happened in America.
Speaking of which, an election year occasions a major uptick in paint-by-numbers genre exercises of all sorts, especially those that offer us equipment for thinking about elites and masses. Between action movies and campaign ads, hordes of cartoonish monsters are closing in on all sides.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.