The Horror Film Project
M. Keith Booker
Vampire comedies have traditionally been something of a mixed bag, occasionally producing some genuine laughs but generally feeling a bit too silly to be taken seriously as contributions to the vampire film subgenre. Given that vampire films have generally become more sophisticated in the twenty-first century, though, one might expect that vampire comedies would become more sophisticated as well. What We Do in the Shadows certainly fulfills that promise. As Dan Jolin put it in a review of Empire magazine, “Here it is at long last: a truly great vampire comedy.” What We Do is a genuinely original work of cinematic art that is not only very funny but quite intelligent; it not only provides a great deal of comic entertainment but also performs some of the same cultural work as more serious vampire films. Made (and set) in New Zealand, the film also arises from a cultural context that is unusual for the vampire film, demonstrating that the subgenre has become a truly international phenomenon.
What We Do in the Shadows is a “mockumentary” (mock documentary) in which a film crew follows a group of modern vampires in Wellington, New Zealand, as they prepare to attend (and then do attend) the “Unholy Masquerade,” a gathering that is held every few years in which various creatures of the darkness (especially vampires and zombies) in New Zealand meet for fellowship and for a celebration of their dastardly deeds. The very premise is already a joke on numerous levels, most obviously due to the fact that, in literature and film, vampires are almost always notoriously secretive. Therefore, the idea of inviting a film crew to record the details of their daily lives is highly ironic. This irony adds a special comic note to a type of film that had already been used successfully in a variety of other recent contexts, perhaps most famously in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), a cult favorite that riffs on the popular “rockumentary” format as it follows the fictional British heavy metal Spinal Tap as they embark on a tour of America. Within the world of horror film, of course, the mockumentary has precedents as well, as in Scott Glosserman’s slasher mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006). The supposed documentary realism of the mockumentary form links it to “found-footage” horror films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), [REC] (2007), and Cloverfield (2008), which have been so popular in recent years. However, whereas these films used the documentary style to add intensity and a sense of realism, What We Do in the Shadows does just the opposite, using the supposedly realistic documentary form to highlight the artificiality of vampire film conventions, while also spoofing other found-footage films as parodic collateral damage.
The film opens with a gag that exemplifies much of the humor of the rest of the film. A shot of a digital alarm clock clicking over to 6:00 is accompanied by an alarm that wakes the sleeping Viago (co-director Taika Waititi), who groggily reaches over to hit the button to turn off the alarm. So far, the beginning seems pretty ordinary—except that it is 6:00 pm, not 6:00 am, as one might expect. Add in the fact that Viago is sleeping, not in a bed, but in a coffin, and the irony of the scene is complete. Viago then arises stiffly from the coffin, levitating from a horizontal to a vertical position, without bending his knees—thus replicating a famous scene in which Count Orlok similarly rises to an erect position from his coffin while aboard a ship headed for Germany in Nosferatu. (And, yes, the sexual metaphors here are obvious and no doubt intentional.)Time and again What We Do works by juxtaposing well-known elements of vampire mythology (such as sleeping through the day in a coffin) or even specific scenes from well-known vampire films (such as Orlok’s—and Viago’s—rise) with common, ordinary elements of daily human life (such as being awakened by an alarm clock, then getting out of bed). This combination creates a number of different ironies, one of the most important of which is to show the struggles of the vampires (all of whom, by human standards, are quite old) to adapt to life in a modern world filled with social conventions and technological devices that are quite foreign to them. For example, we learn in this opening sequence that Viago is 379 years old, which makes his digital alarm clock quite a new technology for him.
After checking carefully (and with considerable trepidation) to make sure that it is indeed dark out, Viago goes to wake up his flatmates, all of whom are also vampires, thus providing a sequence that introduces all of the main vampire characters. This sequence itself is a compendium of vampire references, as when Viago finds Deacon (Jonathan Brough) hanging upside-down in a closet, bat-like. Asked how his previous night had gone, Deacon announces that “I transformed into a dog and had sex.” Given the typical inclinations of vampires, it is not entirely clear whether this sex had been with another dog, but in any case the notion of vampires transforming into various animals and the notion of vampires being highly sexual are common ones in vampire lore. The latter characteristic is further emphasized when Viago then goes to awaken Vladislav (co-director Jemaine Clement). Much to his embarrassment, Viago finds Vladislav engaged in a supernatural erotic encounter with three writhing, moaning lady vampires obviously modeled on Dracula’s wives from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula.It’s a throwaway scene (the “wives” never again appear in the film), but it does help to establish Vladislav’s status as a player, with the added advantage of reinforcing the sexual undercurrents that run throughout the film and the even bigger advantage of establishing a hilarious connection to a well-known film in the vampire tradition. Next, Viago ventures down into the cellar, where Petyr (Ben Fransham), the most ancient of the film’s vampires (he is 8,000 years old), sleeps in a stone crypt. Bringing a live chicken as an offering, Viago nervously awakens the old vampire (a Count Orlok lookalike), who is so ill-tempered that even the other vampires are afraid of him. When Viago suggests that Petyr might want to clean up some of the human remains that litter the cellar floor around the crypt, Petyr’s hissing response is scary enough to cause Viago to reclose the coffin and beat a hasty retreat back upstairs.
The fact that Petyr is 8,000 years old also links to the presumed immortality of vampires, though the fact that he does seem to have aged, growing crankier and more feeble over time, would seem (humorously) to contradict the notion that vampires don’t age at all. The same joke recurs later when Vladislav explains that he became vampire when he was sixteen—which is why he still looks sixteen. Of course, he actually looks at least as old as the forty-year-old Clement, a fact he explains by noting that “in those days, of course, life was tough for a sixteen-year-old.” As Jolin astutely observes, much of the film is built around this notion of vampires not aging (even though the film does not quite verify this notion). After all, as he puts it, much of the film’s humor comes from the immaturity of the vampires (despite their advanced age), thus suggesting their state of living-without-aging as “the ultimate state of arrested development.”
Meanwhile, the fact that Petyr is so messy introduces a gag that runs throughout the film and that refers to the fact that vampires are frequently rather unclean in their habits in works of the vampire tradition. Indeed, in the first real scene of the film, the other three flatmates gather for a meeting called by Viago to discuss “flat responsibilities,” which includes the fact that Deacon has not done the dishes in five years, leaving the kitchen piled high with “bloody dishes”—and not in the British sense of “bloody.” Vladislav is a bit neater—we learn that he recently took out the recycling and even “kind of swept” the hallway by dragging a man’s body down it. So he complains that the situation with the dishes is so bad that he is embarrassed to have people over to the flat. “What does it matter?” asks Deacon, defensively providing an explanation for why vampires are such slobs. “You bring them over, you kill them.”
Deacon, who is “only” 183 years old, is described as the rebellious, young “bad boy” of the group. Turned by Petyr in a very traditional way (he had been a peddler passing by Petyr’s creepy castle, when suddenly Petyr—in the form of a bat—flew out of the castle and attacked him), he is nevertheless now the least traditional of the four flatmates. He also has something of a checkered history, having served as a Nazi vampire in support of Hitler during World War II—a misrepresentation of the Nazi animosity toward vampires, but an appropriate reference to the recent popularity of horror films featuring Nazis as various sorts of monsters, the most notable example of which is probably the Nazi zombies of the bloody and violent (but often funny) Norwegian film Dead Snow (2009). One thinks here especially of the 2006 Swedish film Frostbite, in which a former Nazi officer concoctsa plan to create human-vampire hybrids, echoing the various weird scientific experiments undertaken by the real Nazis, often on human subjects. This popular fascination no doubt arises both from the fact that the Nazis were monsters and from the fact that many Nazis leaders were fascinated with vampires, werewolves, and occult phenomena—though probably more as a way of using popular interest in these phenomena to manipulate the more gullible elements among the German population than because the Nazis themselves literally believed in vampires and the like. In the wake of the Nazi defeat, Petyr and Deacon fled to New Zealand, given that Nazis and vampires were both suddenly unpopular in Europe, and “if you were a Nazi vampire? No way.”
That Deacon had been a Nazi is treated not as a shocking revelation, but as something that might be expected. After all, vampires are typically portrayed as unremittingly evil, so it might make sense for a vampire to be a Nazi. What We Do in the Shadows repeatedly stipulates that its vampires are evil, as well, and they are certainly murderous, but they approach their evil deeds with an ordinariness that recalls nothing more than Hannah Arendt’s famous description of the seemingly ordinary Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann as an example of the “banality of evil.” In this sense, What We Do can be taken as a sort of cautionary tale that suggests that we have, in the early twenty-first century, perhaps forgotten some of the lessons of the Nazi tragedy that struck Europe and have become so accustomed to bad things happening in the world that fascism is once again becoming imaginable as a genuine political alternative. There is no real evidence in the film that its makers actually had such a message in mind, of course, but the rise to power of various neo-fascist politicians around the world in recent years certainly suggests that such a message is needed.
Vladislav, at 862 years old, is a bit more old-fashioned than Deacon—his suggested solution to the messy flat is to get some slaves. He also has a history of extreme violence, though he has mellowed somewhat over the years. He still maintains a torture chamber (their flat seems to have impossible dimensions that can accommodate a variety of vampire venues), though he seldom uses it these days. In his heyday, he was known for torturing people by “poking” them with various objects—winning him the sobriquet of “Vladislav the Poker” (as opposed to “Vlad the Impaler,” a notoriously ruthless fifteenth-century Transylvanian aristocrat who was a principal inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula).
Viago, meanwhile, is the most fastidious, even obsessive, of the four flatmates, constantly constructing schemes to ensure that the housework gets done properly, schemes that are invariably defeated by the laxity of his flatmates. He also complains that the others keep eating their victims on his nice new couch without even troubling to put down some newspapers or towels or something to soak up the blood. Serious vampires don’t bother to put down towels, grouses Vlad, and it is clear that these four flatmates, with their vastly different backgrounds (they all come, after all, from different centuries) have widely varying views on things—which provides a constant source of humor in the film. For example, these differences sometimes lead to violent confrontations, as when Deacon and Viago fly into the air and hurl themselves, snarling and hissing, at one another during the discussion of housekeeping.
Much of What We Do deals with the special problems associated with being a vampire in the modern world. For example, early in the film the vampires prepare to go out for a night on the town, but find it quite difficult to ready themselves properly because they can’t see themselves in mirrors. And then, when they get into the club district they have trouble getting in anywhere because, as vampires, they of course cannot enter any human establishments without being specifically invited. Luckily, the Big Kumara is a vampire-owned-and-operated club where they can always get in. Unluckily, as one might expect of a vampire establishment, the Big Kumara is really dead—and not a good place to pick up human victims. Luckily, Deacon has a human familiar, Jackie (Jackie van Beek), whom he can employ to procure victims for him (as well as to do other tasks, such as yard work). So Deacon sits down with Jackie in the club and orders up some victims, preferably young (but no kids) and ideally one of each gender—referencing the bisexual tendencies that are frequently displayed by vampires.
For her part, Jackie serves Deacon because she feels that she has reached her peak and would like for him to turn her into a vampire so that she can stop aging at this point and live forever as her best self. Her subplot thus turns vampirism into a sort of self-improvement project. She’s not great at her job, though. She’s supposed to try to deliver virgins to the group to serve as victims (they prefer virgins because it “sounds cool”), but she doesn’t seem to be able to find anyone who is still a virgin. She does, however, deliver her non-virgin ex-ex-boyfriend Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) as a potential victim. Nick realizes he is in for trouble when the vampires serve him a cold plate of “bisketti,” only to have Deacon announce that the pasta has turned into a plate of worms. The power of suggestion causes Nick to see the worms, which Deacon admits is a trick he stole from The Lost Boys. Then he ups the ante by making Nick think his penis has turned into a snake. Nick isn’t amused—and is even less so when the vampires begin to chase him around the mysteriously large and labyrinthine flat; he escapes, only to be taken by Petyr on the lawn, then subsequently turned into a vampire, causing a great deal of subsequent trouble for the group.
Nick’s turning also causes trouble for Jackie, because now she has to wait even longer to become a vampire. Apparently there are rules concerning how many people can be turned in a given time. This news causes Jackie to go into a rant about gender favoritism and the homoerotic nature of vampirism, which she characterizes as one big “dick-biting club.” For Jackie, their tendency to wear frilly blouses instead of regular shirts is more evidence of how gay they are—and more trouble for her, because she has to wash and iron the blouses. She’s also really tired of having to clean up blood all the time.
Nick’s difficult transition to vampirehood is made even more troublesome by his inability to follow vampire rules like keeping a low profile—as when he habitually flies around the neighborhood in full sight of the neighbors. He even tries to pick up girls by bragging about being a vampire, even going so far as to claim that the movie Twilight was based on his life. But at least he has connections that can at last help them get into cool clubs. He also introduces the vampires to his human friend Stu (Stu Rutherford), a computer software analyst who helps the vampires to begin to learn more about modern technology—such as how to Google pictures of virgins. (In one associated gag, Vlad becomes especially interested when he learns of the phenomenon of “poking” on Facebook.)
Viago, the gentleman vampire, is ironically depicted as the romantic sort. He thinks it’s a bit of a bummer that vampires have to drink human blood in order to survive, but when he drinks someone he at least likes to wine and dine them and make an evening of it first, rather than merely attacking them on street. “It’s their last moment alive,” he explains. “So why not make it a nice experience?” One of the film’s funniest scenes involves his attempts to carry on a conversation with a young woman back in the flat, all the while spreading newspapers around her on the floor in preparation for the spilling of blood when he finally makes his move. When he does, however, he hits an artery and blood spurts everywhere, rendering his preparations moot. This scene, however, is no match in terms of sheer gross-out effect for the one in which Nick, still not having mastered the rules of being a vampire, unthinkingly eats a French fry, causing him to becoming violently ill and to go into a protracted paroxysm of spewing up blood. In a sendup of the notion of vampires as tortured Byronic souls, he now regrets becoming a vampire, because now he can’t even eat his favorite food.
Meanwhile, in a sign that these vampires do age over time, we learn that Vladislav was once much more powerful than he is now, able to hypnotize large numbers of people at once and force them to do his bidding—which mostly consisted of participating in orgies with him. Now he has trouble hypnotizing even one person. Meanwhile, his once great ability to change into the shape of any animal at will has diminished as well—now he just can’t seem to get the faces right. (Later, in one of the film’s many sight gags, we see him in the form of a cat—but still with his human-looking face.) Importantly, for the overall “plot” of the film, we learn that his loss of power came about after he suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his “arch-nemesis,” the powerful supernatural creature known as “The Beast.”
Vladislav’s relationship with The Beast will, however, turn out to be a love story of sorts. What We Do features another love story as well. In one of the interviews with the film crew that constitute a large part of the film, Viago reveals that he came to New Zealand following a human girl, Katherine, with whom he had fallen in love back in Europe. Unfortunately, his coffin was delayed in shipment because his human servant didn’t pay the proper shipping fees, and by the time Viago arrived in New Zealand, his beloved had found someone else and been married. Viago has pined for her ever since, occasionally taking out the locket she gave him and wearing it for a few seconds—but only for a few seconds, because it is made of pure silver, one of the substances that is anathema to vampires. At first he considered killing her husband and draining him of all his blood, but he decided to let her live her life, consoling himself by masturbating inside his coffin, the lid of which, in one of the film’s most suggestive sight gags, bumps up and down as we watch from outside. Even now, Viago occasionally goes by and peers into Katherine’s window, though she has of course become an old woman.
One of the most important motifs that runs through the film is the notion that vampires and werewolves are natural enemies, a notion that is central to such contemporary vampire-related franchises as Underworld and Twilight. What We Do in the Shadows takes this natural antipathy for granted, though in this film the opposition between vampires and werewolves seems more like one between rival youth gangs—or even fraternities—than a battle between two different forms of supernatural monster. Indeed, their battles generally consist more of exchanging sophomoric insults than of the violent and bloody confrontations found in films such as the Underworld series.
In one crucial scene that is violent and bloody, Petyr is killed in a “fatal sunlight accident” caused when he is attacked in his own basement by a local vampire hunter, who comes through the ground-level window. Petyr manages to crush the vampire hunter beneath the heavy stone lid of his tomb but gets caught in the sunlight from the window and bursts into flames, tragically ending his 8,000-year existence. Of course, in this film, even this “tragic” scene turns into comedy, as when Vladislav frantically seeks out a fire extinguisher to try to put out Petyr and when the vampires examine the scene to try to piece together what happened. Then, when they realize that Nick’s bragging about being a vampire had led the hunter to their house, a fierce battle ensues between the enraged Deacon and his vampire “sibling” Nick as they fly into the air, fighting much in the mode of Michael and David in their cataclysmic battle in The Lost Boys (except that this time no real damage is done). However, the resultant noise draws the police, who come to the door to investigate reports of “a large amount of shrieking.” Luckily, Viago (despite his limited skills) is able to hypnotize the cops just enough that they comically notice nothing out of the ordinary worse than a lack of smoke detectors, despite seeing the vampire hunter’s crushed body and Petyr’s ashes.
The death of Petyr can also be taken as a moment of commentary on the status of the vampire film genre. Petyr, after all, represents the old order, the kind of horrifying, Gothic vampire featured in founding works of the genre such as Nosferatu. The other vampires are at least struggling to adjust to the modern world, but Petyr has remained unchanged, getting more and more out of touch with the times. Perhaps one might say the same for the kinds of vampire films that he represents. Given that the vampire films most prominently referenced in What We Do are The Lost Boys and Twilight, the implication seems clear: the vampire film genre (like many other aspects of contemporary popular culture) has been overtaken by a youth movement and is now dominated by cool, teen-oriented films. There is no place for Petyr and the kinds of films he represents in this new media environment, though the film leaves it for us to decide whether or not this development is a positive one.
In retribution for all the trouble he has caused, Nick is submitted to a finger-wagging circle of shame, then banished from the flat indefinitely. Meanwhile, the excitement grows as the time for the Unholy Masquerade (6 pm on June 6, thus the Satanic 666) approaches. Vlad is especially excited because he has heard rumors that this year he might be named the Guest of Honor at the big event. It is thus quite a violent disappointment to learn that the true Guest of Honor will be his old enemy, The Beast, who has done so much to destroy his life. Sunken into despair, Vlad begins to look his true age (which is not a good look). He doesn’t even want to attend the ball but would prefer to stay home alone to do his dark bidding—on eBay.
The other vampires go to attend the ball at the Cathedral of Despair (otherwise known as the Victoria Bowling Club. There, they learn that Nick has turned Jackie into a vampire, which she seems to be enjoying immensely. We, meanwhile, learn that the dreaded Beast is none other than Pauline Ivanovich (Elena Stejko), Vlad’s vampire ex-girlfriend (and thus the most horrifying of all monsters). Then we see Vlad explaining to an interviewer back at the flat that, after a sexually explosive relationship, The Beast impaled him on a lamppost, called him an asshole, and went on her way. Back at the party, the human Stu is a key object of interest, mainly because everyone there wants to eat him. Fortunately, Vladislav, now rejuvenated and sporting a poofy two-globed hairstyle modeled on that of Gary Oldman’s Dracula, shows up just in time to help save the day (though it is actually Stu who saves him). Our trusty flatmates then manage to hustle Stu out of the “cathedral” alive.
They march triumphantly toward home, but then encounter a group of werewolves—which is bad, because there happens to be a full moon. The werewolves transform and attack the vampires. They escape, but Stu is taken and disemboweled, leading Deacon to deliver a mock elegiac speech in which he bemoans the tragedy of being an immortal vampire, while everything and everyone around you ages and dies. It’s a sad time, but never fear. Stu is resurrected as a werewolf, then helps to mediate a new era of peace and friendship between the werewolves and the vampires. Then to top things off, Viago returns to the aged and now-widowed Katherine and turns her into a vampire so that they can be together forever, even though it is a bit awkward for a woman of a mere 96 to be with a man four times her age. But Viago is in love, and he doesn’t mind being called a cradle-snatcher.
Among other things, What We Do in the Shadows is a demonstration of just how well-known vampire mythology is in this day and age. After all, a large number of the film’s jokes only work if audiences understand the mythology that is being lampooned. In this sense, the film is about belatedness and about the difficulty of producing anything genuinely new in our contemporary postmodern world, with centuries of cultural production already behind it. Perhaps most importantly, though, the film’s juxtaposition of vampire life with the everyday problems of life in the modern human world, however humorous, calls attention to the fact that vampire stories are not, in the final analysis, about vampires (which don’t exist), but are in fact allegories that provide fresh perspectives on human existence. Vampire stories are about life, death, love, sex, material needs, and psychological consequences. They are about the conflict between social demand and individual desire. They are, in short, quintessential representatives of all imaginative art.
Jolin, Dan. “What We Do in the Shadows Review.” Empire (October 31, 2014). https://www.empireonline.com/movies/shadows-2/review/. Accessed December 23, 2018.
Kurlander, Eric. Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.
 The native New Zealander Waititi had been nominated for an Academy Award for his 2004 short film Two Cars, One Night. His feature film Boy (2010) had been a hit in New Zealand but received little attention worldwide. What We Do in the Shadows drew considerable global attention, however. Meanwhile, his next film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), an adventure comedy-drama that, as of this writing, remains the top-grossing film of all time in New Zealand, combined with What We Do in the Shadows to help Waititi gain the helm of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), one the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of recent years.
 Clement was the best-known actor among the cast of the film, having starred most notably in the cult hit television series Flight of the Conchords on HBO (02007–2009).
 Clement has stated that he consciously based his performance as Vladislav on Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula in the Coppola film.
 The truly awful straight-to-video production BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011) features a Nazi officer who is a vampire. Perhaps the best use of the Nazi interest in the occult in a film occurs in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004).
 See Eric Kurlander for a discussion of the engagement of the Nazis with supernatural phenomena such as vampires. For Kurlander, sounding ominous warnings for our own contemporary political environment, an interest in the supernatural and the occult is often dangerously linked with extreme right-wing political ideologies.
 The notion that vampires and werewolves are natural enemies does not appear to be well founded in folkloric sources. Kurlander, however, notes that certain German folkloric traditions led the German Nazis to figure werewolves as “good” monsters likely the defend the Fatherland and vampires as “bad” monsters who were a threat to it (54).