Thursday, June 24, 2010

Culture Shock 06.24.10: Summer brings not-so-scary monsters

If summer 1967 was the Summer of Love, then summer 2010 is shaping up to be the Summer of Blood.

With the June 13 premiere of its third season, "True Blood" has cemented its place as HBO's must-see successor to "The Sopranos." 

On Sunday, ABC rolled out "The Gates." Think of it as "Desperate Housewives" meets "Dracula," set in a private gated community where everyone has a dark secret. And you can already hear teenage girls and their moms squealing with anticipation as Edward, Bella and Jacob get set to return Wednesday in "Eclipse," the third installment in the inexplicable yet unstoppable "Twilight Saga." Wherever you turn, you can't help but run into vampires, werewolves and, sometimes, even a witch or two.

Never ones to be left out, zombies are on the prowl, too. AMC has already geared up its publicity campaign for its new series, "The Walking Dead," which debuts in October. Filmed in Atlanta and based on the acclaimed Image Comics series written by Robert Kirkman, "The Walking Dead" follows the survivors of a zombie outbreak as they try to avoid becoming dinner for the undead.

Vampires, werewolves and zombies — between them, monsters are having a major resurgence, not unlike the blossoming of horror movies during the Great Depression, when Universal Studios unleashed Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man on unsuspecting theatergoers. According to the conventional wisdom, there is something about hard times that makes people turn to the macabre.

But the "conventional wisdom" is seldom right, and "macabre" doesn't really describe this new batch of "monsters."

Werewolves are no longer tortured souls condemned to turn into ravenous beasts during every full moon, posing an unwitting danger to those they love. Instead, they can transform from human into wolf at will, while still retaining their human intelligence.

Meanwhile, not all vampires are destined to lurk forever in the darkness. Some can venture out into the daylight and lead largely normal lives, apart from slipping off for an occasional bite. They run multinational corporations, have spacious homes in the suburbs and jet around the world to meet with the head vampire, or whatever. Some of them even sparkle in the sun, but the less said about that, the better.

Zombies are a bit harder to tame, but you can at least make fun of them. Except for "The Walking Dead," which plays the zombie genre straight, most recent zombie stories have played zombies for laughs. Whether it's "Zombieland" or "Shaun of the Dead" or "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," it's getting really difficult to take those shambling, brain-craving corpses seriously.

Sure, vampires and werewolves still come down with a case of bloodlust from time to time, especially when they are fighting each other during one of their interspecies turf wars (see: "Twilight" and "Underworld"). But for the most part, they have gone from being bloodthirsty monsters to romantic heroes, or at least anti-heroes.

And they fall for the dullest women. Seriously, are there two more boring fictional characters than Bella Swan and Sookie Stackhouse? I haven't read the books, but if the movies and the TV series are any indication, they're the least interesting characters in their own stories.

So, what does it mean that vampires and werewolves are now romantic leads? For one thing, I suppose it means people don't mind May-December romances anymore, even if December is in an entirely different century. Also, excess body hair is apparently no longer a deal breaker, which is good news not only for werewolves but for Robin Williams, too.

Or, maybe it means that the suave romantic vampire represents bloodsucking capitalists who sell themselves to the masses via slick marketing, while the werewolf represents the oppressed working class trying to strike back at its centuries-old oppressors, only to lose its shirt and the girl in the process.

Or not. I'm pretty sure you have to be a Marxist college professor to buy all of that, but you never know.

George Romero's zombie movie "Dawn of the Dead" is supposedly an allegory for mindless consumerism. But what I learned from it was that the mall has everything I need to fight zombies.

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