“Just Leave Me to Do My Dark Bidding on the Internet”: How the Undead Live at Home in What We Do in the Shadows

Curator's Note

If there is any genre more overworked and underwhelming than the mockumentary, it has to be the vampire movie. So why does What We Do in the Shadows, the buoyant bloodsucker comedy co-directed by New Zealand’s Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement make me smile from beginning to end? Chronicling the day-to-day household bickering of a quartet of vampires, the film seems like a sketch idea stretched out to feature length. Witty, weird, and wickedly funny, What We Do is, in all respects, better than it should be. The film brilliantly juxtaposes the mundane and the supernatural and abounds in energetic, expertly-timed gags. It hits all of the clichés for both genres, but cleverly twists familiar tropes into something altogether new. The filmmakers’ masterstroke is finding the humor in the characters’ humanity instead of their monstrosity and sympathetically presenting the small humiliations and inconveniences of everyday existence in a way that, although unreservedly silly, becomes strangely touching and relatable even for mere mortals. The tone is set from the opening scenes, when Viago, an18th century dandy who has retained his delicate manners even in the afterlife, tries to rouse his roomies with “Vakey, vakey,” or arranges a flatmate meeting in which chores are divided fairly. As with any communal living situation, however, not everyone pulls their weight. Young rebel Deacon—he’s not even 200 years old—has left five years’ worth of bloody dishes in the sink, and the nearly-millennium old Nosferatu-like Petyr can’t be bothered to clean up the stray spinal columns that litter his basement crypt. Medieval count Vladislav wants to know if dragging a corpse down the hallway counts as dusting. What We Do has got bite, but the subtle satire is strengthened by its sincere exploration of the difficulties and value of friendship, even when, in the absence of mirror reflections, that means relying on each other to discern what pants go with what jacket. “This is what happens when you’re a vampire,” one character consoles another. “You have to watch everyone die.” As with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, we might learn something from the undead about life, love, and loss. The only difference is this seemingly straightfaced meditation on aging and death quickly becomes a discussion of perils like “making the simple mistake of fashioning a mask out of crackers, and being attacked by ducks, geese, swallows.”


I think the blurring between old and new, cliché and original, and funny and horrifying are all important distinctions we have to make with horror comedy. Not so much as value judgments, but to create a language (as you do here) for talking about genre mixing that steers away from "good" or "bad" manifestations of tropes. I like that you poke at the supposition that the film "does something different" with its mix of genre; heightening its Chaplin-esque pathos through a splatter gore aesthetics and surprisingly affecting"small" moments like the groups admiration and protection of everyman Stu and their inability to find the point of living even after having lived for so long. I agree that the comedy of What We Do in the Shadows is deeply rooted in its contemplation of time and life, but is its horror too? Or, maybe, does the horror the film taps into (the vampire aesthetic) uniquely tie to the equally comedic themes of the tragedy of immortality that we see at the core of Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive? If so, how could we explicate or examine that tie more specifically? You bring up some great questions to lead us through the week!!!!

I really think that what makes the film work so well in terms of both the horror and the humor is the blurring of the lines not only between these two registers, but also between comedy and tragedy, like you said, and significantly between the supernatural and the mundane. As Michael points out, the domestic makes the horrific funny, but it also makes the deeper and (maybe?) more serious ideas of life, death, immortality, etc. much easier to digest.

I haven't seen the film in its entirety, but based on the trailer I would agree that much of the humor comes from the emphasis on the mundane details of vampire life. It would seem that the faux documentary style of the film helps to emphasize this aspect of the film's humor, while also delivering a send-up of the popular visual style and form of found footage or fake documentary horror. It's interesting how, as Ella notes, these small details add a sense of 'humanity' to the inhuman characters, a move that generates both humor and, as Dewey mentions, substantial pathos. The trailer's reference to Shaun of the Dead seems especially relevant here, as that film also used the milieu of horror to explore themes of maturity, adulthood, and eventually loss and death. The emphasis on the monstrous and inhuman in horror seems to offer a usefully distanced vantage point from which to view and assess particularly human concerns. Shaun of the Dead is a kind of coming of age story that juxtaposes the fraught and anxious transition from adolescence into mature adulthood with the fear of a death-like stasis in zombification, i.e. adulthood-as-zombification. I wonder, does What We Do in the Shadows do something similar? How much of its horror has to do with a fear of growing up?

That's a really good parallel to make and yes, definitely, What We Do also deals with the fear of growing up but, perhaps more than Shaun of the Dead, also the fear of growing old, especially in the way the vampires interact with humans throughout the film and have to come to terms with the fact that their friends and loved ones will age. Or, as Deacon puts it, "they can't piss, they say stupid things, and their brains go, and they can't remember anything.... And you wish they were dead. And then they do die."

Ella, I enjoy the discussion you pose of the mundane. It's interesting that comedy arises out of the daily tasks. One that stood out in your discussion was the pile of dishes. It's interesting to note that something so subtle possesses both comedy and horror. What we see on the surface is a commonplace issue: washing dishes is a chore! But the implication is that there was consumption - someone was glutted. It's interesting to see how the domestic renders the horrific something to be laughed at, even if the basis behind it is traumatically violent. As I haven't seen What We Do in the Shadows, are there other instances (other than this and the body dragging) where the implication is that something terrible has happened, but it appears laughable?

I see What We Do in the Shadows as part of a cycle of new vampire cinema (to steal a phrase from Ken Gelder) that includes Only Lovers Left Alive and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Both of those films are contemplative and sincere, where WWDS is satirical. What they all share is a certain flexible quality of the gothic in that it is a genre that is already ready to be treated seriously or comedically. A film like Park Chan Wook's Stoker (or indeed his earlier vampire film Thirst) also participates in this. Full disclosure-I reviewed What We Do in the Shadows here: https://theconversation.com/what-we-do-in-the-shadows-is-unmissable-whet...

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