At some point in the last couple of years popular culture hit peak-zombie. Between the glut of television shows trying to be The Walking Dead, movies both serious and self-aware that don’t deliver on their promise of something new (although Zombieland was fun and Ahh! Zombies! has some brilliant sequences), stacks of “survival guides” and even survival kits for a completely impossible zombie apocalypse, and everyone and their mother making lists of who they’d want on their crew to survive a zombie invasion – which, again, cannot happen – it’s safe to say that except for those media which are exceptionally good, zombies are now played out, boring, and should be done.
Zombies are now what vampires were five years ago, when the Twilight phenomenon resurrected and then thoroughly buried the bloodsuckers for much of the popular culture. There will always be diehards but for the most part, vampires have had their time, zombies are having theirs, and whoever can predict the next cycle of occult creature popularity will make millions (my new series of self-published 40-page “books” is betting on giant ants). Yet right when everyone is finally done with vampires, especially the sparkly ones who are really vampires in name only, What We Do in the Shadows breathes entirely new life into not only the rotting corpse of literally the most overused creature in history but also the most overused technique in recent cinema.
What We Do in the Shadows begins with a very small but very important thing which sets it apart from so many similarly themed films: it establishes itself as a documentary. Similar to the rise and fall of vampires and (eventually) zombies, the fake-documentary format has become an easy shorthand for media particularly on television as Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Modern Family all use this conceit to allow its characters to address the camera without ever explaining why the camera is there in the first place. Christopher Guest has made a brilliant career of the mockumentary with Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, and less so with A Mighty Wind, and yet even his films don’t establish the fake documentarians as part of the narrative. The very first images of What We Do in the Shadows include title cards explaining the fictional purpose of the film and how it was made. The camera crew is referenced and even becomes participants in the story. It’s a tiny element that most viewers may not even care about, but this minute detail is emblematic of what makes Shadows such a wonderful film.
Of course, the entire movie is littered with such touches of brilliance. As Edgar Wright’s “Cornetto Trilogy“ (beginning with Shaun of the Dead which foreshadowed the fictional zombie invasion) demonstrated, the best parodies are those that also adhere to the rules of the genre they’re parodying. While Anne Rice devotees may find things to knit-pick about, Shadows pretty well nails vampire lore, while still managing to keep these supernatural elements well grounded in the real world. Further, Shadows includes material that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film. Although never particularly frightening, an infection growing in a victim’s neck or a first-person chase through a dark woods provide a nice snapshot of the tension that horror films do at their best, before the unpredictable punchline comes to remind the audience that this is a comedy, and a great one.
Much of Shadows‘s humor comes in seeing everyday life through an undead lens, but it is never limited to that gimmick. Acts like waking up in the morning, calling a house meeting, and dividing up chores are hilariously mundane and inventive, and all occur in just the first ten minutes. Each of the lead characters in Shadows are take-offs or responses to different vampiric archetypes: the classic, monstrous Nosferatu, the barbaric Vlad the Impaler, the romanticized demonic haematophiliacs, the modern “cool” vampires that every teenager at Hot Topic wanted to be during the period of peak-vampire. Yet beyond being parodies, every character is developed to the point that we know their tragedies and feel for their loss. Various subplots are surprisingly heartfelt, a required confrontation between vampires and werewolves becomes an exercise in self-discipline within a fun bit of wordplay, and a third-act event offers a genuinely touching moment sandwiched between a pair of highly quotable laugh lines. Yet, even with its light statements on love and friendship, the film never once forgets that it is first and foremost a comedy. Whereas most films of this sort would eventually run out of steam, the moment Shadows even hints at a lull some other bit of inspired lunacy comes in to kick up the energy ever higher.
As a reviewer, this is usually where I talk about how the film, no matter how good it is, can be improved. However, there is no way in which What We Do in the Shadows could be any better. For what it is, a comedy about vampire roommates in modern New Zealand, it is as good as it could possibly be. Even its miniscule budget (1.6 million USD may be high in New Zealand, but it’s nothing compared to most films) is perfect for the production in how it demands creativity. The practical effects are simple but wonderful and the little bits of computer graphics are quick, unexpected, and fitting. The rundown sets add atmosphere and believability. There may be one place where the small budget shows, but who cares when everything else is so great? You know a film is working as well as possible when having more money would only make it worse.
What We Do in the Shadows is a film that deserves to be copied and recreated to ubiquity until audiences lose all interest and grow to hate it. Of course, I hope that doesn’t happen, but that’s how good Shadows is. The backlash may be a worthy trade if it means more people get to enjoy this gem of filmmaking. More than any other type of occult creature, these vampires deserve to be everywhere.