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Trojan Zombies

If you don't follow me on Twitter, then you might not have heard about #VenioVideoVampiro before. In a nutshell: I watch a different vampire-themed film every week and commentate on it in real time via Twitter. Sometimes, when I feel like a change, I mix it up with a zombie or werewolf film. Here's everything I've watched recently.

I started off with a double-bill of 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later, excellent zombie films. I'd actually never seen 28 Weeks Later before, but I'm not sure why I was sleeping on it, because it was great. Robert Carlyle was terrifying. It almost foreshadows his recurring role in Once Upon A Time; his face is made for horror. I rounded off the month with a couple of vampire films (which, after all, is what I'm supposed to be watching!): Dracula (1931) and Near Dark. Unfortunately, I don't think either of them has aged well. Both suffer from the fact that they were amongst the first films to explore particular stories that have now been copied so many times that they feel trite. For me, Dracula also suffered seriously from comparison to the earlier silent classic Nosferatu (1922), which I watched a couple of months ago and thought completely eclipsed the Bela Lugosi version. I'm sorry. Don't drag me. My pick of the month was 28 Days Later. It has always been my favourite zombie film, and rewatching it didn't change my opinion. I had, however, forgotten about the Laocoön statue that features in the thrilling finale. Those of you who've watched the film before might not even have noticed it (and if you haven't watched it, I'm going into spoiler territory here...). The basic story goes as follows: Our heroes, a rag-tag group of survivors comprising one man and two women, one of them a teenager, have managed to escape zombie-filled London to find dubious sanctuary in a military compound that a small group of soldiers has established in a country house. As our heroes are welcomed inside, a statue of Laocoön towers over them in the entrance hall. I think this is masterfully ominous, and if you'll tolerate a little diversion into Ancient Greek mythology, I'll tell you why. I think most people know the story of the Trojan horse. The Greeks had been besieging Troy for a decade and were getting nowhere because its walls were impenetrable. So Odysseus (the 'smart one' of the Greek heroes) had them build a giant wooden horse as a parting gift for the Trojans. They handed it over then pretended to sail off, but what the Trojans didn't know was that the horse was stuffed with Greek soldiers. Once the Trojans took it within their gates, the Greeks would be free to invade.

Laocoön foresaw this. He was a Trojan priest who tried to warn his people against taking the horse into the city. According to Virgil's Aeneid, this angered Athena, who wanted Troy to fall, so she sent a couple of sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his sons. Here's the most famous depiction of that incident, from the Vatican. It is my very favourite classical sculpture. I used to visit the copy in Oxford University's cast gallery regularly when I was a student.

Of course, Laocoön's warning was ignored, the gift was accepted and Troy fell. Laocoön is the person to whom Virgil gives the iconic words "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" ("I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts" or, as one old Latin schoolroom joke would have it, "that nice couple we met in Crete"). So, how does this have any bearing at all on a film about a zombie apocalypse? Here's one reading: the soldiers welcome our heroes into their compound with smiles and promises of food and safety, but actually they have dark designs on the women. That's when the statue is first used to hint that something is wrong here, because as the old adage has it, "Beware Greeks bearing gifts". But here's another reading: these soldiers bring our hero Jim into the compound. When he protests at their general baddy-ness, they try to get rid of him, but he knows the compound too well. He murders them all. Maybe Jim is the Trojan horse. OR a third reading: Jim manages to kill everyone with the help of a zombie. When they arrive at the compound, one of the soldiers has already turned zombie and is being kept chained up in the yard so the other soldiers can study him. All Jim needs to do to wreak havoc in the compound is release the zombie, which he does to great effect. Maybe the zombie is the Trojan horse. That reading works particularly well when you consider that some people prefer the wooden horse as a metaphor: they suggest that the 'Trojan horse' was a real horse, infected with disease, then sent inside the walls of Troy to spread pestilence. That's a satisfying touchstone for a film about a zombie virus, isn't it? (If you like a good historical time-travel story, then do check out Jodi Taylor's St Mary's series. The third book in the series, A Second Chance, has Troy falling in precisely this way.)

Whichever interpretation you choose, I do think it was a stroke of genius to have Laocoön's anguished face looming in the background as the film races towards its grim conclusion. It's ominous as hell. Also, the soundtrack is banging.

Are there any vampire films you think I should be watching? Check out the #VenioVideoVampiro hashtag on Twitter to see which ones I've already checked off.


This post originally appeared in my July 2021 newsletter.

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