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Dr. Pecos at the Movies

    

From the very beginnings of cinema, vampires and zombies have proved fertile ground for filmmakers. Unfortunately, most of these filmmakers have chosen to take liberties with the truth for dramatic purposes. On these pages, Dr. Pecos offers reviews and articles to help counter the misinformation that exists in today's popular culture.

New Reviews
The following films have been reviewed by Dr. Hugo Pecos for accuracy and entertainment value. Each film is rated on the Fang Scale, with four fangs () being the highest score.


World War Z (2013) D: Marc Forster
In this zombie blockbuster, the filmmakers swapped out the sprawling, epistolary structure of Max Brooks' novel for a more linear narrative featuring Brad Pitt as an ex-United Nations worker who traces the source of a large-scale outbreak. The ant-like, CGI zombies here are a long way from the lone shambler in the cemetery at the beginning of 1968's Night of the Living Dead. In the last decade alone, we've gone from fast-running zombies to hordes of computer-generated sprinters: suspense swapped for spectacle. I'm probably barking at the moon at this point, but outbreaks like this are not scientifically feasible. And then there is the big finish. (SPOILER ALERT). Pitt's character discovers that diseases make humans undetectable to zombies, so all you have to do is inject yourself to avoid attack. This is a fallacy. Zombies don't distinguish between healthy humans and those with disease.
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Archived Reviews

Dracula (1931) D: Tod Browning
Along with Bram Stoker's novel, this film did more to shape the vampire myth than any other work. Because of it, we've had to endure an endless succession of Eastern European men with capes and widows peaks. A great film, but it has about as much to do with vampires as King Kong has to do with monkeys.
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The Wolf Man (1941) D: Curt Siodmak
Another seminal monster movie from Universal that defined perceptions of werewolves for decades to come. Lon Chaney Jr. stars as a man bitten by a werewolf who ends up transforming by the light of a full moon. The special effects are particularly quaint and stilted; the actual transformation is an agonizing process. Overall, an atmospheric, over-the-top work that flies by rather quickly.
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Dawn of the Dead (1978) D: George Romero
Sequel to Night of the Living Dead nicely captures the zombie pathology in a gruesomely entertaining fashion. Film correctly has zombies returning to the shopping mall based on dim memories of their pre-zombie life. The film's major flaw lies in making the zombies more formidable than they really are. Historically, a zombie's minimal brain activity and lack of mobility ensured that outbreaks were much more limited than the one shown in the film.
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American Werewolf in London (1981) D: John Landis
In this strong dramatic work from a director known for comedy, two Americans are attacked by a werewolf while walking on the moors in the UK. While the movie's special effects are a vast improvement over previous efforts, the notion of a man turning into a werewolf and then back into a man is scientifically preposterous.
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Thriller (1983) D: Jon Landis
The greatest music video ever. With zombies and a werewolf, how could it not be? Then again, it wouldn't have killed them to throw in a vampire or two. Michael Jackson plays the bashful young man who in the film-within-a-film surprises his date by turning into a werewolf by the light of the moon. The zombies are great and quite realistic (aside from the dancing) and the werewolf face makeup is pretty accurate. The body, not so much.
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Near Dark (1987) D: Kathryn Bigelow
The first film to accurately portray vampire pack mentality, with its Alpha Vampire, hunt-or-die mindset. On the down side, Near Dark propagates the myth of vampires bursting into flames when exposed to sunlight. Interestingly, the transfusion cure used successfully in this film was first tried in London in 1851. It failed miserably.

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The Lost Boys (1987) D: Joel Schumacher
This unfortunate glorification of vampirism is aimed squarely at younger audiences and shows the life of a vampire to be one lived without consequences. The vampires sleep all day, party all night, and ruthlessly dispatch their enemies: what teenager wouldn't want to live like that? Many of my students cite this film as proof that being a vampire isn't half bad. That's when I show them the real footage.
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Educational Value: 0 fangs


Vampires (1990) D: Ken Burns
If you see one movie about vampires, let it be this documentary first shown on PBS. Because of its running time (8 hours), many people assume this opus will be boring. They couldn't be more wrong. By sticking with the facts, director Ken Burns brings life to vampires in a way that is far more chilling than movies that rely on special effects and blood capsules.
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Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) D: Fran Rubel Kuzui
The only thing funny about this comedy is its notion of a vapid teenage valley girl being inherently endowed with vampire-fighting skills. As a former instructor at the FVZA Academy, I know that it takes intensive training in vampire science and martial arts, along with years of experience in the field, before one can master the art of fighting vampires.
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Educational Value: 0 fangs



Interview With the Vampire (1994) D: Neil Jordan
Based on a fine, if fanciful Anne Rice novel, Interview tells the story of Louis and his indoctrination into the ways of vampirism by the handsome Lestat. Initially unable to kill humans, Louis slakes his thirst for blood on rats. It's true that vampires can live several weeks on the blood of non-human mammals, although such a diet does not supply all the nutrients essential for their survival.
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Wolf (1994) D: Mike Nichols
In this high profile production, a book editor is bitten by a wolflike creature and begins to change. His sense of smell and hearing are heightened, and he takes to marking his territory and growling at his workplace rival. These changes are accurately portrayed, but then the movie falls back on the old chestnut of a man becoming a wolf at night and then awakening the next morning with no recollection of the previous night's carnage. It's enjoyable to watch Jack Nicholson face down James Spader, but the transformation effects are something of a step backward and the film plays loose with the facts.
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John Carpenter's Vampires (1998) D: John Carpenter
I had hopes for this one when James Woods' vampire hunter offered his deconstructionist view of vampires: "they don't turn into bats, garlic doesn't bother them." But in the end, the trail leads to yet another long-haired, handsome man with a bevy of beauties at his disposal and a very confusing axe to grind.
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Ginger Snaps (2000) D: John Fawcett
This Canadian film is noteworthy for a couple of reasons: one, it involves a female character transformed into a werewolf, and two, it correctly shows the transformation to a werewolf as a gradual process. The early views of the werewolf effectively rely on shadow, sound and suggestion. Unfortunately, the eventual sight of the plastic-looking werewolf betrays the movie's low budget origins.
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Dracula 2000 (2000) D: Patrick Lussier
The title of this film gave me hope that at last we'd see a realistic updating of the Dracula myth, but it was not to be. While Dracula 2000 generally covers well-trodden ground and adds little to the canon, it does offer a novel, New Testament version of vampire origins. Interesting, but, in fact, vampires were around for several millenia before Christ.
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The Forsaken (2001) D: J.S. Cardone
This film continues the general trend in recent movies of demystifying vampires by stripping away some of the old totems, like garlic and wooden stakes. However, it relies on yet another preposterous creation myth to explain why vampires are "evil," forgetting that traditional notions of morality are irrelevant when applied to vampires.
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Queen of the Damned (2002) D: Michael Rymer
This sequel to Interview finds Lestat singing for a rock and roll band until Queen Akasha, the mother of all vampires, awakens and decides she wants him for herself. Like its predecessor, Queen takes vampire facts and stretches them to the breaking point and beyond. While the vampire/rock-and-roll connection is apt (see the famous case, Magic Wanda), there is no mother or father of all vampires. All in all, a pretty forgettable movie.
Entertainment Value: 1/2
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28 Days Later (2003) D: Danny Boyle
A man wakes from a coma to find London overrun by zombies of the early-stage variety. The zombie makeup is fairly realistic, but real zombies are nowhere near as swift as the zombies in this movie (although real zombies are quicker than one might expect, especially in the early stages of decomposition). Overall, an entertaining film, but it's more about human behavior than it is about zombies.
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Underworld (2003) D: Len Wiseman
Uh-oh: black leather; gothic streetscapes; an attractive young woman with a healthy complexion and pearly white teeth. In other words, what we've got here is another glorification of vampirism. At least Underworld gets credit for throwing some CGI werewolves into the mix. Of course, werewolves are rural creatures and would never venture into a city, much less engage in a generations-long battle with vampires.
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Shaun of the Dead (2004) D: Edgar Wright
For those of you who think I lack a sense of humor, please note that I enjoyed this British comedy very much. Like its near-namesake, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun draws parallels between the daily grind of human life and the thoughtless shamblings of zombies. However, Shaun of the Dead should not to be used as a zombie-fighting training video. Zombies, especially the early-stage ones shown in the film, are deceptively swift and agile and, trust me, you will not be able to take them out with one swing of a cricket bat.
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Underworld: Evolution (2006) D: Len Wiseman
By now you know how I feel about the whole gothic romanticism of sexy, black-leather-clad vampires. In this sequel, we learn more about the origin of the vampire-werewolf feud. Taken as a treatise on the undead, Underworld: Evolution fails on many levels. For instance, I have never seen a vampire sprout wings. Additionally, vampires have no hidden rivalry with werewolves; they simply don't travel in the same circles.
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Blood and Chocolate (2007) D: Katja von Garnier
When did Romeo and Juliet become the template for all werewolf movies? In this recent offering, a young woman who happens to be a werewolf falls for a civilian, earning the ire of her clan. Other than the fact that it's directed by a woman, this film contains plenty of the old chestnuts: long-haired Euro hunks, ancient, crumbling crypts, yellow contact lenses. Humans transform instantly into werewolves and then back into humans, and the merest whiff of silver kills werewolves instantly. Listen up, movie producers. If you're going to do a werewolf movie nowadays, give us something different! Please!
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30 Days of Night (2007) D: David Slade
Vampires move in on a remote village in Alaska as it enters the long polar night. A similar event actually happened in Barrow, Alaska, in 1925. As for the movie, the vampires are not the worst I've seen, although they follow the recent tradition of having a mouthful of fangs rather than just pointed canines. Several people have told me that the comic book is better, so perhaps you should start there. Or, for a better people-trapped-in-a-snowy-village movie, try John Carpenter's The Thing.
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I Am Legend (2007) D: Francis Lawrence
A virus manipulated to treat cancer ends up wiping out most of the world's human population within a few years, Robert Neville (Will Smith), the sole remaining survivor in Manhattan, must contend with vampire-like creatures who come out at night to hunt. This is the third cinematic incarnation of Richard Matheson's book and there are some good things in it. The vision of Manhattan emptied out and overgrown with weeds is compelling, and the scene of Neville going into a large building to retrieve his dog is both suspenseful and realistic. In addition, I Am Legend does a good job capturing the look and athleticism of vampires. Unfortunately, the movie's reliance on digital technology makes the vampires look at times cartoonish, especially when they're in motion. Also, the vampires have been stripped of their ability to communicate, which leaves their interpersonal skills on the level of early-stage zombies.
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Moonlight (TV series-2007)

This new TV series tracks the exploits of Mick St. John, a Los Angeles private detective who just happens to be a vampire. For starters, this man looks nothing like a vampire. Even newly minted vampires have visible differences from humans in their skin tone, eyes and face. And vampires cannot hold real jobs, like private detective. Although, to be fair, some vampires did "go over to the good side" and help the FVZA during my time as an agent.
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Planet Terror (Grindhouse) (2007) D: Robert Rodriguez
This Austin-set Robert Rodriguez film is one of the better zombie offerings in recent years. The cast is great and the action moves along at a nice clip. The zombies in this movie are not viral but the result of some military experiment. Their heads tend to bubble up until they resemble victims of elephantitis. Planet Terror gets points for having the outbreak start in a hospital and for capturing the panic and confusion that ensues in the wake of an outbreak. Of course, there are a few authenticity issues here. For one, Wray's penchant for killing zombies with knives wouldn't translate into real life. Knives are fairly ineffective against zombies and greatly increase your chance of getting infected fluids in your eyes, nose and mouth. Shotguns and high-powered rifles are the preferred anti-zombie weapons.
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Twilight (2008) D: Catherine Hardwicke
I realize I may incur the wrath of a thousand tweener girls for this, but Twilight is laughably inaccurate. I mean, vampires attending high school and walking about in the daylight? What's next, bloodsuckers sunning on a beach in St. Barts? And another thing: as I've mentioned on this site before, vampires do not retain their appearance over time. If the vampire Edward Cullen was as old as he was alleged to be in the movie, he would be slight, bald and withered. His head would sport nary a single flowing lock, unless it came from the Hair Club for Men. I can understand the appeal of this story to girls, but I think it perpetuates a dangerous practice by making vampires the objects of desire.
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Quarantine (2008) D: John Erick Dowdle
A remake of the Spanish film [Rec], Quarantine uses the Blair Witch forensic video approach to tell the story of a group of people trapped in a building that's been quarantined due to some mysterious virus that transforms its victims into bloodthirsty zombies. The virus is apparently the result of some experiments conducted by a secretive man in a top-floor apartment. The rapid transformation of the victims that speeds the plot along is largely unrealistic. Humans take more than a day to fully transform into zombies. By the way, the only case I can recall where the FVZA had to quarantine a group of people involved a small cruise ship that returned to Miami from a Caribbean trip with its passengers and crew fully infected. We had to keep the boat at sea and destroy everyone on board, one at a time.
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The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) D: Chris Weitz
Hundred-year old vampires that look like healthy teenagers; young men who instantly transform from human to werewolf, and then back again; vampires walking around in daylight. It may take me the rest of the limited time I have left here on this earth to counter all the misinformation served up by the Twilight series. The new movie has the main character Bella taking up with the werewolf Jacob after Edward, her vampire lover, moves away to protect her from the rest of the Cullen clan. I must admit, I did find some poignancy in Edward's plight. Vampires often have to make difficult choices over whether to turn a loved one or leave them be. But the movie's conception of werewolves is way off. All in all, Twilight inhabits a fantasy universe that propagates dangerous ideas about the undead.
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Zombieland (2009) D: Ruben Fleischer
Like 2004's Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland takes a fairly lighthearted approach to the genre. The story involves a hardy band of outbreak survivors led by a skilled zombie killer who just wants to find some Hostess Twinkies. Of course, the moveimakers take some liberties with the truth. The zombies are uniformly fast-moving and show little of the decay that real zombies experience. The outbreak apparently is triggered by the consumption of infected beef, much like Mad Cow disease. At the beginning of the movie, the narrator lists a series of survival tips and repeats them throughout. My personal favorite is the "Double Tap" rule, which is the practice of delivering an extra shot to the head of a zombie to make sure it's dead. That, my friends, is sound advice. Just take pains to make sure you don't get any viscera or fluids in your nose and mouth from the zombie's exploding head.
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Twilight Eclipse (2010) D: David Slade
This latest installment in the successful series has a vampire army arriving in Forks on a vengeful quest. Cinematically speaking, there are two main problems with this movie: it's about 30 minutes too long, and the drama of the big climactic showdown is dampened by the fact that the vampire army is made up of barely post-pubescent kids—hardly the most intimidating adversary. While vampire armies have popped up throughout history, in today's world it would be difficult to build such a force. Besides, a pack of four can hunt more efficiently, while remaining difficult to detect.

By now, you know my chief objections to the Twilight series. Vampires cannot go out in the sun, much less sparkle in it, and they do not maintain their youthful appearance over time. Werewolves do not "shape shift," or move back and forth between human and animal form, and they certainly wouldn't ever join forces with vampires. A werewolf will tear up pretty much anything that comes into its path. In addition, werewolves don't look like jumbo-sized wolves--more like a wolf/human hybrid. Suffice it to say, you shouldn't go to the Twilight series for educational purposes.
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Let Me In (2010) D: Matt Reeves
In this American remake of a 2008 Swedish film, a 12-year-old boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) befriends a girl (Chloe Moretz) who turns out to be a vampire. The film benefits from a good cast and a chilly atmosphere. Alas, it is rife with inaccuracies. First and foremost, vampires do not look like regular people. Even one turned at age 12 would lose its hair and its healthy skin tone within a few months. Second, vampires don't draw attention to themselves. They don't walk around barefooted in the middle of winter. If they rented an apartment in a complex, you would rarely, if ever, see them, and they wouldn't have loud fights amongst themselves. And their appearance doesn't change when they're feeding. My overall verdict: Let Me In works as a piece of entertainment but not as a primer on how vampires operate.
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The Wolfman (2010) D: Joe Johnston
Benicio del Toro plays the title character in this big budget homage to the Lon Chaney, Jr., original. Unfortunately, The Wolfman also pays homage to many old werewolf myths, including silver bullets, gypsies and victims who transform into beasts and then back to humans again. As the title suggests, the creature is more of a wolf-man than a werewolf. When he's in wolf mode, he walks upright (for the most part) and his body is proportioned more like a man's than a werewolf's. Real werewolves have very muscular shoulders, a long upper body and short hind quarters. Finally—at this point, I feel like I'm tilting at windmills when I criticize CGI, but the fact is that it fails to capture the way a werewolf moves. A werewolf runs like a horse crossed with a big cat. They are very fluid and very fast. CGI makes them look cartoonish, and doesn't give a sense of their mass and power.
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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) D: Timur Bekmambetov
I was intrigued by this premise, since Abraham Lincoln certainly knew of vampires and may have encountered some growing up in Kentucky and Illinois. In addition, Lincoln was actively involved in the planning for the Vanguard, the precursor to the FVZA. The plot has vampire/plantation owners using the slave trade for feeding purposes. Lincoln teams up with a "good" vampire to put a stop to it, and the film culminates with a massive battle at Gettysburg between the north and a vampire army from the south. The ultimate demise of the vampire army is brought about through the use of silver bullets and bayonets. In the real world, these have no effect on vamps. The film's history is suspect, too. While some plantations in the antebellum south were fronts for vampiric activity, that had little or nothing to do with the Civil War. It's exciting to see a film that acknowledges the role of vampires in history, but I wish this one had hewed a bit closer to the facts.
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The Revenant (2012) D: D. Kerry Prior
This buddy comedy was made in 2009 and released a few years later—normally, not a good sign for a movie, but The Revenant is worth a look. The plot concerns a soldier who was killed in Iraq and awakens back home as a zombie/vampire hybrid called a "revenant." He turns his best friend and together, they roam Los Angeles performing acts of vigilante justice. Some inspired comedy and good special effects follow, and there's an interesting twist at the end. If you've read Ask Dr. Pecos then you know that vampire/zombie hybrids are possible. They are known as vampirozombies and are pretty horrifying to behold. The Revenant definitely takes some poetic license, but I still give it a recommendation as a solid piece of entertainment about on par with Shaun of the Dead
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Warm Bodies (2013) D: Jonathan Levine
I quite enjoyed this zombie romantic comedy wherein a young male zombie falls for a unzombified woman. As you might expect from the premise, it's not exactly a treatise on zombie science. Early-stage zombies do have self awareness and can communicate on a rudimentary level, but their mental faculties decline each and every day to the point where they wouldn't hesitate to eat their own children. This movie has something a little different: "bonies," or advanced-stage zombies that resemble living skeletons and are not bound by any sense of morality. Fortunately, there are no such creatures in real life. In fact, later-stage zombies are less formidable than those in the early stages. This movie is more about getting out of your smartphone bubble and seizing the day and living life than it is about zombies, and in that respect, it does the job.
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Articles

A Rant.

Werewolves in the Movies.

A Survey of Vampire/Zombie Makeup in the Movies

Dr. Pecos discusses Land of the Dead with movie critic David Templeton.




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