A few weeks back, there was a call for papers posted for a panel on “The Undead in the West,” and since then, I’ve been on the look out for items that might fall into that category. One of the ways the western as a genre has survived is by combining with other genres, and perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to find examples of horror westerns, or western horror, which is visible across a range of mediums.
There’s a new comic book series called American Vampire, with Stephen King as one of the authors.
The first issue (May 2010) takes place on two timelines, one in the 1920s (primarily on the set of silent film) and the other in Colorado in 1880 (and this part of the story, “Bad Blood,” is based on King’s script). In the Colorado narrative, a notorious outlaw named Skinner Sweet, who has been captured by Pinkerton agents, is being transported by train. One of the bank executives turns out to be a vampire, and after Sweet’s gang halts the train and frees the captive, the bank exec does what a vampire does, creating all sorts of havoc, and apparently turning Skinner Sweet into one of the undead in the process—and thus the vampire cowboy outlaw.
According to Scott Snyder (another of the writers—the comic is drawn by Rafael Albuquerque) in an editorial in the first issue, “The central question of the series is this: What if vampires evolved over time? Meaning, what if every once and awhile, when a vampire turns someone new, the blood makes something new: a new kind of vampire—with new powers, new strengths, new weaknesses?”
As Crevecoeur asks in Letters From an American Vampire Farmer, “What is this new man? This American Vampire?”
Skinner Sweet, it turns out, has undergone a kind of Turnerian transformation on the western frontier. As Snyder describes him, Sweet does indeed “become a new of vampire—the first American Vampire, tougher, meaner, born of the American West, with a new bag of tricks.”
So the first book in the series, with its mixture of bank robberies, outlaws, Turnerian frontier philosophy, and vampires, is pretty entertaining.
I also finally caught Zombieland, which came out recently on DVD. Starring Woody Harrelson as a cowboyed-up zombie-killer, Zombieland is an example of the post-apocalyptic western horror farce buddy movie romantic comedy genre. It’s got a little bit of everything, but is especially heavy on the blood and the gore and on putting on vivid display the truly disgusting eating habits and generally poor table manners of zombies.
The zombie virus has spread throughout America, and few humans remain who have not been zombified. An otherwise hapless college student (played by Jesse Eisenberg) has survived by adhering to a strict set of rules. He and Harrelson team up as the film’s mismatched buddy pair. Eisenberg has his rules, and Harrelson just likes killing zombies.
This was actually the first of the post-apocalyptic westerns to open in theaters last year (followed by The Road and The Book of Eli). And if the other two films had come first, you’d swear Zombieland was as much a parody of them as it is of zombie films. Again, we have a Man With No Name. Or men and women with no names. “Stop,” Harrelson states on first meeting his sidekick, “No names.” Instead, they go by their destinations, Columbus and Tallahassee.
The film begins in Texas, and initially the nameless men are planning to travel on eastward to their destinations. An encounter with two sisters (too complicated to explain) results in teaming up the traveling pairs and heading West, to California, to the Pacific Palisades Amusement Park, in search of an innocence the two sisters once knew as children while visiting the park.
But, really, in Zombieland, America has become one big amusement park, and this group of humans crossing the American West has a great time shooting things, knocking stuff over, and breaking stuff. When they finally get to the amusement park, and are surrounded by zombies, it’s all a big game, with multitudes of zombies as targets in a bigger than life arcade. Unlike The Road and The Book of Eli, in which the apocalypse is a disaster to be lamented, the zombie apocalypse turns out to be quite fun, especially if you have a scenery-chewing Woody Harrelson along.
If you’re in the mood for a post-apocalyptic western horror farce buddy movie romantic comedy, then check out Zombieland. It really is fairly entertaining, if also over the top in both its use of gore and its silliness. And there’s a nice moment when Harrelson is trapped alone inside a souvenir hut, surrounded by zombies, with nothing but his guns (his many many guns) and his wits. The scene is simultaneously a parody of the western’s Heroic Last Stand (especially The Wild Bunch) and of the famous scene in Night of the Living Dead when the zombies start ripping apart the cabin where the humans are sheltering. There are lots of slow motion shots of stuffed animals getting the stuffing ripped and shot out of them. Imagine The Wild Bunch with teddy bears.
And there’s even more to come in terms of the undead west, including a forthcoming movie adaptation of the “weird western” comic book hero Jonah Hex.