The virus is an explanation for "monsterism" that is de rigueur these days and for the past 15 years at least. I guess in these days of decreasing beliefs in God and the supernatural, by extension, that writers and producers were looking for something more scientific, more empirical, more believable to explain how these sorts of things can happen.
I also think that viruses provide a sort of comfort in the idea that there is a cure, a means of prevention and make the monsters in question less plausible and, frankly, less scary. American monster fiction in the 20th century was big on rational (or pseudo-rational) explanations for the existence of monsters. Be it a virus, aliens or Old Man Jenkins with a projector, a sheet, a bucket of dry ice, two squirrels and a flashlight - Americans love to explain away the supernatural and that has been a blight on the genres ever since.
Of course the way in which the virus is presented as a cause for "monsterism" makes it a supernatural entity in itself. Viruses can now cause ordinary people to transmogrify into a completely different creature and imbue them with very special abilities. Viruses are given the ability to reanimate the dead, and in the case of vampires they maintain complex cognitive functions, arrest decay, a need to consume blood for food for some reason and extraordinary, impossible powers. In the case of zombies, the dead are reanimated and driven to feed on the living. In the case of 28 Days Later or Zombieland, the virus explanation works since the "zombies" aren't actually dead just reduced to a bestial state by viral related brain damage.
Viruses are a weak explanation for monsters. Often times the virus is every bit as supernatural a cause as an ancient curse and the cure every bit as miraculous as faith or alchemical as a potion. Basically, this is my plea to do away with viruses in monster genres. In just a couple of decades the virus has become far more hackneyed than crosses, holy water or silver bullets. In these days of scientific progress and hubris I would say that the supernatural is far creepier and a far more plausible explanation for creatures that could never exist. Monsters come from our primal fears, they come crawling (or sprinting) out of the dark. The more mysterious our monsters are the better our stories about them are.
Vampires, regardless of the romantic, humanising sub-genre targeting the hormones of swooning teenage girls (and boys, I suppose) are monsters. In fact, the notion of blood drinking creatures, spirits, demons or revenants have spanned human history across a number of different cultures. In the West, we may be most familiar with the Jewish legend of Lilith, said to be Adams' first wife in Midrash and whose legend dates back to ancient Babylonia and Sumeria.
In ancient Greece, precursors to the modern vampire were found in the characters of Lamia, (a name popular with Goth girls) Empusa, (a name not so popular with Goth girls) and the Striges where we get the Albanian and Italian words for witch (shtriga and strega - also the name of a liqueur) and the Romanina vampire known as a strigoi. India has the vile vetalas and other vampiric creatures can be found in the folk lore of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and China. The Chinese Jiang Shi (a hopping corpse) is an interesting cross between the vampire and a revenant. (similar in some respects to the zombie)
Vampires are monsters and I think it is time we get back to that notion. Exploring the possibility of internal conflict may be interesting - and it works in some cases - but enough with pining, whining, teary-eyed bloodsuckers already. It is time to bring back the horror.
I have been trying to think of three films that sum up the best the vampire genre has to offer, in my own opinion and the ones I came up with were:
1. Nosferatu (1922): There were around 23 films from the silent era that preceded F.W. Murnau's silent classic, but I have not seen any of them. I have also not seen Werner Herzog's 1979 remake of Murnau's film, but am very curious about it. The film is really just an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and was almost lost to history through the actions of Stoker's litigation happy widow. (characters were renamed or dropped altogether) But Nosferatu resurfaced in the `60's and has been horrifying people since then. In fact, when I was quite young I caught a clip of Count Orlok creeping up a stairwell and it scared the hell out of me. (see below) Friend and fellow blogger, Geosomin, admitted to me the other day that she has always wanted to see Nosferatu but just knows it will scare the hell out of her. The cinematography is also another reason to see this film.
2. Shadow of the Vampire (2000): This film assumes that Murnau made Nosferatu using a real vampire. Willem Dafoe plays "Max Shreck" (a stage name for the actor who actually played Count Orlok in the original) and is every bit as creepy (and sometimes darkly comical) as the original version. John Malkovich plays Murnau as a rather horrific figure himself. It makes an interesting companion piece to Nosferatu, maintaining the horror and eeriness the flowed through the first film.
3. 30 Days of Night (2007): A film that truly unleashes unsympathetic, bestial killers on the silver screen. I think the film was better than its source material. A roving band of bloodsuckers arrive in a remote Alaskan town that has just shut down for the winter. After using a pawn to take out the towns communications and possible defenses, the proceed to feed with no qualms or sympathy. The monsters aren't the main focus of the film - monsters are usually best when they aren't - they are the antagonists, the source of conflict upon which the human drama is played out. The cast is strong and the film is chilling.
1. Fright Night (1985): I was initially going to put this at number two, but Shadow of the Vampire won out in my mind. About to be remade with Colin Farrell as the vampiric neighbour and David Tennent taking up the reigns as the "fearless vampire hunter", the original is still worth watching. It is a classic vampire story, where science and that rational play no part in the solution. My only complaint is that the film is that is a bit too eighties, but nothing is perfect.
2. Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series): It has been a while since I have seen this, but I found it made for creepy viewing despite the fact that we really don't meet the vampire until much later in the program. I also loved the ending, not really a happy ending. Actually 70's television wasn't too bad a decade for vampires. I have the series Kolchak, the Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin, on the DVD. The series features a somewhat campy vampire episode that is connected to a TV movie called The Night Stalker. In that movie reporter, Carl Kolchak, investigates the disappearances of woman working on the Las Vegas Strip. Much like Salem's Lot, I like this one (and the series) for its tone, pace and execution.
** Just looking things over and I decided to split this post up into three parts (Sorry Geo, sorry Glen - I know you hate splitting things up)