Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement really like vampires, as shown by their film What We Do in the Shadows. The plot follows four vampires that live in New Zealand, and draws upon the history of the vampire in popular culture for thematic purposes. Most representations of the vampire came from ancient folklore, and have persisted throughout history because they exist in a strange space between life and death, and by extension, between being human and being inhuman. As a result, the vampire’s image has been applied to groups that normative society marginalizes and fears in many pieces of film and television. However, instead of making the vampires the villains, the film opts to emphasize their casual activities like cleaning the dishes, even if the context is morbid, like cleaning the dishes because they are bloody. The combination of the mock-umentary style of filmmaking and New Zealand’s everyday style of humor ultimately gives audiences the ability to relate to these “others.”
What We Do in the Shadows instantly accomplishes its goal within its first fifteen minutes. The first vampire is Viago, played by Waititi, and what is striking about his introduction is how very specific expectations of the vampire are undercut using bathos. When Viago’s sleeping coffin is first shown, the minimal lighting and dark furniture surrounding the coffin trick viewers into expecting a serious scene. But the shot also contains an alarm clock, killing the tense atmosphere due to how out-of-place it is. Viago’s actual ascent out of the coffin is undercut by his inelegance. His clear embarrassment over his inability to exit from his coffin without abruptly stopping is incredibly uncharacteristic of the traditional vampire. Viago then checks if the sun has set, cautiously opening the curtains. When he discovers the sun is gone, he playfully exclaims “Yes, nighttime!” which is not how vampires normally react.
This scene’s comedy serves two purposes. First, it is obviously meant to be funny. Second, and most importantly, it properly shows the audience that vampires can make mundane mistakes and get excited over small joys, just like humans do. By initially creating an atmosphere that induces audiences to draw upon the widespread familiarity of the vampire, the film forces viewers to imagine the terrifying but fascinating vampire smoothly ascend out of his coffin. Then, it eagerly challenges those expectations after they are established. This becomes a general formula in the film, and the root of most of its comedy.
As the opening sequence continues, the audience is introduced to a different aspect of vampire life: how all of the vampire roommates, each from different points in history and reference different parts of popular culture, interact as a group. First, Viago goes around waking up his flatmates, nonchalantly informing each member of the impending flat meeting. After a few minutes, three out of the four vampires congregate in the kitchen. The meeting commences when Viago complains that Deacon (Jonny Brugh) has “not done the dishes for five years!” and points out that “it’s unacceptable to have so many bloody dishes like that!” The two suddenly levitate and hiss at each other for a few seconds before settling down. Deacon finally does the dishes.
The terrifying parts of vampire life are not absent from this scene, but there is a huge emphasis on the normalcy of the situation to water those scary parts down. Viago’s irritation, while contextually strange because he references how the dishes are bloody and five years have passed, is still inherently rooted in his frustration that Deacon has not completed a basic chore. If the context of these characters being monstrous vampires is removed, the basic idea of the scene’s conflict remains unchanged. In other words, a mundane part of life is the source of conflict. The film’s casual treatment of this dispute, even while acknowledging the morbid context of the scene, serves to further paint the protagonists as endearing, showing that the vampires’ interactions are still very similar to those of humans.
This blithe attitude carries over during the parts where the characters are interviewed individually. As an example, Deacon explains how, despite being more than a hundred years old, is labeled the “young badboy.” To illustrate his backstory, the film uses both fake and real paintings, drawings, and photographs. What ends up being humorous about this is the fact that the real-life paintings can have nothing to do with the film’s actual subject matter. One such painting is Francisco Goya’s Saturn Eating His Son, which harkens back to Roman and Greek mythology, rather than vampire folklore. This is clearly making fun of how documentaries use reenactments, but still recognizing the reenactment’s function of visually illustrating history. Hence, the audience is able to further identify Deacon as a person with an active role in past events, rather than a simple, thoughtless monster that can only be defined by his horrifying and threatening diet.
Speaking of a vampire’s diet, after the introduction sequence ends, that is the first aspect of vampire life that the film addresses and normalizes, particularly when the viewer has to watch Viago feed. Since vampires can only survive by killing humans, this is arguably the most difficult aspect to make relatable. Viago begins the scene by stating that this is “one of the most unfortunate things” about being a vampire, and proceeds to describe how he tries to treat his victims with respect and to make the last few hours of their lives enjoyable. During the feeding, Viago screws up, as blood ends up everywhere and stains everything. He complains about the bloodstains, but concludes by hoping his victim had a good time before he killed her, bashfully smiling at the camera.
This is not the only instance of how Viago’s mistake allows for some dark comedy. Admittedly, the vampire being unable to gracefully complete the one thing he is supposed to excel at does work on a comedic level, even if the context is macabre. Additionally, Viago ends the scene by adjusting his clothes and hitting his microphone by accident. This reaffirms his clumsy nature in a manner that only works in the context of a mock-umentary. This scene effectively proves that, despite the inherently monstrous nature of their diet, vampires are still capable of sympathizing with their victims and making mortal mistakes. Thus, audiences can still identify with them, because the film manages to reveal the humanistic aspects of what should be the most alienating moment in the film.
The final way What We Do in the Shadows humanizes the vampires is by showing their selfless side, even when their selflessness has consequences. Their potential for selflessness is proven when the audience sees Viago’s reaction to his own unrequited love. Around a century before the film began, he fell in love with a human woman named Catherine. She ended up marrying another man, to which Viago comments, “Sure, I wanted to kill the guy. I thought about chopping his head off, draining him of every drop of blood that he had. Who wouldn’t? But then, I also saw how happy she was. And that made me kind of happy. And I didn’t want to ruin it for her, so I did the honorable thing and I just…stepped back and let her live her life.” The film shows Viago printing out a picture of Catherine, with the camera focusing on her face. He then tapes the picture to the interior of his coffin, so he can see her before he falls asleep in the morning.
This scene heavily contradicts the representation of vampires from other films, because the traditional vampire is inherently a selfish parasite. The monster indiscriminately robs humans of their lives and loved ones for the sake of their own immortal lives. Thus, seeing Viago proudly resist the temptation to deprive his loved one of her happiness ultimately contradicts that expectation, and further humanizes him. After all, if the vampire is fully capable of performing what is arguably humanity’s greatest virtue, then society can no longer rightly label them as heartless monsters.
As an aside, using the non-human vampire as a metaphor for the marginalized is arguably problematic. In reality, the marginalized are obviously human beings, even if normative society tries to prove otherwise. In spite of that potential misstep, the intent of What We Do in the Shadows is clearly pure, as the audience would not be asked to directly identify with vampire protagonists otherwise. Thus, What We Do in the Shadows successfully argues that those perceived to be abnormal are just as capable of making mistakes, feeling both positive and negative emotions, and acting altruistically, just like those perceived to be normal.