You’ve heard the propaganda: Zombies Are the New Vampires. Once relegated to back-list B movies like I Walked With a Zombie and Night of the Living Dead, those slow-moving, post-mortem drudges of West African mythic origin are now the hot horror creature. The PR is positively zombastic. They have their own anthem Zombies Are the New Black, by the Philly pop-punk sextet The Wonder Years and their own music video, which you may have seen in the past month or so: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The Walking Dead have even been invoked as emblems of our current financial malaise. Their chief apologist and spin doctor, TIME’s Lev Grossman, trumpets the zombie as “the official monster of the recession.”
Here’s a tip, folks: zombiemania will never last. It may be as urgent as the Birther movement, but it has no more validity. Don’t fall for a fad; stick with a quality monster, which has a rich history in literature and cinema, and which keeps producing attractive variations. I speak of the vampire, as exemplified by Park Chan-wook’s terrific new South Korean film, Thirst.
Zombies are what we feel like at our worst: slogging through a winter workday, standing in a long line at airport security, waking up with a hangover. Vampires speak to the romantic in us, to our need for human contact, teeth to neck. They embody everything erotic about the predatory impulse. Vampires glide through the night and, instead of breaking down your door like an angry zombie mob, they glide into your bedroom for a late-night tryst. They don’t rip a victim’s limbs off; they leave two decorous little puncture marks on the neck or breast. But once they get into your system, you’re theirs forever unlike a zombie, whom you can escape just by walking briskly in the opposite direction. Vampires have savoir-faire and star quality; a vampire is Johnny Depp, a zombie John C. Reilly. And they’re always impeccably dressed. What do zombies wear Rags! Not to sound elitist, but zombies are just rabble. Vampires always have been, always will be, the aristocrats of monsters.
Thirst gives the vampire genre a new king, or Count, and he wears a cassock instead of a cape. Father Sang-hyun is a very caring Catholic priest, who gives last rites to terminally ill patients at the local hospital. He is also a serious flagellant, whipping his thighs in mortification to suppress sexual urges. He has a Christ-like desire to save the world through suffering, and that vocation leads him into a medical experiment with dire effects: everyone else who’s undergone it has died.
The experiment makes no sense, doesn’t matter, this is a horror movie is one he somehow survives, making him a figure of veneration to a small cult believing he can cure all ailments. That’s the hope of Father Hyun’s feeble school chum Kang-woo , who lives with his termagant mom and his strangely silent, sullen young wife Tae-ju . What the family doesn’t know is that the experiment has turned the good father into a vampire. The condition’s benefits he can bend lamp posts, scale high walls don’t always outweighs its liabilities. The food supply he needs is hard to find in the local market. So, as you walk unawares into a hospital room, you might find a man in a collar and cassock supine on the floor, sucking the blood from a patient’s IV bottle.
Tae-ju happens to be just the woman for this virgin vampire. In one long scene of sexual tension, she kisses Hyun and nearly seduces him; in another, he acknowledges both her attractiveness and his rapacious new nature and they consummate their relationship, one whose carnal excess will define the rest of the film. Their love is both sacred and insane: sacra-mental. And the movie goes mad with them. This is a mad love story that gets down to the essentials: ecstasy, pain and all the bodily fluids, especially blood. It’s liberating to see a film that melds with the obsessions of its characters, that strips the moorings from genre expectations and leaves viewers asking if the film has lost its mind, or if they have. Our advice: when Thirst goes nuts, go with it.
Director Park, best known to DVD connoisseurs for his Vengeance trilogy, is a past master of emotional violence, and Thirst is his richest, craziest, most mature work yet. He gets valiant work from Song, a top Korean star whose trademark stolidity is a suitable vessel for Father Hyun’s stoic battle against the impulses that have invaded his system. But it’s the lovely Kim, just 22, who is the revelation here. She can play no, she can be a creature of mute docility, then searching ardor, then explosive eroticism, then murderous intent. She is Lady Chatterley and Lady Macbeth in one smoldering package.
Blending plot elements of Double Indemnity and Natural Born Killers with the ripe sensuality of Francis Coppola’s take on Dracula, the film should make audiences sit up in startled pleasure, as if they’d just received the most luscious neck-bite. So take a break from the summer’s zombified blockbusters and surrender to the crimson ecstasy of Thirst.
Zombies Are the New Vampires
See TIME’s photos: 90 years of vampires on the big screen