Dead & Beautiful Stretches Vampire Metaphors to the Breaking Point
A film as lifeless as its characters
Dead & Beautiful. Available Thursday, November 4, on Shudder.
Somebody call Robert Stack. What inexplicable tic of marketing numbnuttedness led AMC's horror-genre streaming service Shudder to delay the premiere of Chinese vampire saga Dead & Beautiful until the week after Halloween? Can we expect It's a Wonderful Life at Easter and Caligula on Valentine's Day?
Not that Dead & Beautiful is exactly epic in the annals of fang-banger flicks. Obsessively pursuing its central and overworked metaphor, that vampirism is a species of class warfare, D&B inadvertently turns dismayingly literal, a lush but ultimately lifeless spectacle. But it has some biting humor (yes, that's a joke) and enticing decolletage along the way. If you forgot to have a Halloween party, you could do worse than to build a late one around a screening of this.
A joint Dutch-Taiwanese production without significant theatrical release that's getting its first real screening on Shudder, D&B is a tale of five obscenely wealthy Taipei twenty-somethings (all played by young Asian and European actors with little if any American exposure) besotted with the exquisite ennui of the rich and beautiful. They wander a gorgeously desolate landscape of Lamborghini and Gucci, empty clubs and hotels that, like their lives, are dazzling but empty. They beat and abuse anybody they encounter—including themselves—just because they can.
Inevitably, one of their increasingly desperate attempts to relieve boredom—a nighttime hike through a rugged jungle once inhabited by ancient headhunters—goes badly. They awake from a drugged sleep with their teeth morphed into fangs and their elderly guide covered with bloody bite marks. The conclusion, that they've become literal and not just figurative vampires, seems obvious—and, once they get over the surprise ("I'm calling my helicopter!" shouts one) and away from the dawning sun, they're curiously undismayed. They even blog about it.
Experiments with chewing gum and store security mirrors soon follow, and then transfused blood sipped from brandy snifters. Soon they're out on the nighttime sidewalks, their fangs concealed by COVID masks, stalking prey, boredom evaporated by the moonlight. It's not far to the double-dog dare of the nosferatu world: Bite me.
When Dead & Beautiful is not dwelling excessively on the soullessness of its protagonists, it can be quite amusing. Acts of awesome cultural appropriation (the kids maintain Bram Stoker stole Dracula not from Romanian history as European ethnocentrists would have it, but from oral histories of those Taiwanese headhunters) are followed by panicky millennial identity crises. "There's something strange about being a Chinese vampire," one of the young men complains to another. "We usually see white vampires, or black vampires, like Wesley Snipes." What must it be like to be so young and callow you don't remember The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires? Another reports a triumph of vampire mental gymnastics: He successfully clouded the mind of a 7-11 counter worker.
But like most heavily metaphored shows, D&B is more about style than action or characters, and it eventually collapses from the strain of its own weighty symbolism. (A conclusion that feels highly tacked-on does not help.) Even allegorical fangs have to penetrate the skin at some point, or concede to the observation of Shagal the Jewish nosferatu of The Fearless Vampire Killers when confronted by raging peasant brandishing a crucifix: "Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire."