Zombies, Contamination, and Only Lovers Left Alive
I recently re-watched the 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive. Wow. What a great film, and where was this film when I was writing my paper on the evolution of the vampire monster in popular culture?? Okay, I watched it in the first place because, well, I must watch all vampire genre films, but as I continued into it I saw that threads of the Zombie theme are present within the vampire genre also. I know that they both deal with a “supernatural monster” but it is more than that. It is something that is certainly, acutely, and most poignantly human.
Only Lovers Left Alive starring Tom Hiddleston and the always fabulous Tilda Swinton is brooding, surreal, sensual, romantic, saddening, tragic, and a whole bunch of other emotive adjectives. Hip and cool, this film is also about loneliness and otherness, and the struggle to rise above the often blinding servitude to meaninglessness to which the lonely outsider is often relegated. As mortal humans, we don’t live long enough to fully rough out the extents of love and “lifefulness.” And thus we can’t hand the knowledge as a “certainty” down the generational ladder. But that’s where the immortal creatures of human imagination come in—to offer the time so crucial to the exploration of life and all its foibles…and the great mystery of love.
This film is about “Adam” (Tom Hiddleston) and “Eve” (Tilda Swinton) who are vampires that have been around since the Crusades. Most importantly, they are married and love each other to a depth that defies delineation. Every few hundred years, they repeat the marriage ritual—like a reaffirmation of their literally undying love for each other. In the world of this film, the vampires refer to humans as “zombies.” There are amusing details about them as individuals: Adam is a musician who gave some of his music to Schubert “just to get it out there.” He hung out with Shelley and Byron, and was present at Diodati where they all “got high and told stories…vampire stories.” He describes Byron as an “arrogant ass”, Mary Wollstonecraft as “delicious” and John Keats—whom he incidentally never met—as “the best of them all.”
As for Eve, she hangs out in Tangier with an older gentleman vampire who is none other than Christopher Marlowe, and who confirms that he indeed wrote everything Shakespeare was accredited for. He remarks, “I do wish I had met Adam before I wrote Hamlet.” Eve is always after Marlowe to let a bit of the truth emerge in the zombie world, just so that they can be entertained by the certain chaos it would cause.
Eve lives in Tangier while Adam lives in the abandoned section of Detroit. Eve is current with the world while Adam is alarmingly out of touch. Eve prefers to hear the bustle of the world around her, while Adam prefers silence except for his own compositions of “funeral music” as he calls them—actually a marriage of heavy metal and classical dirge. Eve quite likes the zombies and enjoys observing them while Adam loathes most of the zombies, except young Ian, and his loathing of the zombies is driving him to the verge of suicide. “It’s how they [humans] treat the world. And now they have succeeded in contaminating their own blood, never mind their water.” Ian, however, is Adam’s very likeable human “manservant” whom Adam describes as “alright for a zombie.” Portrayed by Anton Yelchin, Ian is the human upon whom Adam relies to bring him the things he needs—things accessible only during the daylight hours.
There is the sense that when one is immortal, time and distance lose significance and human norms become inconsequential. Thus, Adam and Eve live in their own separate worlds on separate continents…sometimes for years at a time. But they write letters and “Skype” back and forth on a regular basis. Fully accepting and at peace with each other’s individual differences and preferences, they do not feel the need to live together at all times—although the audience fully understands that Adam and Eve both enjoy a standing invitation to cohabitate at any time and at a moment’s notice. They are married, after all. In this case, it is Eve who senses Adam’s growing melancholy and immediately travels to him in Detroit.
While Adam and Eve are not bound by so-called “human convention”, the audience sees that they are bound indeed by their mutual respect for each other. This respect is beautifully portrayed in the elegant welcome Adam extends his wife, as he takes her by the hand and leads her into his house. A deliberate ritual is made of Eve waiting on the threshold while Adam first sets her luggage inside and then invites her to enter. She then asks his permission first before removing the gloves she is never without. Eve’s gloved hands suggest an intimacy between them that transcends their physical separation, but once she is together with Adam, the gloves can be removed. The intimacy is further enhanced when Adam removes her gloves for her and kisses her hands. The gloves are symbolic of their mutual fidelity, since Adam also wears them when he goes out of his house to buy blood from the local lab. They also wear the gloves when they go out together, and this is symbolic of them preventing contamination by the polluted zombie world.
They live in fear of contamination by zombies since drinking poisoned blood will kill them. Therefore, Adam and Eve value the clean blood they are able to procure and do not waste even a drop of it. There is none of the vampiric clichés of gushing blood streaming down chins. To them, blood is precious and difficult to come by, and so it is meted out in dainty, gold-trimmed liqueur glasses. For them, there is a moment’s euphoria as the blood enters them, followed by the relief of hunger and a great release of stress. And in this film, blood is not sexualized. Rather, it is symbolic of their return to a better, cleaner world—a world they mourn for.
In fact, these vampires are not murderous fiends, or rather, have evolved away from killing for blood over the centuries. They have adapted with the changing times by buying blood now, and are intensely aware of both the damage to the environment and the disturbance of the natural world. Eve gasps with delight at the many species of wildlife in Detroit and calls them by their Latin names. She is also distressed to see a breed of mushrooms growing out of season in Adam’s garden, who quips dryly, “It just goes to show you that we know shit about fungus, even though everything would die without it.” Adam holds the human use and conveyance of electricity in contempt, having known Nikola Tesla, and based on Tesla’s theories, powers his house and car with clean energy that harnesses electromagnetic pulses in the atmosphere and orbital space. All of this is a means of avoiding the contamination by humans, and by approaching their Mother Earth with veneration and devotion.
The conflict in this film revolves around intrusion: there is the intruding contamination of the zombies as an overhanging cloud, the doorbell ringing outside Adam’s door when zombie fans come to his house, and the inside intrusion of Eve’s sister Ava whom they return home to find on Adam’s couch. Thus, the audience senses that the contamination is not merely in the atmosphere of the world, it is pounding on the door and sometimes finding a way in.
Ava is disrespectful and wasteful. She takes advantage of Adam and Eve’s hospitality, drains their blood supply in a night, and then murders unsuspecting Ian—drains him dry in Adam’s living room. Horrified and outraged by Ava’s blood-splattered face, Ian’s sprawled corpse, and the broken mess in the room, Adam and Eve throw Ava out into the street. And now have Ian’s body to deal with. The usually hip and laid back Eve exclaims, after sinking Ian’s quickly dissolving body into an acid well in an abandoned car plant, “That certainly was visual,” while Adam shudders in revulsion. But now that Ian is dead and was seen with them, they are forced to leave. And they do leave quickly, taking only what they can carry. Adam returns to Tangier with Eve, to find that their old friend Marlowe is dying of blood poisoning.
Alone together without a blood supply, Adam and Eve are forced to do what Eve describes as “so fifteenth century!” They have to find healthy humans to drink from or they will die of starvation. They find a young couple on a quiet street, and promising each other that they will not kill these two young people, Adam says “Okay, but I get the girl.” Adam and Eve live in the world, and while they live at an extended arm’s reach, they cannot ultimately be separate. They must necessarily live within the natural world—and humans are an unavoidable part of their world. That Adam and Eve are forced to make personal contact with zombies in order to live is metaphorical of their unbreakable union with a polluted world, and their inevitable, eventual contamination.
Anyway…I have to say that I loved this film. It was artsy, cerebral, and über-cool. And the wit was absolutely scathing. I recommend it for anyone who is a fan of film and doesn’t mind following whimsy at a meandering pace. This one requires a glass of wine, and there is no gut-wrenching action or splashy special effect or exploding cars. The soundtrack is excellent. There is also a delightful treat toward the end of the film in the full length performance of the song Hal by Yasmine Hamdam. If you have two hours, it’s worth it. Only Lovers Left Alive is On Demand.