Portraying vampires as a metaphor for capitalism isn’t exactly a brand-new concept. The symbolism goes as far back as W.F. Murnau’s seminal Nosferatu. Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), a stand-in for Jonathan Harker of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only visits Count Orlok’s (Max Schreck) estate in the first place because he’s wooed by the idea of a massive real estate transaction. Once there, he finds it nearly impossible to leave. The vampire, meanwhile, sucks the life out of everyone he encounters, including the pure and innocent Ellen (Greta Schröder), Hutter’s partner. Oh, and he unleashes rats and a plague, too.
Heck, even in Capital, Karl Marx claimed, “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more, the more labor it sucks,” adding, “the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor.”
Director David Verbeek’s Dead & Beautiful takes this familiar idea and gives it a fresh twist. Five uber-wealthy friends in Taiwan take turns playing a game where each participant tries to outperform the last. One of them, Lulu (Aviis Zhong), shows her friends just how monstrous they are. The film contains a lot of turns before it arrives at its conclusion, and each deserves some unpacking.
Major spoilers below.
The Game the Wealthy Play
These five friends have enough money to do whatever the heck they want. In fact, each character is eventually introduced on-screen with a note about their family’s net value. How much are they worth exactly? Hint: everyone is worth a few billion. Put them all together, and they’re worth tens of billions of dollars.
The game serves to address a void in their lives. The rules are never quite explained but judging from the various twists and turns the movie takes, it’s clear they try to fake each other out. The crazier or more creative they can be, the better. For instance, one of the five, Bin-Ray (Philip Juan), jumps out of a cake meant to memorialize him. Apparently, when you have SO much money, you can even fake your own death for a period and convince your elite friends that you did indeed die, at least until you pop out of a cake and prove you’re still among the living.
The point is that despite having everything, these friends are bored. Each of them says this more than once. They have all the money in the world, but they need to continue an outlandish game to keep themselves entertained. Their ennui is encapsulated by the opening shot, featuring Lulu riding shotgun as Anastasia (Anna Marchenko), zips down the highway in a sports car. While she blathers on about something, Lulu stares out the window, listless.
Even the game starts to feel stale, underscored by a conversation Anastasia and Lulu have in the restroom. Ana says of the men, “They’re bored. That’s why they keep doing dumb shit on their turns.” Lulu asks her what she plans to do for her turn, but Ana responds, “I don’t know. We’ve done everything.” Oh, how tragic, to have access to whatever you want and STILL feel such boredom!
Dead & Beautiful Explores A Camping Trip from Hell and Colonialism
During her turn, Ana takes her friends camping on land that once belonged to the ancient Arovi tribe. They were forced out, but their shaman refused to leave. For the friends, nothing goes as planned. Instead, the guide is apparently a shaman who slits his wrist and has them all drink his blood from bamboo. When they wake up, they each have fangs. The rest of the film toys with the idea that the friends may or may not be vampires.
It doesn’t matter whether the friends are vampires. It does matter how they treat others when they think they have even MORE power. Of the five, Alex (Yen Tsao) leans into the vampire idea the most. He kidnaps a woman from the street, ties her up, and insists that the friends feed. When Lulu and Ana plead with him not to kill her because she’s a mother, he says, “I don’t care. I enjoy it.” He even adds, “I wonder what Mommy’s blood tastes like.” Like the Dutch colonizers who murdered the tribe, Alex exploits everyone around him.
His sense of entitlement is reinforced during an absurd yet chilling scene in which he looks in the mirror and flashes his fangs while running his hands over his silk shirt. He does admit that he’s so sad, but the fact he bares his fangs and sees them as symbolic of his power over everyone else proves it doesn’t matter how dead he feels inside. He’ll continue hurting others for his own entertainment.
Embracing Who They Are
Alex isn’t the only one who embraces who he is. Ana, a social media influencer, eventually records a video, taking ownership of the vampire label. As Bin-Ray hits play, she faces the camera and says, “This is who I am.” While she mentions that she hopes her fans accept her, it’s unlikely it will make a difference whether they do or not. Like the rest of her pals, she’s all in on the game.
The only characters who seem reluctant to embrace the label are Lulu and Mason (Gijs Blom), a self-proclaimed Buddhist who’s mocked by the other men for attending Harvard. Early in the film, Bin-Ray tells him, “All you had to do was learn from your dad, man. Professors don’t know shit. They don’t run the real world.” This very quote sums up the sense of entitlement that these friends exude. They view the world and everyone in it as their plaything.
Yet, there are hints that maybe Mason isn’t really a Buddhist, and perhaps he’s not studying the religion for pure and noble purposes. Lulu asks him if he’s really a pacifist, and he never answers her. When he decides to take a bus, despite snickers from his friends, he tells Lulu he wants to understand people and get a feel for the city. She asks, “Understand them or exploit them?” Instead of answering her, he just smirks.
Lulu’s Turn All Along
In the third act, the film takes a surprising and arresting turn. Lulu staged the whole thing. Haunted by a memory in which protestors called her family vampires, she drugged her friends while they camped and had a team of surgeons instills fangs in their mouths. She wanted them to understand and see who they really are. Of the five, at least Lulu maintains a little bit of humanity. The same can’t be said for the rest of them.
In another turn, Mason reveals that he doesn’t care about anyone of a different class. He goes along with Lulu’s game, but in the end, he fakes her out. In the closing minutes, he takes her to a dinner for the elite, on the very same land where they camped, the land where colonizers slaughtered native people. There, he reveals that he’s not going to change his behavior. So much for the Buddhism, pacifist thing! He declares, “We are the new generation of wealth. Let us do better than our parents.”
Like vampires, these friends stick together and hunt together. If someone strays from the pack, like Lulu, they’ll kick her to the side, especially if she feels guilty over how they treat others. They’re cold bloodsuckers, pure and simple. That said, there’s a hint that Lulu gets her revenge, at least on Mason, who toyed with her emotionally as part of the game. In the closing shot, she flashes her fangs and lunges towards his neck before the credits roll.
Dead and Beautiful doesn’t play with a new concept. By this point, linking capitalism with vampirism is a cliché. However, the film shows just how uncaring and ruthless the 1 percent can be, to the point they invent a game that underscores both their boredom and cruelty.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.