Revisiting director David Slade’s 30 Days of Night is an arresting experience. Ten years later, the violent terror wrought by writer Steve Niles’ vampires is still shocking and somewhat unexpected within a genre that proffered lusty, beautiful vampires for so many decades. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) provided a rebirth of sorts for the monster, grossing a surprising $215 million and winning three Academy Awards. But with the tag line “Love never dies,” Coppola’s film was a decidedly romantic take on the Count, rendered further irresistible by Gary Oldman. Director Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s popular vampire series followed with Interview with the Vampire (1994). Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were similarly entrancing, mining the woeful monster-as-handsome-prince trope and further suggesting that while vampires might be dangerous, they sure are pretty. Then in 2005, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series was nothing short of a cultural shift, filling bookstores and theatres with romance fans of all ages, but particularly starry-eyed teenage girls who adored sparkling vampire, Edward.
So it’s upon this landscape that 30 Days of Night arrived in 2007, adapted from Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s horror comic book. Of the source material, horror-master Clive Barker said it had “much of the raw, brutal energy of a horror movie” and “a narrative that starts at a run and never slows down.” Perhaps this is why it yields itself to a screen adaptation so gracefully. The premise of 30 Days of Night is so clever, it’s a wonder it hadn’t been written before: the icy town of Barrow, Alaska endures 30 days of polar night each year, a fact that entices a coven of vampires to plan a special “feast” of sorts during the upcoming period. But unlike writers Stoker, Rice, and Meyer, Steve Niles offers no comfort or allure to the victims of Barrow. His vampires are hideous, monstrous, cruel, and wholly uninterested in convincing mortal humans otherwise.
The Real Face of Terror
It’s oddly refreshing. There are no humanized or romanticized vampires in this world. Onscreen, the predators are depicted as feral hunters, initiating a town-wide massacre upon their arrival to Barrow. In place of sharpened incisors and snakebite wounds, these vampires snarl with mouths of shark-like teeth, tearing the throats from their victims in a dramatically bloody display. Much of this is an homage to Templesmith’s distinctive art. Director David Slade said in an interview, “I wanted to keep the vampire look [from the comic books], because I felt that if I could do that in reality, it would be, for this generation, kind of the same effect in terms of ‘never seen that before,’ . . . That’s what I was after, people who’s faces where so bizarre, but subtly bizarre, that they were terrifying.” Led by Danny Huston (Wonder Woman, American Horror Story), the monsters are marked even more foreign by their distinct language and screeching cries. While they are not without motive, these chilling monsters serve mainly as foils in what is in fact a character-driven horror story.
Ditching the romantic tropes of longing, lust, and envy for eternal life, 30 Days of Night is at its core a film about survival. Pinned down and isolated, 152 people must survive 30 days of terror with no means of escape. It’s a premise not unlike the one in Dawn of the Dead (2004), where a small group of survivors are trapped inside a mall, surrounded by a wall of zombies. But that film offers long periods of respite that the survivors of Barrow never see. Between attacks, they hide within an attic, unable to make a sound or even retrieve food. It’s worth asking why anyone would live in a place where night falls for over two months (in reality, polar night approaches 60 days). The inhabitants of Barrow are already uniquely suited for isolated life and they know the bitter reality that to survive in this climate, they must prepare and respect its ferocity. They are threatened just as much by the outdoors as the predators lurking outside. Its under those conditions, the film shows us who is built for survival, and at what cost.
Fight or Flight: How Will You Die
While other vampire films allow viewers to fantasize about how they’d spend eternity, 30 Days of Night questions how you will face an inevitable death. An array of examples of both heroism and cowardice exist in the film’s relentless 113 minutes. Beau Brower (Mark Boone Junior) is presented as the town misfit from the outset, choosing an isolated life over the close watch of Barrow’s community. After an initial clash with Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), it’s clear Brower has settled in Barrow for the freedom it allows. Thus, his ultimate choice to control the means by which he dies—in an explosion of dynamite—is representative of a larger sense of rebellion. Even under threat of death, he defies the rules set for him. Deputy Billy Kitka (Manu Bennett) also attempts to control fate, but not his alone. A family man with three children, his primary concern is in limiting their suffering. After shooting each of his family members, he is unable to end his own life after his gun jams, and so is condemned to live with their bodies and the knowledge of his acts. In his quest to escape torment, he only serves to prolong it, and his outcome serves as a sharp contrast to Brower and Oleson’s unrelenting pursuit to protect his group of survivors.
Barrow, Alaska—renamed Utqiaġvik in 2016 by residents for its Iñupiat roots—is in fact a polar desert. In its warmest season it averages 46 degrees Fahrenheit, but it sees very little snow or rainfall. So it’s not only ideal that its prolonged polar night should serve as inspiration for the film, it’s also fitting that within this desert landscape, 30 Days of Night takes on so many tropes of cowboy westerns. Sheriff Oleson is, after all, in the pursuit of justice and willing to sacrifice himself to see that those he protects are safe from the threat of the invaders to his town—the newcomers. Outsiders. Lawbreakers. It’s an endearing performance from Hartnett, no longer typecast as the teenage heartthrob, and a fitting one. He defends the weak but with the weariness of a man who has no interest in glory.
Carter Davies (Nathaniel Lees) survival is perhaps the most tragic. Not only does he survive the initial onslaught, he is later struck by one of the vampires and begins to turn. But after revealing his family has died, the last thing Davies is prepared to face is eternal life without them. He asks Oleson to kill him. However, unlike Brower who chose his death, Davies’s death offers no distraction or protection for the other survivors, and is in many ways simply a mercy killing.
One of the few characters to meet Oleson’s level of self-sacrifice is his estranged wife, Stella (Melissa George). When she spots a blood-soaked little girl roaming the streets on her own, she dives in to pull her to safety before anyone else can stop her. She knows it could end up costing her life, but she refuses to abandon the girl even when it seems there’s no hope of survival without doing so. Stella, like the other characters, provides a glimpse at the line between existence and independence. There is a cost to survival, after all. At some point it demands your humanity.
Is Being Human Really Enough?
In the ten years since its release, 30 Days of Night has been out-gored by Tarantino, and The Walking Dead has explored the cost of survival to greater and more thorough extent. But I don’t know that another vampire film has accomplished what this film has in its earnest look at who vampires are. Is it possible we romanticize these monsters because we want to be seduced? Because we like to imagine being selected for this secret, eternal life?
30 Days of Night does not offer an enticing portrait of the eternal. Instead, it suggests no one is worthy of that life. Certainly part of the horror of this film, the truly terrifying idea, is that mortal humans are so ineffective against this monster—that is, unless they are willing to become like them. And maybe that’s the darkest truth here: being good and kind and caring should be enough to win, but it so rarely is.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures