There are several inherent themes in Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula that flow in and out of various adaptations. Themes of classism, of xenophobia and cultural ignorance and especially sexual repression. Some films highlight a couple of these ideas while ignoring others. After all, with hundreds of adaptations at this point, Dracula movies have taken wildly different directions and will continue to do so for years to come, without a doubt. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) leans heavily into the sexuality, for example, tackling the major beats of the entire novel but bringing those elements of the text dramatically into the forefront. Disease and xenophobia have more of a part to play in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyr (1979) while that and cultural ignorance form the center of the classic Tod Browning 1931 film. These core themes don’t always come into play at the same time, but almost rotate from adaptation to adaptation. They are all, however, entirely present in Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
Mel Brooks’ love of horror had been well established by the time he tackled Dracula. In 1974, he had directed the iconic parody Young Frankenstein, and it could certainly be argued that Dead and Loving It has most suffered from its comparison to Brooks’ earlier, similarly themed movie. If there’s one major difference between the two, it’s simply a matter of, well, time. Young Frankenstein was produced while the Hammer era was still fairly current and as such focused almost entirely on the Universal Frankenstein movies, borrowing its plot primarily from Son of Frankenstein.
Dead and Loving It takes a similar approach, but it draws from the Universal films all the way through the Hammer era and into the recent ‘90s with jokes very openly poking fun at Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film is still primarily a parody of Tod Browning’s Dracula, which is an incredibly smart choice considering how little action there actually is in the film itself. The thing that makes Brooks’ parodies work so well is that they are down out of total reverence for the genre and films they’re playing with, and there’s so much empty space in Browning’s Dracula that it’s so easy to just layer jokes on top of it. The story is intact, but the original film offers such a perfect canvas to build from, allowing so much room for Brooks’ iconic brand of humor.
And that respect is made abundantly clear by the fact that virtually every joke springs from the source material itself. Dracula: Dead and Loving It might be silly, even gleefully stupid at times, but it is also a film that demonstrates Mel Brooks’ sincere love for both the cinematic history of the character and Stoker’s original novel itself.
This begins with the portrayal of Leslie Nielsen’s Count. Despite the fact that both of them were titans of comedy—especially at the time—Dead and Loving It was the one and only time the two men worked together. Nielsen’s Dracula doesn’t look like the sexy young men who had been portraying the Count for years on screen at that point, and at first glance that appears to be the joke. There had been so many suave, seductive portrayals, especially with Coppola’s recent film, and then here comes Leslie Nielsen to portray that same role. It would seem ridiculous at first, and is ridiculous in the movie too, as that’s precisely what it goes for. But Nielsen’s Dracula is a clueless old man who has no idea how to conduct himself in modern society and, as such, is perfectly representative of the Dracula of the text.
When Dracula first welcomes Jonathan Harker to the castle in the novel, he’s a little over-excited, having been without guests for so long—possibly decades or even centuries. There are, of course, the three brides inside the castle, but he doesn’t have to be anything other than his most basic, animalistic vampire self with them, whereas with Harker he has to put on a mask of aristocracy and grace that he is only able to maintain for about a chapter and a half. The Count has a conversation with Harker in which he explains how nervous he is about the move to London, and notes his fears that he will be immediately recognized as a stranger, as an outsider if he were to move about the city. This is certainly echoed in the film, when the Count has a Day-mare about walking in the sunshine and enjoying polite company before being outed as himself by bursting into flames in front of a crowd.
Even though it is Renfield who makes his way to the Castle (as in the Browning film) instead of Harker, there’s an element of this journey—which is part of every adaptation in some way, shape or form—that rarely makes it into most movies. It’s true that the villagers always try to warn Renfield/Harker against their journey to the castle, and it’s meant to be foreboding, to let the reader and viewer know that terror awaits at the castle. But Dead and Loving It highlights another element of the villagers’ warnings: they think he’s a complete idiot for not listening to them. They give him every possible way to protect himself, they warn him in the novel against traveling on Walpurgisnacht and still he goes.
That’s one of the strengths of Dracula: Dead and Loving It. The movie takes the very loosely adapted play & original Universal film, which rearranges and combines different characters, changing almost every single relationship in a fundamental way, and while lampooning it also turns that version of the story into something much more faithfully representative of the novel, because of just how much it shines a light on one of the most resonant themes of the text: an absolutely crippling fear of female sexuality.
From the get-go, Brooks makes it clear that his parody is meant to poke more than a little fun at the inherent sexual repression of the time and place in which the story is set. But all of those things are crucial to Dracula as a whole. So much of the novel is devoted to prim-and-proper Lucy’s transformation into a voluptuous night-fiend, something that is portrayed as a horrific tragedy by Stoker, which Brooks smartly elects to have fun with. From the moment we cut from Transylvania to 1890s London, we’re introduced to the main cast through a character who embodies all of these fears and immediately acknowledges such: Steven Weber’s Jonathan Harker, who might be the most honest version of the character we’ve ever seen.
“The opera is astonishing,” Jonathan notes in his very first line, “the music is frothed with love, hate, sensuality and unbridled passion… all the things in my life I’ve managed to suppress.” And my God, if that’s not a deeply complex understanding of Jonathan Harker. In the novel, of course, Harker’s first brush with this unbridled passion comes in his encounter with the Count’s vampiric brides. Like the 1931 movie, this moment is given to Renfield in Dead and Loving It, but pre-hypnotism Renfield is a very similar character to Harker in many respects and the point of the scene remains relatively unchained. He is alone in his bed when the voluptuous vampire women sneak into his room, his first reaction being “My God, what are you doing to the furniture?” The remark could easily come off as asexual or uninterested, but like Harker in the novel, after the women move in on him, he goes along with it, highlighting the sheer repression of the text.
As Dead and Loving It picks things from all aspects and eras of Dracula cinema, the female vampires in the feature are all very clearly inspired by the Hammer era, from the hair and gowns to the ample cleavage. It’s a smart move as out of all the films, they were always the most overtly sensual and those vampires in particular highlight the stark contrast against the stammering stoicism of the core heroes. But even in the novel, that element of sensuality in the female vampires was made clear.
When the three vampire brides visit Jonathan in his room, they remark that there are “kisses” for each of them, immediately contextualizing the draining of his life as a romantic, sensual act. Harker even notes that though he doesn’t want to admit it, he wants them to kiss him with their lush, pale lips. His hesitance stems from the fact that he knows Mina will read the diary, but even then, he doesn’t do anything but let it happen. It’s telling that out of the entire book, the most sexual moment for any male character is his admittance that he’s willing to allow sex to happen to him. It’s entirely passive, somewhat defeated, and wholeheartedly Victorian.
Without a doubt, all of these themes are best embodied when Harker encounters Lucy in the graveyard. In Dead and Loving It, Lucy had a bit of a gothic streak to her from the first scene as well as an immediate attraction to the Count, something that is somewhat present in the 1931 film but largely expanded upon in movies like Dan Curtis’s Dracula (1972) and John Badham’s Dracula (1979), in which Lucy became the vampire’s chosen target instead of Mina—and, in the latter case, his lover. This does deviate from the novel substantially, as Lucy is a beacon of pure innocence (at least to all of the men around her) and her first encounter with Dracula sees him as a dark shadowy figure in a cemetery.
After her death, however, Dead and Loving It embraces the novel in some very strong ways. The first is that Lucy looks beautiful, even more so than when she was alive, something that’s unnervingly described in detail by Stoker. Her corpse is gorgeous to the point that it looks radiant, her lips lush and full of life. Narratively, it’s of course done to prepare us for the revelation that she is not actually dead as we know it, but at the same time, it’s also very clear that Stoker wants us to know how hot this dead body is.
When Jonathan encounters the undead Lucy, it’s one of the most purely Stoker moments out of any Dracula adaptation, and I mean that wholeheartedly. He’s unprepared, aware of the idea that Lucy has become a vampire but totally unbelieving of it. And she’s just as she’s so often described, a beautiful, dark-haired vision who lets out an animalistic hiss when cornered. Like so many similar scenes in Hammer flicks, the vampiress plays up her sensuality to seduce the would-be vampire hunter. Here, Lucy is a full-fledged vampire and an entirely sexual being. Smartly, Brooks took great strides in showing that Lucy was pretty horny before her death too, but as one of the undead she is free from the constraints of a society that seeks to suppress those behaviors, especially in women.
Everything Lucy does and says in this scene is pointedly erotic, to the point of promising to take Jonathan into a world of unbridled sexual frenzy, a promise at which he can only stammer and say the single most authentic line ever uttered in a Dracula film, “But Lucy, I’m British,” and as she offers him her cleavage, he can only stare on in frozen bewilderment.
This scene is utterly hilarious, but it also highlights everything important about the sexual dynamics of the time and the way they were handled in Stoker’s novel. The author was well aware of the movement of “new,” more liberated women and seemed to want to counterbalance that while praising virtue, unaware that his protagonist, Mina, was the driven, working class woman he and so many others claimed to be so afraid of. Even after Mina is bitten by Dracula in Dead and Loving It, she tries to take things to the next physical step with Jonathan and just as he had been with Lucy—he’s absolutely mortified at so much as the notion of over-the-clothes physical contact. Seward echoes this horror when walking in on it and shouting “after being engaged to my daughter for only five years, you have the audacity to touch her!”
Like all of the men in Dracula, Stoker had absolutely no idea what to do with the New Woman, with the idea of women as sexual beings, driven workers or even people of remote independence. The novel is still a masterpiece of gothic suspense and terror and the fears and anxieties of the time (and the author) only help to ensure that it is one of the most revisited and reimagined horror stories ever told. When Brooks sought to parody Dracula the same way he had done for Frankenstein, he did it with clear love and respect for the source material, and it shows. The best genre satires come from a place of admiration and Dracula: Dead and Loving It is no different.
The comedy doesn’t get in the way of the story, but strengthens it, highlighting the motif of vampirism as sexual liberation—as well as the masculine fear of said liberation—and moving it prominently to the surface where it belongs. And if these themes can be handled so cleverly in a movie where Dracula also slips in bat shit and calls Renfield an asshole, all the better.