It’s easy to fear what you don’t understand. History is full of examples of people acting irrationally because of superstitions. The strigoi, for example, has been a target of scorn in Romania since the mid-seventeenth century. Part ghoul, part ghost, the strigoi was a predecessor to the modern-day vampire. It allegedly terrorized farmers and villagers in small towns and rural areas, inspiring outbreaks of moral panics throughout Eastern Europe. In Dracula, a 2004 study of the Dracula legend, historian Matei Cazacu argues that fear of the strigoi developed in tandem with (and possibly as a result of) waves of pestilence and famine. In one example, Cazacu references a case which happened in Meteș in 1846 during which a series of cattle deaths motivated villagers to exhume the body of a local man and burn his corpse.
Eventually, myth became legend. In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula. The book used the myth of the strigoi as a basis for Count Dracula and his brides, and many of the methods used to deal with strigoi became fixed in vampire lore as means for disposing of vampires. In Stoker’s book, Van Helsing and Lucy’s suitors confront and attack her after she has turned. The group behead her and drive a stake into her heart, much as one might have killed the strigoi a few decades earlier.
While there had been culturally-specific versions of the vampire before the release of Dracula, such as with the strigoi, Stoker’s book popularized the idea of the undead coming back to life to prey on the blood of the living in a more generalized way. The vampire quickly became Western culture’s catch-all for various kinds of demons. Over the next 120 years, plagues and panics inspired groups to imagine vampires walking among them, and to respond with extreme prejudice. In Glasgow during the fifties, the story of the Iron-Toothed Vampire terrified residents and sent hordes of schoolchildren marauding into cemeteries armed with knives and sharp sticks. And in 2003, Romanians pulled the body of a man named Petre Toma from the earth, split his ribcage open, drove stakes driven into his body, and removed his heart because they feared he was a strigoi.
One vampire hunt stands above the rest, however. The United States is not without demons of its own. Much as in Romania, it isn’t uncommon for moral panics to sweep the nation in brief but intense moments of outrage. More than any other attribute, American history is defined by fear—of communism, of terrorism, of the other. Never was this clearer than on the night of July 12, 1979. On that night, anywhere between 34,000 and 50,000 angry Chicagoans engaged in the largest vampire hunt in recorded history, because on that night the city of Chicago gathered to kill the greatest vampire of them all: disco.
Sociomusicologist Simon Frith has argued that novelty songs were important for the mainstreaming of many genres of music during the latter half of the 20th-century. Historically, radio programmers were reluctant to break formula and give a chance to new styles. Novelty songs were a way around that. Through humor, these songs helped listeners learn the nuances of new genres by introducing them to song structure and tropes. In 1976, Memphis DJ Rick Dees set the template for future disco pranksters with “Disco Duck,” an act of psychological warfare which used disco music as the backdrop to a Werner Herzog film wherein a man’s deteriorating mental state leads him to harass partygoers in the voice of a duck until everyone in the room is dancing in his signature style. The song hit number one in the United States in October as disco was gaining popularity outside of major urban centers, and the world was the never the same again. “Disco Duck” wasn’t the first disco hit but it was the song that helped introduce and codify the image of disco in the minds of many Americans. It was a novelty song which helped usher disco from the dance halls of New York into the school halls of Memphis and beyond.
The following year, 1977, was important for disco. It was the year in which many of the genre’s top artists were reaching the pinnacle of their creative abilities—that year saw the release of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Giorgio Moroder’s From Here to Eternity—and more than that, it was also the year that disco transitioned from a chic urban sound found in predominantly queer and black communities to a full-fledged mainstream juggernaut. White artists like Andy Gibb and ABBA incorporated disco into their sounds and scored number one singles, and by the end of the year, Saturday Night Fever (1977) was playing in theaters to both critical and commercial acclaim. Most important, 1977 was the year that Dracula invaded the discotheque.
At least three Dracula-themed disco records—one single and two full albums—came out in 1977. Picking up where Dees left off, French-Canadian radio and television personality Alain Montpetit collaborated with producers Gerry Bribosia and Jerry De Villiers under the moniker Voltaire and released “Dracula Disco” in both French and English. On first listen, it’s hard not to compare it to “Disco Duck.” Both are mid-tempo orchestral songs in which a narrator describes his experience at a party and invites the listener to dance. Both songs also rely on accents to make their joke; of the two, “Disco Duck” is the more surreal as the Donald Duck voice is a one-note gag that gets extended far past the point of comfort, while “Dracula Disco” more closely mirrors ethnic novelty songs of the Vaudeville era through its invocation of a thick Eastern European accent à la Bela Lugosi.
The two other 1977 releases take a more direct approach, using novelty to unleash crazed bangers onto their unsuspecting victims. Released in Brazil, The Vamps’ Disco Blood explores the lurid side of Dracula’s appeal, with sex figuring into into the record’s seven songs. Its centerpiece, “Disco Blood Part II,” follows Dracula as he “pursues” a love interest. The song draws obvious inspiration from American disco hits of the era, most prominently in its use of Dracula’s paramour, as her moans mimic Donna Summer’s orgasmic sighs on “Love to Love You Baby,” from the 1975 album of the same name. Other songs toy with absurdity; “Two Lady Vamps” is an upbeat shout-out to Vampyros Lesbos, and “Dancin’ Dancin’” finds a middle ground between the aforementioned Summer and, oddly, Ennio Morricone’s work on The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.
But the peak of 1977’s disco Dracula craze was “Soul Dracula.” The song was the work of Stefan Klinkhammer, a German disco producer who helped write hits for Boney M and a number of German pop acts. It was first released as single in France in 1975 under the name Hot Blood but then re-released at least a half dozen times over the next two years internationally under various pseudonyms and monikers ranging from Red Blood to anagrams of co-writer May Ambruster’s name. The song didn’t fully catch on until 1977, when it began making the rounds of European variety shows like Ballet Zoom. Looking to capitalize on its success, Klinkhammer and Ambruster quickly turned around a full album under the Hot Blood moniker and titled it Dracula And C°. The record followed the template created with “Soul Dracula.” Campy song titles like “Baby Frankie Stein” and “Even Vampires Fall in Love” seemed ripped from B-movies, and the songs themselves ranged from clever send-ups of lounge music to horn-drenched dance floor anthems. It would be another two years until Dracula made another appearance on the dance floor, but he more than made up for it as he closed out the seventies with a bang. Literally.
1979 featured four—yes, FOUR—movies about Dracula strutting around the discotheque, plus corresponding soundtracks or singles for three of the films. The first of these films, Nocturna, Granddaughter of Dracula (1979), may be the strangest because it isn’t technically about Dracula. Dracula does appear, portrayed by John Carradine in one of his many late-career genre roles, but the focus, as you may have guessed, is on Dracula’s granddaughter, Nocturna. Who is she? Nai Bonet! Best known for bit roles as exotic dancers, Bonet decided to strike out on her own and pursue stardom by writing herself as the lead into her own films. The first of two efforts—the other being Hoodlums (1980)—was Nocturna, for which she collaborated with comedy director Harry Hurwitz (after having worked with him on the sex comedy Fairy Tales ).
Nocturna is a delightfully schizophrenic comedy which traipses through ideas and tosses them aside at a rapid clip. Nocturna runs a hotel in Transylvania but has decided to leave so she can be with her disco guitar-playing Matthew-McConauhey-look-a-like boyfriend. Dracula, portrayed as a confused and bumbling stick-in-the-mud by John Carradine, is not impressed by her new boyfriend or newfound independent streak so he sends his minion Theodore (Brother Theodore playing himself playing Renfield) to bring her back. Theodore is himself a bumbling idiot and, worse, a lech, so his attempts at getting Nocturna to return home fail as he gets lost in opportunities to leer at her while she bathes. Eventually, Dracula decides to make his case himself but is won over by Nocturna’s disco dancing. Along the way, Dracula and Nocturna encounter a designer blood-pushing pimp, his sexually liberated vampire brothel, vampire rights activists, and an assortment of other oddities.
Following on Nocturna’s heels, Love at First Bite (1979) was less an attempt at B-movie schlock than a conscious effort at updating Jerry Lewis-style slapstick for the seventies. Communists force Count Dracula out of his castle so they can turn it into a training facility for their super-athletes. Instead of fretting over where to go, he makes the obvious choice and flies to New York City (via plane). While there, he falls under the spell of a supermodel named Cindy, but she’s put off by his old-fashioned approach to sex and politics. Her therapist-slash-boyfriend-slash-serial-harasser Jeffrey is the grandson of Fritz Van Helsing, Dracula’s arch nemesis. Jeffrey immediately recognizes the Count and sets out to stop him from absconding off with Cindy.
In contrast to Nocturna, Love at First Bite is a comedy in a more formal tradition. It splits the difference between screwball scenarios and non-sequitur one-liners. The film isn’t exactly plotless, but, like Airplane! (1980), it feels like the plot exists to serve as an extended series of setups for sex and ethnic jokes. Few land but that’s fine because George Hamilton and Richard Benjamin have an unusual chemistry as the charming Count and his neurotic nemesis and help keep things moving with their slapstick rivalry.
The other two films of 1979 are less notable if only because they don’t have as much to offer in the way of entertainment. Dracula Blows His Cool (1979) is a budget-bin German sex comedy. To its credit, it does have Dracula, naked women, and plenty of disco (the film’s soundtrack even has a song titled “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Rock Me, Dracula”). Unfortunately, that’s about all it has. A photographer inherits a castle but discovers Dracula is living in the basement. He does what any sensible person would do and turns the castle into a discotheque. Similarly, Dracula Bites the Big Apple (1979) is a short which finds the Count traveling to New York City. He wanders 42nd Street, finds his way into various situations in which groups spontaneously break into song, and, duh, tries to sneak into Studio 54. None of the scenarios in either film are ever as funny as they seem to think, although the director of the latter film, Richard Wenk, redeemed himself seven years later when he directed disco icon Grace Jones in the vampire comedy Vamp (1986).
If there’s a lesson in these films, it’s that by the seventies Dracula was a relic. Despite renewed academic interest in Dracula thanks to the work of Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally and popular interest courtesy of Hammer Films, the Dracula of these films is decrepit and impotent (Nocturna), out-of-touch (Love at First Bite), and just plain incompetent (Dracula Bites the Big Apple). Disco is the vehicle through which we see this disconnect as it is a manifestation of the modern. The music is so far removed from what Dracula understands that, even when he embraces it, he’s never fully comfortable with it. In every film, Dracula seems confused by the very notion of pop culture and can’t fathom why these crazy kids would want to dance. This is unusual because all other disco ephemera concerned with Dracula made him seem like he was very much a part of the zeitgeist, or at least a spiritual predecessor.
Specifically, 1979 also gave birth to the best Dracula-themed single of the disco era and one in which Dracula seemed to most comfortably gel with the glitz and the gaudiness of the seventies. Andy Forray, a musician best-known for a string of pop-rock singles in the sixties, decided to take Drac on a tour of the bizarre with “Drac’s Back.” The song is an ode to late night parties and druggy orgies where unsuspecting men and women fall prey to Dracula’s bite, propelled onward in perpetuity by an endless supply of coke and a chugging bassline. The androgynous nature of the song’s lyrics proved to be so popular the same band covered it twice. The Bollock Brothers released the first version of the single as synthpop act Red Lipstique in 1982 and a slightly modified follow-up in 1985 under their own name.
While Dracula may have seemed at odds with the world and his place in it in the late seventies, it seemed like nothing could stop the towering inferno that was disco, even a deluge of kitschy novelty songs. Dracula wasn’t the only classic horror figure exploited for a quick cashin. In 1977, British novelty singer Johnny Wakelin released the monster mash-up “Dr. Frankenstein’s Disco Party,” while a group of Italian producers dubbed themselves The Diabolic Soul Invention and released “Mephisto;” and in 1978, an artist named Black Devil dropped the stone cold classic Disco Club, which owed as much to no wave as it did disco. But much as 1977 was a pivotal year for disco, so was 1979. One date stands out in particular: July 12, 1979.
Depending on who you ask, Disco Demolition Night was either a marketing gimmick or an act of cultural terrorism. Mike Veeck, son of Chicago White Sox’s owner Bill Veeck and then Director of Promotions for the team, has said he created it as a gimmick to boost ticket sales, but that the crowd’s hatred of disco was too strong and Disco Demolition Night spun out of control. Others have been more defensive in their postures. In a 2016 apologia titled Disco Demolition Night: The Night Disco Died, proto-shock jock Steve Dahl claimed he helped create the night out of self-preservation. It was, in his mind, a working class rebuke of cocaine culture and the stuffy businessmen who orchestrated it. In reality, the event more closely resembled a public execution. Fearful villagers stormed the castle with pitchforks and torches in hand to kill the monster was disco.
After the first game of a double-header had ended, Van Helsing’s loud-mouthed descendant Dahl emerged from a door in center field and whipped the crowd into a hysteria, leading chants of “Disco sucks!” He then detonated a box of records, also igniting the crowd’s anger. Thousands of Chicagoans flooded the field and began smashing, setting fire to, and stabbing at thousands of disco records—Van McCoy, Alicia Bridges, The Village People, Rick Dees, MSFB, Chic, and, yes, probably Hot Blood. None were spared for talent, importance, or novelty. The madness then spread and attendees turned their anger outwards. In interviews in Dahl’s book, Chicago sportscaster Les Grobstein claimed fans doused the left-field pole in lighter fluid, and pyrotechnician Michael Cartolano claimed attendees were responsible for setting fires and destroying parts of Comiskey Park. That night, Chicago reenacted rituals from the old world to stop a new one from being born.
Disco was as much a cultural movement as it was a musical one. While it had been adopted by businessmen in bad perms by 1979, it began as something else entirely. It’s progenitors were black and queer and everything that was anathema to the puritanical rockism of Dahl and his audience. His fans have responded by saying that the night wasn’t an act of vengeance, but instead it was one of unity and rebellion against a stifling mainstream culture of conformity and careerism; in disco, they saw only leisure suits and Friday night singles bars. But these signifiers were only minor parts of a movement that had mainstreamed because of its potential for liberation, specifically one of unequivocal pleasure. Disco became popular because it offered people the opportunity to lurch forward with the sway of the crowd in a darkened room and lose their inhibitions to the ecstasy of unrestrained attraction — to anyone, anywhere, at any time. That milquetoast businessmen would embrace that isn’t surprising. They had done the same with rock and its corresponding sexual revolution a decade earlier.
Disco wasn’t that far removed from the sixties rock Dahl and his fans worshipped. Janis Joplin and Grace Slick sang about desire in a way that threatened conventional notions of sexuality. But unlike disco, rock also situated itself in terms of the serious and the political. Rock was a movement that heralded its own importance through its intimations of revolution, while disco avoided confrontation. It was a music born in the shadows, that, like the vampire, hid under the cover of night. In Turn the Beat Around, music historian Peter Shapiro writes, “Disco was born of a desire that was outlawed and branded an affront to God and humanity, so its evocation of pleasure was by necessity its politics, and by extension its politics was pleasure.” Put another way, disco was the music of the frivolous and carefree. Its stars weren’t poets like Jim Morrison or philosophers like Bob Dylan, they were ex-adult film star one-hit wonders like Andrea True and fly-by-night novelty producers like the ones listed herein, which is to say, to fans of rock music, those who made disco weren’t serious people.
The anger expressed by Dahl and his fans wasn’t that mainstream culture was conformist, their anger was that it was no longer conforming to their view of culture. Even on the level of kitsch, pop culture was rejecting them. Novelty songs of the early rock era like Bobby Boris Pickett’s “Monster Mash” and Billy DeMarco’s “Drac’s Back” had turned into Hot Blood’s “Soul Dracula” and Andy Forray’s “Drac’s Back.” Disco had infected tastemaker and square alike with its vampiric bite. For the first time, rock was irrelevant. It was old and boring. In its place stood an androgynous demon in a cape and gold lamé jumpsuit, so the scared villagers responded the only way they knew how—through aggression. On that night, they were able to put down the demon, but, as is often the case with vampires, it wouldn’t stay dead for long. DJs who learned their craft spinning records at discotheques and underground clubs, like Frankie Knuckles and Disco King Mario, were instrumental in creating house and hip-hop. Punk bands incorporated elements of disco, reggae, and dub to create new wave. A backup singer for French disco artist Patrick Hernandez, the man behind the 1979 international hit “Born to Be Alive,” would move through a series of pop bands before stepping out on her own and rebranding as Madonna.
And Dracula? Well, the Count never actually left the dance floor. European novelty acts like Solcyst, Triangolo, and Methusalem continued releasing songs like “Haha! (I Need Your Blood)” and “Bite Me, Dracula”, and Italo and Eurodisco artists picked up the slack soon thereafter. The Count continued to strut his way through the crowd throughout the eighties and made another brief comeback in popularity, sans dance shoes, in the early nineties in the wake of the success of Anne Rice and Francis Ford Coppola. He’s been with us ever since. Now, whether any modern producers decide to pick up where the likes of Hot Blood and Andy Forray left off, only time will tell, but for now, we can at least sort through the seventies and eighties songs to make a killer playlist.