There is a moment about midway through Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn when Kate Fuller (Juliette Lewis), having been hurtled into an RV along with the rest of her family and forced to ferry two notorious criminals across the US-Mexico border, asks one of her kidnappers, Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino), why they are fleeing to Mexico. When she queries “What’s in Mexico?” Richie’s evasive, sarcastic response is “Mexicans”. While Richie’s quip is clearly intended as little more than a taunt, mocking the anxious terror of an adolescent girl, and a means to avoid elaborating on the escape plan he has concocted with his brother Seth (George Clooney), there is also a sense in which Richie’s response reflects a binary opposition that runs throughout the film: America (familiar, safe, home) vs. Mexico (otherworldly, dangerous, foreign). In a film that ultimately explodes into a Grand Guignol of blood, perforated flesh and supernatural violence, the assertion that what awaits the Fullers and their captors on the other side of the border is nothing more than the inhabitants of a nearby, albeit consistently demonised, nation seems ridiculous and bathetic. Yet, this mundanity belies an anxiety about border spaces, about the porous nature of the boundaries that separate us from those things that frighten and threaten us. The film constructs the process of traversing the border between the US and Mexico as akin to crossing over into a space where familiar laws and morals are suspended, and accepted principles are inverted.
From Dusk Till Dawn takes place in the part of America where Texas bleeds into Northern Mexico, and throughout the film this border space is a site of anxiety as well as a signifier of the omnipresent Otherness that waits just to the south of America’s borders. Defining the relationship between Self and Other, the way in which we relegate those who differ from us to the category of the alien, Jean-Francois Staszak claims that Otherness is a complex human construct. It is an imagined division whereby a “dominant in-group (‘Us’, the Self) constructs one or many dominated out-groups (‘Them,’ Other) by stigmatizing a difference – real or imagined – presented as a negation of identity and thus a motive for potential discrimination.” The embattled US relationship with Mexico, from the Mexican-American War (1846-9) through to the contemporary immigration crisis, has resulted in the proliferation of this kind of discourse of Otherness wherein Mexico is presented as inversion of America, a dark mirror reflecting a perversion of America’s mythology of democracy and progress. Indeed, throughout much of its history, Mexico has been framed in the US imagination as a repository of those aspects of itself that America wishes to purge, suppress and cast off. Where America represents freedom, individualism and optimism, Mexico is portrayed as lawless, corrupt and stagnant. In the American popular imagination, this can be clearly seen in the tendency of hounded criminals to flee south to Mexico. Even though there has been an extradition treaty in place between the US and its southern neighbour since 1978, the perception of Mexico as a place which exists beyond the reach of law and order still persists.
In film and literature, we can see this this anxiety about border zones and their potential corruption in works such as Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1953) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Philip Marlowe and Miguel Vargas repeatedly cross and re-cross the border between two distinct nations which also serves as the border between two distinct states of being. While both of these works foreground border towns, rather than Mexico itself, as the site of corruption, the immorality of these border regions certainly reflects larger cultural anxieties about the porous boundary between the US and Mexico. To this day, similar concerns about border zones manifest annually when college kids make their traditional spring break pilgrimages to Tijuana, lured by the misguided perception that the laws of decorum and human decency that governed them in the USA do not apply once they cross the border. In this way, American culture not only fears the anarchic chaos of Mexico, it also fetishes Mexico as more authentic, more liberated. At the end of Jack Kerouac’s seminal account of disaffected post-war youth, On the Road (1957), the narrator fails to find the spiritual heart of America he had sought during his frenetic road trip across the US, and ultimately crosses the border to Mexico, where he finds genuine spiritual enlightenment amidst the Mexicans, whom he patronisingly describes as simple and child-like.
In some ways, From Dusk Till Dawn is a grotesque, over-the-top satire of America’s tendency to regard Mexico with both terror and romantic longing. The film cleverly employs the tropes and conventions of midnight-movie exploitation cinema to mock the way in which the US seems to perceive the nation to the south of its borders as at once a crime-ridden dystopia and a playground for the fantasies and desires they cannot enact in their more puritanical homeland. From Dusk Till Dawn is a film of two halves. The first part of the film takes places amongst the wide-open highways of southern Texas; the film is brightly lit, almost oversaturated, and its world is one of vacationing families and hardworking Americans as well as that of escaped criminals. Indeed, while the early part of the film suggests that the fugitive bank robbers Seth and Richie Gecko may be burning a destructive path through the Texas countryside, they are nevertheless pursued by a loyal and dedicated police force. Indeed, Texas Rangers swarm the border zone, a fact which forces the fleeing Gecko Brothers to steal the unwieldy recreational vehicle and kidnap the Fuller Family to use as cover during their escape. While the iconography of the film might be that of the Wild West and the freedom of the historic Route 66, law and order still hold sway in the United States.
It is not until its second half that From Dusk Till Dawn transforms into something more monstrous. Light and lawfulness still reign in Texas, but the moment the Geckos and their captives traverse the boundary into Mexico, the natural order of things is upended, and the fugitives enter a place of horror and chaos. Significantly, the border crossing coincides with sundown, and so the bright blue skies of America give way to a twilit realm of darkness and ambiguity. In this context, the title of the film is telling. Dusk and dawn are in-between spaces, transitory conditions between one state and the next, they mark the crossing of the boundary between day and night, light and dark. Once the border is left behind, reality is inverted, and the bright sunlit vistas of America are replaced by the darkness of the Mexican night.
Driving through the strange night of a foreign land, the Geckos and their captors soon come to their ostensible safe haven, the bar where they are scheduled to meet their Mexican contact and shortly thereafter be led to a life of ease and comfort in the mythical El Rey. The bar itself is a sort of neon-soaked bacchanalia where every vice and pleasure is apparently catered for. Rising out of the murky Mexican night, the neon signs affixed to the front of the bar identify it as the “Titty Twister”, a meeting place for bikers and truck drivers, a beacon for the dregs and refuse of American society. Just a short journey across the border from the United States, it seems that chaos and depravity reign freely. Those who cannot fit comfortably into American society – the criminals, the outlaws, the rootless drifters – all find themselves here. Again, the seedy bar that serves as our primary view of Mexico seems to function as a dark reflection of the US, a place where the morals and laws governing American society are either forgotten or wilfully subverted. The bar is a den of licentiousness and debauchery. Drenched in cheap booze and adorned with gyrating erotic dancers, the Titty Twister is the perverse Other to more puritanical American values. This sense that the moral infrastructure of the United States does not extend south of the border is encapsulated in the notorious “pussy speech” given by the carnival barker-style doorman (Cheech Marin) who expounds upon the delights that lie within the Titty Twister. Promising “white pussy, black pussy, Spanish pussy, yellow pussy”, the barker lures patrons to the bar with the assurance of cheap, accessible sex. Here, women are reduced to their genitalia, they are products to be bought and sold. The barker even announces that “Here at the Titty Twister we’re slashing pussy in half! Give us an offer on our vast selection of pussy”.
The presence of a sexual economy is explicit rather than implicit. Moreover, the Titty Twister also provides “horse pussy, dog pussy, chicken pussy.” Every vice, no matter how abhorrent, is catered for, at a price. Conversely, earlier in the film, after discovering that his brother has raped and murdered a hostage, Seth Gecko expresses disgust and emphatically reminds Richie that he is a professional thief, not a sex criminal. Seth may rob banks and gun down police officers but, as in the Old West, there is code. One may steal and become the archetypal American outlaw, but sexual perversion has no room in the myth of the romantic rebel. The barker’s speech appears as a dark reflection of Seth’s disgust at his brother’s acts and can even be seen as an exaggerated mirror of Richie’s barely contained perversions. Moreover, Marin’s over-the-top performance and the grotesque comedy of his promise that if “pussy shoppers” buy “one piece of pussy at the regular price”, they will receive “another piece of pussy of equal or lesser value for only a penny” are so exaggerated that they ultimately constitute a parody of America’s vision of Mexico as a perverse, immoral Other. Sex and female bodies are cheap and disposable at the Titty Twister, but the purpose of the barker’s pitch is clearly to satirise the popular America vision of Mexico as a place where sex and tequila flow freely. This construction of Mexico as the repository of the immorality and corruption that America seeks to banish from itself is readily apparent in Cheech Marin’s triple (!) role. Appearing on the US side of the border, he is a respectable official, a border patrol agent. When we encounter him again on the Mexican side of the border, he is alternately a crass flesh monger and a sleazy gangster. Seeing the same man three times, first as a clean and well-kempt embodiment of the law and later as a grubby degenerate reinforces the notion that crossing the border into Mexico entails crossing over into a twisted reflection of America. Yet, these connotations and manifestations of Otherness are so extreme and so caricatured they that invariably draw us into the realm of satire.
In the film’s climax, the Titty Twister erupts into an orgy of violence and bloodshed when the vampiric nature of its employees is ultimately revealed in a spectacular display of brutality. Shedding their human forms, the dancers and bartenders grow fangs and begin to display monstrous visages as they feed on their unsuspecting clientele. The vampires that lurk in the Titty Twister are not suave, elegant creatures of the night; instead, they are gruesome and animalistic. The vampires here possess the features of various reviled or dangerous pests: bats, rats and snakes. They are inhuman and predatory, luring unsuspecting drifters to their den of iniquity in order to feed upon them. Later in the film, as the few remaining humans attempt to defend themselves from the prowling monsters, they retreat to a storeroom where they find decades’, if not centuries’, worth of salvaged cargo, taken from murdered truck drivers. This notion that just south of the border there exists not only a hidden repository of Otherness, but that the monsters lurking within prey on passing Americans again seems like a grotesque parody of America’s fear of the Mexican Other. As Cannon Schmitt observes in his book Alien Nation: Nineteenth-century Gothic Fictions and English Nationality, gothic literature is a literary form inherently preoccupied with binaries: the division between good and evil, male and female, inside and outside. Gothic texts, Schmitt argues, often incorporate notions of nationality into this binary system, and so xenophobia is often a key feature of gothic horror as the foreign and alien is presented as villainous and threatening. Unsurprisingly, the vampire, a parasitic creature, usually from a foreign land, was regularly deployed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a metaphor for the dangerous alien or threatening migrant. Bringing disease and sexual corruption, the vampire was the fictive embodiment of Victorian fears about foreigners. It is no surprise, then, that the most iconic images from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) as well as its later cinematic adaptation Nosferatu (1922) feature a ship carrying the foreign monster to Western European shores.
In From Dusk Till Dawn, Tarantino (who wrote the script as well as starring in the film) and Rodriguez (himself of Mexican descent) appear to be knowingly and ironically alluding to this tradition of the vampire as the embodiment of xenophobic anxieties. Robert Kurtzman’s special effects not only render the vampires animalistic, but in the case of the dancers, grotesquely lascivious. Just as Bela Lugosi’s sinister Eastern-European aristocrat and Max Schreck’s rodent-like Count Orlok embodied xenophobic fears about the threat posed by the arrival of a dark emissary from the distant reaches of a wild continent, so too do the vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn reflect American anxieties about a crime-ridden, licentious Mexico. However, in a film where vampires explode dramatically upon contact with sunlight and an American biker (the wonderful Tom Savini) wears a gun strapped to his groin, it is clear that very little is intended to be taken seriously.
While Dracula and Orlok may have represented the real fears that Western Europeans held regarding their eastern neighbours, From Dusk Till Dawn subverts this portrayal of the vampire as a manifestation of xenophobic anxieties. Instead, the over-the-top monstrosity of the Titty Twister’s vampiric hordes seems to parody and mock popular American xenophobia. They are animalistic, numerous, and they prey on unwary Americans. Lurking just south of the boundary separating the US from Mexico, they exemplify American fears about their “lawless”, “immoral” neighbour. Yet, the camp gore and excessive violence of the film transports it into the realm of satire. The vampires in From Dusk Till Dawn are not xenophobic caricatures in their own right; rather, their exaggerated monstrosity mocks pervasive American fears about what goes on south of the border. While the film pre-dates the racist fearmongering of Donald Trump by almost two decades, its intentionally grotesque portrayal of a vampiric cabal lurking just across the US-Mexico border nevertheless functions as an apt satire of xenophobic constructions of the Mexican Other that, unfortunately, continue to pervade contemporary political discourse. Answering the question “What’s in Mexico?” with the simple reply “Mexicans”, Richie Gecko’s evasive sarcasm actually penetrates to the heart of the anxieties explored in the film. For many, the terrifying Other lurking across the US-Mexico border is simply the demonised racial Other that has been transformed, via political propaganda and popular xenophobia, into a bloodthirsty monster.