Just in time for Halloween, Netflix drops a new original film, Vampires vs. the Bronx, directed by Saturday Night Live alumni, Oz Rodriguez. Vampires are a favorite movie monster and each generation of filmmakers have sought to reinvent the undead formula. In this largely successful effort, Rodriguez creates an urban horror that is both humorous and thrilling while offering a thin layer of social commentary.
Miguel (Jaden Michael) a shy young Dominican kid is organizing a block party to raise enough money to save his local bodega from being prized out. Business after business in the neighborhood have been bought out and replaced by trendy restaurants and shops and his beloved bodega may soon be next. The bodega owner Tony (Joel “the Kid Mero” Martinez) has been introducing products such as soy milk and flax seed to adjust to the changing demographics of the South Bronx.
It is very early on in the film that you realize that vampirism is not too subtle metaphor for gentrification. The realty company itself has a woodcut of Vlad the Impaler as a logo and is named Murnau Properties, a clear reference to the director of Nosferatu. The realty agent himself is named, Frank Polidori after the author of the The Vampyre.
When he witnesses a vampire kill a local thug, Miguel recruits his friends to further investigate. Bobby (Gerald W. Jones III) is an African-American child who is being lured into the gang life by local hoodlums, the more assertive, but skeptical friend. Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) is a Puerto Rican metalhead nerd who is seemingly the local vampire expert. They are soon joined by Miguel’s crush, Rita (Coco Jones), who being a full sixteen makes her the “older woman” in comparison to the younger boys.
The set-up of a team made up of a girl and boys on a supernatural adventure would make an obvious comparison to Netflix’s own Stranger Things. Even more closer comparisons can be made to the 80s cult films The Monster Squad and The Lost Boys, as well as the more recent Attack the Block. Vampires vs the Bronx shares with them all an honest appreciation of classic monsters all the while not overly sugarcoating the more frightening aspects of horror storytelling.
While being an urban story about the very modern and real issue of gentrification, Vampires vs the Bronx is rather old-fashioned in its vampire lore. The old standbys like vampires not having reflections and being repelled by garlic, holy water and crucifixes are retained. In many of the modern vampire tales populated by white characters and geared to white audiences, these traditional tropes have been abandoned. It makes sense that in a film that appeals to a Hispanic and Black audience who largely still retains ties to the church, these parts of vampire mythology are respected.
The idea that vampires cannot enter a home unless invited is uniquely reimagined by Rodriguez. He has the vampires slowly take over the South Bronx through legal means of buying property. The residents willfully sell their property to the vampires to get paid and raise their quality of life. This Faustian pact ends killing the inhabitants of the South Bronx which makes for a rather heavy-handed metaphor, but nonetheless spells out the message Rodriguez wants the audience to hear.
Some critics have already brought up that gentrification is a complex issue that Vampires vs the Bronx oversimplifies, but this film is after all told through the eyes of children. So many horror directors lately have tried to go the pretentious route and make very long films deep in psychology and meta-analysis. They have forgotten how much fun horror can be. The action is fast paced and while not gory, the vampire kills are chilling.
Rodriguez has brought together a great cast with these young actors. Joel Martinez is unfortunately not as a good actor as his young costars. Zoe Saldana and Cliff “Method Man” Smith have wasted cameos and no doubt they were cast just so that their names catch your attention. The villains, however, are devilishly portrayed, particularly Sarah Gadon and Shia Whigham.
Vampires vs the Bronx is a fine full-length debut for Oz Rodriguez. Hopefully, Rodriguez’s film career and the South Bronx itself, will continue to thrive.
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