‘Dead & Beautiful’ (2021) Review: A Vampiric Metaphor in an Arthouse Style
Dead & Beautiful is an arthouse drama with a vampiric twist. It feels like a fresh spin on vampires, but is it a spin worth watching?
This section involves only very minor spoilers about the setup for the story and the general direction of the plot.
With a meditative pace and gorgeous cinematography, Dead & Beautiful is a unique spin on the vampire genre. The film begins by introducing the audience to a group of five young and ridiculously rich friends who have grown bored of their lives. Their wealth comes from their parents, and these rich kids live in a bubble where their concerns have moved beyond material wealth.
They have begun looking for new and exciting experiences, and this has taken the form of “turns” where each member of the group is tasked with planning something memorable for everyone to participate in. The latest turn involves a trip to the wilderness and some sort of ritual involving blood and smoke. Their minds become hazy, and everyone passes out. When they wake up, they discover that they all have fangs. They also discover a dead body, so they escape back to the city to try to figure out exactly what has happened to them.
The rest of the movies focuses on the group of five as they come to grips with what their new fangs mean for their lives. While they use their wealth as a buffer to keep themselves more or less secluded from the rest of society, tensions rise as the friends each handle their situation differently. Is their vampiric condition allowing their true natures and feelings to be revealed, or is something else going on?
Dead & Beautiful is written by David Verbeek, a filmmaker from the Netherlands who moved to China shortly after graduating from film school. In an interview posted on 1428 Elm, Verbeek describes coming up with the idea for Dead & Beautiful while living in China and seeing a lot of news coverage about “Fuerdai” (a term describing the children of the newly rich in China). Fuerdai were linked with moral decay, and Verbeek became interested in making a film about their generation.
Verbeek also states that incorporating vampires into the story came from the term “jiangshi” sometimes being used in a derogatory way when referring to super rich people. Jiangshi come from Chinese folklore and are portrayed as reanimated corpses who move around by hopping. They feed on the life force of humans, so they are something of a Chinese equivalent to the vampires of the Western world. The references to rich people involve the rich being seen as metaphorical bloodsuckers. Verbeek decided to make the metaphor literal.
Dead & Beautiful was shot in Taiwan with an international cast. The film is mostly in English, though the various accents and languages give it a very worldly feel. The film is a “Shudder Original” and was released on the streaming service on November 4, 2021.
Though it may look like a sexy vampire movie from the trailer, Dead & Beautiful is more of a character-driven drama than a traditional horror movie. It’s really quite difficult to categorize the movie as horror at all, and that might put off people searching for something to watch on the Shudder service which is, you know, all about horror. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the marketing pulled a bait-and-switch, but it does overemphasize vampiric shenanigans when, after watching the film, the vampire stuff takes a backseat to the personal conflicts between the five main characters. And yeah, some of the shots in the trailer are misleading.
If you know what you’re getting into though, Dead & Beautiful is a strikingly pretty and interestingly complex movie about a world most of us will never experience. No, I’m not referring to the world of vampires, I’m referring to the world of the super rich. Lulu (Aviis Zhong) is the film’s main character, and even though all five members of her circle are somewhat unlikable in the beginning, Lulu seems to be the most grounded and relatable person as the movie progresses. One of the toughest balancing acts Dead & Beautiful is forced to do is to try to make the audience care about these people who can seemingly get away with anything they want. Lulu is the best conduit for the audience, and it’s through her that most of the drama is built.
The drama is well constructed, and it is told at a rather languid pace. David Verbeek’s previous films have been of the arthouse variety, so viewers should expect lots of lingering shots that are intended to set strong moods more than they push the action forward. Dead & Beautiful is certainly moody. Whether that’s a positive or negative will come down to personal tastes, but the characterization of Lulu as she navigates a love triangle with her friends Mason (Gijs Blom) and Alexander (Yen Tsao) is done well regardless.
The action picks up a bit as the movie nears its finale. However, viewers looking for clean resolutions and clear answers to every question posed by the film might leave unsatisfied. There are some twists in the final segments of Dead & Beautiful that force the viewer to change the way they look at certain aspects of what they’ve just watched, and this is probably where the film is at its weakest. The closing shots are quite satisfying, but the explanations right before those ending moments add as much confusion as closure. I can’t get any more specific without spoiling everything though, and I do think Dead & Beautiful is worth watching and experiencing without knowing what happens.
Dead & Beautiful is a contemplative movie made for people who enjoy mood and style over plot and action. The movie is built upon the metaphor of the rich being bloodsuckers, and it mostly delivers on that idea. It’s debatable whether any lessons are learned by any of the characters, but that’s probably the point. The social status of these characters has them so far removed from the real world when the movie begins that becoming actual vampires feels like it would be a step sideways rather a step towards becoming a better or worse person. That is the movie’s point, and that is its curse.