Year Of The Vampire: Dracula Dead And Loving It Doesn't Suck

(Welcome to Year of the Vampire, a series examining the greatest, strangest, and sometimes overlooked vampire movies of all time in honor of "Nosferatu," which turns 100 this year.)

Comedy legend Mel Brooks ended his career on low note, with his final film "Dracula Dead and Loving It" bombing at the box office in 1995 and going down as one of his worst-rated films. The legend had seemingly lost his touch — the former Academy Award winner (his debut feature "The Producers" won Best Original Screenplay) failed to satisfy either critics or audiences, with the current Rotten Tomatoes score being a pathetic 11% among critics and 49% among audiences.

But a closer look at the review breakdowns reveals a different story: of the 50,000-plus audience ratings, the average score is actually 3.2 out of 5 — admittedly, not amazing, but still better than the "11%" critic rating implies. 

And this critic would go even higher. 

To this day, there are moments of this movie that still make me laugh out loud, and the movie has aged remarkably well. Seeing slapstick greats Mel Brook and Leslie Nielsen team-up on-screen is a treat; the jokes are broad and, at times, stupid — but that is the joy of this film. It's a dumb parody. It features lush period costumes and sets, contrasted by intentionally cheap props — like the clearly plastic spider Thomas Renfield (Peter MacNicol) eats. The acting is over-the-top, and downright bawdy. "Dracula Dead and Loving It" is deliriously silly, indulging in physical gags and absurdism, all while getting in the sort of smart quips that never get old. It may have been created in response to the 1992 hit "Bram Stoker's Dracula," but almost 30 years later, the film stands on its own as one of the decade's most underrated comedies.   

What it brought to the genre

Mel Brooks made one of the best parodies of all time with "Young Frankenstein," which debuted in 1974 — long after the initial release of its inspiration, the Universal "Frankenstein" films. "Dracula Dead and Loving It" often gets compared to the Oscar-nominated film, which is a bit unfair; yes, both spoof classic gothic horror stories, but the cultural context for the movies — and the pop culture surrounding their release — were very different, which may be part of the reason why Brooks' later horror spoof didn't fare as well with critics. 

"Dracula Dead and Loving It" is ostensibly a parody of "Dracula," but it's mainly responding to the 1992 film adaptation starring Gary Oldman as the iconic vamp villain. The Dracula costume — especially the "hat" Nielsen wears — are clearly a riff on the '90s version of the Count, with a healthy dose of Classic Universal Horror thrown in for good measure. There are some surprisingly nuanced nods to the 1932 film found here: for example, the subtle makeup highlighting under the eyes of Lucy when she meets Dracula, and later Mina when she's under the Count's spell, echoes the lighting effect used to illuminate Bela Lugosi's eyes in the original Universal film. The shadow gags here play with a concept introduced in the definitive vampire movie "Nosferatu." And the sets — delightfully vibrant yet distinctly phoney — have a "sound stage" feel to them. 

Perhaps the failing with "Dracula Dead and Loving It" — at least at the time of release — is that the film tries to do too much, struggling under the weight of parodying the 1992 film when there was an entire century of "Dracula" movies to have fun with. However, viewed today, "Dracula Dead and Loving It" presents a fun snapshot of mid-'90s pop culture. This was the height of "sexy vampires" before "Buffy" made them angsty antiheroes and "Twilight" made them sparkle. But unlike 1994's "Interview with a Vampire" or even 1998's "Blade," "Dracula Dead and Loving It" doesn't revere this heightened sensuality — it mocks it, reducing Dracula and his horny undead brides to bawdy punchlines. Renfield and Harker's reactions to these women are priceless, and are exactly the kind of timeless (if a bit tasteless) jokes that never get old. 

A delightfully dimwitted Dracula

There are some flaws in this vampire film, and it is far from Mel Brooks, or even Leslie Nielsen's, best work. Still, there's much to enjoy in this silly, spooktacular spoof. "Dracula Dead and Loving It" is filled with sharp one-liners that could easily be missed on the first watch, like when Van Helsing says he's a gynecologist, and Dr. Seward responds, "Oh, I didn't know you had your hand in that, too" (a joke that definitely went over my head as a kid). Nielsen's facial expressions and reactions are always a joy, even in the background of scenes. Sometimes, the humor is anachronistic: when Dracula is about to bite Mina, she requests "no hickeys." The comedy is a bit raunchy at times (this is a very horny movie), but unlike other parody series that haven't aged as well, the comedy isn't reliant on specific pop culture references. It may be a general parody of "Bram Stoker's Dracula," but you don't need to have seen that film to get the jokes.

By far, the best scene is when Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing stake Lucy. Van Helsing — who understands the importance of "location, location, location" — knows enough to hide when the mallet comes down. Harker does not, and actor Steven Weber's reaction is priceless. The entire blood sequence is mainly one long take, and it's a testament to Weber's acting abilities that he stays in character throughout. Overall, it feels like a vaudeville bit in the best possible way — and has one of my favorite (stupid) lines in the whole film.  

I would be remise not to mention Peter MacNicol's Renfield as the surprise, breakout star of "Dracula Dead and Loving It." His manic energy gets some of the biggest laughs, following in the comedic footsteps of other Mel Brooks characters, like Gene Wilder's Leo Bloom or Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. Even the film's harshest critics often admit that Renfield's antics could crack a smile. 

"Dracula Dead and Loving It" may not have the passion of Brooks' "Young Frankenstein," nor the countless gags of Nielsen's "Airplane" or "The Naked Gun" series, but it's a charming entry in the filmographies of both comedy legends. In terms of vampire movies, it's a worthy entry in the genre — and the rare example of a horror film that is (intentionally) hilarious.