Top 10 Undead in Soviet/Russian Film
The concept of the undead pervades world horror cinema, and it would have been very impractical to try and compile a list of undead film characters from, for example, American or Japanese films. But within Soviet/Russian cinema undead are very rare species. The narratives of the supernatural were not quite favoured by the Soviet government, which resulted in complete absence of horror cinema tradition in the USSR and the new Russia.
However, 19th century Russian literature was very influenced by gothic sensibilities, and that is why during Soviet times film-makers started to use “a book adaptation” as an excuse to smuggle undead to cinema screens.
This article is inspired by Sarah J. Young’s brilliant Top 10 undead in Russian literature. As you will see most of the film examples below are book adaptations, some of them repeat the ones from Sarah’s top. However, I believe it doesn’t make them any less peculiar, and Soviet/Russian cinematic undead also need some attention.
1. The old woman from The Queen of Spades
(Пиковая дама), 1916, Yakov Protazanov
Originating from Aleksandr Pushkin’s story ‘The Queen of Spades’ (1834), this lady must be the first manifestation of the undead within Russian cinema ever (there is also a 1910 film version). She is an old countess who knows a secret of how to win a card game. One poor lad attempts to draw this out of her, but being a bit too pushy, leads her to have a stroke. The lady comes back from the dead and drives the young man to insanity. Pushkin wasn’t all about sappy romantic poems after all.
2. The drowned maiden from May Night, or The Drowned
(Майская ночь, или Утопленница), 1952, Aleksandr Rou
Aleksandr Rou was mainly adapting fairy tales to screen, but when someone adapts Gogol the result might be not particularly “fairy-tailish”. May Night, or the Drowned Maiden is based on the Gogol’s tale of the same name (1831) and tells a story of a girl who drowned herself because her father’s new wife was picking at her. From then on she lives on the bottom of the lake, doing circle dances with other drowned girls.
3. Pannochka from Viy
(Вий), 1967, Georgi Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov
Pannochka must be the most famous undead of Soviet cinema. Her character also descends from Gogol’s novel, but it is her filmic version that people know and recognise: the undead witch maiden, who cries with bloody tears and flies in the coffin, the Slavonic monstrous feminine that has a tooth for theology students.
4. King Stakh from Savage Hunt of King Stakh
(Дикая охота короля Стаха), 1979, Valeri Rubinchik
Savage Hunt of King Stakh is a very creepy Belarusian film that is worth watching just because it’s creepy AND Belarusian. The undead character Stakh used to be a virtuous man fighting for the independence of Belarusian lands and wishing for his people’s freedom and happiness. However, he and his associates were brutally killed by conspirators, who tied their corpses to horses and set the animals free. From then on Stakh and his horsemen haunt the vicinity, taking out the conspirators and their descendants one by one.
5. Grandfather Yakov from The Vampire Family
(Семья вурдалаков), 1990, Igor Shavlak and Gennadi Klimov
The grandson of the late Yakov carelessly forgets he can’t pronounce the name of the deceased before nine days have passed since his death. Breaking this taboo turns his grandfather into a vampire and he comes back from the dead to terrorise the family. The Vampire Family is an adaptation of Aleksei Tolstoi’s novel and is a truly terrifying watching experience, that has nothing to do with all the film trash that engulfed the Soviet screen in the pre-collapse period.
6. Marfa Sugrobina from Those Who Drink Blood
(Пьющие кровь), 1992, Evgeni Tatarsky
Dasha is invited to spend some time at her grandma’s and finds herself in a vampire nest… This film (as well as The Vampire Family) represent the vampire film cycle of the early 1990s. After the collapse, many film-makers for some reasons turned to one of the most popular forms of the undead – a vampire. Home made vampire films became quite popular and that’s when Aleksei Tolstoi’s literary works became handy – both Those Who Drink Blood and The Vampire Family are screen adaptations of his novels ‘The Vampire’ (1841) and ‘The Family of Vurdalak’ (1884) respectively.
7. The Ghost of the Father from The Touch
(Прикосновение), 1992, Albert Mkrtchyan
A young lady kills her child and then herself after seeing a ghost of her father. But this is no regular ghost – he is part of “forzi”, an organisation of dead associates, whose aim is to drive the best and the most spiritually clean people to death, which forzi believe is for their own good… The Touch was made from an original screenplay, therefore is an important stage in the development of the new Russian horror cinema.
8. Lenin from The Master and Margarita
(Мастер и Маргарита), 1994, Yuri Kara
We all remember Voland’s ball from Bulgakov’s timeless book, in which all kind of sinners from across the centuries come back to life, and Margarita, the queen of the ball, has to welcome them. In his film adaptation, Yuri Kara allowed himself to add some peculiar details that are not in the book: his Satan’s Ball is attended by Lenin, Stalin and Hilter. When Margarita exclaims in surprise: “But those are still alive!” (meaning Hitler and Stalin, as the action takes place in the 1930s), her attache Korovyev explains that these are “the special guests”. So Stalin and Hitler don’t count, but Lenin is an actual undead in Kara’s film version.
9. Village people from The Mystery of the Old Cemetery
(Загадка старого кладбища), 2002, Stanislav Grachyov
In a small Russian village recently buried suddenly appear to be not quite dead. A group of paranormal researchers find out there’s an ancient witch coven behind this. The Mystery of the Old Cemetery is the first Russian film to depict a small-scale zombie plague. Its incredibly low budget makes it even more curious.
10. Count Darlak from The Daytime Representative
(Дневной представитель), 2004, Vitaliy Vorobyov
The Daytime Representative is a very cheesy and ridiculous film, but it is worth mentioning here because it appears to be Russia’s take on Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. Plenty of its story elements are borrowed from the all-time vampire classic, and the character of Count Darlak is obviously a home made prototype of Count Dracula.