Horror in the 1980’s had a particularly sinister bite to it, especially if it came from across the pond, from England. While the Cold War was still haunting geopolitics during that decade, the collective imagination was no longer hung up on the 1950’s and 1960’s brand of communist fears and paranoia. In comes a British comics magazine called Scream!, a weekly horror anthology that ran for 15 issues in 1984. With it came one of the most unique vampire tales ever to have graced the comic book page: The Dracula File.
Mainly written by Gerry Finley-Day, one of the minds behind Rogue Trooper, and illustrated by Eric Bradbury, The Dracula File took Bram Stoker’s iconic vamp, dropped him right in the middle of 1984, and then had him come out of the Iron Curtain and into Western Europe for his nightly feedings. Perhaps Soviet blood just wasn’t as fulfilling anymore.
Finley-Day and Bradbury take every opportunity to indulge in the Cold War setting to portray Dracula’s horror as a natural fit within the world of spies, secrets, and the constant threat of nuclear war. In fact, the story’s first entry opens with a scene involving a vampire crossing the ‘death strip’ (the distance that had to be run to reach the West over the Berlin Wall) to escape East Germany.
As was the case for those who actually attempted to escape East Germany, the vampire is met with machine gun fire and all manner of death traps that were supposed to deter people from trying their hand at it. After the vampire makes it to the other side, The Dracula File makes an unexpected shift into a genre not commonly associated with the famed bloodsucker: spy fiction.
Given the history of British horror, one could be tempted to assume the story would take much of its inspiration from the classic Hammer films. While there is a fair bit of Hammer in it, especially in terms of ambiance and monster designs (there are parts where the vampire shows a passing resemblance to Christopher Lee’s Dracula), The Dracula File owes more to the spy novels of John le Carré, Graham Greene, and John Deighton.
The first parts of the overall story carry the pacing and tone of a spy thriller. Reports of someone who survived the jump to the West are shrouded in secrecy due to the circumstances of the escape while supernatural incidents are studied methodically to account for the unexplained things that accompany the new development. Later, mysterious deaths lead to investigations that keep to dark alleys and backchannels, whispered among a select few. Finley-Day and Bradbury go lengths to present Dracula as a legitimate Cold War threat and a national security problem. And then they have spies and government agents become the natural evolution of the Van Helsing character.
The script and the art never let the spy elements overwhelm the horror in the story. Dracula File never stops being a horror story, but the underlying intrigue that comes with treating vampires as another threat under the umbrella of the Cold War gives it an identity all its own. Heavy mist still hangs over scenes where a vampire attack is imminent and the supernatural permeates throughout the entire story, but the spy thriller elements frame Dracula as a kind of provocateur without any real allegiance to any side other than his own. His cause is one of blood and it poses a threat to the order of things in the world of secrets the Cold War created.
The Dracula File is a different kind of vampire story, a rare one, in fact. To insert vampires into the spy game and still honor the more classic elements of spy fiction is truly a feat and begs further reading. It’s a great addition to anyone’s Halloween reading list and it’s a refreshing break from tradition.