I Walked With a Vambie
by Martin Hill Ortiz
“A vambie!” my granduncle Roland said. He was also my godfather, god-awful old and god-awesome rich. To find favor in his will my mother had whisked me to his mansion at least once a week since I was four years of age, always dressed to the nines as a future CEO in a miniature business suit. I looked for all the world like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Never the fool, Roland saw through my mother’s ploy. Still, he didn’t take it out on me, letting me bang about his mansion and amuse myself with his museum-sized collection of old movie props including rubber tentacles, twelve-foot spider legs and ghoulish latex masks.
By the time I turned ten my interests had gone beyond playthings and he began to entertain me with outlandish tales of old Hollywood. Now, being seventeen, I’d read a bit of cinema history to keep up my half of the conversations, a strategy that failed on those days when his stories dove off the deep end. Like today.
We sat across from each other in his library in leather, tack-studded chairs. From the walls, framed black and white photos of movie idols smiled down on us, twinkle-toothed leading men, starlets who had signed their photos with kisses, all thanking their darling Rollie.
He told me, “Back in the thirties and forties all of the major studios did their damnedest to cash in on the success that Universal had achieved with its monster flicks. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman! If it groaned, sucked or bit, it was Universal!
“In 1942 over at RKO, Val Lewton, the head of their new horror unit, ordered his research department to conjure up some monster hybrids, figuring two monsters in one made for a combo that couldn’t be beat. At first, the best they could contrive was Frankula, Drackenstein and The Weremummy — all rejects. Finally, they hit upon zompires and vambies.” He spread his hands out and looked up as though he saw them right now parading across a wide screen.
I struggled to share his vision. “Half-zombie, half-vampire?”
“Or else half-vampire, half-zombie.”
“Never heard of them.” But that was true for many of the subjects of my granduncle’s stories. At least he let me sip some liquor from his collection of jewel-cut canters. Their contents always tasted a bit syrupy, but being seventeen and looking too young to pass off a fake ID, drinking any liquor always felt forbidden and thrilling.
“Nobody has heard of them — and with good reason,” he said. He leaned in and aimed a yellowed fingernail my way. His eyes quickened with terror. “Even though these were the most horrifying movie monsters ever!”
He waved his arms about. From anyone else such flourishes of bombast would elicit giggles, but I had long grown use to his histrionics.
“Vambies?” My skepticism was undisguised.
“Imagine vampires immune to daylight who attack in swarms! Zombies that could turn into bats!” He fluttered his hands like wings.
“You suppose? These creatures epitomized the vanguard of movie monster technology.”
“So what happened to the films?”
“Therein lies the tragedy. The production head at RKO, Charles Koerner, was a notorious pinch-penny. Rather than shelling out green on special effects or quality monster make-up, he hired a voodoo priestess to mumble a ceremony to steal the souls of some actors. Unfortunately, these were not just any actors, they chose a troupe of performers that ran a mysterious nightly carnival at the edge of the desert. And, yes, they’d just arrived from Transylvania.”
“They were vampires?”
“Who then became zombies. Vambies.”
“You’re telling me that — to save money — he created actual vambies?” A ho-hum escaped my lips. A low hum filled my skull. My cheeks felt damp, my head empty. The liquor. For my first time ever, I was plastered. It felt exciting, sophisticated, an initiation into the adult world of drunkenness.
“Most certainly he made vambies and damned cheap ones!” He refilled my glass. “The film came in under budget. I Walked With A Vambie was set to premiere in late ’42, the first of the Val Lewton horror films. Unfortunately, RKO was not only a film-making company — they had an ongoing distribution contract with Disney who, in August of that year, premiered Bambi.
“Walt threw a tantrum! These vambie monsters had a name that could tarnish his precious slab of celluloid venison. He became convinced vambie monsters would devalue Bambi merchandise. He demanded that RKO shelve their film.
“Koerner was under the gun, his studio raked in a lot of moolah from their Disney deal. So he gave in to Disney’s demand, gutting the film, reusing parts for a 1943 release I Walked With a Zombie. They cut out every scene with vambies. That could have been the sad-enough end of the affair, but then everything went to hell when Koerner refused to pay the Voodoo priestess. He came up with a phony excuse, claiming it was her fault the footage couldn’t be used. He claimed the vambies didn’t seem real enough.”
“‘Not real enough?’ she screamed. ‘I’ll show you how real they are!’ She got her revenge by letting loose the vambies and in the coming months there were dozens of Hollywood vambie murders.”
“If they went on a murder spree, how come no one has heard of them?”
He wagged his head and rolled his eyes. “Back then the studios controlled the city. The police, coroners, DA — all were wheels and cogs and cogs inside of wheels — part of a wholesale cover-up.
“It got even more complicated,” my granduncle went on. “You see, because these vambies were vampires, zombies and carnival performers, they desperately tried to sate all three of their evil desires: blood, brains and acting careers. The mix didn’t work well.
“At that time, Cagney was the head of SAG and he launched a whole squad devoted to making certain only living actors got hired. No vambie could get a union card. A war broke out. Vambies attacked studio productions. Bounties were offered for vambie heads. Still, for every vambie killed off, new ones got recruited, mostly from the zoot-suit gangs.”
I was about to ask. He explained, “Zoot suits. Outrageous costumes, dress pants hiked up to the ribs, jacket ten times too big, colors that blinded. The rap stars of the forties.”
“Like Jim Carney in The Mask.”
Any movie reference from the last fifty years went straight over his head.
“The Zoot Suit Riots. You can look it up. Part of the vambie wars, although that aspect of the story got swept under the rug. Biggest cover-up of its time. Biggest cover-up of them all until the disappearance of the 50-foot woman.”
I pinched my temples. My mind was swimming in liquor now. Under any other circumstance I would have cried out, “Nonsense!” offended that he took me for such a fool. Instead his story was like a fun ride on an imaginary roller coaster. “How do you kill a vambie?” I asked.
His eyes widened as though one stood directly before him. “You have to stab them in the heart with a stake AND chop off their heads. Although I did hear of one that died from getting a caraway seed stuck between his teeth.”
“A caraway seed?”
“It got wedged behind his incisor and, when he retracted his fang, the seed jammed up into his brain.”
“By the middle of ’43, Koerner recognized the magnitude of his errors. That and the fact that Universal moved on to making films with two different monsters, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, an idea vastly superior to the two-in-one concept.
“Koerner summoned me to his office: at that time I headed security at RKO. He ordered me to eradicate all remaining vambies. Only one problem: nobody knew how many of them existed.
“So to start my assignment I arranged to meet with a snitch on the roof of the Brockman Building. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I found my informant and his head in two different locations. Soon I was surrounded by a dozen zoot-suit vambies. I tried shooting them, blasting away, only my gun was useless. One of them changed into a bat and bit me. As I retreated back to the roof’s edge, they gave me two choices: I could be torn to pieces or else I could join them. I chose a third option. I jumped off the roof, twelve stories to the sidewalk below.”
“Twelve stories? And you survived?”
“No, I died. Fortunately, the girl working continuity on Lewton’s films kept a copy of a voodoo resurrection ceremony. With that and the vampire bite, I gained their powers.”
“You became a vambie?”
“Of course not! They’re disgusting creatures. I became a zompire. Zombie first on account of my revival. The vampire bite took time to kick in. But when it did, I hunted them using their own supernatural powers. And I became good at it. All the studio chiefs called on me to help clean up their vambie problems. And, as you can see around you, over the years, I have been well compensated for my efforts.”
Along with movie memorabilia, every nook of his library was crammed with expensive art and antiques that ranged from the Ming Dynasty of China to the Ming Dynasty of planet Mongo.
He went on. “Our battles came to a head when I crashed one of their meetings in an abandoned sound studio. There, in a room the size of an airplane hangar, I stood facing thirty-four vambies. The head vambie bolted the door to the only exit. My lone weapon: a pair of chopsticks. Nothing stood between me and certain extinction.”
I played along. “How did you escape?”
“Weren’t you listening? I wasn’t alone! Nothing stood between me and extinction! And in that nothing, the Invisible Werewolf! He was also one of Koerner’s creations; he figured if they made a monster who couldn’t be seen they would save money on make-up.
“My transparent companion sprang into action, and in the ensuing panic, the vambies transformed into bat-ghouls. This made them easy pickings. The wolf bounded into the air, biting off their heads. Decapitated bats flopped about the floor. One by one, I drove my chopsticks through their tiny hearts.”
“And that was the end of the vambies?” I leaned back, gratefully, thoroughly smashed.
“Not quite. Stragglers pop up from time to time, and I’m called in for my special services.” He sniffled. “Problem is, I’m getting old, my clock is running down. Zombies don’t hold together forever, maybe for an extra ten years after death before the rot causes all their parts to fall to pieces. Now, vampires can live for centuries. I credit the healthy combination of the two for keeping me around for this long. You see, I’m not your granduncle. I’m your great-great-granduncle.”
His hands were translucent skin stretched over corrugated tendons, his face, a leathery patchwork of a thousand crimps and crinkles.
“I’m Roland Teller,” he said, “born the sixth of August of 1890 in Salzburg, Austria-Hungary. My parents were cobblers. We moved to Brooklyn in 1907 where I found a job as carpenter at the Vitaphone Studios. I worked in the film business until my death in 1943. I have continued performing my freelance services to this very day. And yet my task remains unfinished, vambies continue to re-emerge from time to time.”
I looked more carefully at the pictures on the wall.
“Rollie: the bravest man in Hollywood — xxx Tallulah.”
“Thanks for the save...” Bogart signed it, ‘Dr. X.’
Jimmie Stewart, in his portrait he wore a leather flyboy’s cap. “To a genuine hero,” he wrote.
“Kid, I love you a lot,” the ancient man said, “going back to that first day your grubbing mother brought you here to be my heir. I’ll be going soon. I don’t know whether my fate is dust or rotting meat but I’m not going to wait until the absolute end to find out.” A long silence hung between us. He raised his glass above him to where it dazzled in the light of the chandelier. “This sherry has a pungent sweetness, it can hide many a bitter truth.”
A horror slowly overtook me. “Are you telling me you’ve poisoned yourself?”
“No! Dear me, no! Why would I do that? I could never kill myself with some measly chemical concoction.” His chuckle trailed off. “I poisoned you!”
My brain felt like goo. Dust breathed through my veins. This wasn’t drunkenness.
“Your mother was right. You were born to become my heir. But to do that, you must first die. Once you have been awakened in death, I’ll arrange to complete your transformation with a vampire’s bite. Then you’ll be my apprentice until, when you become ready, I’ll be your first kill.”
I imagined standing up and screaming, emptying my glass of liquor in his face, finding a sharp pencil to ram through his heart, but no matter how loudly my mind shouted at my muscles, they wouldn’t move. “I’ll be a vambie?” I said.
The next thing I knew, I was dead.
Copyright © 2014 by Martin Hill Ortiz