Maila Nurmi “Vampira”’s appearance in "I woke up early the day i died“ an independent movie based on a posthumous Edward D. Wood Jr script.
The movie has no dialog : ironic given Nurmi’s choice to play her part in Plan 9 mute. The plot centers around a criminal mad man who escapes his hospitalization by wearing a nurse’s uniform (transvestism being a major Wood motive) . After successfully escaping he goes on a crime spree and decides to hide his ill gotten gains in a coffin whereby he is accidentally buried alive. He frees himself only to discover that his loot has been taken and so embarks to find his loot and take revenge on the witnesses to his burial. Hi jinks with a star studded cast ensue.
Vampira plays the role of "Woman in Hotel Lobby”. She watches the events unfold with disinterest as she lounges on a chair dressed reminiscent of her costume in Plan 9 but with Ed’s iconic pink angora sweater.
Today we are remembering Maila Nurmi, more famously know as Vampira. This absolutely stunning, beautiful and talented woman will always be one of my favorite (and first) role model. She deserved so much better than what she got during her later years. She died January 10, 2008 in her home in Hollywood. 85 years old. May you rest in peace. Gone, but you will never be forgotten ♡ You are truly an inspiration.
She walked screaming out of the white smoke, a black-clad goddess of death, exuding aggressive sex. Her eyes held just a tinge of threat. Her nails, phallic daggers of implied violence. Waist shrunken to a ghastly circumference, her eyebrows archly painted, her long black hair swirling behind and around her, she shocked, titillated, angered, obsessed.
She called herself Vampira.
She introduced every show with a scream, a bloodcurdling extrusion that had to issue out of some cavern too big, dark, and lonely to live inside her impossible 36-17-36 figure. She screamed and looked directly at the camera, a goth Garbo who seized the eye of the audience, refusing to become a simple object of their regard. She seduced them with the offer of a night of B-movies, horror and sci-fi fare, mostly execrable, but seasoned with her spicy sweetness and her undertone of aggression that radiated underneath heavy white pancake make-up.
Nobody could turn off the TV. It was 1954.
Maila Nurmi screamed in a postwar America of chilling optimism, everyday repressions, and awkward silences. She was the child of Finnish immigrants, a runaway in the 30’s who worked as an actor, a model for softcore men’s magazines, and a burlesque dancer. She had a taste for the macabre that led her to delve into the sediment of midcentury America until it yielded its dark treasures. A pin-up model who found herself turned into the 50’s American middle class housewife, she refashioned herself to escape the confines of cultural expectation.
Nurmi had explored the tangled underside of the country since the mid-1940s; an underground gothic land lived beneath the sun- lit world of postwar America. As a young runaway, she performed in a New York horror/burlesque show known as “Spook Scandals” that had called for her to rise out of a coffin and scream. There she had begun to craft the character of Vampira, thinking about how the sexy and the horrific could intertwine, a dance between Eros and Thanatos.
“Dig Me, Vampira” was like nothing that had yet appeared in television’s brief existence. Premiering on April 30, 1954, it became an instant hit in the Los Angeles area. Then things exploded. *****
Vampira quickly reached a larger audience through a Life magazine photo shoot. She appeared on Red Skelton’s popular show alongside Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. She hung out with James Dean and his entourage at Googie’s Restaurant, one of the few late night spots in 1950s Hollywood. She became part of “the night watch,” aspiring actors and directors that hovered around Dean, the strange and beautiful boy from Indiana who had yet to reach superstardom in East of Eden.
Ratings for the Vampira show shot through the roof in the year to come and Nurmi seemed on the verge of major stardom. But KABC cancelled her contract around the time of the death of James Dean. Despite her popularity, Vampira had spun a web of controversy that entangled her and the station. FCC warnings, a lawsuit by a starlet who thought her career had been ruined by the image of Vampira, and, finally, the end of Nurmi’s marriage to Dean Frank Reisner, a blow to the station’s public relations campaign that had attempted to portray her as a normal housewife who liked to play dress-up as a bit of “horrific whimsy.” Dean’s death, or at least the bizarre rumors that surrounded Nurmi in the aftermath of it, represented the final straw.
By the late 1950s her television career was over; she lived with her mother while receiving unemployment benefits. She appeared in the Ed Wood directed Plan 9 from Outer Space that, while later a cult hit, barely had any audience at all in the first years of its existence. True and lasting stardom never came calling again. By the 1960s, Nurmi supported herself as a tile contractor. Stories, patently untrue, circulated of roles in pornographic films. She became a figure of local legend in West Hollywood, part of a cast of peculiar characters who’d once been famous and now were not.
Vampira disappeared. But she thrived in the cultural underground. Maila Nurmi hung out with the punk/metal band the Misfits in the 80s at places like West Hollywood Vinyl Fetish. She also worked on a book she never finished, a memoir of underside of a 50s Hollywood that stayed up late nights at Googies Restaurant, popped pills, and lived off the warm glow of stardom it stalked.
She died, alone, in 2008.
Perhaps this is all that we need know of her story. Perhaps it’s more or less all that can be known. It’s true that her influence has spread far and wide. There may not be a horror convention where her visage doesn’t influence the tattooed seductress cos-players, not a horror host who doesn’t owe something to her camp humor, no mistress of the night anywhere whose ultimate origin point can’t be traced to this runaway, this late night comedian.
Vampira borrowed from many of the ghosts that haunted American culture, elements never before brought together with the kind of sexual energy and threatening cultural pose that Vampira adopted. She described her character as a monster crafted out of the elements of American history, the terrors of the great depression, and the postwar style of the Beats. She raises questions about everything we think we know about the American fifties.
Excerpted from Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror. Copyright 2014 by W. Scott Poole. Published by Soft Skull Press. All rights reserved. Photos: Collection of the Author