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In Defence of Zac Efron (But Not Ted Bundy)

By Lydia Kendall-McDougall

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. Image Credit: Zac Efron's instagram

What’s interesting about the new trailer for Zac Efron’s latest film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is exactly what it’s being criticised for. The upcoming film follows Efron in the role of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, partially through the perspective of his long-term girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, played by Lily Collins.

At a base level, if you compare photos of Ted Bundy to Zac Efron’s appearance in the film, they look incredibly similar. If not just cast for his ability, this is an executive choice for authenticity, but the heartthrob reputation is what seems unfavourable to a large audience. Viewers have condemned the trailer because of its supposed sexualisation of Bundy, particularly due to the casting choice. In other words, viewers are frustrated that a commonly sexualised male actor has been placed into the role of a murderer. This is understandable, but misses the point.

The seemingly ‘romantic’, upbeat and light-hearted depiction of Bundy’s trial in the trailer asks us to do exactly what Ted Bundy expected of everyone during his trial: it asks us to sexualise him. Therefore, this trailer doesn’t falsely represent Bundy and ignorantly romanticise his persona, but exposes his exploitation of his own charm by exploiting us with it too. The trailer is perhaps just as Bundy himself would have produced it; it presents a playful, upbeat and charming re-invention of a man who murdered and raped over a hundred young women. But it’s clear to me that this intention is purposeful, and is used to demonstrate Bundy’s manipulating techniques rather than to condone them. Why else would the film be named in such a way?

Those that have seen The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix will recognise the phrase ‘extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile’ as the description given to Bundy by his judge moments after serving him the death sentence. The title doesn’t really correlate with what’s presented to us in the majority of the trailer, but I think that’s the point. Surely, we can’t ignore that this mostly light-hearted trailer is titled by the phrase used to describe his atrocious acts? Does the contrasting of upbeat romanticising and descriptive condemnation mirror the conflict in the minds of the nation during Bundy’s trial? Did not the nation ask themselves whether Bundy was a charming, innocent victim, or a murderer and rapist? The trailer and its title pose the same question as in the 1970s: who is Ted Bundy?

This trailer-title combination throws at us the conflicting narratives of Bundy’s self-presentation and the crimes he was found guilty of. Bundy is undoubtedly a notorious serial killer - the trailer doesn’t deny that - but his ability to re-invent himself is his own attempt to make the matter more complicated. To ignore the fact that Bundy was charming, potentially handsome and deceitful would be to ignore one of the main reasons he managed to kill as many women as he did. He exploited these attributes, performing them in order to keep himself out of harm’s way. And he wanted fame. 

The trailer itself litters the perpetual up-beat scenes with dark moments, tainting what we come to associate with the lively music. Within a sexually charged love story, we are given depictions of Bundy dragging a body across a field, sat in prison, manipulating a crowd, drawn in a newspaper and lying to his girlfriend. This conflicting idea of Bundy’s persona and motivation is exactly how his closer relationships have admitted to viewing him. In the Netflix’s documentary, family and friends outline their conflicting images of Bundy, motivated by both fear and love; his mother remains adamant he was a perfectly normal child, and yet his childhood friends say he never quite fit in.

So, isn’t this disjunction between charm and threat the perfect way to tell a story which exists within the perspective of his girlfriend? I pose these questions due to an awareness of the necessity of watching the full film later this year before making any grand statements. But it seems that the presentation of his fractured identity, with an almost obvious attempt to gloss this over with upbeat music, comedic clips and sexy scenes is the perfect way to show how Bundy manipulated his way though his trial. If you feel uncomfortable at the sexualisation of Bundy while you watch the trailer, I feel as though you should.