A film review by Craig J. Koban January 12, 2010


2010, R, 98 mins.


Edward: Ethan Hawke / Elvis: Willem Dafoe / Audrey: Claudia Karvan / Charles: Sam Neill / Frankie: Michael Dorman

Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig.

It’s been a while since movie vampires actually frightened me and were haunting and grotesque figures of menace.  Not only that, but these cinematic beasties have been done to literal creative death as of late: I have lost track over the years as to how many different permutations of these nocturnal bloodsuckers I’ve seen.  Unfortunately, the unparalleled financial success of the TWILIGHT films has all but defanged movie vampires as terrifying personas.  In those films the nosferatus were unpardonably devolved into sullen, diamond-shimmering, and charmless adolescent heartthrobs trapped in the worst kind of tweener Harlequin romance plot.

Vampires, for lack of a better phrase, have lost their balls…and bite. 

DAYBREAKERS is a decent return to form for the vampire genre, mostly for those that find TWILIGHT’s romantic, chick-flick aesthetic wholeheartedly vomit-inducing.  Not only is this film a welcome hard R-rated splattergorium that highlights vampires at their ravenous best, but it also makes these creatures fairly scary again.  Even more welcoming is the fact that DAYBREAKERS has one of the most thanklessly inventive and compelling premises surrounding vampires in quite some time, and it mixes low-grade, B-movie horror thrills, a semi-serious, semi-lowbrow tone and some reasonably smart and crafty socio-cultural satire.  Not all of it is a perfectly homogenized mixture, to be sure, but DAYBREAKERS deserves points for at least trying to pay homage to the mythological lore of vampires while making the iconic monsters feel fresh and new; that is no easy task. 

The film also blends in futuristic, post-apocalyptic trappings into the mix that has certain echoes of another exceedingly famous monster genre: zombie-plagued infestation.  Like the films involving those walking undead creatures, DAYBREAKERS imagines a near future setting where the entire world has been turned upside down by a single, catastrophic event spawned from a humanity-stricken virus.  In this film’s case, a horrible plague has infected nearly all of the human population, so much so that by the year 2019 just about everyone on the planet has become a vampire.  As for the remaining humans?  Well, they have been given a choice: allow themselves to be "turned" (more specifically, bitten by another vampire so they too, in turn, will become vampires) or, more deplorably, be hooked up to elaborate machines so that they can be farmed for blood.  There is a problem with this world: the blood supply is very quickly running out, and those that have not had their required fix (or have, more sickeningly, fixed on their own blood) will become mutated into hideous, screeching, unthinking, bat-like monsters that hunt human and non-human alike. 

One of the good natured vampires is Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke, a fine, understated actor, and well poised here) that is a reluctant and semi-self-loathing bloodsucker, meaning that he was turned against his will and has real issues with using humans to feed his blood lust.  Because of his respect for the human race, Dalton works tirelessly as a hematologist at a major corporation in order to find a proper blood substitute (since blood is not aplenty, the vampire race will denigrate into those mindless monsters without a substitute).  All through his studies Edward refuses to feast on human blood, which bothers his boss, the CEO of the corporation, Charles Bromley (Sam Neil, quietly menacing) who sees a future where blood substitutes are available to all for a price, but for a higher price the legitimate blood will also be available to vampires with the cash to spare.  Nonetheless, Edward does not agree with his boss’ vision of things to come and he subsides on a diet of blood engineered from pigs, which does not sit well with his brother (Michael Dorman), whose job it is to hunt down human survivors for the military and turn them in. 

Fate steps in, as it always does, when Edward has a meeting with a small group of human survivors led by a woman named Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and a man that affectionately calls himself “Elvis” (the knee-slappingly and affectionately over-the-top Willem Dafoe) that have been working with some pro-human vampires in order to find a cure for vampirism (as Elvis hilariously introduces himself at one point, "We're the folks with the crossbows"). Since Edward has sympathy towards humans, he agrees to go underground with their rebel group, where he discovers a few shocking things (like, for example, that Elvis himself was once a human-turned-vampire and then later miraculously turned human again, for good).  Elvis and Audrey plead with Edward to help them fully understand the reasons why Elvis was converted back to his mortal self, and through a fairly ingenious laboratory experiment, Edward is able to deduce not only how Elvis reverted back to humanity, but also how he can convert everyone on Earth back to their previous mortal selves.  There is also a twist near the end of the film (which is nifty, but I think is telegraphed a bit too early) that involves (not to spoil it) a cure upon the cure, which would certainly spell doom to Edward's boss’ multi-billion dollar business model. 

I liked the blending of the old and new in DAYBREAKERS: the vampires in the film still succumb to sunlight and stakes through the heart, but other elements like garlic, crucifixes, and holy water have been satisfyingly left out.  The film has some neat twists on vampire lore: they still don’t cast reflections, but their clothes do, which results in them looking like headless figures while they gaze at themselves in the mirror.  Also, when staked through the heart they don’t just die, but more gruesomely perish by exploding into a thousand blood and goo-spattered pieces.  Sickening, yes, but creatively and thrillingly sickening.   

With a shoestring budget of $21 million dollars, DAYBREAKERS does a very solid job of immersing viewers in its nightmarish and despotic futuristic times.  The film has great atmosphere, fine art direction, and solid visual effects in its imagining of a city that is populated entirely by vampires: I appreciate the attention to detail here: cars have been equipped with sunlight blocking tinted windows and computerized cameras that let vampires see where they are driving during the day; all building and houses have their windows and openings completely sealed off during daylight hours; solar-protected sky walks link one skyscraper to the next for daytime commuting; public service announcements flood the streets warning people of the curfew for the coming daylight; and so on.   Good, escapist sci-fi always succeeds when they transport viewers to their unique universes, and DAYBREAKERS is no exception. 

The film works best, however, when it explores what a society would be like if everyone was a vampire, and that’s how DAYBREAKERS rises a bit above the realm of an obligatory horror/action film.  The film intriguingly poses and answers questions about the possible social, cultural, economical, technological, and military consequences of a world degenerated into blood drinkers.  As a result, the film has promising elements of sly satire and social commentary: for example, Starbucks-like coffee houses serve lattes’ with 20% human blood, a homeless vampire pathetically holds up a sign that says “Will Work For Blood”, and an Uncle Sam recruitment ad has a hideously caustic redo to support the army’s war on humans.  The film also offers up sobering real world parables as well, but never browbeats audiences in the same manner that, say, AVATAR did (that film told us instead of just simply showing us): The depletion of the planet’s blood supply could be perceived as an allegory about oil or natural resources going bye-bye, not to mention that the way vampires treat humans echoes current policies regarding ethnic cleansing and racism.  Finally, DAYBREAKERS also subtly –or maybe not-so-subtly – equates corporate and capitalistic greed with vampirism.  Hmmmm...don’t all duplicitous and immoral businessmen want to “suck” consumers dry? 

As devious and witty as the film’s satire is, DAYBREAKERS does not disagreeably embrace itself too seriously; this is a film that also embraces its more campy and voyeuristic B-movie impulses as well.  The film has some very well oiled and slick “boo” moments that provide genuine jumps for patrons in theatre seats, and even when the action sequences become kind of perfunctory, the performances greatly assist matters in the way they proficiently underplay their parts with a tongue in cheek reverence to both the film’s cheeky schlock value and semi-solemn tone.  Hawke makes his sullen, perpetually chain smoking doctor a plausibly reluctant hero, but the film really becomes a howl when Dafoe’s vampire-hating, hot rod driving, and one-liner dishing hunter comes to the forefront.  He has the opportunity to spew out two of the film’s most hysterical lines: First, he describes to Edward that being human in a world of vampires is about as safe as “bare backing a five dollar whore.”  Secondly, when it appears that a vampire army is about to infiltrate their secrete headquarters, Edward pleads with Elvis to leave, to which he responds, “Fuck it, I love a good barbeque." 

DAYBREAKERS was written and directed by an Australian twin brother combo, Peter and Michael Spierig, and I definitely think that they have great potential as future as fantasy/action filmmakers.  They do a thankless job at conglomerating the film’s divergent tones with its topical and interesting themes with its underlining premise that is far more innovative and involving than I would have otherwise thought going in.  They do make a few missteps on occasion in DAYBREAKERS: A subplot involving Bromely’s human daughter seems too tacked on and is undesirably concluded, not to mention that the final 15 minutes of the film really runs out of gas as it hastily races to a conclusion and a pre-end credit voiceover that hints at a sequel.  Yet, I admired the headstrong inventiveness here and the way the filmmakers made me both laugh at and with DAYBREAKERS while becoming engrossed in its fiendishly gripping premise.  Considering that January is usually the dumping ground for lackluster studio fare, I was pleasantly surprised by DAYBREAKERS as a well orchestrated and conceived futuristic/horror/sci-fi satire.  

That, and these vamps have balls and bite.  How refreshing is that?

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