Imagine a world in which vampires are not forced to hunt in the shadows, but are the dominant species. They now run the society, a sleek night world reorganized to suit their needs. But their needs are not being met; humans are on the verge of extinction and the blood supply is severely short. Those deprived of blood transform into foul nosferatu, bloodthirsty abominations lurking among the high society. This is the world of the Spierig Bros.’ DAYBREAKERS. Vampires and humans will attack their individual problems, and one hematologist may have the key to it all. DAYBREAKERS is a bold new take on the vampire lore, and it pays off on most ends.
DAYBREAKERS does an impressive job of world building right from the start. A bat flits across the rising sunscape. A beautiful little girl writes a suicide note, sits in the yard, and self-immolates. A number of establishing shots around the city spell out that vampires took over about a decade ago, but now the blood is running out. The TV news tells us blood substitutes aren’t working. Cops subdue a vagrant who’s just looking for food. Bright white light strips and beautiful architecture belie that society is on the brink of utter devastation, as foul creatures travel along its underbelly (literally; there’s a scene with finely dressed street walkers waiting at a crosswalk, and then the camera pans down and shows some nosferatu brawling). It’s a little on the nose, but it gets the information across without expositing through a ton of dialogue. Most impressive is that the Spierigs do this without ANY dialogue. For the first eight-and-a-half minutes it’s all Christopher Young’s haunting score and ambient noises. Their brilliant use of visuals explains all we need to know about this world, and it’s scary. Humans have almost been eradicated, vampires may also be on the way to extinction, and the whole planet will transform into a necropolis if something doesn’t break.
Enter pharmaceutical firm Bromley Marks’ chief hematologist, Edward Dalton. He’s an ethical scientist (he abstains from human blood) working toward a functional blood substitute that would not only save the vampires, but the also the humans, as they’d no longer be a feeding source. But Edward is too idealistic for some, including his brother Frankie, who’s been recruited to the military to enslave humans. His boss, Charles Bromley, seems sympathetic to his efforts, even after a spectacularly crazy misfire in a lab, but big business being a whore, Bromley is in it for his own financial needs. When Edward gets in a car accident with a group of rebel humans, it sets him on a course that may cure vampirism. With a vampire politician, a tough lady with a crossbow and cult of personality Lionel “Elvis” Cormac assisting, Edward delves into his work.
Kudos to Ethan Hawke for his performance as Edward. He’s clearly invested in DAYBREAKERS, and plays him with nuances and shading that lend a certain dignity to the film. Even with the high concept and intelligent script, DAYBREAKERS could have turned into total schlock if handed to the wrong actors. Hawke never lets that happen. Edward is a man on the edge, at work, in the society among other vampires, among the humans. Hawke portrays him with a weariness, as if Edward realizes his idealism may be all for naught, yet he keeps fighting. I’ve become a huge fan of Hawkes the last few years, because whether the movie budget is $1 million or $150 million, he comes to work and gives a real performance, even in a horror flick. Interesting side note: When Hawke was doing press for SINISTER, he continually mentioned in interviews that it was his first horror film. That means he doesn’t consider DAYBREAKERS to be horror, despite its story of vampires taking over the world and the ample blood and gore. I respectfully disagree with Hawke and applaud him for his efforts, whichever genre he may think the film falls under.
Hawke’s work is buttressed by two fine performances from Sam Neill as Charles Bromley and Willem Dafoe as Elvis Cormac. Elvis is the flashier of the two roles, and Dafoe relishes in lines such as, “Living in a world where vampires are the dominant species is about as safe as bare backing a 5 dollar whore.” I’ll take a stab and say the Spierig Bros. likely altered some of Elvis’ dialogue to go with Dafoe’s immense charisma. Elvis sticks out like a sore thumb, but in a good way, as his take on life and undeath enhances the film. Neill is solid as always as the more laidback Bromley, whose intentions aren’t always clear. He manages to be paternal, self-serving, caring and menacing all in one film. The two actors balance out the film, and the rest of the cast, rounded out by Australian actors, give fine support.
These fine actors populate a film that manages to be a message movie and schlock simultaneously. Big business is in control of the government, calling the shots once things get dire (it is no coincidence that Bromley’s business is pharmaceuticals, either on a level of story or commentary). Government agencies patrol the streets, invade buildings, exterminating the human Other and detaining undesirables who are victims of starvation. It’s a war of the haves and the have nots; the haves just happen to be vampires. Because the haves are vampires, the Spierigs can indulge in all sorts of gooey bloodshed. Some high spots include a blood infusion gone awry, a nosferatu attack on Edward and Frankie that comes out of nowhere, and the gore soaked last few minutes. Steven Boyle and his team created some gnarly practical effects which sell really nicely. The social commentary and gore balance fairly well, even if the commentary is a little too blunt at points (but hey, nobody ever accused George Romero of being too subtle either).
What makes DAYBREAKERS work most for me is that world building I mentioned earlier. Every movie the Spierigs make is an exercise in creating a stylized world. I love watching their stuff, because I always feel I could step through the screen into a full blown world, unique to any other. Even when they crib from other sources—the idea of a human blood bank is straight out of BLADE—they fold those elements into their own world well enough that I can forgive. DAYBREAKERS’ world isn’t one I’d want to live in—or be undead in, for that matter—but it’s one I can step into for 97 minutes and be intrigued from beginning to end. They’re better at this than anyone else in the current field of horror, and that keeps me interested every time I hear they’ve got a new project coming out.
The Spierigs and Ethan Hawke collaborated for the first time on DAYBREAKERS, and that union is enjoyable. I pray vampires never become the dominant species in the real world, but in this film I can appreciate that.