In the year 2017, a plague has transformed almost every human into vampires. Faced with a dwindling blood supply, the fractured dominant race plots their survival; meanwhile, a researcher works with a covert band of vamps on a way to save humankind.
The premise is high-concept cinema in the most modern sense of the term. The alpha-predator dominance of the vampire has long since rendered their food source – the surviving humans – an endangered species; the pivotal moment in our history to launch the revolution is upon us. Very cool.
So it is bewildering that Michael and Peter Spierig’s epic tale of cold-vs-warm blooded global coexistence should seem so retrospective. Some references are deliberate – for example, the costuming that evokes '50s hemlines and '80s collars and vests. The ambitious scope and all-encompassing vision of an alternate non-human society recalls Dark City (1998); unlike Alex Proyas’ ultra-stylish noir fantasy, the loving embrace of genre fundamentals and choice of American ring-ins that feel very much like gimmick casting makes Daybreakers the bastard-child of the 10BA* era. The Spierig’s have created a double-edged sword: it looks cool but it looks old.
Lead-import is Ethan Hawke, an anaemic screen actor whose haughty impenetrability and generally unlikable chilliness suits the undead character of Edward (the name-of-choice for do-gooder vampires, right girls?). He is a senior haematologist for the corporation headed by Charles Bromley (a wickedly seething Sam Neill), a ruthless CEO who is set to capitalise on solving the impending human-blood shortage, which threatens the longevity of the Earth’s vampire inhabitants.
The fateful day when fresh supplies expire is near. Starved of human nourishment, vampires are turning on themselves. In a terrific encounter, Edward himself is threatened by a bat-winged, decaying 'subsider", only to be saved by his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a gung-ho soldier-slave to the corporation’s cause. A chance encounter with a renegade band of human survivors, including Audrey (Claudia Karvan), leads Edward to a meeting with Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a 'cured’ vampire and the muscle of an underground resistance movement led by turncoat-bloodsucker Senator Turner (Jay Laga’aia).
Using his scientific knowledge to further the cause for human repopulation, Edward leads a complex offensive surge on Bromley’s corporate stronghold.
The multi-layered, family-themed narrative arcs are none-too-subtle but nevertheless effective. Edward and his brother struggle with opposing, species-based political viewpoints; Bromley and his human daughter Allison (a brief-but-impressive Isabel Lucas) play out the familiar rebellious-teenager angst with unfamiliar consequences, in one of the film's more emotionally-resonant moments; the human rebels are united as one, each death deeply-felt by the group (if not necessarily the audience).
The is no denying that the production values of Daybreakers are superb; the sophomore directing duo fill every inch of their frame with some startling effects work and detailed production design.
Yet the mythology on which the film's narrative spins is confused; the film is hamstrung in the details of the illogical denouement. When the climax arrives in all its claret-stained glory, the audience is left searching for the heartbeat that our emotional investment in the human characters deserved. What little hope our do-or-die heroes provide is negated by the nihilistic chain-of-events their actions will set in motion (to say more would be an unforgivable spoiler, suffice to say the climax is a bummer). Perhaps a happy ending would have rung false, but the ending as it stands is just as miserable as the initial premise.
The Spierig Brothers' breakthrough film, Undead (2003), showed enough gory promise and witty use of OTT special effects to make their follow-up effort a calendar-crossing must-see for horror buffs. And for the blood-hounds, the German-born, Oz-trained twins have delivered – wildly savage disembowellings, unrestrained orgies of tearing flesh and bare-handed decapitations are just some of the highlights. What is noticeably missing is the sense of fun that made their debut a hoot to watch. Barring Dafoe’s tongue-in-cheek scenery-chewing and some well-conceived practical adaptations vampires would need to make to survive in a modern metropolis, Daybreakers is a largely humourless affair that takes itself a little too seriously.
Though not the masterpiece that the legion of underground fans of Undead may have been hoping for, Daybreakers is an assured genre entry for the twins, a late-night cult item in the making and a fine calling-card to the major studios. If given another US$20million and a script that lets them rediscover the humour inherent to their Raimi-esque brand of horror, the Spierig Brother’s may not be too far away from a masterpiece.
*The Australian film production industry saw unprecedented investment under the 10BA tax concession scheme which operated between 1980 and 1988. It afforded investors in feature film production a 150% tax concession (reduced to 100% over the course of the scheme) and a favourable income assessment, ensuring only half of any income earned from the investment was taxed. The scheme led to the production of a many B-genre titles, both low-budget (Tony William’s Next of Kin, 1982; Phillipe Mora’s The Howling III) and expensively ambitious (Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible, 1982; Colin Eggleston’s Sky Pirates, 1986).