Vampires used to be scary. They could be monstrous, they could be sexy, they could even be tortured but they were meant to be scary. Not anymore, the massive success of Twilight has turned them into mopey and virtually harmless objects of affection. Like teddy bears with fangs. There are some filmmakers out there who remember that these creatures used to be so much more than this. The Spierig Brothers are two such filmmakers and they kick the current romantic vampire to the curb with their inventive take on the classic movie monster in Daybreakers.
Daybreakers takes place in the not so distant future of 2019. An outbreak of vampirism spread across the globe at a terrifying rate and now nearly the entire population of the planet are vampires. The few remaining humans are rounded up and their blood is harvested for the dominant blood suckers. However the human population is nearly extinct and the vampires face the crisis of a blood shortage. Vampires deprived for too long of human blood don’t simply weaken or die. Instead they become something vicious and feral, called subsiders. In this state they will attack anything in their path. Dr. Edward Dalton (played by Training Day‘s Ethan Hawke) never wanted to become a vampire. Now he finds himself desperately trying to find an artificial blood substitute before the world’s populace devolves into beasts. With his ruthless employer (Sam Neil of Jurassic Park) breathing down his neck and the subsider epidemic looming there seems to be little time left. That’s when Edward is contacted by Elvis (Willem DaFoe of Spider-man) who is a human being claiming to have been cured of his vampirism. Everything is about to change, but will it be for better or for worse?
The writers/directors of Daybreakers, the Spierig Brothers, came up with a great set up for this film. The movie essentially takes place in the future that so many vampire movie heroes are trying to prevent. Humans have clearly lost and the world belongs to the creatures of the night. The Spierigs have created a scenario that actually allows all of the different vampire archetypes to share the screen. Ethan Hawke as Edward fills the role of the tortured vampire who despises his condition. Sam Neil has the more Dracula vibe, a man who has embraced what he has become. And then the subsiders fulfill the monster role, being heavily influenced by the look of Nosferatu. Another interesting aspect is that while there are certainly plenty of monsters the vampires aren’t really the villains. The blood shortage is treated with the seriousness of a famine and the starving vampires are painted sympathetically. Even the vicious subsiders have moments when they’re milked for sympathy, which is fitting since their only crime is going hungry. The approach paints nearly every character as both monster and victim and it’s a very fun way to tell the story.
The cast of Daybreakers all seem to be having a good time, even in the most deadly situations the actors seem to be smiling just behind their eyes. Ethan Hawke really does nail down his tortured character but keeps him from being too mopey to be fun. Willem DaFoe hams it up as Elvis but he’s never so over the top that it induces eye rolling. All the performances from the leads to the supporting characters are done with a sincerity that sells the story. Thankfully though the performances are not so down beat as to suck out the energy the film possesses. In addition to a pretty solid cast another strength of the film is that most the effects are done practically. The subsiders aren’t some sub-par CGI creation (ala I Am Legend) but performers in suits interacting with the actors and looking very frightening. The blood is all practical and splattered about liberally, as it should be in any proper monster movie.
As much as Daybreakers is a desperately needed shot in the arm for the vampire movie genre it’s not perfect. The second half of the film becomes a slightly more generic human vs. vampire scenario. It’s not bad but it’s not nearly as original or intriguing as the initial set up and dilemma. Also Sam Neil doesn’t completely work in his role as Edward’s slimy employer. He nails down the creepy aspects to the character without a problem, he even manages to wring a little sympathy out the guy. However Neil never really comes across as being very threatening or intimidating, and there are moments when he really needed to be both of those things. While these issues weaken the film slightly it still surges through it’s bloody climax in a way that never fails to be entertaining.
Despite its issues Daybreakers is still an original and gloriously bloody breath of fresh air that vampires movies so desperately needs right now. It’s a reminder of just how versatile this sub-genre can be, effectively cramming all kinds of vampires (morose, wicked and monstrous) into one movie. Anybody who loves vampires but is sick of Twilight owes it to themselves to check this out. It was under-seen in the theater but now on DVD vampire lovers, gore-hounds and horror buffs alike can all see what they missed out on.
Final Score: 4 out of 5