“Daybreakers” is a horror/sci-fi movie from the brothers Spierig, two Aussie siblings that burst onto the genre scene almost six years ago with the low-budget horror/sci-fi “Undead”, a movie about zombies, aliens, and other assorted weirdness. “Undead” was a movie that I both appreciated and disliked; I embraced its excellent visuals, produced on a tight budget, but couldn’t stand the film’s insufferable characters. “Daybreakers”, the sophomore effort from the brothers, has been a long time coming, with the film announced almost two years ago. I wish I could tell you that all the waiting was worth it, but honestly, while “Daybreakers” is a step up in terms of visuals (thanks, Hollywood budget!), the film is a step back in terms of everything else, including thrills, chills, and just general whoop-ass. There is not a lot of whoop-ass here, I’m afraid.
As the film opens, we’re informed that it’s been ten years since the “outbreak” of vampirism that turned most of the world’s population into vampires. Unexpectedly, life goes on – or, actually, undead life goes on. Sure, most of society may have become vampires, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t have jobs to get to. Rush hour is now at midnight, and pan handlers still nag them, except now they’re begging for blood. You know, same-o, except with more exposed (and pretty much useless) fangs. At the top of this new food chain is Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), the head of a pharmaceuticals company that is attempting to make synthetic blood for the populace. Why synthetic blood? Well as it turns out, vampires, like us humans, are unable to moderate their appetite, and humanity has now been all but extinguished, with the few remaining farmed in high-tech labs for their blood. Think “The Matrix’s” human-battery farm fields.
The hero of our tale is Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), the top scientist at Bromley’s company and the man in charge of finding the blood substitute. Edward never really wanted to become a vampire (he was betrayed into becoming one), and so his loyalties lie with the few remaining humans still battling to keep from becoming unwilling blood donors. Edward gets his chance to go over to the other side when he literally runs into human freedom fighter Audrey (Claudia Karvan), who takes him to see Elvis (Willem Dafoe), another freedom fighter with a very special condition: he used to be a vampire, but after a car accident, found himself human again. With Edward’s help, the humans hope to repeat the events that led to Elvis’ transformation. That is, unless the vampire army, led by Edward’s dear little brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) doesn’t get to them first.
You might have noticed that it took me over two paragraphs to tell the plot of “Daybreakers”. That’s because there is a lot of exposition in the movie, which results in less than exciting scenes of people sitting around discussing things. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of action (some incredibly gruesome) in “Daybreakers”, they just aren’t overly exceptional. With new toys and more money to play with, the Spierigs are free to fully envision their vampire world in all its dark and fangy glory. In that respect, the film works, because there’s just something odd, and yet very exciting about seeing a world run by vampires that remains, essentially, the same world as we know it. Of course, the scientific stuff is laughable, but that’s to be expected. We also never really get any explanation as to why vampires are still invisible in mirrors, why they can’t survive sunlight, or why they suddenly burst spectacularly into CG flames when staked through the heart.
Where the Spierigs succeed in bringing their “vampires are just like us” vision to life, they forgot to make the rest of the film worth staying overnight to explore. After a while, all the groovy little differences between our world and the vampire world (since the sun can kill you, the vampires have come up with neat gadgets to ensure they don’t get burned to a crisp) fades, and we’re left with a movie featuring an ineffectual leading man running around trying to find a cure. Alas, that “cure” is pretty silly, and comes so easily that you’re kind of glad the Spierigs, who also penned the script, didn’t make it the central part of their movie. Let’s face it, the Spierigs had an idea to render a vampire society, and they’ve done that; it’s everything else that they didn’t really pay too much attention to.
I hate to say it, especially from the guys that gave us “Undead”, but the action in “Daybreakers” is run-of-the-mill. Since the vampire army is high-tech and the humans essentially run around with crossbows, there’s really not a whole lot of excitement when the two sides clash. Yeah, machineguns versus arrows, I wonder who is gonna win this one. As the Third Act rolls around, the Spierigs reach back to their “Undead” glory days for a gory, bloody 20 or so minutes to close things out. There are a couple of ghastly sequences during this time that will make viewers think someone has secretly switched a splatter film on them. The suddenly amped up violence is somewhat disturbing, especially when they come across as so gratuitous, as if the brothers didn’t know how to end the movie and so decided to just throw buckets of blood on the screen and hope no one noticed.
Another area where the script falters is with the characters. Edward Dalton is not exactly the world’s most heroic leading man, and Ethan Hawke plays him as bored yuppie going through a mid-life crisis. Given that Dalton is a vampire who never wanted to become one in the first place, and his mind is full of sad thoughts for the fate of the human species, you can understand why he’s such dull dinner conversation. Then again, maybe they should have given this role to secondary character, and not make him the leading man. I’m just saying. Hawke’s listless performance is doubly distracting because Sam Neill is chewing scenery as the evil Bromley, while an amusing Willem Dafoe shows up to do just enough to justify his name in the credits. I’m not saying he phones it in, but let’s face it, Dafoe didn’t have a whole lot to work with here, and as a result lets his wardrobe do most of the acting for him. Claudia Karvan, as the comely resistance fighter, makes the most of her time onscreen.
Don’t get me wrong, “Daybreakers” is not an entirely bad movie. Had the Spierigs stuck to revealing what a society would be like if almost everyone was a vampire, we might have had a decent, even thought-providing drama in the guise of a horror film. The problem is that “Daybreakers” is being sold as an action-horror movie, and in that respect it comes up short. There is an action scene here, an action scene there, but the film just never quite takes it up to that other level that would have made “Daybreakers” more than just a one-concept pony. It’s a good second effort by the Spierigs, and I look forward to seeing what they do next. Hopefully next time the novel concept will be justified with some better chills, thrills, and general whoop-ass.
Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig (director) / Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig (screenplay)
CAST: Ethan Hawke … Edward Dalton
Sam Neill … Charles Bromley
Claudia Karvan … Audrey Bennett
Willem Dafoe … Lionel ‘Elvis’ Cormac
Michael Dorman … Frankie Dalton
Isabel Lucas … Alison Bromley