Daybreakers opens with a simple yet evocative sequence. A young girl is seen writing a short note, then walking out of her house to watch the sunrise. While watching the girl, the camera cuts back and forth to snippets of the letter she’s just written: sick of being a teenager, wanting to grow up, can’t live like this any more. The girl is a vampire, and after who knows how many years, has finally had enough. The sun breaks over the horizon, and the girl bursts in flames. It’s a classic vampire sequence: the immortal that wishes for death. But to see it at the start of the movie instead of the end, and coupled with the baggage that an adolescent’s suicide bid contains, is a powerful opening message – there’s something a bit different about this film.
At its heart, Daybreakers contains a classic “Twilight Zone/Outer Limits” style What-If premise: What if the world was run by Vampires? The opening hints at a vampiric plague which transformed almost the entire population of the earth many years ago. The world is now one of darkness, of businesses running only during the night, of coffee stands selling drinks with 20% blood guaranteed. Early on, we meet Edward Dalton – chief haematologist for the vast conglomerate Bromley Marks – a leading blood supply company. The overpopulation of vampires has led to a shortage of humans, so Edward is working on an artificial blood substitute. And time is running out; estimates claim that blood supplies will run out by the end of the current month. And worse still, in this mythology, a vampire starved of blood turns into a rabid bat-like creature that will feed on anything it finds – animals, other vampires, even itself.
Edward’s investigations into the blood substitute are thrown into disarray when he meets a small group of human survivors, amongst whom is man who claims to be called Elvis. Elvis is special – he used to be a vampire, but is now human again. How this transformation occurred is the key original idea in Daybreakers. Creating something new in a vampire film is almost impossible – every angle seems to have been covered in the past. But the idea behind the transformation method is certainly something I’ve not seen before and drives an interesting sequence where Edward investigates and eventually reproduces the methodology. Once the discovery is made, and proved repeatable, however, Daybreakers falls back into a standard “good man rebels against the system he worked for, then tries to bring it down” tale. The plot creaks through the usual stepping stones and double-crosses, but by this time the early promise is gone. Like so many films that start with a simple yet fantastical premise, Daybreakers seems to run out of steam in the home stretch as it struggles to payoff the early promise.
Visually, the film owes a fairly large debt to the Underworld trilogy (Dir. Len Wiseman/Patrick Tatopoulos), with its washed out, blue-filtered hue, and vast array of black, sharply-cut suits. This contrasts well, however with the daytime sequences – bright, almost blindingly lit. The contrast between the world of many (Night) and the world of few (Daytime) is pronounced and effective. Performances are uniformly good, although no-one is really working outside their comfort zone. Ethan Hawke is asked to play the moody lead Edward, unsure of himself or his future – no real stretch there. Willem Dafoe plays the mysterious Elvis, and is as watchable as always, although his southern US twang is a little hit and miss. Sam Neil is great fun as the lead baddy, relishing the chance to ham things up. The rest of the cast is solid in limited roles; with one standout being Isabel Lucas, who is effecting as Neil’s daughter, caught in the crossfire between humans and vampires.
The directors Michael and Peter Spierig first appeared on the radar with 2003’s Undead – a zombie gorefest in the mould of Evil Dead or early Peter Jackson (the brilliant Brain Dead, known as Dead Alive in the US). Daybreakers is an interesting next step – clearly a more mature work, but still firmly in the genre and not afraid to throw some splatter onto the screen. Some of the effects in the film are classic Jackson – head explosions, onlookers covered in gloopy blood. The aforementioned opening, however seems to give an indication that the pair are keen to evolve as filmmakers beyond their entertaining but shallow previous film. One bizarrely beautiful sequence in the final third of the film occurs when a group of the rabid bat creatures are executed. It is a surprisingly poignant moment, somewhat at odds with the lacklustre plot motions going on around it.
It is also worth noting that Undead contained a unique take on the Zombie film, with another original and unexpected explanation for the events that occur. Perhaps it will become the Spierig brothers trademark – subtle but clever riffs on standard mythologies. There’s a lot about DayBreakers that is formulaic – been there, done that: the style and look of the film references many past movies – The bat creatures clearly owe a debt to the Reapers of Blade 2 (2002, Dir. Guillermo del Toro). And the plot beats could be taken out of any number of genre stories. And yet, there are just enough new ideas, just enough inventive and interesting characters and, yes, just enough gloop and gore to make Daybreakers a fine piece of genre filmmaking. Taken as a whole, despite the disappointing final act, it’s a worthy entry into the overloaded vampire movie canon.