Daybreakers is hitting theaters at just the right time. Following the over-commercialized cheer of Christmas and in the midst of the Hollywood awards season, this clever twist on the vampire genre provides a much needed, big-screen jolt of social satire and blood-drenched horror.
Set ten or so years from now, Daybreakers details an Earth that has been overrun with bloodsuckers following the outbreak of a bat-borne pathogen. Unlike the mindless ghouls of, say, I Am Legend, these vampires have retained their human memories and civility, and don’t look much worse for wear apart from paler complexions, discreet fangs and glow-in-the-dark eyes. In fact, not much has changed except for a general shift in business hours from 9:00 PM to 5:00 AM and the availability of blood shots at the local Starbucks.
Alas, all is not well on Planet Vampire. Humans have been hunted to near-extinction, so the global blood supply is getting low. Efforts at farming humans to meet demand and creating a viable blood substitute have grown futile. The vampires are beginning to panic, with some committing suicide and others choosing to feast on the blood of their own kind, resulting in horrible, bat-like mutations.
Edward Dalton (played by Ethan Hawke) is head hematologist at the powerful corporation that safeguards most of the world’s dwindling blood stock. Sympathetic toward the humans who have been hunted and farmed, Dalton refuses to drink their blood. Dalton crosses paths one night with some human survivors in the wake of a car accident. He ends up protecting them and their leader, the philosophical Elvis (a fun turn by Willem Dafoe), who provides Dalton with an unexpected cure for vampirism. But will they find a way to transform the vampires back into humans en masse before time runs out for both humans and vampires?
Daybreakers’ smart script (by the Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter, who also directed and devised some of the film’s effective visual effects) plays with the traditional mores of vampire lore, prior to more recent deviations/innovations courtesy of Anne Rice and The Twilight Saga. These creatures remain vulnerable to wooden stakes and don’t cast reflections or shadows. While they are capable of venturing outdoors during daylight hours, the vampires get instantly burned to a crisp if struck by the sun’s UV rays.
The game cast is uniformly excellent. In addition to name actors Hawke and Dafoe, Sam Neill co-stars as the blood corporation’s greedy president, Charles Bromley. Long estranged from his still-human daughter (played by Hollywood up ‘n comer Isabel Lucas), the immoral Bromley has few qualms about “converting” her once they are reunited. Aussie actor Michael Dorman also makes an impression as Dalton’s militaristic brother.
Be warned, though: Daybreakers is one gory movie. Throats are torn, heads and limbs are severed and, in one particularly shocking scene, a body unexpectedly explodes. The violence is so graphic and unrelenting that the film’s finale — in which “cured” vampires are repeatedly set upon by the infected in an orgy of bloodletting — ultimately transcends its genre trappings to achieve a near-balletic quality. I was reminded of the outrageously but artistically violent sequences in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, DePalma’s Scarface and the samurai rampage of Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1. However, I’m very grateful such scenes seem to come around only once or twice a decade.
A subplot about the demonization of those vampires, referred to as “subsiders,” who have mutated after drinking the blood of their own kind may strike a chord with GLBT viewers. They are eventually criminalized and executed by cheering police squads for their refusal to obey social norms. The plight of the subsiders also provides a potent AIDS metaphor. Then again, it’s easy to draw parallels between vampirism and AIDS in most horror movies made since 1981.
In the end, Daybreakers is the perfect tonic for those in need of assistance in recovering from holiday hangovers and/or high-falutin’, Oscar-bait movies.
UPDATE: Daybreakers is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.