Before vampire fatigue sets in at the multiplex, leaving anything fanged and out for blood immediately dismissed due to an overextended trend, please permit “Daybreakers” a few moments of your time. While assembled with conventional visual elements and pushing a foreign oil allegory with a decided lack of subtlety, “Daybreakers” is a genre fun house worth the return trip to the fatigued war zone of vampiredom. Smartly constructed and lively all around, the gloom and doom submitted by filmmaking duo The Spierig Brothers is wildly entertaining and appropriately gushy with gore. Against all odds, “Daybreakers” is a blast.
In the year 2019, vampirism has taken over the world, with blood a hot commodity. Now with human feeding options reaching an all time low, the vampire community is waiting impatiently for a blood substitute to reach the market. For scientist Edward (Ethan Hawke), efforts to find a miracle cure have failed, panicking his corporate bosses (including Sam Neill). Into his life comes a small band of surviving humans, led by Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a former vampire who happened upon a cure for his fanged affliction via vicious car accident, and now wants Edward’s help to recreate it. Facing a future where vampirism could be wiped out, Edward has to choose between an allegiance to his own kind or the humans, who offer a brighter future far away from blood consumption.
And yes, this is another vampire picture with a character named Edward. However, this guy doesn’t sparkle and mope. He doubts and smokes.
My initial hesitation with “Daybreakers” was brought on by the Spierig Brothers, who last created the 2004 zombie comedy, “Undead.” I loathed “Undead” from top to bottom, finding it unfunny, sloppily made, and tedious all around. However, here’s the “Daybreakers” miracle: it’s an inventive picture, graciously rolling around in known elements, yet aware enough to form its own special personality. It’s not a perfect picture, but there were times while watching the film where the Kubrickian spirit of it all felt like a genre head rush the likes of which rarely finds a way to the screen these days.
The Spierigs invite the viewer into a bleak future world of sinister dealings; a place where humans are kept in vast storage facilities, slowly sucked dry to feed a fearful nation starving for fresh gulps of blood. Of course, this is the saga of oil, and the screenplay provides more than enough wallops of the obvious to make sure the back row understands the subtext of the screenplay. When the politics take a nap, “Daybreakers” is an effectively creepy film, nicely atmospheric and menacing, taking the vampire populace seriously as conflicted characters. Further pressure is introduced through the monstrous mutation of the vampires at their most desperate and hungry, turned into bat-like ghouls who violently stalk the shadows in search of any possible nourishment.
The suspense of “Daybreakers” is top shelf, marvelously stoked by the directors, who show a real flair for chilling futuristic calamity. It’s downright eerie the way the vampires go about their daily business, seemingly normal except for the way they stir blood into their coffee or stare out at their infertile world with glowing eyes. The Spierigs adore the ghoulish details and the enthusiasm takes “Daybreakers” far beyond common genre aspirations. Despite a low budget, the film feels comfortably epic, feeling out a world of vampires and humans at war, with a few unlucky souls caught in the middle.
Fighting for the humans is Elvis, and if there was one major misstep in the action, Dafoe would be it. It seems the Spierigs were a touch too fearful their oppressive screenplay would creep out the room to a point of revulsion, dreaming up the character of Elvis to provide needed comic relief. It leaves Dafoe dancing a jig while the rest of the film sits patiently in the dark. While the actor is a genius with the subversive smart-aleck routine, the performance and the character feel wrong for such an intriguingly abusive tone. “Daybreakers” is built sturdily enough to plunge even further into this uninviting landscape. Having Dafoe try on a Yosemite Sam persona only calls attention to itself, making Edward’s trust in the humans all the more puzzling.
“Daybreakers” conjures a convincing mood, punctuated by a sharp production design, vivid creature-feature gore splashes, and a few inventive action sequences (a car shoot-out, where Edward has to avoid scorching light shafts made from bullet holes, is a film highlight). Despite a huge thespian derailment, I found myself completely sucked into this vampire society, legitimately fearful of its capacity for punishment. The Spierigs have pulled a delightful 180-degree career spin with “Daybreakers.” I used to dread the prospect of their unavoidable “Undead” follow-up. Now, I cannot wait for their next picture to arrive.