Daybreakers was the first leg of a Friday night triple-feature for me, and, if you’re not one for reading long-winded reviews today, I had much the same reaction to all three films: If this particular genre is your cup-of-tea, you’ll probably have a grand ole time. In this case, if you’re someone who enjoys a smart, unabashed B-movie with several dollops of gore, a side of cheesy action, and a patina of political allegory, then Daybreakers should definitely satisfy your nocturnal cravings. On the B-movie scale, I’d say Daybreakers is quite a bit better than, say, Equilibrium or Reign of Fire, and hits at about the level of minor-canon John Carpenter, like They Live! or Prince of Darkness. And, while I think I prefer Stephen Norrington’s Blade in the end, this vampire-noir outing by the brothers Spierig sits very comfortably next to those two flicks on the vampire B-movie shelf.
After an opening tone poem involving a pre-adolescent vampire suicide (a la Claudia in The Vampire Lestat), Daybreakers begins in the near-future: 2019, to be precise. (Given all the vampire-friendly tech on display here — camera-driven cars, “subwalks” to get about during the day — I might’ve moved that date a little further down the line.) We’re now a decade into the infection that turned everyone — or all of those who weren’t eaten, at least — into vampires, and blood is getting scarce.
Enter vampire hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), who has been tasked by the now-reigning Big Pharma overlords (most notably Sam Neill) to develop a safe and adequate blood substitute and prevent panic in the streets. But, unlike his military-minded kid brother (Michael Dorman), who loves being a vampire and hunting down the last remnants of humankind, Edward is conflicted about his condition: He’s basically a vampire-vegetarian, who refuses to drink human blood and tries to help the food he encounters whenever possible.
As such, after a chance encounter with a gaggle of humans where he acts surprisingly honorably for his kind, Edward gains the trust of one Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan). And she, in turn leads him to Elvis (Willem DaFoe), a mechanic and now ex-vampire. Ex-vampire, you say? Yep — apparently there might be a cure for the blood thirst, if the strange happenstance that un-turned Elvis can be recreated. But, of course, many folks enjoy their new lifestyle, and have no desire to be “cured.” And, be they human or vampire, pharmaceutical companies tend to operate along similar principles: Namely, who wants a cure when they you can just string out a financially lucrative “treatment” over the course of a lifetime?
Kicking the vampires of Big Pharma in the eyeteeth is just one of the reasonably clever political analogies at work here — there are also some Syriana, Crossing Over, and Food, Inc nods along the way, as well as a class-war aspect within vampire society and an exceptionally gory military fracas near the end that has its own allegorical resonance.) But, mainly, the Spierig brothers just want to tell a cool vampire story, and I like the way that the film sets down a few basic ground rules — 1. Everyone’s a vampire and needs blood. 2. Not getting blood will turn vampires into crazed man-bat-type beasts. 3. Drinking vampire blood will accelerate this process — and then just lets the story unfold from there. (That being said, I do think the story opens itself to trouble by giving these vampires some of the old mythic qualities, like not appearing in mirrors and being susceptible to stakes in the heart. If that’s the case, why aren’t all these humans wearing garlic necklaces and carrying crosses?)
Similarly, almost all of the scares here fall on the cheap side — a sudden loud noise or a man-bat leaping out of the darkness. Otherwise, as you might expect from a story where the protagonist is already a vampire, the film isn’t what you’d call particularly frightening. But for what it is — a fun, vampire-centric B-movie with a lot of grist to think over once safely back in the daylight — Daybreakers delivers the goods rather well. And, if you’re a genre fan, there’s a certain pleasure to be taken simply in watching Sam Neill play the Big Bad, not unlike seeing Michael Biehn showing up in Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror. (In fact, it’s exactly the type of fanboy thrill one gets from seeing Tom Waits play the Devil, but more on that in due course.)