‘Daybreakers’ movie review: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe in vampire sci-fi

Vampires are immortal, they feed on human blood, and each human a vampire bites (but doesn’t kill) becomes a vampire. This is the essence of most vampire stories dating back to Bram Stoker, but if we logically extend this 50 or 100 or a 1000 years into the future, what would happen? Vampirism spreads and the food source (humanity) has to eventually run out, and what then?

That’s the premise of Michael and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers, which was unceremoniously dumped with little fanfare for a January release in the US. Which is a shame, because the Brothers’ previous movie, Undead, really took off with the midnight movie crowd on the festival circuit, and because Daybreakers is, perhaps surprisingly, quite good.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a genre effort all the way, with grisly splatter effects, obligatory action sequences, and a look that borrows from other recent sci-fi like Dark City, The Matrix, and Equilibrium. But it’s a solid genre effort with an intriguing premise, and a welcome return to gory vampirism after years of Twilight-like romanticism.

In the year 2019, everyone is a vampire, and that’s just the problem: the blood supply is running low, with cafes serving drinks that are 80% unsatisfying blood substitute and human blood farms run by companies like Bromley Marks are (quite literally) drying up. What happens when a vampire goes too long without blood? They quickly transgress into a mindless zombie-vampire creature that cannibalizes its own kind.

Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), the head of the blood manufacturing company, employs doctor Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) to try to come up with an effective blood substitute. Early results aren’t exactly promising: transfusion causes a test subject’s head to explode, which seems illogical but makes for a great splatter scene. If there’s one thing Cronenberg’s Scanners has taught us, it’s the effectiveness of a good head explosion scene.

There are still roving bands of humans, which may be surprising given the quickness with which most of them are dispatched soon after we meet them. Two of the humans are Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan) and Elvis Cormac (Willem Dafoe); Elvis is a former vampire who may have discovered a cure for vampirism, and works with Edward to develop it. But Bromley isn’t too interested in a cure, which would cut down on his repeat business.

The vampires in Daybreakers are a welcome return to the traditional: pale creatures who don’t cast reflections, explode when exposed to light, and can be killed by a stake to the heart (at least, I think that’s why the humans arm themselves with crossbows).

There’s one big flaw here, though, and it’s the script: plot threads pop up and die off without much weight attached to them, including one between Bromley and his daughter that turns up late and fails to make much sense. 

The characters are underwritten, their decisions dictated by the story; this results in some underwhelming work from the cast, particularly Hawke and Neill. Dafoe, on the other hand, is fantastic.

Daybreakers failed to find its audience in a brief theatrical run stateside, but cult fans should eat it up on DVD. There is a market for these things, and this one is about as good as they come.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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