Movies · Reviews

Review: Daybreakers

By  · Published on January 8th, 2010

Editor’s Note: This review was published during our coverage of Fantastic Fest. But seeing as Daybreakers is hitting theaters today, we decided to repost. The movie has not changed, nor has Brian Salisbury’s excellent review.

If there is one thing movie-going audiences have been saturated with of late it is vampire films. I’m not sure if it was the dreadful Twilight film that got the ball rolling, but it seems we cannot go a month without another vamp film forced into our eye sockets. At this year’s Fantastic Fest alone there were two big release vampire films screened: Cirque Du Freak & Daybreakers. Don’t misunderstand me, I love vampire cinema as much as the next overgrown child. But you can only be told the same old story so often before it gets repetitive and tedious. We invariably get an über violent blood orgy or a sappy forced romantic angle, but typically the result is a forgettable or laughably bad film. I was excited by the trailer for Daybreakers, and even more so when I heard it was to be the closing night film. But I harbored some trepidation as to whether it would fall into one of those two slots. What I wasn’t expecting, and what I most assuredly got, was an incredibly smart vampire film that delivered all the gore without skimping on subtext.

Daybreakers takes place in an alternate future wherein a plague has changed nearly the entirety of Earth’s population into vampires. The remaining humans are gathered and farmed for their blood which is now the sole food source for an entire planet. The problem is that the human race is now nearly extinct and a crippling blood shortage is causing world-wide starvation. When vampires starve, they degenerate into nasty, winged demons that lose all capacity for rational thought. These creatures, fueled by a primal, predatory instinct, begin feeding on other vampires causing massive panic. The only hope is to find a synthetic blood substitute that can reduce or completely eliminate the need for human farming. Enter hematologist Edward, Ethan Hawke, whose experiments with blood substitutes have thus far been explosive failures. Edward, God I wish they had picked a different name for their vampire protagonist, is motivated by an overwhelming sympathy for the human race and a desire to see them revived. When he is contacted by one of the last human tribes in existence, he must choose between upholding his morals and a grizzly death at the hands of his people.

Daybreakers is one of the smartest vampire films I have ever seen. By making vampirism a universal trait, the writers have taken a good deal of the gimmick out of it. The movie is less about vampires as it is two warring clans of people both facing extinction. Granted, there are a lot of clever inserts pertaining to how society would change if vampires were the ruling class, but those feel more in line with societal alterations of a dystopian story. I thought the cars fitted with shields for driving during the day and the underground walking tunnels designed as a subway of sorts to help them avoid sunlight were brilliant. I also really loved the little depictions of vampire traits that still seem really cool to us but are played with such normalcy by the characters (child vampires, dark subway tunnels lit by glowing, yellow eyes, and toothpaste advertisements featuring fanged models).

Daybreakers is a dystopian film and the Spierig brothers, who both wrote and directed the film, were obviously striving to create exactly that. All of the classic elements are here: the stark hierarchy of society, those in power lying to the masses and hiding a crippling problem, the lone hero questioning the system, and the constant scapegoating. It’s also a commentary on our current society and how our dependence on oil has the potential to undo our way of life. But on an even broader scale, it’s about how absolute power corrupts even the most inherently powerful beings. I loved watching Edward’s Montag-like journey from moody distrust, to unwilling conspirator, to outright defiance. I also loved Sam Neil in the Big Brother role. All of these elements mix nicely with a dark, cold overtone to the vampire world to establish Daybreakers as much more of a sci-fi film than a horror film. I felt a far stronger Blade Runner vibe from this film than anything else and that really impressed me.

Don’t let the intelligence of this film lead you to believe it is boring. Daybreakers delivers the action and the gore when it needs to. The Spierig brothers don a third set of hats for this film in that they also worked on the special effects; no stretch for them given that they did all of the visual effects for their first film Undead. There is some gorgeous brutality in this film that really needs to be seen. I think my favorite scene was a slow motion, wide-angle view of an absolute bloodbath between a horde of vampires that had the entire audience howling with delight. The deformed vampire creatures born of starvation are vicious as hell and the dispatch of one these creatures in particular was spectacular. I love that the Spierig brothers still know how to use corn syrup and latex as aptly as they do CG.

I love Daybreakers. It will sit on my top shelf of vampire films in good company with the likes of The Lost Boys, Near Dark, and Let the Right One In. The reason this movie works so well is that the Spierig brothers demonstrate terrific writing prowess first, then competent directing skills, and finally a knack for visual effects. From the page to the execution these guys nail it and the result is something truly remarkable. It doesn’t hurt that they were able to pull not only Ethan Hawke and Sam Neil but also Fantastic Fest V workhorse Willem Dafoe; Mr. Chaos Reigns! Seriously, the guy was in three Fantastic Fest films this year. This is a great example of how a filmmaker (or filmmakers) can take an old hat concept, deconstruct the genre in which it typically exists, and piece together a brilliant, unique viewing experience.

The Upside: It is a dystopian, sci-fi vampire film that is every bit as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

The Downside: If your penchant is whiny, wussy vamp love stories, you will be sorely disappointed

On The Side: For their next project, the Spierig brothers are apparently working on a remake of the classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.