The title of this nifty horror flick, Daybreakers, says everything you need to know about what writer-directors (and twin brothers) Michael and Peter Spierig feel about vampires—because it refers to humans.
These Australian filmmakers don’t give us a world of intoxicating, sexy bloodsuckers living uneasily among tantalized regular folks. Instead, it’s a creepily ordered, crypto-fascist Earth where vampires rule over—and hunt down—a dwindling number of humans. In other words, they’re the villains. When they’re not tearing into human flesh with gusto, the vampires take on the airs of a decadent elite, savoring the aroma of blood like wine connoisseurs and enjoying their blood-spiked morning lattes.
In one of many nice touches, the real power in this world is a pharmaceutical corporation, led by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill, oozing malevolence). The rapidly depleting human population is causing drastic supply problems—the poorer vampires are starving, with many turning into batlike things—and Bromley has his best scientist, Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), desperately trying to come up with a blood substitute. The hematologist isn’t happy about being a vampire (Hawke amusingly resurrects his glum, mid-’90s slacker persona), and is ripe for collaboration when a group of humans ask for help.
While the vampires are trying to find a blood substitute, the humans are searching for a cure for vampirism. (“What’s to cure,” a vamp asks sardonically.) Turns out there is a cure, as evidenced in the person of ex-vampire Lionel Cormac, aka “Elvis” (Willem Dafoe, who plays the character, quite effectively, as a dignified, crossbow-totin’ redneck.). It’s up to Dalton to figure out how the change happened.
Is the explanation kinda dumb? Yes. This is a horror film. But it’s dramatically neat.
The film is clearly low-budget, and some things they try—The Matrix-style “human farm,” for example—are unimpressive. But lack of money has its benefits, too. When it comes to violence, there’s nothing fancy: The feeding frenzies are primal and fake-blood brutal. The production design has to rely on small details, like the enclosed walkways between skyscrapers, to present a world where most inhabitants can’t face the sun.
The filmmakers maintain the rules of the darkly appealing world they’ve created, which is a great virtue in the horror genre. The plot twists have unexpected resonance, and the ending nicely bookends the elegant, horrifying opening. Kudos to the Spierigs for bringing some narrative order to a vampire-besotted cinematic world.