CULT CORNER: Daybreakers (2009)

The Australians give us a spin on the tired vampire genre in this overlooked gem. Richard gives it another look. 

Who made it?: The Spierig Brothers (Directors/Writers), Chris Brown, Bryan Furst, Sean Furst (Producers), Lionsgate/Australian Film Finance Corporation.

Who’s in it?: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan.

Tagline: “The battle between immortality and humanity is on.”

IMDb rating: 6.5/10.

In the far forgotten past of 2009, the reputation of the vampire movie probably couldn’t have gotten much worse. Twilight had been released a year earlier and was still setting the standard due to its massive marketability to a young female demographic, while dark little adventurous films like David Slade’s 30 Days of Night were being drowned-out in sparkles and angst. In such a hostile and teen-friendly market, it was damn near a miracle when the writing and directing team credited as The Spierig Brothers got their American debut, Daybreakers, off the ground. Off the ground they sure got it, and by god, despite a slightly wonky narrative that’s quite front-heavy, the damn thing flew. This is horror viewed not through the lens of cheap thrills or camp melodrama; this is horror with some seriously smart and expensive thrills with just a hint of dark, flavoursome melodrama.

The year is 2019 and the world is ruled by vampires, the now-predominant species on our planet. Society has accordingly reconstructed to operate within the traditional confines of vampirism. People use cameras rather than mirrors to see their reflections, cars are installed with shielding to avoid the now-lethal sun, and humans are farmed for blood to sustain the 95% vampire population. That disproportionate number being the main concern, as the vampire world is facing an international blood shortage which is causing some members of vamp society to mutate into feral bat-like creatures. Enter the ever-innocent Ethan Hawke as Edward Dalton, the man seeking to create a blood substitute at the behest of Sam Neill, his clearly evil corporate overlord with an investment in the new status quo.

Daybreakers is many things, but at no point is it ever subtle. Its social satire and characters are painted with a big brush on an eerie luminescent canvas. While usually this might feel overwrought and preachy, here it almost feels downright necessary. With a lean runtime of 98 minutes. this was likely a case of going big or going home in terms of making a point, with every parallel to our modern world drawing attention like a flashing neon sign. Thankfully, the film also regularly features moments of gallows humour which goes a long way to taking the edge off the satire’s heavy-handed approach. While creating and keeping a solid tone amongst all this might be difficult, the film can carry a tune and only rarely falters, which is more than can be said for less-ambitious endeavours.

This is a film that lives and dies by its details, and the amount of pure visual storytelling on display is staggeringly vast, from the coffee shop to the boardroom. By keeping the pace brisk and the flow of information constant, the Spierigs handle enough world-building in twenty minutes to make the average high-concept sci-fi film weep in envy. Pieces of the puzzle are presented in clear, easy to digest moments and build on an already established aspect of the vamp mythos and the puzzle constructed thus far. This film may be engineering more than art, but for the most part, you wouldn’t notice due to clean and clever editing and the occasional burst of well-shot action.

While credit is due to Hawke’s soulful if a touch weary lead, it’s Willem Dafoe, as vampire hunter and ex-vamp “Elvis” Cormac, who steals the show. While the method by which Hawke eventually ends up joining the human cause feels more than a little contrived, the actors thankfully give it the strong sell, with Claudia Karvan lending the human component some much-needed grit and gravitas. With Hawke now on their team, it is the hope of the human survivors to use Dafoe’s ex-status – achieved through a miracle of circumstance – to find a cure for vampirism. This, however, runs contrary to the wishes of Neill’s gleefully evil corporate CEO, and is in all fact nothing but an excuse to move us along into act three, which is when Daybreakers finishes its homework, cracks its knuckles and decides to come out and play.

Not to spoil too much, but if the above description seems to suggest a snobbishly cerebral satire which would never sully itself with mere blood and gore, fear not. This film comes prepared to get nasty and then some, with one scene which will forever go down in my personal hall of fame for sheer, visceral glee. I’m not going to tell you which scene that is, but I can guarantee you that you will absolutely know when you see it, not only for the level of ultraviolence but for how magnificently it is captured. The cinematography overall seems to reflect both the best and worst aspects of this film. While never failing to be functional, coherent and dynamic, which is more than can be said for many modern blockbusters, the camerawork never goes beyond the base level of technical prowess and intelligent application, and truth be told, neither does Daybreakers.

While making what was then thought impossible for a late 2000’s vampire film – a seriously good movie – there is a slight sense of watching the blunt edge of a well-made sword. All the elements are here to make a movie that was more than just “great for a vampire movie.” Here was the makings of a movie that could have been simply “great.”  Perhaps fittingly, we are left with a picture which, while fast-paced and smart as hell, didn’t give us enough time to find its beating heart. Looking back now, I see Daybreakers as something of a highlight in the genre which was too quickly forgotten, and from which spawned a stream of action-packed, semi sci-fi monstrosities. The lesson to be learned from Daybreakers isn’t that old horror stories are better with flashy city lights and big automatic weapons. It’s that any concept, no matter how old or seemingly tainted, can still capture an audience. That’s if you’re willing to tell a story that’s smart, brave and something they haven’t seen before. 

Best Scene

To avoid spoilers, here’s some peerless world-building.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The makers of the movie hosted a contest in (famous photo manipulation-contest site) to come up with images of how the world would look if nearly everyone were a vampire.
  • This movie was released in the USA on January 8th 2010, birthday of Elvis Presley. The character played by Willem Dafoe is named Elvis because of his love for the Presley song “Burning Love.”
  • Shot in 2007, according to an article in Entertainment Weekly.
  • When the movie was released in UK cinemas it was rated 15 but when released to DVD it was changed to an 18.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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