Daybreakers (2009)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, March 2010

Synopsis: In 2009, a pandemic virus transforms humans into vampires who can live forever, just so long as they stay out of the sunlight, avoid stakes to the heart, and feed regularly on blood. Vampires soon dominate the earth, while those humans who remain are designated ‘enemies of the state’, hunted down and farmed for food.

Ten years later, few humans survive, supplies of blood are dwindling, and the new order is beginning to collapse, as vampires start desperately feeding off one another, metamorphosing into the more bat-like and bestial ‘subsiders’ and eventually dying. As chief haematologist at the blood-farming corporation headed by Charles Bromley, Edward Dalton is racing to produce a viable blood substitute before humankind and vampires alike become extinct. After helping human Audrey Bennett evade capture, Edward is introduced by her to Lionel ‘Elvis’ Cormac, a former vampire who has chanced upon a way to become human again through controlled exposure to sunlight. Edward joins their cause and submits himself to the traumatic cure. When Edward’s brother Frankie, a vampire soldier working for Charles, tracks the rebels down, he bites Elvis and becomes human again himself. Realising that the blood of cured vampires is a fast-working and relatively safe cure, Edward approaches Charles – but Charles, who now has Audrey as a captive, sees no economic advantage in a cure for vampirism, preferring the ‘repeat business’ made possible by the blood substitute that Edward’s colleague Christopher has just discovered. Edward goads Charles into biting him, and then dishes up the now human executive to a pack of ravenous soldiers. As their feeding frenzy starts spreading the re-humanising virus through the vampire ranks, Frankie sacrifices himself to save Edward and Audrey from being torn apart – and after Elvis reappears and kills Christopher, the trio drives off into the sunset.

Review: Emerging in 2003 – after 28 Days Later… but before Shaun of the Dead and the Dawn of the Dead remake – Michael and Peter Spierig’s self-funded feature debut Undead was at the forefront of the Noughties’ cinematic zombie revival, and had enough energy, enough invention, enough home-made FX bang for its limited buck, to compensate for the inadequacies of its dialogue and performances. It was the kind of ‘calling card’ film that left niche fans hungering to see what these ambitious brothers could achieve with a more experienced cast and substantial budget.

The answer is Daybreakers, in which the Spierigs once again endeavour to breathe new life into an undead subgenre by hybridizing it with SF and layering in some socio-political allegory. If the sleek, corrupted cityscape in which much of the action unfolds recalls the neon-lit metropolis of Blade Runner (1982), retro-futurist noir is also evoked by the antiquated suit-and-hat combo worn by Ethan Hawke’s protagonist Edward Dalton, and more particularly by the way he and many of his fellow citizens puff away at cigarettes not only out in the darkness of the rain-swept streets, but also in public interiors. To some contemporary viewers, such unfashionable disregard for the risks of passive smoking might prove horror enough, but these characters are in fact entirely immune to cancer – although they do suffer from another addiction that blights their otherwise disease-free lives. Vampires, you see, need blood to survive, and in the Spierigs’ vision of a near-future world overrun by vampires and dangerously low on human plasma, our own society’s precarious dependence on fuel and food, as well as our helpless enslavement to corporate interests, moonlight under the guise of genre.

Here, the concerns of the Noughties resonate in inverted form. Commuters get their nightly lift with a portion-controlled shot of Starbucks blood, vampire soldiers are sent afield on morally dubious campaigns to ensure the red gold keeps flowing, captured humans are subjected to unsustainably intensive farming, elites live in guarded suburban communities, while the blood-deprived underclass of dehumanised have-nots (known as ‘subsiders’) masses hungrily at the gates – and corporate executives (embodied by Sam Neil’s Charles Bromley) are bloodsuckers in the most literal sense. Everything here seems eerily familiar, or, as Edward’s conflicted brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) puts it, “Nothing changes”. It is a sentiment that is apparently undone by the film’s final, supposedly optimistic line, delivered in voice-over by Elvis (Willem Dafoe), who has found a way to turn vampires back into humans: “We have a cure, we can change you back, it’s not too late!” Given, however, the thoroughgoing manner in which the film has paralleled the vampires’ social ills to our own, some may well feel that the ‘cure’ on offer will be no more effective than the one vaunted by Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange (1971). The envisaged revolution is really just a return to the status quo, where life will remain every bit as poor, nasty and brutish – if somewhat shorter.

It is this focus on the anxieties of our immediate past, present and future that takes Daybreakers beyond the otherwise pervasive influence of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend and its cinematic imitations – The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971) and I am Legend (2007). Meanwhile the focus on the mechanics of established vampiric communities resurrects an Antipodean filmic tradition that can be traced, via the New Zealand/UK co-production Perfect Creature (2006), all the way back to Rod Hardy’s Thirst (1979). The Spierigs’ film may lack the lyricism of Let the Right One In (2008), the perverse classicism (and religious preoccupations) of Thirst (2009), or the teen appeal of the Twilight saga, but more than any other film in the current vampire renaissance it holds up a mirror to the ills of the last decade, revealing in its reflections if not actual vampires, then something of ourselves, ever unwilling either to abandon the myth of our species’ immortality or to swallow the bitter pills that our problems (ecological, economic, existential) require. It is also, thanks to the Australian brothers’ way with set-piece action and gory effects, a very enjoyable genre ride into the sunset.

Anton Bitel