Vampires are done. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it’s wisdom with which I more or less agreed before I saw Daybreakers, the closing night film of the 2009 Fantastic Fest. Directed by the Spierig Brothers (the fellas behind Undead), Daybreakers
steps boldly outside of the usual vampire boundaries and does something
unique and fun, and it creates an entire world that is guaranteed to
intrigue you and leave you wanting more.



The set up is simple: it’s 2019, and it’s been ten years since the
vampire plague hit humanity. Now over 95% of the Earth’s population are
fanged bloodsuckers who don’t have reflections and who are afraid of
the sun. But as the vampire population explodes, their food source
dwindles; unwise management of natural resources – in this case, the
human population – has left the vampire world on the brink of serious
disaster, as they only have about enough blood to feed the world for a
month.



Vampires that go without blood don’t die – they devolve into horrible
bat creatures called Subsiders; the bestial Subsiders lurk beneath
subway tunnels and in the ghettos, and as the film opens they’ve begun
coming into even the suburbs, and even suburbanites have started to
become Subsiders as blood supplies dwindle.



At the center of all this is Edward (Ethan Hawke), a hematologist
employed by industrialist and blood magnate Charles Bromley (a
delightfully sinister Sam Neill) to find a blood replacement. For
Edward, who was turned into a vampire against his will, this is a
chance to stop the farming and murder of humans. For Bromley this is a
way to replenish human stock and to offer 100% natural human blood as
an expensive delicacy. But since there seems to be no replacement that
works – one trial leads to a wonderfully messy detonation of the test
subject vamp – it all seems like there’s no hope. That is until Edward
runs into a band of human resistance fighters who may have discovered
the cure for vampirism.



The main joy at the heart of Daybreakers is the scope of
the world the Spierigs have created. They’ve thought this through, and
while there are a couple of holes or places where you might question
logic, the world feels complete. As a young nerd my favorite part of
pen and paper role playing games was the world building – I loved
modules that included history and government and culture of the
fictional land in which our characters were adventuring. I liked
immersing myself in the worlds as well as nitpicking at the reality
created by the writers; the Spierig Brothers have outlined a world that
would have made that young nerd ecstatic with its fullness and reality,
the tangible details they have included that make this feel like a
place, not like a cobbled together set.



Part of what makes that world tick is the way the Spierigs have
approached vampires the way so many filmmakers have approached zombies
– they see an opportunity to discuss real issues with vampirism, to
create a society that mirrors and comments on ours. The way the
vampires have mismanaged the human population is obviously a reflection
of our own current and impending crises with natural resources, and the
Subsiders represent the poverty underclass that sits invisible in every
Western nation. The fact that suburbanites are becoming Subsiders
echoes the mortgage crisis and the death of the middle class. And to
their credit the Spierigs don’t make a big deal out of these things –
they just present aspects of the vampire world and allow you to draw
your own conclusions, or not. This film isn’t a polemic, but it also
isn’t just an action movie with fangs in its mouth.



But my favorite bit of social commentary may be the most subtle: it’s
the arrogance of the vampires. The vampires have been on top for a
decade, but they all but wallow in their immortality. They have no
vision for the future beyond the moment, and they don’t realize that
living forever is a very daunting thing. They’re the ultimate
Americans, not realizing how young their empire is, assuming it will go
on forever as it has gone on for the last few years and steadfastly
refusing to look beyond today to see the coming calamity.



I don’t want to oversell the commentary of Daybreakers,
but it’s a huge part of what made the film work for me. The main story
– Edward trying to find a cure – is clunky, and there’s a side story or
two that never quite gel. For those less enthralled with the world the
Spierigs have created, these stunted stories could be deal-breakers.
But for me they’re more than made up for by excellent action scenes –
many of which are wonderfully wet – and strong character work by a trio
of seasoned actors. Ethan Hawke does a lot of his Ethan Hawke thing –
wounded, quiet, greasy – but for me it works in the role. More
interesting is Sam Neill as the bad guy with a slight conscience, and
Willem Dafoe as the human survivor who holds the key to the future.
Dafoe has made a weird choice to play his character with a Southern
accent that comes in and out, but that almost feels intentional. His
character calls himself Elvis, and has an affinity for old muscle cars,
so it’s easy to buy that the accent is a put on. Neill’s corporate
baddie, Bromley, is one of those great bad guys who always keeps his
cool, and who is always one step ahead of the heroes. I wish that Neill
and Dafoe had scenes together, since they’re coming at their characters
from such opposite ends, which I think would have created something
really explosive.



While the Spierigs have computer effects in their veins – they did FX on this film, much as they did on Undead – they wisely keep much of the monster and gore stuff practical. Watching Ninja Assassin at Fantastic Fest I was completely thrown off by the torrents of digital blood. In Daybreakers
the blood is almost always real and physical. The Subsiders could have
been done with digital effects, but instead they’re guys in big badass
latex suits, and it helps create the reality and the menace of the
monsters.



To me Daybreakers is incredibly impressive for a second
feature. Ambitious, smart and unique, the film proves that the Spierigs
have a real future as interesting genre filmmakers. And while I look
forward to whatever they do next (currently planned to be a scifi
remake of Captain Blood), I’m hoping they get a chance
to revisit the world they’ve created here and explore it further. I’m
ready to go back at any time.

8.5 out of 10