I’m very selective with my vampires. As charming as he may be, Bela Lugosi’s mindless leering never tickled my spine, and the more modern, super-violent bloodsuckers of 30 Days of Night left me staring at my watch. Twilight shouldn’t even be considered cinema, much less vampire cinema. Count Dracula never sparkled in sunlight or dedicated himself to monogamy; he seduced women, sucked their blood, kept them as sex slaves, and ate them when he got bored. No, when I think of vampires, I think of The Lost Boys, Fright Night, and From Dusk till Dawn—all 80’s (or near-80’s) campy schlock. These films celebrated the epicureal delight that came with being dead—haunted rollercoasters, oogled succubi strippers, and vilified the stranger across the street. They had fun with their gore and romance—tricked men into eating maggots, fired penis guns, and made life a little more enjoyable. While Daybreakers doesn’t carry on this tradition in any explicit sense, it does a great job of weaving that feeling into the hard sci-fi world it creates; the Spierig brothers have crafted a dramatic fantasy narrative while retaining the campy spirit which makes most great horror enjoyable.
The story follows hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) in his quest to create a blood substitute before the human population is eaten into extinction. Vampires who go prolonged periods of time without dining slowly mutate into mindless Nosferatu-esque creatures with large webbed bat-like arms and hands known as “sub-dwellers”. These individuals present a very real threat to the living and undead alike; their insatiable thirst and decayed brains instill them with superhuman strength and rage. Dalton secretly despises the company he works for and its practices in “farming” blood—was turned vampiric involuntarily. As time dwindles down he finds himself torn between sympathy for humanity and his own survival instincts; will he allow mankind to be wiped out or will he make a stand and sentence himself to life as a sub-dweller?
The way Daybreakers bridges the gap between Dracula, Nosferatu, and everything in between is genius—pays homage to the classics that helped in its formation while enhancing and informing them—while its acknowledgment of current vampire culture (most notably True Blood) proves the film a a hodgepodge of old tropes amalgamated and taken to their logical conclusion. It’s at once a synthesis of old material and an entirely fresh take on the vampire folklore. And on top of all that, there’s the gore. Gone are Twilight’s make-up stained beefcakes and Dracula’s off-screen kills; these guys explode when struck through the heart, erupt in flames in sunlight, self-combust after drinking bad blood, and tear men limb from limb with uncanny ease. There were several times I popped up in my seat out of pure shock, and I’m not an easily stunned man.
The film is sparse on dialog, particularly during the beginning, instead focusing on the surrounding world for establishing its background. When the story picks up, Ethan Hawke puts forth a strong performance as the ambivalent scientist torn between redeeming his vampire brethern and salvaging the rest of humanity, yet never musters an inkling of the villainous charm Sam Neill churns out as Charles Bromley, head of the Bromley corporation. Neill’s character has the advantage of evil, so it should be no surprise that Hawke feels lessened in his image, and though it would be easy to take the villain to a cartoonish level of malevolence, he checks his black hat just after we’ve had enough of his shit. Finally, Willem Dafoe rounds out the cast with his surprising performance as the vampire-come-human “Elvis” McCormac; Dafoe’s a pretty creepy guy anyway, and neither bloodsucker nor mustachioed militia man feel like much of a stretch for him.
Daybreakers redeems the pop-culture vampire; rather than dedicating itself to the superviolent or supervenerial, these creatures of the night strike a middle-ground—function like a typical society right down to its hierarchical class system. There are definite throwbacks to other classics of the horror genre—occassional tinges of 28 Days Later shine through, and the ending is definitely channeling some Day of the Dead action—but all of these act to the film’s betterment. If you’re a fan of classic vampire lore or just feel down for a fun, semi-intelligent horror drama, you can’t go wrong with this one.