Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe star in this action-horror vampire flick
After the rise of the Twilight phenomenon in today’s culture, the vampire genre seems to have lost its bite. What used to be seen as a vicious, blood-soaked and scary creature that feeds off humans is now thought of as an over-sensitive, whiny and wimpy pretty boy who courts a vulnerable teenage girl. Vampire fans craving the blood-suckers of old need to look no further than “Daybreakers,” a return to the gory horror-action of vampire flicks such as “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Blade” and “30 Days of Night.” And like those movies, “Daybreakers” isn’t a revelation of vampire cinema, as was 2008’s “Let the Right One In,” but more an adequate thrill ride that’ll wet viewers’ fangs.
It’s 2019, and almost everyone is a vampire due to an “outbreak” 10 years before. The few humans remaining are hunted and farmed for their blood, but with supplies almost depleted and the human race near extinction, a working blood substitute must be found immediately. As the availability of blood dwindles, people start turning into giant, bloodthirsty bat-like monsters due to their severe starvation, and society brinks on chaos.
The CEO of one of the farming companies, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill,) charges chief blood scientist and human sympathizer Ed Dalton (Ethan Hawke) with developing the needed substitute. But after a chance encounter with some on-the-run humans, he’s introduced to Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a former vamp who became human again, and Ed sees an opportunity to find the cure for vampirism. Joining up with these refugees, Ed sets out to find the cure before the blood runs dry and the last of humanity is lost.
At first, the film seems serious enough with its allegory of a society feeding off limited foreign resources. The atmosphere and originality of this world, from the cars equipped with windshield and window plates and cameras on the outside of them (allowing for daytime driving), to the homeless people begging for blood, highlight the detail, inventiveness and unique perspective of the movie. But the first time a body literally exploded in a gaudy flash of tomato red carnage, drenching the entire room and every person in it in blood, I started to realize “Daybreakers” is just a high grade B-movie at its core, not wanting or meant to be taken completely seriously, only dressed up in A-movie effects and production design. Later, when vampires started getting stakes to the heart and each one instantaneously burst into an exaggerated fireball on the spot, I was absolutely sure of this.
Dafoe’s Elvis character, a wise-cracking, crossbow-toting, bad-ass road warrior full of funny one-liners, further supports my realization, and feels lifted straight out of some campy, low budget creature feature from the ‘80s. But for Dafoe fans and those who have caught on that his performance is supposed to be silly and overplayed, like Mel Gibson’s Mad Max character meets B-movie legend Bruce Campbell’s Ash from the “Evil Dead” series, he’s an absolute joy to watch. Deliciously cheesy, he ends up being one of the standout and best aspects of the film.
Hawke, on the more serious side, again showcases his talented acting skills and makes a strong argument as to why he deserves more leading parts. He’s more than competent in his role as the humble citizen turned savior, and creates quite an engaging, likable hero. Neill, as an evil corporation leader who slowly becomes the bad guy, seems to be emulating Agent Smith from “The Matrix,” but considering that he’s supposed to be overly earnest and zealous, his exaggerated performance fits the bill nicely. At times, the delivery of his speeches seems cliché and they fall somewhat flat, although the over-the-top tone calls for it, thus making them tolerable.
Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, second-time writer/directors, excel at immersing viewers into their well thought-out vampire world, with the very interesting, exceptionally original and cleverly flip-sided story, as well as with their dashing sense of style. Although they veil the tale in a deeper meaning, the underlying genre piece is pretty simple at its heart. Bloodstained in a filter that effectively darkens the mood yet intensifies the settings, the visuals are always a treat to look at, but midway through they get a bit stale, which assists to unfortunately slow down the pace for a while. The one upside to this is that the situation becomes more tense, and neatly brings about the exquisite bloodbath finale.
Speaking of which, “Daybreakers” is one of the most wildly and violently berserk vampire movies I’ve ever seen. Vampires tear people apart limb by limb, dismembering and beheading, the blood from cut-open chests is lapped up with the ferocity of feral tigers, detached arms fly through the air like doves in slow-mo and bodies erupt in spasms of flames, guts and tons of gore. Any gore hounds out there need to see this movie, and anyone who’s squeamish should stay far away.
However, as great as “Daybreakers” does violence, it lacks on the horror. There are some real cheap scares here and there, but the film fails to take advantage of making the gore chilling or disturbing, aiming rather for wonderfully excessive. The deformed, blood-deprived creatures could have been ghastly and terrifying as well, but are instead mostly just cool to look at, due to their impressive make-up and special effects. At least the action sequences are entertaining to watch, filmed slickly and sporting eye-catching visuals, such as a daylight car chase where the rays of sunlight streaming through the bullet holes in the car pose more danger than the bullets themselves.
So if you’re looking for some vampires to put Edward Cullen to shame, “Daybreakers” is your best bet at the moment. Well thought out and always intriguing to witness, the film entertains sufficiently even if it feels like there could’ve been about 10 extra minutes of exposition and some more thrills, particularly scary ones. There’s a more professional and allegorical side to it as well as a less serious side, and if viewed from the latter, “Daybreakers” makes for a pretty fun night at the movies.
Two and a Half out of Four Stars