What if the world was completely overrun by Judge Patrick Bromley?
In 2019, the most precious natural resource…is us.
In 2003, Australian brothers Peter and Michael Spierig made their filmmaking debut with Undead, an oddball zombie movie that showed endless invention in its direction but which fell apart on the narrative level. It was a promising debut, suggesting the brothers knew how to craft an entertaining, violent genre movie if they could just find a story to tell.
Now, in 2010, the brothers Spierig are back with Daybreakers, a movie that shows them growing a great deal as filmmakers and finally gives them a story worth telling.
Facts of the Case
In the year 2019, the human race is nearly extinct. In our place is a world overrun with vampires, who have redesigned every aspect of city living to suit their nocturnal needs. Unfortunately, with too many vampires and not enough humans to feed from, the blood supply is close to running out. The country's leading pharmaceutical company, Bromley Marks, run by the scary Charles Bromley (an excellent name, that, played by Sam Neill, Event Horizon), which harvests humans for blood while one scientist, Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke, Explorers), feverishly continues working on a blood substitute to save vampkind. That is, until he meets a man named Elvis (Willem Dafoe, Streets of Fire), who leads an underground human resistance and tells Edward he believes he has a cure for vampirism…
Peter and Michael Spierig's Daybreakers is destined to be one of the most underrated genre movies of 2010. Released during the wasteland month of January (when Avatar was still reigning supreme at the box office), the film was a moderate success that managed to make back its low budget without really making much of a cultural impact, even among horror fans. That's too bad, too, as it's one of the most inventive, well-constructed, clever, and entertainingly bloody horror offerings in recent years.
From its opening moments, its clear that the Spierig Brothers have really thought out this vampire-run world, and that's one of the best things about Daybreakers. Rather than providing loads of exposition—or, even worse, narration—the Spierigs use evocative, economical frames in the opening moments to tell us everything we need to know about this new world. The rest of the movie just keeps building on these ideas; we get cars equipped with cameras instead of rearview mirrors and an entire underground tunnel system where vendors sell bags of blood. The ideas presented are fairly superficial, but clever and engaging enough to hold our interest as each new aspect is introduced—and to catch us off guard for the film's multiple "jump" scares (which, I'll admit, I'm not really a fan of, but damn if every single one of them didn't work on me). The entire conceit of the film is what's commonly referred to as "high concept"—what if the world was completely overrun with vampires?—and while not every logical question is acknowledged, the movie covers enough ground that it's able to pass itself off as smart as well as fun.
If I didn't know that Daybreakers was actually shot back in 2007 (it sat on the shelf for years, which is usually the sign of a disaster but here just suggests that Lionsgate didn't know what they had on their hands), I would say its existence is in direct response to the glut of vampires in pop culture over the last few years—most notably, HBO's True Blood and, to a greater extent, the Twilight films and books. Daybreakers pushes this vampire obsession to its breaking point; if it's vampires you want, the Spierig Brothers are going to give you more vampires than you know what to do with. Nasty ones, too—if the vampires don't get blood, eventually they devolve into snarling, bat-like monsters that don't really resemble the lovelorn mopes we've gotten used to lately. Nothing about the vampires is particularly romantic, and their feedings are purely animalistic—there's none of the metaphoric sexuality we usually get (though the film's overriding metaphor about over-consumption of scarce resources doesn't quite hit the mark, it's just political enough for to achieve B-movie perfection). Plus, here's something horror fans can appreciate: as evidenced in Undead and even more so here, the Spierigs know how to make gore fun. Like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi, they get that if you keep the violence energetic and over-the-top and avoid making it mean-spirited (like a lot of recent horror films), blood can be a blast. That's just what the final act of Daybreakers is—a bloody blast that becomes comical in its dizzying ability to continue topping itself.
Of course, not everything in Daybreakers works. Some of the acting is all over the place: while Sam Neill is great as the villainous Charles Bromley (really, just a terrific name), Ethan Hawke comes off a bit weak and ineffectual (as Ethan Hawke often does) and Willem Dafoe leans towards camp (as does his bizarre accent, which comes and goes—perhaps by design). There are characters and subplots (like a co-worker of Hawke) which feel unnecessary and slow the movie's momentum, particularly as it builds towards its crazy over-the-top climax. Of course, the big climactic twist of what might be the solution to the blood problem feels a little lazy and doesn't make much sense. But if you're mostly on board with Daybreakers and you're enjoying it as much as I did, most of these issues are easy to overlook.
Lionsgate releases Daybreakers as a terrific-looking, bonus-packed Blu-ray that's sure to please the film's fans and hopefully convert a few new ones. The film is presented in AVC-encoded, 1080p HD transfer in the original 2.40:1 aspect ratio and looks stunning. This is a dark film, taking place mostly at night (obviously), but the transfer never suffers: blacks are deep and stable, while the cold blues and grays reveal plenty of detail and separation. If the films ever switches gears to include an outdoor or daytime scene (and it does), the Blu-ray adjusts accordingly and provides a much warmer image that's just as strong as the rest of the film. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is just as incredible, offering engrossing surround effects that make use of every channel while still balancing the dialogue with some killer stings and low-end rumble. A word of warning: the Spierigs are fans of the out-of-nowhere audio shock, so take heed before turning your system up too loud.
The best extra feature on this Blu-ray disc—and on any Blu-ray I've seen in months—is a feature-length documentary on the making of Daybreakers. The two-hour doc covers every aspect of the production, from the early conceptions stages to the movie's premiere at the Toronto film festival, and is fascinating not just in its detail and its hook (indie filmmakers' first foray into Hollywood), but also because the Spierig Brothers have their hands in so many facets of the movie. Though there's a great deal of collaboration, there's also no denying that Daybreakers is the work of a pair of auteurs, and it's neat to see that process from beginning to end. The brothers also provide a commentary track over the movie, and it's both pleasant and informative but there's definitely some overlap with the documentary, which is so comprehensive that repetition was probably impossible to avoid.
Another interesting feature included on the disc is a picture-in-picture option comparing the finished film with original storyboards, animatics and concept art. It's the kind of thing that's really only for the most die-hard fans of the movie, but even casual viewers might want to check out at least a couple of minutes worth to get a sense of the kind of planning that goes into shooting a feature film. Rounding out the supplemental section is an entertaining short film by the Spierigs called "The Big Picture," a poster gallery and the movie's original theatrical trailer. A second disc contains a digital copy of the movie, for playback on your computer or portable media device.
I know it's not for everyone, but horror fans looking for a vampire offering with more teeth (I'm so sorry) than what we get on the WB may find Daybreakers as happy a surprise as I did. The movie would make a great double feature with the other best-vampire-movie-of-the-last-few-years, Let the Right One In. One is a slow, beautiful and poetic meditation on death and loneliness and the other is a crazy, bloody, sci-fi tinged B-movie. Undead announced Peter and Michael Spierig as filmmakers to watch; Daybreakers proves they're here to stay.
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