Crossbows, Coffee and Cigarettes: Daybreakers

Michael and Peter Spierig (henceforth the Spierig Brothers) made quite a splash in the horror community with their 2003 low-budget zombie flick Undead. Unlike the majority of horror fans I didn’t really like Undead. I thought it was a well made, but entirely too derivative film. It had all the hallmarks of early Peter Jackson and Raimi’s Evil Dead films, but it was never going to replace those classics because it lacked most of the charm that came with revisiting films like Braindead.

I did, however, think that Undead made a bit of a promise, a premonition of good things to come. If the Spierig brothers could harness their obvious talent, were afforded a bit more cash (okay…a lot more cash), and the professionalism that accompanied said cash: they could make a GREAT genre film.

It’s been a few years but Daybreakers fulfills that promise.

In a near future, where vampirism has spread like a plague, turning most of the world’s population. Humanity is on the ropes, and the vampires ain’t doing much better. Without a blood substitute they’re beginning to starve and regress into dangerous monsters (the makeups for which look a ton like the “bat” Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola’s version). Ethan Hawke (who’s a dynamite stage actor and has done some great work recently, but never in horror pictures) plays the chief scientist leading the team trying to crack the code and invent Tru Blood for his evil capitalist pig boss (Sam Neil). It gets more complex from there, but I won’t spoil it, the twists are part of the fun.

The abundance of set-pieces and relatively low scare-factor is more akin to a traditional scifi/action film, but rest assured this puppy blows away the lackluster Underworld films (a series whose aesthetic the ad-men behind Daybreakers are trying to ape in its advertising material). The plot suffers some minor pacing hiccups and the dialogue isn’t always as sharp as it could have been (Willem Dafoe’s character, in particular, seems like a missed opportunity) but it is the quality craftsmanship of the world-building and the brothers’ visual inventiveness that keep these problems so small that they barely register once the credits roll. Likewise the allegory at work (“Blood for oil!” is now: “Blood for Blood!”) is mostly heavy handed, but delivered in a way so plausible (once you swallow the main, silly conceit) that it works beautifully.

Smart without being pompous, goofy without having to wink at itself every time it passes a mirror, and with a cast that most A-list “mainstream” films would be envious of: Daybreakers is a literate and fun breath of fresh air.

2 thoughts on “Crossbows, Coffee and Cigarettes: Daybreakers

  1. I just got home from the theatre after watching this and you are a kinder critic than I. I felt like the film had a split personality in that it wanted to be a horror film at first (aiming for the whole gothicky atmosphere of UNDERWORLD in the beginning) and then sort of degrading into a science fiction piece, complete with convoluted experiment and really vast suspensions of disbelief.

    And I agree with you, Dafoe is totally a missed opportunity here – what was up with some of the dialogue he was given? His character was hokey and his lines even hokier.

    Did you also detect a bit of a Nazi theme here? I swear when they were burning the starving vamps I got a touch of Holocaust.

    Well, that's my two cents. I was kinda 'meh' on it, but I went in with no expectations. I just really wanted to go to the movies (and I only go see horror movies, really) and was off work 😉

  2. I completely acknowledge and even partially agree with your points. I don't know what magic formula this film got right that made me like it so much. I think it was probably the fact that, for me, the biggest suspension of disbelief stuff all came at the beginning. If you bought the exposition I didn't feel like they jumped any further than that at the end. I also enjoy the fact that the film took itself so seriously(which is becoming less and less a “kiss of death” for me as films of this kind become more jokey and self referential, something I'm beginning to hate worse than seriousness).

    It's interesting you mention Underworld, aside from the “blueness” of the film, I got a much more “Blade Runner with Vampires” vibe from the sets and costuming. Neo-Vampire noir.

    I totally agree on the Dafoe thing, but I feel those lines would have been extra unforgivable without the power of The Willem.

    I also got the same Holocaust feeling from that scene, I'm sure it was intentional. It's vague enough as not to be nearly as shameful as some other atrocities that have been mined for horror films (ala the linking of 9/11 and the Grim Reaper in Final Destination 3)

    Thanks for the comment!

    In regards to the other post:I like bats too, just not captive, uncomfortably awkward bats.

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