Retro Review: DAYBREAKERS (2010){0}

It’s a lazy technique … but it also works. I’m talking about the “movie X meets movie Y” style of cinematic analysis, and it’s how I plan to open my review of Michael and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers: “It’s Gattaca meets Near Dark … sorta.” If I were one of those genre-lovin’ Australian Spierig boys, I’d choose to take that as a compliment. And as the guy who just wrote those words, I’d say “Yup, that’s how it was meant.”

Horror nuts who attend film festivals and / or bother to look past the studio releases on the horror shelves will no doubt remember Undead, a scrappy and exceedingly raucous horror / sci-fi combo that the Spierig brothers offered a few years back. The flick certainly has its supporters, but to me it felt like a nifty short that was stretched onto a longer frame: No shortage of high energy and colorful intentions, but a little lacking in structure and basic storytelling technique. A solid effort, but I was sure these kids could do a whole lot more, given a half-decent budget, just enough resources to produce something slick, and perhaps a few producers to point them in the right directions.

Well hey, here comes the Spierigs’ second film, and guess what? Looks like they managed to snag all those things I was worried about, because their Daybreakers is as cool and confident as Undead was manic and over-caffeinated.

The year is 2019, and it’s been several years since vampires have overtaken the planet. They lead pretty much the exact same lives that we used to, only they commute to work at night and drink a whole lot of blood. But where does that blood come from? Well, since the human race has been hunted down and devoured to the point of near-extinction, it takes a giant corporation to “harvest” the remaining plasma — and of course turn a tidy profit in the meantime. But the problem still remains: Eventually the global blood bank is going to run dry, and what exactly will the vampires do then?

That’s the question posed to vampire scientist Edward Dalton, a character who already harbors a strange sense of sympathy for the human race, plus he also knows (better than most) that any sort of experimental “synthetic blood” is a quicker death sentence than starvation. So when Dalton comes across a small handful of flesh and blood people, he feels compelled to help them avoid the harvesting rooms. And so he betrays his own kind (including his effortlessly sleazy boss, as played by Sam Neill) to hit the road and see what makes humans tick.

One slight twist (among several, actually) is that while the vamps have been dining on the humans, one of those humans has accidentally stumbled onto a CURE for vampirism. Imagine that! And that’s only one of the comic-bookish and enjoyably colorful twists that the Spierig brothers have to show off, let’s not mistake Daybreakers for some sort of tongue-in-cheek irony-fest. Aside from a few intentionally amusing bits, and the amiable weirdness of the entire affair,Daybreakers is a beautifully-shot, cleverly delivered, and surprisingly dense little horror / sci-fi / end of the world action flick / film noir buffet of full-bore cinematic affection.

Nifty little details reside all over the place, from the sun-proof automobile to the “video mirrors,” and you know what “nifty little details” in a genre flick tell me? That several people on the set are working hard, being creative, and trying to please a devoted audience that certainly knows all the vampire stuff already.

In other words, if Undead showed you that the filmmakers grew up on great, gory zombie flicks and starry-eyed sci-fi invasions, then Daybreakers indicates that they also really dug John Carpenter, Richard Matheson, Raymond Chandler, and Philip K. Dick. (The eye-dazzling city-scapes found here show a lot of Blade Runner-ish influences, and that’s only one of the surface touches.) It’s a rock-solid afternoon matinee sort of movie, packed as it is with so many disparate genre influences, not to mention a fine Ethan Hawke performance (as Dalton), and a truly fun turn by Willem Defoe as a vamp-hunter with a big secret. Best of all, everyone from the stars and the directors down to the set designers seem to approach Daybreakers with a cock-eyed grin, but the flick also takes it own universe just seriously enough. It’s easy for an action / sci-fi / horror combo to get bogged down and then turn very (sometimes painfully) silly, but the sophomore-effort co-directors seemed to have acquired a bit more skill and confidence along with the nice bump in budget.