Review: Daybreakers (dir. by The Spierig Brothers)

In 2003 there was this little zombie flick from Down Under which flew under the radar of most film-goers, but definitely not of horror fans everywhere. The name of this film was Undead and while the film was a nice little genre mash-up of a romp it showed just how new to feature-lenght filmmaking it’s brother directors were. The Sprierig Brothers’ film seemed to have done well enough in the box-office and in the dvd market that they were soon offered by genre studio Lionsgate to make another film from their very own script. It was a vampire story which once again shows the brothers’ penchant for culling a story of different genres to create something familiar but with some originality peppered throughout. With a reported budget of $20-21million dollars, the finished product of Daybreakers arrives in the theaters in the early going of 2010 as a nice, albeit very flawed, change of pace from the so-called “Twilight”-style of vampire films.

The Spierig Brothers have set their vampire film in the near future of 2019 where it’s been 10 years since an unnamed vampiric virus has turned most of the world’s population into vampires. It is in the early 20-30 minutes of the film where Daybreakers really showed some genuine new blood (pardon the pun) in the vampire film genre. We’re shown a world which has adjusted to the turning of society from a human one to a vampiric one. While society has turned it’s people still clung to old habits they practiced when still human.

Schools are still in session but instead of morning and afternoon they’re now held at night. There’s still coffee stands for business people to get their cup of joe, but now spiked with real human blood. Even corporations have adjusted from their former human interests to one much closer to their new existence. Blood has become a rare commodity and traded as such on the world markets. One could see the filmmakers attempt to allegorize mankind’s addiction to oil and it’s finite supply to this new society’s need to harvest fresh human blood from human’s captured and turned into living blood banks. But like all precious natural resource this blood supply has begun to run low thus threatening not just the survival of a human race close to extinction, but damning those who turned into vampires into something mutated by blood-deprivation.

While the story had some definite merits to them. From the world-building by the Brothers to try and make the audience invest some interest in the film right down to the very Rated-R violence sorely lacking in most vampire films nowadays. Still with those to help garner interest in the audience, Daybreakers manages to make too many misses to the hits which tried to keep the audience’s attention.

Most filmmakers have a tendency to spell out to the audience what they’re watching. The skill to show rather than tell the film is a skill very rare in most filmmakers which is probably why we have many average-to-good ones and very rare great ones. The Spierig Brothers tried to show rather than tell, but they seem to have went a bit extreme in trying to show the story and forgot to add a semblance of a tight screenplay. The dialogue wasn’t bad, but what little there was seemed disjointed and almost tossed in to add a semblance of an explanation to what was happening. Characters and motivations were handled as if the audience should automatically understand when at times it just seemed like they came out of nowhere and were suddenly important to what was occurring on the screen. One particular character, who gets billing on the Daybreakers ad-campaign one-sheets, gets a mention in a passing bit of dialogue between two main characters and appears midway in the film only to be used as a plot-device to show how evil and heartless the main antagonist was. This is twice in less than a year where Isabel Lucas’ character gets this treatment. It happens more than once and shows just how much more work could’ve been done to the screenplay to really advance the original ideas the brothers wanted to film.

As with most films with a less-than-stellar screenplay the actors cast to act it out need to work double-time to salvage something very good to be presented in the final cut of the film. I couldn’t honestly say that there were any bad performances from all involved. While the overall acting performance from the cast wasn’t awful, or even bad, there was a sense of disinterest from several of the main characters which didn’t really help in trying to explain the motivations of why they did what they did on-screen. Ethan Hawke as Dr. Edward Dalton (vampire hematologist working on a blood substitute) almost sleepwalks through the entire film. We know soon enough that he hates being a vampire and won’t touch human blood, but he brings little life to his character and most of the cast do as well. It’s almost as if they couldn’t decide how seriously they should take the story they were filming and end up being one-note in the process. The only two actors who seem to realize the ridiculous, albeit fun premise, of the story was Sam Neill as head of the corporation providing human blood to the vampire population and Willem Dafoe as the human with a past secret who holds the key to finding a cure to vampirism.

Neill plays Charles Bromley with a certain amount of oily, snake-like panache we like to equate with captains of industries willing to sacrifice their own blood if it means turning a profit. He doesn’t stay immune from the script’s flaw, but he gamely trudges on to try and fully realize a well-rounded character. We could see why he does what he does even though we probably won’t agree with them. Willem Dafoe as the other bright star in an otherwise one-note character really got the best bits of dialogue in the film. His Lionel “Elvis” Cormac scene-chews through every second he’s on the screen. Dafoe’s own quirkiness and brand of craziness salvages from Daybreakers a semblance of a fun time.

I would say that despite the many flaws from the script and how it affected the performances of most of the cast in the end this was still a vampire film and a gruesome one at that. The year’s since Undead and the upping of a budget for this film hasn’t dulled the gorehound in the Spierig Brothers. Daybreakers was definitely not Twilight in every drop of blood in its celluloid veins. Blood really flows in this film and they flow a-plenty. The brothers don’t just stop in blood being spilled. He has the red liquid sprayed as if from intense pressure. But in addition to that particular brand of red nasty they add a bit of the zombie influence in the film as limbs are ripped asunder, heads torn off and flesh bitten and chewed on. This awesome display of gore and grue was a great cure for a case of the Twilight bug. It was in the last reel where the brothers ramp up the vampire violence where I truly felt like they were in their element. Maybe this was the film they should’ve gone for instead of trying to add some societal undertone to the film. Not every vampire film has to be an arthouse darling like Let the Right One In. Sometimes a filmmaker needs to realize their limitations as storyteller and stick to what they do best.

In the end, Daybreakers was definitely a missed opportunity to showcase a new fresh take on a horror genre being diluted by PG and ten-marketing sensibilities. It was a film with some very new ideas to add fresh blood in a staid vampire genre but these early hits were soon to be hampered by a weak screenplay and a cast that seemed truly disinterested in giving a spirited performance with a couple of exceptions. The film does salvages a bit of fun which made me enjoy enough of the film. The brothers take of their gloves in the final reel as the gore and violence almost reaches fun, goofy territory. It was this final reel which made me wish that Spierig Brothers had concentrated on right from the start. It definitely would’ve cut down the film into a much leaner and faster-paced film and maybe, just maybe, got everyone else to have fun on-screen the way Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe seemed to be having. The Spierig Brother definitely have a sense of style when it comes to horror, but they still have some ways to go before they could truly say that they’ve arrived as fully-rounded filmmakers.