By William Goss (reprint from Fantastic Fest '09 -- 10/07/09)
Ten years from now, 95% of the human population has been transformed into vampires, with those few uninfected survivors evading capture as best they can and those already captured being farmed for every last drop of their blood. However, supplies are dwindling, substitutes aren't working, and vampires who are driven by starvation to feed on one another tend to mutate for the worse.
This is the world of Daybreakers, a more ambitious and straight-faced follow-up than anyone might've expected from the Spierig Brothers in the wake of their cheeky low-budget aliens-and-zombies debut, Undead; better yet, it's a smarter and more refreshing take on the vampire genre than most of late, and a solid action flick in its own right. Years earlier, Edward (Ethan Hawke) was turned against his will by younger brother Frankie (Michael Dorman); now, human sympathizer Edward tinkers around in a lab for something resembling an adequate blood substitute, while Frankie happily hunts down the remaining humans as a solider in the Vampire Army. A chance run-in with a band of survivors (led by Claudia Karvan) tempts Edward to search for an alleged cure for the disease -- a cure that Edward's boss (Sam Neill) wants to hear nothing of, lest a decreasing demand for blood results in a similarly sinking bottom line.
And so the race is on, with loyalties shifting and betrayals inevitable, as the Spierigs jump back and forth between the slick nocturnal lifestyles of our increasingly desperate vamps and the warm pastoral homesteads of our perpetually outnumbered humans. Their future metropolitan approach is particularly well-executed, as the vampires would conceivably grow wealthier as they formed an increasing majority of the population and could thus afford to build underground sidewalks and vehicle upgrades for the daytime commute. The subways, meanwhile, are still a mess, which is why the so-called "Subsiders" -- those mutant vampires I mentioned earlier -- thrive there first and in the greatest numbers.
These Subsiders exist as men in latex suits and make-up, making them more feasible and frightening extrapolations of what vampires would become if forced to change, and maybe even a bit more sympathetic. An early-on encounter with such a creature in Edward's home reveals that a mutated neighbor was still wearing his wedding ring. The Spierigs' background in CGI effects is still put to convincing use (read: vampires frequently explode), and the climax results in a fairly clever excuse for much practical and digital bloodshed (one slow-motion composite shot of mayhem in particular stands out).
But what would Daybreakers have been if the characters didn't matter? [ANSWER: Blade 4.] Hawke puts his brooding nature to good use before rising to the occasion; his arc isn't terribly far off from that in 2005's Assault on Precinct 13 remake. Neill does cold corporate baddie well, though his scenes grow somewhat repetitive in their "maintain our way of life" angle. Karvan puts a pretty face on the human resistance, while Dorman puts a pretty confused face on naive obedience.
The closest thing to a weak link in the cast is Willem Dafoe as "Elvis," who most unwittingly discovered the cure to his vampirism, and it's not even that he gives a particularly bad performance so much as he's saddled with an egregious Southern accent. It doesn't quite have the charm of, say, Woody Harrelson in Zombieland, nor the full-on machismo of Matthew McConaughey in Reign of Fire, and while it's never been said that a Southern boy automatically has to play an ass-kicker, it's a touch distracting enough here to make one wonder how much fun it might've been to see Dafoe take on Neill's role as the villain instead.
I'll give Dafoe this: he can wield a crossbow as well as anyone else in the film, and everyone here does crossbows and car chases and overall carnage quite well. Daybreakers may have blood to spray, but it also has brains to spare, and I look forward to any future that doesn't have a single sparkling vampire in sight.