Daybreakers

Starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Isabel Lucas and Vince Colosimo. Written and directed by Peter and Michael Spierig.
Rated MA 15 + (blood and gore; strong horror violence).  98 minutes.

Like many novels and films about nightmarish figments of the imagination (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, BBC television’s Being Human), Daybreakers is a futuristic thriller that uses vampires to explore the dark side of human nature.

Written and directed by Australian filmmakers (and twin brothers) Peter and Michael Spierig (Undead, 2003), Daybreakers is set in 2019 at a time when the inhabitants of the earth are in the grip of radical biological and social change, with only five percent of its population still genetically human.

Ten years previously, through the bite of a bat, a virus was unleashed into the world which transformed the majority of humans into vampires. This mutant humanity needs human blood to survive, and with supplies running low despite global rationing, the race is on to discover a way to make blood synthetically.  

Ethan Hawke plays Edward Dalton, a vampire researcher who (much like vegetarians today) is repulsed by his need to feed off other beings, even though becoming a vampire has given him immortality. But others in the laboratories and boardrooms at the corporation where he works are not so squeamish or principled.

The head of the powerful research organisation is Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), who has adapted to biological change easily: vampirism has cured his sarcoma and given him new life. But beyond the sterile glassy walls of the corporation, mayhem is growing on the streets as armed paramilitaries break up food riots, scouring alleys and subways after dusk for people who have devolved into violent, uncontrollable bat-like creatures as a consequence of being starved of blood.

Ed’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) is a paramilitary whose job it is to hunt down humans. He argues against Ed’s moral squeamishness, particularly as Ed is showing early signs of bodily changes as a result of his self-feeding and abstinence. But when Ed by chance meets Audrey (Claudia Karvan), who is fully human and the member of a cell of underground activists, he is introduced to Lyle ‘Elvis’ McCormack (Willem Dafoe), who believes he has discovered a cure for vampirism.

Filmed on Queensland’s Gold Coast (but with an American flag flying from the little-house-on-the-prairie-style mansion which chillingly opens the movie), Daybreakers has some spectacular horror sequences in keeping with the genre.

As well as impressive CGI effects which include the morphing of vampires into humans and their imploding in sunlight, Australian cinematographer Ben Nott’s leached palette of scorched-earth hues imparts a gritty realism to Daybreakers, which sets it apart from other monochrome, darkly themed vampire or Ragnarok movies, such as Max Paine.

But once the premise of vampires and their taking over of the earth is accepted, Daybreakers’ plausible storyline concentrates primarily on ideas and believable characters.

All the characters, well-played by the American and Australian cast (Dafoe and Hawke particularly) are recognisably human. Only Sam Neill (and Vince Colosimo briefly) camps it up, salaciously licking his lips, and rolling his tell-tale vampire eyes wickedly.

While Daybreakers is stylistically different to Avatar, it is also a moral fable about ethics and the politics of scarcity, and how societies and individuals might cope with threats to civilisation and the sustainability of the planet.

The plague which threatens humankind, in this case vampirism, is redolent of pandemics generally and swine and avian flu in particular, diseases spread by harmless or biddable animals that cohabit world with us, but which can (as in Alfred Hitchcocks’ Birds) turn suddenly nasty.

Thus at both the beginning and the end of Daybreakers, the innocuous yet sinister shadow of an Australian leather-winged fruit bat flits vampire-like across the screen (the bite of which in real life can rarely transmit a rabies-like virus).

Daybreakers shows too, the way art and architecture reflects our mindset and values (bat-wings are the design of choice for the city’s network of flyovers), and how easy it is for the doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number to triumph over the notion of universal values:  the film’s most graphic and shocking visual is that of a huge factory within the research centre, where humans in cocoon-like harnesses are being ‘milked’ for their blood.

Yet despite its theme, Daybreakers offers an optimistic, and within the logic of the film, not unrealistic take on the confronting question as to whether we will ever be able to conquer the dark side of our nature, and become less destructive and predatory.

Out February 4  Hoyts

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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