At a time when the relentlessly homogenised ethos of vampire genre storytelling desperately needed to be rescued from the clutches of Robert Pattinson and associated Twihards comes the second blood-spangled flick from emerging horror writer/directors The Spierig Brothers.
The Spierigs burst on the scene with a magnificent explosion of body parts in 2003’s zany Aussie zombie comedy Undead. Modestly budgeted at around a million bucks, the film looked like it cost ten times that amount – a result of their extensive hands-on SFX work and a restlessly inventive visual structure.
These guys know how to stretch a budget; they know how to savour every drop of fake blood. Therefore it’s not difficult to understand how and why they got the moolah to make Daybreakers, a revisionist vampire flick in which the Spierig Brothers upturn expectations by delivering an eerily original horror triumph. It makes Twilight look like Play School.
The story is set in a world where almost everybody is a vampire and where human bodies are harvested for their blood. Edward (Ethan Hawke) is one of the vamps, albeit of the more moralistic ilk: like an animal-loving vegan he sympathises with humans, rejects real blood and only drinks blood substitute. This fits in well with where the world is heading – because real blood is rapidly running out and the powers that be are desperate for a substitute, a cure, or simply more of the good stuff.
In pursuit of a solution Edward teams up with humans Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and Lionel aka Elvis (Willem Dafoe) who belong to a sort of underground resistance. To make matters more complicated, a third breed of human-ish beings exist: a race of sticky bat-looking freaks whose favourite pastimes include eating anything that moves (including themselves) and muttering incomprehensible scary sounds.
Dafoe, screen-chewing as always, is handed most of the best dialogue: “living in a world where vampires are the dominant species,” he grumbles, “is about as safe as bare backing a five dollar whore.” Sam Neill has a small but high impact guy-you-love-to-hate role as a tyrannical corporate bigwig. He swills and quaffs his blood, proffering a spot of critical analysis to boot, no doubt learnt on Yarra Valley blood tasting courses: “human blood has a scent that no substitute could ever replace – fear,” he says.
Small bursts of sassy dialogue are matched with big bursts of action. Vampire aficionados will be treated to flourishes of genre inventions strewn throughout the story. In a delicious touch, coffee drinking vamps have a shot of blood in their morning lattés. When rations are enforced and their blood/caffeine levels are low, commuters get a wee bit cranky, to say the least.
The film is shot in a metallic, midnight blue – creepy, cool and slick. There is a clever daytime car chase scene (vamps drive UV resistant, black-tinted vehicles) in which Edward not only navigates the road but also avoids bullet-created beams of light inside the car. And in a brilliant moment of Romero-esque who’s the real monster now, chump? a chain gang of sticky vampire freaks are hauled into the daylight, hissing and snarling, frying up in the sun. It’s a truly eerie moment with dark connotations – concentration camps, torture, the initial hoof prints on route to a new kind of genocide…
Not all of the Spierigs’ genre inventions come to fruition: a great many of them feel tantalisingly under-developed and some – such as the vampire freaks sub-plot – are cut way short. There is a sense that they bit off a bit much to chew in some areas and focused too squarely on action in others. But nevertheless Daybreakers is a bold and fiercely innovative vampire flick destined to defy anyone who thinks they’ve seen it all before. Sure to become a cult classic, it helps wash away the stinky, putrid sweetness dished out by the Twilight characters, who in the Clearasil-free Daybreakers universe would be served on a shish kebab and gobbled up for brekkie.
Daybreakers’ Australian theatrical release date: February 4, 2010