Horror film conflicts tend to break down four ways: man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. nature and man vs. creature. This latter category is usually broken down further by a handful of classic archetypes: vampire, werewolf, mummy, mad scientist, mutation and zombie. But only the first and last of those have really thrived over the years, so much so that now both vampire and zombie tales seem completely drained of any vitality.
There are always exceptions: 2009's ZOMBIELAND gave the zombie film a light touch, a sense of human dignity and pathos, and what most horror films lack in the worst way: a winning sense of humor. And while zombies have become one of the most overused gimmicks over the past decade, vampire tales still rise up every few years and leave their mark, whether borne of teen angst (the TWILIGHT series) or more mature themes (THIRST).
Kicking off the doldrums season of 2010, we are treated to DAYBREAKERS, a clever but not entirely well thought-out piece that starts with a single minute of sheer brilliance: a young girl writes a suicide note, walks outside her gloomy home, and awaits the sunrise. It is a wonderful perversion of a scene that has played out a thousand times in cinema, but most assuredly never with the outcome reached here. After that opening, social commentary is all-too-bluntly thrust upon us: natural resources are dwindling, but instead of oil, fresh human blood is the substance the populace clamors for, from the seething homeless man on the corner to the well-to-do citizens walking the artificially-lit streets of a vampiric America. Corporations run the country, supported by a vampire military that hunts down the remaining human stragglers. And the blood processing company run by CEO Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) drains every drop of that precious resource from bodies strung up in a manner similar to the human batteries of THE MATRIX. But what Bromley's research team offers is a far more frightening possibility: if there is a not a blood substitute within a month, their race will begin to mutate into something quite horrific, signaling the end of the entire race.
As Bromley's head hematologist, Ethan Hawke is somber Edward Dalton, a vampire who has stopped drinking human blood for reasons he never fully owns up to. We're left to believe he's acting on some principle, but why is he any different from the rest of the Type-O Negative Latte-drinking crowd? Soon he comes across Elvis (Willem Dafoe), a semi-corn pone resistance leader who by sheer accident found a way to become human again. Elvis and his crew see in Edward a sympathetic vampire who might help the cause of bringing humanity back from the brink, but about halfway through the film everything is ratcheted up to top speed, and any moments for pause and reflection are eliminated as the story hurtles toward an interesting but poorly executed finale.
In the UNDERWORLD series, a gun-metal blue/grey color scheme is used as a very significant design element that has in the past few years almost become a parody of itself. In DAYBREAKERS, there are similar design issues but here they actually seem realistic as the vampire populace is flooded at all times in a harsh, fluorescent light that gives a creepy, dead feel to those surroundings. But worse than the look of the film, the story simply isn't very strong. The cause of the epidemic is alluded to but never explained; yet there are references to humanity having a choice in becoming vampires. At the same time, vampire research scenes are fun and unpredictable, while human survival scenes could have come from a dozen other films. Clearly the directing team of The Spierig Brothers (UNDEAD) are much more at home in the glare of unnatural light.
DAYBREAKERS is not a bad film; it has moments of visual cleverness and themes that would work if given half a chance by a cast that seems game for the undertaking. But more often the film seems rushed and overall, lacking. Next week we will be given an apocalyptic wanderer (THE BOOK OF ELI) followed the week after that by an apocalyptic war of angels (LEGION), so perhaps the month will not be the wasteland it lends itself to; while not terribly deep, at least we will get some fun out of it. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD)