Just over ten years ago, I went to see an intriguing, low-budget ($20 million) horror/sci-fi flick from two guys I’d never heard of… brothers Michael & Peter Spierig; two young filmmakers who’d crafted an intriguing story of humans being an endangered species in a very near-future (only ten years away) where a plague from a bat transforms nearly every facet of modern society… no, this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the current COVID-19 pandemic, but damn close. This was the Spierig Brothers’ Richard Matheson-style tale of vampirism as sci-fi allegory. Instead of a grim, post-apocalyptic movie, “Daybreakers” features a humanity which adapts its current, heavily consumer-based lifestyle for vampirism (insert ‘bloodsucker’ jokes here). What seemed, at the time, to be an allegory of destructive fossil fuel dependency and consumer greed takes on other dimensions today.
I was one of several people in the theater that morning (I used to love going to the movies in the mornings…hell, I used to love going to movies period), and all I knew from scant reading was that the film promised to be something of a spiritual sequel to Matheson’s famed novel, “I Am Legend” (1954’s book, not the failed film versions). Matheson put vampirism under a scientific lens, telling a story of a lone, immune survivor of a vampire plague who ultimately realizes that society is adapting to vampirism, and that he is now obsolete. He lives in the vampire’s world.
The co-writing/co-directing Spierig Brothers took that idea to the next level…
****UNDEAD SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
In the very near-future, the world has been transformed by a vampiric plague that began ten years earlier with a single bat. The very beginning of the film sees a suicidal young girl, unable to live as a vampire, fleeing her family’s home into direct sunlight, where she bursts into flames.
Most of humanity has adapted to this new reality by becoming bloodsuckers, happily eschewing their frail mortality for immortality, but gaining a ceaseless craving for human blood. A big pharmaceuticals company, Bromley-Marks, has exploited this need by becoming the premiere harvester and supplier of human blood in North America. Life has gone on uninterrupted for most Americans, with most activity now occurring from dusk till dawn. Cars are adapted with opaque UV-shielding during daytime driving, vanity mirrors have given way to video screens. Underground sidewalks are a pedestrian’s new normal. Even your local barista can add another shot of AB positive to your morning coffee.
Note: This small-budgeted film didn’t get a lot of box office at the time ($50 million worldwide), but it may be one of the most unwittingly accurate predictions of the near-future I’ve ever seen. An infection, coming from a single infected bat, alters the entire world within a very short timespan. Given how fast humanity has adapted to life in the COVID pandemic, a ten year span for changing the entire world doesn’t seem at all unrealistic anymore.
Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a vampire hematologist working for Bromley-Marks who is also one of the few vampires still plagued by a conscience; he refuses to drink human blood. Edward and his team are working tirelessly on a safe blood substitute, as fresh human beings are rapidly becoming extinct. The optimistic Edward hopes that a blood substitute will negate the need for human blood entirely.
Note: Ethan Hawke has a well-earned reputation for eschewing big-budget mainstream projects in favor of more interesting, but less-commercial works, such as 1997’s “Gattaca” (also not a big commercial hit in its time, but currently a cult favorite). Hawke was also in 2014’s “Predestination”, an interesting exploration into gender and identity using the machinery of time travel. Currently, he’s starring at the titular character in the biopic “Tesla” (2020), which is available for streaming rental on YouTube.
Under the watchful eye of his boss, CEO Charles Bromley (a devilish Sam Neill), Edward and his team experience failure after bloody failure with test subjects ranging from death-row inmates to army volunteers, one of whom literally explodes after infusion with the team’s synthetic blood. Disappointed but undeterred, Charles paternally assures Edward that his work will eventually yield results. Edward himself takes a look at the facility’s remaining stock of humans, who are suspended nude, barely alive, from giant rows of machinery and slowly drained of their blood (a scathing allegory of today’s poultry and meat plants). It’s also learned at a company briefing that starving, desperate vampires who drink their own blood experience rapid mutation into hideous, feral, bat-like creatures called “under-dwellers”. Many of these under-dwellers prey on other vampires at random, sparking much fear in the middle to upper-classes of vampire society.
Note: In addition to its rebuke of mass consumerism, the movie also shines a light on the increasing plight of homelessness, with the “under-dwellers”, depicting how one’s inability to provide for themselves economically can reduce them to a ‘monster’ in the eyes of an unsympathetic public.
On the way home, before dawn, Edward is gazing in his car’s mirror-video screen when he notices his ears are beginning to point… the first stages of transformation into an under-dweller, and a clear sign that he needs to drink human blood soon, despite his own moral objections. Distractedly staring at his own image, Edward’s modified Chrysler gets into a scrape with an SUV and skids onto the sidewalk. Getting out of his car to check if the other party is alright, he is shot through the arm by an arrow. Not a fatal blow for the undead, of course. Realizing the other car is full of humans led by a woman named Audrey (Claudia Karvan), Edward makes an impulsive decision to cover for them as the distant sirens of police are heard. Pulling the arrow out of his arm, he throws on his jacket and hides the humans in his car, turning on its daytime window shielding just as the cops arrive. Giving the cops a false lead to follow, he then lets the grateful humans out of his car. While in his car, Audrey noticed Edward’s Bromley-Marks ID badge, and wishes him a “happy birthday” as they flee. Edward assumes that’s the last he’ll ever see of these poor fugitives, for whom he did a good deed in order to assuage his conscience for his work with Bromley-Marks.
Finally arriving at his luxurious Bromley-Marks domicile, Edward is set to get a good day’s rest when he’s interrupted by his home’s security system. Edward’s younger brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a career soldier, has stopped by unannounced to celebrate his older birthday (ten years of being 35). The two resume their old fighting, as Edward has never come to grips with the fact that his kid brother turned him into a bloodsucker in order to ‘save him.’ He’s also disgusted by Frankie’s gift…a bottle of premium human blood, which Edward refuses to drink. In anger, Frankie shatters the bottle, which prompts an unwelcome, feral under-dweller to enter through the still open backdoor. The bat-like intruder desperately licks blood from the shattered bottle off of the wall, but is soon beheaded by Frankie, mercifully ending its pitiful existence. Police soon arrive and ID the dead ‘creature’ as a former gardener on the Bromley-Marks estates.
Frankie leaves; the police leave, and an exhausted Edward finally hopes to get some sleep just before he is met by yet another home intruder, Audrey, who holds a crossbow on the sympathetic vampire, telling him that there is someone he needs to meet…
Driving his daytime-shielded Chrysler to a rural wilderness, Edward parks his car under a massive shade tree, where he meets a grizzled, weathered man named Lionel Cormac (Willem DaFoe) who prefers to go by “Elvis.” Elvis is a car fanatic who drives a cherry ’66 Ford Mustang. He also tells Edward that, like himself, he used to be a vampire, until a freak car accident ejected him from the car’s daytime-shielded front window into a nearby stream. The combination of burning sunlight and immediate soothing waters ‘cured’ him (an allegory for the religious rite of baptism), restoring his once-dead heart to its beating human status. Edward is intrigued, and Elvis guardedly accepts the vampire into the underground human resistance, of which Audrey is a member. Unfortunately, a distrustful Frankie has followed his older brother to the scene, leading an army convoy. Losing his beloved Mustang in a firefight, Elvis angrily incapacitates Frankie, and a fleeing Edward and company are forced to leave the unconscious vampire under the shade tree. Back in his shielded car, Edward, Elvis and Audrey are in the chase of their lives as they barely outrun the heavier army vehicles via a rundown bridge, which conveniently collapses.
Note: The movie makes very effective use of remote rural and heavily urbane Australia-for-America locations. There are also a lot of Australian/New Zealander cast members doing credible American accents, with a few minor, not-too-distracting exceptions here and there.
During their getaway, Audrey notices Edward staring longingly at her neck. Realizing her resistance movement needs the hematologist at peak capacity, she offers him a sip of her own blood to give the starving vampire some peace. The reluctant Edward drinks her sacrificial offering and immediately feels better. The human resistance is based at an old winery, which used to be run by Audrey’s now deceased family in pre-pandemic days. Among the human resistors is another sympathetic vampire, Senator Turner (Jay Laga’aia), who offers his own cabin in the woods as refuge for a pending raid by the authorities. The resistance hopes that Edward, Audrey and Elvis can work together on a cure, in order to reverse the world’s current status quo. Other resistance members are sent out on nocturnal patrols in vans, searching for other surviving humans.
Edward soon realizes the vineyard has a large metal, airtight vat which can be exposed to sunlight. This will act as a ‘test chamber,’ with Edward as a willing subject eager to restore his human status. With the authorities closing on the resistance vineyard, the group decides to do a series of Hail Mary tests on their hypothesis. Audrey remains outside the vat, monitoring Edward’s null heartbeat, as he and Elvis use a combination of soaking wet blankets and brief exposure to flammable sunlight (reverse-engineering the conditions that restored Elvis) in order to flash-cure Edward. After several tries, the tests are successful, as Edward’s heartbeat returns, and his once amber-eyes are restored back to a human blue. The group then hides below the testing vat, just as the authorities (led by a surviving Frankie) storm the complex, failing to find the three remaining resistance members.
Meanwhile, the resistance patrols sent out to scout for survivors earlier has been captured. Among the newly captured humans is Bromley’s rebellious daughter, Alison (Isabel Lucas), who desperately clings to her humanity. Brought before her father, Bromley makes a final plea to turn Alison into a vampire, reiterating how vampirism ‘cured’ him of his fatal cancer diagnosis ten years ago. Failing to persuade, Bromley then arranges for ambitious soldier Frankie to “do me a favor” and turn his daughter for him. Frankie (excuse the pun) really sinks his teeth into the assignment, willfully biting (and feeding) on the beautiful young woman, but with disastrous results. Turning into a vampire drives the idealistic young woman insane, and she immediately begins to feed on herself, accelerating her mutation into a feral, bat-like creature and erasing all of her mortal beauty.
As the fresh human blood supply runs dangerously low, the once shadowy under-dwellers become more violent, brazenly attacking more citizens in the open. Consumers are also driven to madness, as a frustrated customer at a coffee kiosk demands that a barista put “more blood in (his) coffee,” leading a charge to ransack the joint. The brief riot is quickly quelled by nearby police with stun collars, but not before ravenous customers (and employees) lick the blood off of the walls and floors. The military, with Frankie in their ranks, is charged with rounding up under-dwellers and executing them en masse in public by leading them on tight metal leashes into sunlight, where they burst into flames. Among those rounded up for solar immolation is Alison, as Frankie is forced to watch…
Note: The plight of Alison reminds me of Ophelia from “Hamlet”; with Frankie as her Hamlet, and burning sunlight instead of drowning as her ultimate fate.
After their escape from the winery, the newly cured Edward joins Elvis and Audrey to Senator Turner’s cabin in the woods for safety while they come up with a plan. Driving Elvis’ classic Pontiac Trans Am, they arrive at the cabin to find their entire remaining resistance movement slaughtered, including a beheaded Senator Turner (beheading, stakes to the heart and direct sunlight are the three surefire classic means of dispatching vampires in this universe).
Note: Elvis drives a variety of classic cars in the movie, including a ’57 Chevy (the vehicle in which he has his life-altering accident), a ’66 Ford Mustang and, finally, a ’78 Trans Am. The last car is also the one Elvis drives into the Bromley Marks main headquarters during the climax, and it’s fitting that it’s a car has a large ‘firebird’, aka a Phoenix, painted on the hood. The Phoenix, like Elvis and Edward, is a creature that rose from the ashes of its former existence into a new life. Both Elvis and Edward had to be cleansed by fire in order to live again…
Realizing they have no more allies, the trio return to Edward’s old Bromley-Marks apartment complex, where other company scientists and executives live. It’s there that Edward hopes to gain an ally in his former researcher colleague, Christopher (Vince Colosimo).
Note: The Bromley estates are lit by powerful vertical streetlight tubes that enable the nocturnal vampire residents to see better than traditional overhead streetlights, which tend to be very shadowy. This is one of the many logical details that the Spierig Bros. have thought out for this vampiric universe. I was very intrigued by this movie’s world, and I wondered about those corners of it we didn’t see; do vampire children mature within child bodies or do they remain frozen as children? Do vampires keep pets or are animals merely food for them? Do vampires need exercise, or do their bodies remain frozen in their last mortal state? Would medical care become a lost art for a race of immortal mutants? I would love to see a mini or full TV series set within in the “Daybreakers” universe.
With the trio packing crossbows, they force their way into Christopher’s place. Christopher is stunned when he realizes that Edward is human again. Feigning a call from an ex-wife, he leaves the room to call the authorities. While Edward wants to trust his former friend, his newfound friends persuade him not to, especially when they find Christopher’s abandoned mobile phone, with “work” listed as the last call received. The trio has been ratted out, and they manage to escape, but not before Audrey is taken captive by Bromley’s security forces. Frankie arrives, and seems willing to help his mortal brother after empathizing with Alison’s tragic death. Antagonized by the untrusting Elvis, Frankie bites him and nearly kills him, but something strange happens…Frankie writhes in agony after drinking “daybreaker” Elvis’ blood, and he becomes human as well. Drinking the blood of a cured vampire reverses the condition of vampirism.
Audrey, held in Bromley’s office, is being drained of blood for Bromley’s personal consumption. He finds the fear in her blood particularly tasty. Taking the fight directly to his former boss, Edward allows himself to be captured by the building’s security forces, and is escorted to Bromley’s office, where he learns the company now has a viable artificial blood substitute, but still plans on hunting humans so that he may charge consumers even more for “the real thing.” It’s no longer about substitution, but about creating an ironclad monopoly on human blood. Goading Charles into attacking him by mentioning his dead daughter, Edward is then bitten by his former boss…who soon crumbles to the floor, writhing in agony, just as Frankie did. Charles’ eyes also change from amber to blue, as he is just a mortal, middle-aged man with cancer again. Blood-starved soldiers arrive, and begin to feast on Charles. Soon, each of those soldiers begin to change as well…
With Charles out of the way, Edward rescues Audrey and they are met by soldiers. The newly mortal Frankie arrives and offers himself as a sacrifice in order for his older brother and Audrey to escape. The soldiers feed on Frankie, only to spasm painfully, as his transformed blood courses through their veins, beginning their own reversion back to humanity.
From out of nowhere, Christopher appears and shoots each of the newly-human soldiers in order to prevent further spread of the “cure” and maintain the company’s place atop the (literal) blood-money pyramid. The duplicitous Christopher is then killed by a well-placed bolt fired from the crossbow of a still-alive Elvis, who arrives in his Trans Am to rescue Edward and Audrey. As they drive off, Edward mentions that this cure might eventually bring humanity back.
A large bat flies into the screen…
Horror and Sci-Fi.
The Spierig Brothers clearly had a lot to say with this movie, in the tradition of other science fiction/horror allegories, dating back to H.G. Wells and even earlier with Mary Shelley. Shelley’s “Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus” is also viewed today as both horror and science-fiction in many circles. There are some who may disagree with my insistence that this movie is horror/science fiction. However science fiction often deals with alternate realities as well, and not just spaceships, aliens or time travel. For example, the film features many technological innovations used to adapt our current world towards a nocturnal, daylight-fearing existence…that’s within the realm of science fiction. The vampirism of “Daybreakers” (as with Richard Matheson’s aforementioned “I Am Legend”) is treated more like a genetic mutation than a mystical event, and genetic mutations have been a staple of some great science fiction stories (Wells’ “The Time Machine” Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” & Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to cite a few).
The movie has a very memorable scene of an angry customer at a coffee kiosk who demands “more blood” in his coffee. This scene reminded me very much of angry “anti-maskers” who refuse to follow public safety guidelines, because wearing a thin cloth over their faces interferes with their ‘right’ to shop (just a reminder; most stores in the US are privately owned–you can be kicked out). This presumption of having a ‘right’ to shop is very American. Just like the angry coffee-creep vampire in the movie, I often see grocery store customers wearing masks to gain admittance, only to fling them off once they’re inside, not realizing (or caring) that their disregard for public safety is only perpetuating this pandemic for all of us. Coffee-creep vampire doesn’t care if there’s a shortage of blood, or that other vampires are starving … he wants his blood-coffee, and he wants it now. The vampires of “Daybreakers” aren’t gothic creatures living on decaying estates in Transylvania–they’re everyday suburban Americans who shop at Walmart and drink Starbucks. A more succinct and scathing commentary/satire on American consumerism you will rarely find.
Much like the vampire mutation in the movie, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the entire world to undergo many adaptations previously unforeseen by the general public. A tiny virus, most likely originating from a bat (just like in the film) altered our entire way of life in just a few months. The film’s vision of everyday people casually adapting to vampirism isn’t so hard to believe anymore.
COVID-19 Safe Viewing.
“Daybreakers” is currently available for streaming on FXNow, PlutoTV and for streaming rental via Amazon Prime & YouTube. The film is also available to own on Blu Ray and DVD via contact-free shipping from Amazon.com. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 210,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!