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Tabula Rasa

Daybreakers

Directed by Peter and Michael Spierig, 2009

A review by Kyla Ward, 2010

Edward Dalton: Is this place safe?

Lionel Cormac: Living in a world where vampires are the dominant species is about as safe as bare-backing a 5 dollar whore. This place is home.

Daybreakers posterRemember reading Salem's Lot and thinking, "but if the entire village become vampires, what are they going to drink?" Daybreakers takes that point and runs with it all the way to the blood bank. This visually stylish, nimbly-written piece is that rare entity: a film in a classic genre that really has been thought about.

And these are classic vampires. They have canine fangs, pallid skin and no pulse or body heat. They combust in sunlight and when staked, and when denied external sources of blood, assuage their hunger by gnawing on their own flesh. Their origin is viral rather than supernatural -- during the title montage of street scenes, advertisements and news footage, look for the headline, "How one little bat started it all" -- but the bite that does not kill infects.

What happened ten years ago (in 2009) is called "the outbreak" by vampire haematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke). Others, such as his soldiering brother, simply say "the change". Some, such as corporate blood baron Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) have no doubt it was a blessing, and if Edward's work on artificial blood comes to fruition, everything will be fine. You see, when the number of infected started outstripping the human, things did change. Now, the working "day" begins after sunset and ends safely before sunrise, the countdown to which is broadcast across the empty streets. Subwalks and covered bridges thread the cities. Coffee carts offer a choice of blood groups to flavour your caffeine, in a neat transference of addictions. Those who didn't turn have either fled to the wastelands or ended up in battery farms such as Edward sees every night as he walks to his lab. For now, there is only sufficient natural blood to sustain the vampire population till the end of the month.

When vampires are deprived of human blood, they degenerate physically and mentally into a bat-like feeding machine the vampire police have dubbed a Subsider. The first symptoms are hollow eyes, sunken cheeks and pointed ears, all of which Edward displays at the start of the film and which vanish once circumstances intervene. For an unspecified time, we discover, Edward has shunned human blood, making do with "that pigsblood shit". His moral stance is a slow form of suicide, one that those lower in the hierachy cannot afford. When reinforced by self-feeding, the second "change" can take as little as a fortnight.

This film looks superb. In their previous feature, 2003's Undead, the Spierig brothers demonstrated just what can be done with a Mac and a genuinely visual imagination. This time, they have a budget. I note from the credits they have still gone hands-on with the effects work, and frankly their fingerprints are on every part of the piece; from the abovementioned title sequence to the inhuman motion of the Subsiders, from the midnight "fire-fight" between the human resistance and the vampire army, to the quite astonishing car chases. What are car chases doing in a vampire film? Reminding the audience they have a pulse! It's actually Lionel Cormac's fault (Willem Dafoe): he's the one who started "day-fitting" vampire vehicles. "Daylight driving; you can't beat it. No one on the roads." But of course, that was before the accident...

It's hard to provide more details of the plot without giving too much away. Suffice to say, there is more than one way to approach the problem of vampire overpopulation, and the resistance HQ is a winery.

The performances are all solid, if not iconic. Ethan Hawkes low-key grimness is entirely appropriate for Edward. Mungo McKay, the star of Undead, has a small part as resistance fighter Collin Biggs, so keep your eyes peeled. Claudia Karvan plays resistance coordinator Audrey Bennett, and points to her and the Spierigs for presenting a heroine without glamour make-up, who is neither a martial artist nor indulging in vampire nookie. Sam Neill is everything you would expect him to be in his role, as a surprisingly well-rounded utter bastard. What really makes this film work is indeed the psychology. Not just of the individual characters, but of a dominant group who have naturalised their condition, made rights of their privilege and who in the face of disaster, cling to the belief that the resources on which they depend are unlimited. But there's no preaching here, no metaphorical sledgehammer, just immersion in the world of the story. There are so many layers; the depictions of vampire children, the increasing vilification of the Subsiders by the "proper" vampires, the constant background of news reports and headlines as conditions worsen around the world, a wedding ring pledging eternal love. Perhaps nothing that hasn't been done somewhere before by someone else (having a poster that reminds people of The Matrix is doing no one a service), but this is a neat package produced with a lot of sincerity.

The fact that the vampire hero is called Edward may raise an eyebrow or two, but not to worry. If anything, he's more Brad Pitt's Louie, especially when he acquires the waistcoat and open-necked shirt. Still, this is not a film that will please the romantically inclined. The tone is set by the pre-title sequence, which I will continue to forgo describing, only that it's a shocker. Edward bears scars on his neck and refers to his own turning as a betrayal, and the only such incident depicted in the film is blatantly rape. As the blood stops flowing, the ugliness and brutality of not simply this kind of vampirism, but the culture that has been built upon it, comes irrepressibly to the fore. And the finale, both visually and conceptually, passes beyond brutal to awful in the full, nineteenth century sense of the word. So, will I be writing slash fiction? No. But it's a damn good movie and more fun than this paragraph perhaps implies. If you want an image to go away with, try Lionel, Edward and Audrey submerged up to their necks in wine. "Ah, fuck it. Let's have a barbeque!"

 

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