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Vampires, Without the Sparkles

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Michael and Peter Spierig’s feature-length filmmaking debut, Undead, a rough-around-the-edges, low-budget science-fiction/horror film, was met with positive reviews from genre festival audiences and critics in 2003 (it didn’t receive a stateside release until 2005).

Undead’s modest budget, however, limited what the Spierig brothers, leaving moviegoers and critics pondering what they could do with an adequate budget to realize their filmmaking ideas. Six years later, the Spierig brothers are back with their second film, Daybreakers, another sci-fi/horror hybrid, this time with a bigger budget and more polished production values.

Daybreakers is set in 2019, almost a decade after a mutated virus caused an incurable disease identical to vampirism in almost all of its particulars. Vampires require human blood to live, they don’t age, they suffer from sensitivity to sunlight, and they don’t sparkle like certain unmentionable pseudo-vampires from another franchise.

In Daybreakers they have otherwise adapted to night-time schedules, working at night and resting during the day. Humans are captured and farmed — literally bled dry — but vampires, long in the majority, are quickly running out of their supply of human blood. Without human blood, vampires devolve into feral, bat-like creatures, “subsiders,” that feed on other vampires for sustenance.

One self-hating vampire, Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), works for Bromley Pharmaceuticals as a hematologist researching blood substitutes. Pushed by the company’s CEO (and namesake), Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), and assisted by his longtime friend and fellow researcher, Christopher (Vince Colosimo), Edward prematurely tests the blood substitute formula, with disastrous results. With the research at a dead end, a chance encounter with a group of humans led by Audrey Bennett (Claudia Karvan), Edward’s subsequent romantic interest, and Elvis (Willem Dafoe), who claims he has a cure for vampirism, sends Edward on the run from Bromley and his brother, Frankie (Michael Dorman), a human-hunting vampire soldier.

Daybreakers’ greatest strength lies in the Spierig brothers’ world building. They’ve given a great deal of thought to what life would be like if non-feral vampires took over the earth, including specially equipped cars (UV-blocking windows, video monitors) to aid daytime excursions, UV-resistant armor and helmets for the vampire army, houses with dimmed windows and advanced security systems, and curfews announced over loudspeakers.

Corporations, specifically one corporation in charge of maintaining — and, of course, profiting from — the blood supply, set public policy (insert not-so-veiled anti-corporate message here). There’s no search for a cure to vampirism, which isn’t seen as a disease since it imparts immortality, but rather an alternative to a dwindling blood supply.

When it comes to characters and story, however, the Spierig brothers are on less sure ground. The characters are wanly drawn, defined by one or two character traits, and take a backseat to the Edward’s shallow transformation from self-hating vampire to pro-human vampire advocate.

The Spierig brothers include the obligatory romantic interest in Audrey, but barely spend any time developing her relationship with Edward. Elvis’ motivations are equally as shallow. What little personal conflict the Spierig brothers insert into Daybreakers comes from Edward and Frankie’s relationship — with Frankie inevitably hunting Edward — and Edward’s relationship with Bromley, who has his own minor conflict with his human daughter, Alison (Isabel Lucas).

As undemanding genre entertainment, however, Daybreakers delivers. From the already mentioned world building, to the adeptly directed action scenes, to the buckets of blood and ample amounts of viscera (not to mention the occasional fiery vampire death), Daybreakers has everything old-school pre-Twilight) vampire fans can and should ask for.