Saturday, September 12, 2009


(Midnight Madness)
(Australia/USA, 2009, 98 minutes)
Written by: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Directed by: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Vincent Colosimo

As anyone who’s slogged through the “Underworld” series can attest, a nifty take on the established lore, state-of-the-art CG, and that de rigueur steely blue sheen do not necessarily guarantee a great vampire movie. In a reversal on the “Blade” series’ notion of a secret vampire society with its own economy, code, and caste system, Michael and Peter Spierig’s “Daybreakers” proposes an intriguing expansion on Richard Matheson’s original hook for “I Am Legend”: what if the world was not only overrun by bloodsuckers, but what if the conditions of the mutation had been naturally assimilated into civilization? Ten years after the outbreak, in the year 2019, cars are now manufactured with an option for daylight driving (shuttered windshields, interior video assist), cities offer an underground “Subwalk” galleria for AM coming-and-going, gated communities afford properties that can protect from UV rays, coffee shops offer hemoglobin as a flavour shot, billboards champion fang whiteners, and Uncle Sam points out from recruitment posters to join the good fight against the human resistance.
Some vampires, like hematologist Edward Dalton (Hawke) refuse to consume human blood (pigs will do) and toil to invent a blood substitute. Others merrily hunt them for sport or patriotic duty. While humans are outnumbered, their extinction is not to the vampires’ gain: with only 5% of the human population left, the world is faced with a blood shortage which is already inspiring riots and public executions of disfigured, bat-like vamps—“subsiders”--who dare to feed on their own kind out of desperate hunger.

While the Spierigs have certainly thought about their premise from the inside-out and have fun painting in the margins, what constitutes a surface plot takes its cues from the Syd Field playbook with disappointing blandness, considering the potential for a truly unique entry amidst the current glut of vampire revisionism. The script is occasionally witty (on his birthday, Dalton quips “I’ve turned 35 ten times already” and “life’s a bitch, then you don’t die”) and the cast (mostly) has fun with the concept. Sam Neill lets ‘er rip at the evil corporate head of Bromley-Marks who’s not above turning his own daughter into a bloodsucker, while Willem Dafoe channels Levon Helm as a human-turned vampire-turned back to human “Che” of the human resistance (nicknamed “Elvis”). Unfortunately, our lead is Ethan Hawke as Dalton, the vampire scientist who spends most of the movie with his usual disaffected facial expression, like he’s still irked that nobody liked his novel “The Hottest State”. When he ultimately conceives of a cure for the entire vampire plague, his commitment to the cause seems dutiful more than impassioned.

Conveniently, the human underground have set up their base camp in a former vineyard, which provides Dalton—now a fugitive for his human sympathizing, and hunted by his soldier brother--with the inspiration to cure human blood of its unnatural, transformative impurities through a unique take on wine fermentation (actually, he’s inspired by Dafoe’s account of his reverting back to a human state after a nasty car accident that set him on fire…I spent a bit of time researching fanboy comments on the internet and frankly still don’t get it).

The Spierigs made an impressive debut with 2003’s “Undead”, which basically was about alien-inspired zombies, and will forever be known to local audiences as the last film ever to be screened at the Uptown Cinema. They’ve got a great collective eye for composition and ideas to burn, obviously, but considering the six years it took to finally produce a followup, it’s a shame that “Daybreakers”s wild concepts and clever details are burdened by a convoluted, logy screenplay that relies on exploding bodies and one too many car chases…

©Robert J. Lewis 2009