Daybreakers (2010)

DAYBREAKERS is a film of glistening surfaces – modern architecture, billboards, automobiles – all lit in the subdued hues that “heaven to gaudy day denies.” Set mostly at night, this science-fiction-horror film shares some stylistic affinity with DARK CITY (1998), which also used a cinefantastique premise to justify taking old school film noir aesthetics to dazzling new extremes. From the opening montage of an empty city, awaiting the awakening of the vampirized populace, the film looks like a production designer’s dream, as the camera glides over city streets, bus stops, and advertisement posters, inviting us into this strange, new, yet oddly familiar world. It’s an effective strategy that seduces you into engaging with the film, but there is a pitfall: the ultra-cool world of night is so beguiling that one barely regrets the loss of daylight, robbing the the story (a quest to find a cure for vampirism) of at least some of its dramatic impetus. Fortunately, this is a small price to pay for enjoying the visual pleasures on display.
Basically a riff on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, DAYBREAKERSexpands upon a concept suggested by, but never fully explored in, Richard Matheson’s novel or its filmic adaptations: that of a vampire society. In this future, the majority of the Earth’s population has been transformed into blood-drinkers by a plague. The few remaining non-vampires are stored like the human batteries in The Matrix, slowly drained of their remaining drops of life, which are served in increasingly diluted portions at the equivalent of coffee bars. As the blood shortage grows more dire, hungry consumers begin to riot. Meanwhile Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a scientist working for the world’s biggest blood supplier, works round the clock, searching for a cure. But does his boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) really want a cure, or would he prefer to retain a permanently addicted customer-base, hopefully fed upon a synthesized substitute?
The plot runs on some fairly familiar fuel: Dalton abandons his company to form an alliance with an underground group of humans, one of whom, Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe) has mysteriously recovered from vampirism. Dalton’s former friends, family and allies think him a turncoat, and in a typical display of dramatic irony it is his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) who is charged with bringing him back into the fold. Can Dalton find a cure; and even if he can, will the public be willing to surrender immortality? And if they do surrender, will it be without a bloody, climactic fight? (If you guessed no to the last question, you win.)
Fortunately, the plot mechanics are in the service of an intriguing idea. Taking a science fiction approach to the material, instead of focusing only on the horror of blood-drinking, writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig use vampirism as a metaphor for capitalism. Without ever turning DAYBREAKERS into a simple-minded screed (a la the recent FURRY VENGEANCE), they use their story to offer satiric commentary on consumer culture and the corporate overlords the nuture and feed it. In a way, the film is less about the allure of immortality than it is about the laws of supply and demand, depleting natural resources until artificial ones must be used instead – at much higher cost, because they can be patented, and when the natural stuff is gone, the consumer has no choice but to buy the alternative, at whatever price.
Although the battle lines initially seem clearly drawn, the screenplay offers a few nice character touches that prevent the story from slipping into a simple “us versus them” scenario; these nods toward character development also help keep the drama alive, so that the film does not slip into being a thinly disguised anti-capitalist manifesto. Particularly touching is brother Frankie’s late revelation about what he vampirized his older brother (he was frightened by the thought of living on without him), which engenders unexpected sympathy for a previously one-note Judas character, so that we actually feel a pang of regret over his ultimate fate.

Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe
Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe

In keeping with DAYBREAKERS’ film noir style, the performances tended to be muted, almost to the point of being dour. Neil does a good job at projecting the smiling good-guy facade of a cut-throat businessman, and Hawke seems tailor-made for his role; there’s not a lot of depth required of him, but he makes the surface look interesting.
The exception is Dafoe, whose “Elvis” Cormac character is supposed to breathe some life into the proceedings. A working-class auto detailer (he used to make a living customizing cars to protect drivers from sunlight), Cormac is a bit one-note (we’re supposed to like him because he’s straight-forward and he loves his classic cars), but Dafoe is a good enough actor to make us like him even though he is little more than a generic type.
The critical mass missing from this equation is the joy of sunshine and warmth, the thrill of rolling down the convertible top and letting the wind rush through your hair as you race down a long road on a sunny day. The Spierig Brothers more or less take for granted the superiority of ordinary human life over the vampire’s night-time existence, so much so that they never bother to sell the idea emotionally. When Dalton finally effects his cure, it works as a plot point, but we don’t really feel it in our gut the way we should. Like many artists who work in the realm of cinefantastique, they seem better at exploring the darkness than bathing in the light. The result is a good film, not a great one. Perhaps next time out, they can strike the perfect balance between (in Byon’s words) “all that’s best, of dark and bright.”

DAYBREAKERS (copyright 2009, released January 8, 2010). Written and directed by the Spierig Bothers (Michael and Peter). Cast: Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, Mungo McKay, Emma Randal, Michael Dorman.

Laserblast: May 11 DVD & Blu-ray: Daybreakers, Legion, Toy Story 1 & 2

In recent years, January has become the month for releasing films considered too weak to compete in the more profitable moving-going seasons (such as Summer and Christmas); with the narrowing window between theatrical and home video distribution, we are currently seeing those titles show up on store shelves – hardly an inspiring fact for fans of horror, fantasy and science fiction films looking for something new and exciting. And yet, against the odds, Tuesday, May 11 features the home video debut of an ambitious science fiction-horror film that earned some well-deserved kudos during its theatrical run this January (although it earned only a modest $30.1-million).

click to purchase
click to purchase

DAYBREAKERS expands on an idea presented but never fully explored in Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legendand its various film permutations, that of a society of vampires. Taking a science fiction approach to the material, writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig use vampirism as a metaphor for capitalism, without ever turning their film into a simple-minded screed (a la the recent FURRY VENGEANCE). The film arrives on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD. The Blu-ray offers audio commentary from the Spierigs; a feature-length making-of featurette (as opposed to the shorter version on DVD); “The Big Picture,” a short film exclusive to the Blu-ray; storyboard and animatics comparison; posters (Blu-ray exclusive); a digital copy (Blu-ray exclusive); and a trailer.
The other January genre release making its home vid bow this Tuesday is LEGION, a religious thriller in which the arkangel Michael decides to help humanity avert the apocalypse (seems God thinks its time to rain some old-fashioned Sodom-and-Gomorah-type fire and brimstone on a worldwide scale).
Also out are special editions of Pixar’s TOY STORY and TOY STORY 2, timed to the upcoming release of TOY STORY 3. MALICE IN WONDERLAND, a modern, British re-telling of the Lewis Carroll story, arrives on DVD after playing in one U.S. theatre last month. And the Thai fantasy film LEGEND OF THE TSUNAMI WARRIOR arrives on Blu-ray; this was directed by Nonzee Nimibutr, whom hardcore Asian horror fans may remember as the director of the “The Wheel,” the second episode of the anthology film THREE (known as THREE EXTREMES II in the U.S.)

Undead (2003) – Horror Film Review

Zombies are big business these day, or at least Hollywood hopes so, with RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION opening later this month. So we thought we would take this opportunity to shine the light on a lesser known – but quite entertaining zombie opus – a fun-filled combo of gore and John Woo-style action that is more farce than fear. UNDEAD is an amusingly outrageous Australian variation on the familiar zombie theme, played mostly for laughs but with enough exciting action and horrible makeup effects to qualify as a tongue-in-cheek horror film rather than an outright spoof. It’s not as funny as it means to be, and some of the character conflict is annoying rather than dramatic, but the stunts and sight gags make it worth sitting through the weaker moments.
The film begins with an apparently ordinary day in a small Australian town. The local beauty queen (Felicity Mason), fed up with her life there, is on her way out, when circumstances intervene: a meteor lands downtown, poking a hole through one of the hapless inhabitants. (That the abrupt incongruity of this disruption of dull normality draws chuckles instead of screams is our first hint that we’re not in for a straight-out fright fest.) Then, as in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the meteor turns people into zombies, whose bite then turns their victims into even more zombies. (To be fair, UNDEAD was released in its native land in 2003, a year before SHAUN.) A gravel-voiced, gun-wielding man (Mungo McKay) comes to the rescue, but in the end it is our beauty queen who rises to the occasion and proves herself to be the true survivor. Along the way, our characters find that their town has been completely surrounded by vast, unscalable wall, completely isolating them from the rest of the world; there is a mysterious rain that causes some unknown changes into the people it touches, after which they a levitated above the town, where they hang suspended in a coma; and just to top things off, some aliens show up….
Obviously, this is not just another low-budget Romero knock-off. The acknowledged intention of the writing-directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig was to craft a film in the manner of Peter Jackson’s early, outrageous gorefests, BAD TASTE and BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. DEAD/ALIVE), two films that pushed carnage well past the limits set by George Romero in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985), but which adopted a hyper-kinetic cartoon aesthetic more in keeping with Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II. Into this mix, the Spierig Brothers add a healthy doze of John Woo-style action antics: having the hero dive in slow motion while firing guns, two-handed, at the advancing zombies; or, in a wonderfully over-the-top moment, performing a 180-degree leap into the air, embedding his spurs into the top of a door frame, and firing while suspended upside down. With action like this, the film clearly is not interested in believability; it’s a movie-movie that works as a showcase for bravura excesses of action and gore that are meant to yield laughs more than screams.
Yet, somehow, it manages to avoid losing all credibility. The result is both frightening and funny — a combination of humor and horror somewhat similar to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, although the script and characterizations for UNDEAD are, frankly, not quite up to the caliber of that film. Mason is fine as our heroine, but McKay’s gravel-voice Clint Eastwood impersonation yields a one-note performance that feels fake. The rest of the cast strive to delineate their characters, but they are undermined by a script that forces them to play narrowly defined caricatures (e.g. the over-bearing, authoritative police officer and his insecure junior partner).
In particular, the film stumbles in its attempts to build dramatic tension among the supporting cast. Early on, when the characters are forced to take shelter in an underground lock-up, they begin pointlessly yelling at each other, instead of trying to figure out what they need to do. The effect is forced: it’s the script telling them to tear into each other, without really justifying their reactions, and the performers fall into the trap of trying to goose-up the weak writing by throwing themselves into it full-bore. Fortunately, these missteps are balanced by the nicely-staged action, which elevate the film a level above the usual low-budget zombie-spoof. There is also some well-done prosthetics, including the de rigueur gore expected in this sort of film.
On top of that, there are numerous, impressive computer-generated special effects that provide a larger sense of scale (such as when a small airplane weaves in and out of the levitating bodies floating over town). In the end, UNDEAD is not as sophisticated as the Romero DEAD films, nor as sinister as 28 DAYS LATER, nor as witty and clever as SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but it does not intend to be. The aesthetic here is “cult film” all the way, and on that level the Spierig Brothers succeed, creating mindless movie entertainment that works at least as well as Hollywood popcorn movies like RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. UNDEAD is the ultimate, ultra-cool, gun-smoking, brain-splattering zombie-action-comedy-gore-flick.
UNDEAD (2003). Written and directed by Michael & Peter Spierig. Cast: Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dick Hunter, Emma Randall