The Spierig Brothers' Daybreakers might be considered the sequel to I Am Legend--I mean Richard Matherson's short novel, not the terrible Will Smith ego trip directed by Francis Lawrence. In Matheson's vampire classic, everyman Robert Neville finds himself confronting a fully armed and organized vampire civilization--a touch too fascistic, perhaps, with little regard for judicial process or civil rights, but that's the flaw of all new societies (in Lawrence's dumbed-down version the best the digitized vampires can do by way of self-expression is a murderous glare and a guttural burp).
The Spierigs' movie might have taken place some twenty years after the events in Matheson's novel. They propose a fully working civilization arising from a humanity turned vampiric, one where the bloodsuckers outnumber the bloodsuckees at an increasingly unsustainable rate (political parallels to endangered tribes, shrinking rain forests, and dwindling supplies of oil are, I assume, intentional). Eventually blood stocks will run out, and civilized vampires will lose their human intelligence to turn into 'subsiders'--monstrously feral vampires with no reason or self-restraint (an effect unique to the Spierigs--can't recall any other work of vampire fiction, print or big screen, that mentions this). No one wants that, least of all Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), chief executive of Bromley Marks, a Big Pharma company that acts as both developer of possible blood substitutes and main world supplier of the genuine article (just imagine--a supersized combination of GlaxoSmithKline and McDonald's!). Bromley needs a blood substitute and/or a new source of human blood ASAP--his ears are already stretching into distinctly batlike points.
Perhaps the movie's best scenes are those that flesh out this topsy-turvy world. A vampire bum holds up a sign saying: “WILL WORK FOR BLOOD;” when he snaps and attacks an innocent bystander, police rush forward with long-poled clamps that close in on the neck and deliver vicious electric shocks. An all-night diner serves blooded coffee; when the staff admits that by law they can't sell coffee containing more than five percent blood, the customers leap over the counter and snatch at the blood bags hanging overhead. Loudspeakers mounted above streets and underpasses chime out the warning “one hour till sunrise;” cars shift to daytime driving mode, with blacked-out windows and exterior videocams that provide all-around visibility.
The Spierigs do their best to imagine what it would be like to live in a vampire society, but even this seemingly esoteric concept isn't all that original--Larry Cohen's “Return to Salem's Lot” (1987) presented a similar notion on a smaller scale, a community of vampires hiding out in New England. They sustain themselves by draining cattle, marrying off their immortal vampire children to each other, and teaching their young their version of American history (vampires came with the pilgrims on the Mayflower, and only want to lead a quietly prosperous and orderly life).
Cohen's film is underfunded and haphazardly directed, but it did have a sharp sense of humor and an even sharper sense of satire (the vampires resemble small-town Republicans--miniature fascists). The Spierigs take their material very seriously--too seriously--and have little sense of fun about the whole enterprise: the vampire police are your standard-issue stormtroopers, the subsiders your standard-issue men in monster suits. Instead of peppering their work with ideas, the Spierigs pepper it with loud and elaborate action sequences, at one point tossing in in a chase involving the vampire car in Daytime Driving Mode (how to incapacitate such a car? Shoot the cameras).
That's basically what's wrong with the picture--too much action, not enough explanation to flesh out its society. I don't mean a lecture; as Cohen demonstrates, one can take a largely expository tour and still enjoy the deadpan jokes along the way. Certainly an amount of implausibility is par for these pictures, but ask a few simple questions and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down--Bromley Mark's system of harvesting blood for example: humans are kept in gigantic warehouses, in a state of sleeping stasis, blood coursing from pipes in their necks. You'd think a huge corporation like that would be familiar with the idea of sustainable harvesting--breeding the humans and then just harvesting enough to meet demand, but no; we want to act like oil companies, and keep on pumping with little thought of the future.
Worst of all, the filmmaking is decidedly on the Michael Bay side: instead of allowing the vampires to creep up and play on our terror of the undead, the Spierigs fling them on us in giant fanged close-ups (some of them look like they badly need a scaling session).
I'll say this much: the picture is superior to Chris Weitz's New Moon, the latest installment in the Twilight Saga where vampire males are pretty, sparkly beings that don't wash their hair for six weeks or more, and werewolves are basically Native American males with serious anger management issues--but that's not saying much. Neither come close to the two finest vampire flicks of recent years: Tomas Alfredson's bleak Let the Right One In (2008), about the friendship and tentative romance that blossoms between a twelve-year-old boy and a two-hundred-year-old vampire, and Park Chan-wook's Thirst (2009), a far bloodier depiction of a relationship cursed with vampirism. Weitz and the Spierigs operate on large Hollywood budgets, employing the latest in digital technology, and the result basically resembles something a werewolf might leave steaming on someone's doorstep; when filmmakers like Park and Alfredson have at it, the results are often more toothsome (if decidedly less family-friendly--the amount of red sprayed about in Park's movie would go a long way towards satisfying a global blood crisis). The difference, one might say, is instructive.
First published in Businessworld, 1.14.10