It is 2019. A plague has transformed most of the world's population into vampires. The human population has plummeted and the need for blood becomes desperate. Vampires deprived of blood for long durations degenerate into "subsiders," psychotic bat-like creatures with no memories of who they were and whose only thought is the craving for blood. The few remaining humans are captured and harvested in laboratory farms while scientists research a synthetic blood substitute.
Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is the head hematologist for the largest supplier of human blood in the US. He and colleague Christopher Caruso (Vince Colosimo) are developing a blood substitute.
Driving home from a failed experiment, Dalton accidentally runs another vehicle off the road. Checking on the occupants of the other vehicle, he learns they are humans. With the police approaching, Dalton has them hide in his vehicle. They part ways, but not before their leader, Audrey (Claudia Karvan), learns Edward's name and occupation from the ID badge on his jacket.
At home, Edward is surprised by his estranged brother Frankie (Michael Dorman). Frankie's gift of a bottle of pure human blood re-ignites a long-standing argument over Edward's sympathies towards humans. The argument is cut short when a subsider invades Edward's house, forcing the brothers to kill it.
The next morning, Audrey visits Edward's home and hands him a note with instructions for a meeting. During the meeting, Dalton is introduced to Lionel "Elvis" Cormac (Willem Dafoe), another human, but is interrupted when a military team arrives with Frankie, who had followed Edward and intends to capture both Cormac and Audrey, however, Audrey manages to knock Frankie unconscious and the three flee. Once they escape, Cormac reveals that he was once a vampire. He was cured when a car crash ejected him from his sun-proof vehicle. Because of his exposure to the sun, Elvis burst into flames, but his life was saved when he landed in the river, having been exposed to the sun for a precise length of time to turn him human again. Dalton agrees to help Cormac find a way to recreate the cure.
That night Edward meets more human survivors, as well as Senator Turner (Jay Laga'aia), a vampire who is secretly helping the colony develop a cure. A convoy of humans heading to Audrey's group is ambushed and captured. The soldiers track the position of the vineyard, forcing Turner and the humans to flee. Audrey, Cormac and Edward stay behind so Edward can be cured. Edward is able to recreate the cure Elvis had explained, curing himself of vampirism. They attempt to regroup with Turner and the other humans, only to find they are all dead.
One of the captured convoy, Alison (Isabel Lucas), is revealed to be Charles' human daughter. Charles has Frankie forcibly turn her into a vampire. She refuses to drink human blood, and turns into a subsider. She is rounded up with others and dragged into sunlight to burn to death. Witnessing Alison's death upsets Frankie, causing him to seek out his brother. Meanwhile the military imposes martial law to control the subsider population and preserve order.
Edward, Cormac and Audrey break into Christopher's home and ask him to help spread the cure. However, Christopher has finally discovered a viable blood substitute and is not interested in a cure. He summons soldiers who capture Audrey while Cormac and Edward escape. They are found by Frankie, who agrees to help. He attacks Cormac, but drinking his blood turns Frankie human again as feeding on a cured vampire also turns them into humans.
Edward, trying to save Audrey, turns himself in to Charles. After listening to his plans of creating a monopoly with the blood substitute, Edward taunts Charles who becomes human again after biting the cured Edward.
Edward leaves Charles at the mercy of soldiers about to become subsiders. Edward and Audrey are rescued when Frankie allows the troops to drink his blood which sparks a feeding frenzy. Christopher arrives, seeking to cover up the cure by executing both Edward and Audrey; however, he is mortally wounded when Cormac shoots him with a crossbow.
The three survivors drive off into the sunrise, with Edward in a voice-over stating that they have a cure and can change others back.Ethan Hawke as Edward Dalton. He is a 35-year-old vampire hematologist who was turned by his brother Frankie, and started working for the newly formed Bromley Marks to work on a blood substitute. He shows sympathy for the humans, since he refused to be turned at the start of the plague, and refuses to drink human blood, instead relying on animal blood. He volunteers for the project to be turned back into a human and leads a revolution to return the human race back.
Willem Dafoe as Lionel "Elvis" Cormac. A former professional mechanic, he was one of the first in the city to create UV protection and special mounted cameras for driving during daytime. One time, while driving during the daytime, he was exhausted from not drinking blood, which caused him to be distracted, and crash his black 1957 Chevy Bel Air into a fence, ejecting him into the sunshine; Elvis was set in flames, but his life was saved when he fell into the water, turning him back human due to the precise exposure to the sun. He was found by Audrey.
Sam Neill as Charles Bromley. The ruthless owner of Bromley Marks, the largest provider of blood in the U.S. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, before the plague, and given only few years to live, upsetting him and his daughter, whom he loved and wanted to live forever. He turned into a vampire to cure himself and wanted to live forever with his daughter, who left him. He has no interest becoming human again, since he wants to use the substitute to become the richest man alive and for all eternity.
Claudia Karvan as Audrey Bennett. A young woman who was educating at college during the plague. She hid on her old family vineyard, and refusing to become a vampire, she gathered humans and sheltered them. She also found the already cured Elvis and sheltered him. They lead the group to try to find other survivors.
Michael Dorman as Frankie Dalton. Edward's estranged younger brother, who turned his brother into a vampire since he was afraid of losing him. Frankie has an epiphany after turning back into a human and wants to help, but is later killed while trying to help his brother.
Isabel Lucas as Alison Bromley. Charles' estranged daughter, forcibly turned into a vampire by Frankie. She rejected her father and turned into a subsider after drinking her own blood. Her death caused Frankie to have an epiphany and change sides.
Vince Colosimo as Christopher Caruso. He was a hematologist and was Edward's partner at Bromley Marks although much less ambitious than him. He discovered a blood substitute, and because of this, refused to be human again as the substitute would make him a powerful and wealthy vampire.
Jay Laga'aia as Senator Wes Turner. Another vampire who secretly harbors sympathies with humans and wants to help the human race.
In November 2004, Lionsgate acquired the script to Daybreakers, written by Peter and Michael Spierig. The brothers, who directed Undead (2003), were attached to direct Daybreakers. In September 2006, the brothers received financing from Film Finance Corporation Australia, with production set to take place in Queensland. In May 2007, actor Ethan Hawke was cast into the lead role. Later in the month, actor Sam Neill joined the cast as the main antagonist. Daybreakers began filming on the Gold Coast at Warner Bros. Movie World studios and in Brisbane on 16 July 2007. The production budget was $US21 million, with the State Government contributing $US1 million to the filmmakers. Principal photography was completed on schedule in September 2007, with reshoots following to extend key sequences.
Weta Workshop created the creature effects for Daybreakers. The Spierig brothers wanted the vampires in the film to have a classical aesthetic to them while feeling like a more contemporary interpretation. After experimenting with complex makeup designs, they decided that a more minimalistic approach to makeup had a more powerful effect.
Hawke was initially hesitant to join the production as he was "not a big fan" of genre films. He ultimately accepted the role as Edward after deciding the story felt "different" from that of a typical B movie. Hawke described the film as an allegory of man's pacing with natural resources, "We're eating our own resources so people are trying to come up with blood substitutes, trying to get us off of foreign humans." The actor also said that despite the serious allegory, the film was "low art" and "completely unpretentious and silly".
Daybreakers premiered on 11 September 2009 at the 34th Annual Toronto International Film Festival. The film was released on 6 January 2010 in the UK and Ireland, 8 January 2010 in North America, and 4 February 2010 in Australia.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 67% rating based on reviews from 141 critics, with the site's consensus stating: "Though it arrives during an unfortunate glut of vampire movies, Daybreakers offers enough dark sci-fi thrills -- and enough of a unique twist on the genre -- to satisfy filmgoers." As well as a weighted average score of 57 out of 100 on Metacritic (indicating "mixed or average reviews") based on 31 reviews.
Variety gave the film a mixed review stating the film had a "cold, steely blue, black and gray 'Matrix'-y look" going on to say Daybreakers "emerges as a competent but routine chase thriller that lacks attention-getting dialogue, unique characters or memorable setpieces that might make it a genre keeper rather than a polished time-filler." Rolling Stone gave the film two and a half out of four stars and called the film a B movie and a "nifty genre piece". Roger Ebert also gave the film two and a half stars stating the "intriguing premise ... ends as so many movies do these days, with fierce fights and bloodshed." Richard Roeper gave the film a B+ and called it "a bloody good time."
As of October 2010, the box gross was US$51,416,464. In its opening weekend in the United States, Daybreakers opened at #4 behind Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel with $15,146,692 in 2,523 theaters, averaging $6,003 per theater.
Daybreakers was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the United States on 11 May 2010 and in the United Kingdom on 31 May 2010. The UK DVD copy was rated as an 18 instead of the original 15 rating that was used for cinema release. A 3D Blu-ray version of the film was released in November 2011.