The American film and television landscape may have exhausted its share of vampire slayer stories, clearing a path for refreshing twists on the subgenre to tread. Enter the new AMC+ series “Firebite,” which shakes up the mythology by setting its yarn in the Outback. It introduces fans of Blade, Buffy, and even Abraham Lincoln, to Tyson (Rob Collins) and Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), two Indigenous hunters on a quest to eradicate the last outpost of vampires in the middle of their south Australian desert town. The series’ originality stems primarily from its backdrop and the barbarous colonial past that informs it — although “Firebite” isn’t a history lesson as much as a celebration of Aboriginal agency, telling an entertaining story of a human battle against literal bloodsucking parasites, in a biting take on manifest destiny.
Co-creators Warwick Thornton and Brendan Fletcher reimagine the arrival of the “First Fleet” on Australia’s shores in 1788, marking the start of British colonization — what Aboriginals refer to as “Invasion Day.” Local stories abound about the diseases (notably smallpox) they brought with them and weaponized against the Aboriginal population. For stateside audiences, it isn’t dissimilar from America’s history of atrocities committed by non-Indigenous people against Native Americans, with ramifications the country continues to wrestle with today.
But “Firebite” isn’t a relitigation of Australia’s colonial past, or reconciliation with the present. Instead, the series upends Australian history, replacing vials of smallpox with vampires who became addicted to Aboriginal blood and never left. A war between blood suckers and trained vampire slayers — “blood hunters” — has raged ever since.
The plot is set in motion when the last surviving centuries-old vampire surfaces in a remote town at “the edge of the planet,” where an abandoned network of mines lies beneath a surface covered with crater-like holes that serve as passageways. Called the King and played by a steely-eyed Callan Mulvey, he is determined to expand the only remaining vampire colony and raise the blood suckers from out of their subterranean hiding place. In his way are a couple of Blackfellas (an informal term Aboriginal Australians use to refer to themselves): the charmingly reckless Tyson and his adopted teen daughter Shanika, a toughie who soaks up Tyson’s lessons on how to hunt and kill.
They are called blood hunters, but our heroes are effectively Indigenous trackers, recalling early Aboriginal trackers used by colonizers to hunt criminals and find the missing, in an overarching conflict over whose law shall govern the land. The late David Gulpilil (who passed away November 29) starred in Rolf de Heer’s “The Tracker” (2002) — perhaps the most accessible screen depiction of Indigenous trackers — in a story about a guide assigned to help three white men hunt a fugitive. There are even parallels to be drawn to “slave catchers” of the American South who relied on Black “trackers” to assist in snuffing out runaways, as exemplified in Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad.”
But “Firebite” isn’t anywhere as discomforting in the analogs it does make. Its tempo is rapid, dropping the viewer into the story in media res and providing just enough information to set up its characters and what’s at stake. And by the end of the second episode, several key plot elements are introduced: an old, curmudgeonly blood hunter, also the last of his kind, who has a history with Tyson and is on King’s trail; what’s happening in the South Australian desert has already taken place across Africa, Asia, and other territories that were once European colonies; there are inbetweeners called bleeders — human beings kept alive underground for vampires to feed; the mysterious whereabouts of Shanika’s mother; and, with King’s arrival, a coming war.
Shanika’s relationship with Tyson provides the series its emotional center. He’s the rascally boy in a man’s body, who clearly cares for her, but may have a curious way of demonstrating it; she’s the mature one, even though she occasionally calls him a dickhead and kicks him in the nuts. Together, they’re all about the “hero’s life” as he refers to it, gleefully hunting together.
The series owes nothing to “Mad Max,” but “Firebite” is set in a similar kind of barren, sunbaked wasteland — a wacky, fantastical Outback reality. What better than a familiar father-daughter bonding story to ground a revisionist history tale wrapped up in vampire lore?
Ultimately, it’s a good old-fashioned vampire hunting romp. The vampires are standard issue fang-bearers, and neck bites are depicted in gory, flesh-ripping detail. Still, only the most squeamish are likely to be bothered by the messy noshing.
Reductively, in terms of tone, it’s more “Buffy” than “Blade,” although not as campy and with a weighty historical undercurrent. It’s a satisfactory melding of horror, comedy, teen angst, and family drama, with adequate visual effects, co-starring a complex female lead who navigates the series’ universe in a way that subverts the patriarchy. She takes on all comers, including a daytime foil, the mandatory school bully whose racist jokes are par for the course.
Meanwhile, rowdy Tyson isn’t particularly loved by the townsfolk, despite the effort he puts into protecting them from bloodsuckers. But he’s unfazed by their disdain, convinced that he’s serving a higher cause. Together, father and daughter are evidently social outcasts; at least as written in the first three episodes (out of eight) that AMC+ made available to the press, which end with a cliffhanger.
“Firebite” takes itself just seriously enough to pull off its balance of historical record, suspense, and laughs. Knowledge of Australia’s colonial past isn’t necessary to appreciate the series, although even a basic understanding of the nature of imperialism might enhance the experience. That said, there’s enough early momentum supported by convincing performances, chemistry between the two leads, a setting that is its own character, vampire encounters, and general whoopee vibrations that indicate how much fun co-creators Thornton and Fletcher likely had in making it. It’s palpable and contagious. Let’s hope it doesn’t later betray the promise it kicks off with.
“Firebite” premieres December 16 on AMC+. The eight-episode first season will roll out new episodes every Thursday.