Just Before Dawn (1981)
By: Devon B. on November 19, 2014 | Comments
Code Red | Region Free | 1.78:1, 1080p | English Doly True HD 2.0 | 103 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Starring: Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, George Kennedy
Screenplay: Mark L. Arywitz, Jeff Lieberman
Country: USA
It seems like I'm forever claiming to like slashers while in the midst of slamming whatever slasher I happened to see most recently. I'm not just pretending to like this subgenre in order to hang with the cool kids at Digital Retribution, and as proof of my genuine affection for movies where people get naked and drunk in between getting sliced and hacked I'd like to offer up my thoughts on Just Before Dawn.

The movie starts with a familiar premise: Five friends go camping in the mountains. It doesn't take long before they have some strange happenings, but the group soldier on. Despite one of them owning the land they're staying on, the friends meet up with some locals who pointedly recommend that they scadoot before they "raise the devil." They don't heed the warning, which is par for the course, and while they don't literally raise Satan they do end up wishing they'd got while the going was good.

Just Before Dawn is a well above average backwoods slasher with several ingredients that set it apart. The film has a deliberate pacing, which is usually a death knell for this sort of movie, but rather than becoming dull the movie builds up well to the inevitable slaughters. The better than expected acting helps maintain interest, and there are some very well done eerie moments. The forest setting creates a claustrophobic feel and the killer's wheezy laugh is also an effective tool to generate unease. The characters do some stupid things, which is commonplace in this genre, but they're not so terribly stupid as to be implausible, which is virtually unheard of in this genre. One character's actions may challenge my plausibility claim, but there are realistic reasons for why he may have behaved in that manner.

Director and co-writer (under a pseudonym) Jeff Liebermann also made Squirm, which explains the higher quality of this film, but he also made the abysmal Satan's Little Helper so he's not all class all the time. Just Before Dawn's not perfect, with some heavy handed moments, some ridiculous lumberjack tools and a dance sequence that's so awkward it's probably still a point of ridicule for the participants all these years later. There're some other wonderfully ludicrous elements like the killer's fluoro attire, and the film culminates with one of the most awesomely ridiculous kills this side of a Troma movie. A good survivor girl and Leslie Nielsen's sidekick George Kennedy give the film a bit more depth than it might've had otherwise, bamming Just Before Dawn up another notch.

I first saw Just Before Dawn as a fan edit that combined all the footage available in the various versions of the movie that have been released. I preferred the US version, now that it's uncut, but I did wonder while watching it why the movie was censored in the first place. There's some gratuitous nudity, but there's not a lot of gore. The only thing I can think is that a guy gets stabbed with a machete, but he appears to have been stabbed a bit lower than usual so that the blade is exiting out his asshole, and this potential rectal violation must've upset the censors. This disc also includes the 103 minute European version of the movie, so for people that just couldn't get enough, there's more.

More Deliverance than Friday the 13th, Just Before Dawn may not appeal to gorehounds but fans of ambient slashers should love it.
The Disc
Just Before Dawn's original aspect ratio was 1.85:1 so this Blu-ray is slightly cropped. The picture is a little on the soft side, grain can be heavy and there's occasional print damage so this isn't going to win transfer of the year. Aside from some infrequent macroblocking, though, this title looks far better than expected for this obscure gem. The sound is a solid representation of the film's original mix. The track won't test the system, but I never ask for more than the film's original audio uncompressed so this track was perfect for me. There is some distortion and hiss, but these flaws all seemed source based. The 103 minute version is MUCH rougher visually and the audio's lossless but not as clean, so this comparison piece gives a good idea of how much better the main presentation looks than previous versions. The disc is missing the extras from the previous DVD release and is almost barebones with only two of the film's trailers as bonus features. I suppose the European cut would count as an extra, but it's a shame that Code Red didn't license the commentary and retrospective documentary so that fans wouldn't need to hang on to their old DVDs after buying this Blu-ray.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
While it's not as good as Code Red's other backwoods feature Rituals, Just Before Dawn has enough individuality to it to make it an unheralded classic of the slasher subgenre. The film has some slasher clichés, but they would've been less clichéd back in 1980 when this movie was made, and it has plenty of unique things going for it. The disc is hurt by the missing extras, but I'm really pleased with the presentation of the film itself.
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