Just Before Dawn (1981)

JUST BEFORE DAWN is sort of like your run of the mill, early eighties killer in the woods flick except it’s not because it’s so fantastic and pretty. The set-up is as familiar as the sun and in my case, just as necessary. A camper filled with young folks in skimpy attire heads to the mountains blasting BLONDIE’s HEART OF GLASS. Various oldsters warn the group to scram if they value their lives and, thankfully for me, they truck on. Familiar ground rarely looks this good and there are enough idiosyncratic flourishes to insure that the viewer isn’t quite as sure they’ve seen this all before as they originally thought. Nobody wears a mask in JUST BEFORE DAWN because nobody needs to. Our killer here is often brazenly center stage; a lumbering, drooling hillbilly clown who’s not afraid of daylight or accessorizing with fluorescent orange. Scampering behind trees and fading into waterfalls, this grimacing goon is straight out of Looney Tunes territory. He’s a mountain of Elmer Fudd and he’s everywhere at once.

If you give me some GEORGE KENNEDY we’re good; you don’t need to supply me with anything more. JUST BEFORE DAWN though, insists upon stuffing my semi-celebrity swag bag to overflow with a highly agreeable cast. Constant DePALMA co- cohort GREGG HENRY is present in an early role, as is RALPH SEYMOUR (KILLER PARTY, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE), CHRIS LEMMON (WISHMASTER), JAMIE ROSE (PLAYROOM) and MIKE KELLIN of SLEEPAWAY CAMP fame. Final girl honors go to DEBORAH BENSON who learns the value of being proactive, wearing make-up and choking somebody with your fist in swift order. Her method of monster disposal may produce the oddest kill in slasher history (it’s almost an answer to Ash’s porn mag attack on Ripley in ALIEN) and there’s a nifty gender role switcheroo within the film’s denouement that lingers like the dying campfire smoke that frames it.

Most importantly, JBD has several stylin’ slash-happy set pieces that include but are not limited to: a suspenseful rope bridge standoff, a graveyard mix up involving a Velma-esque optical predicament, and a sexy underwater salute to THE HAUNTING’s “Whose hand was I holding?” routine. Plus have you ever seen a lady climb up a tree only to have a hillbilly chop down said tree with a machete? You should.

Director JEFF LIEBERMAN wears a diamond-studded king’s crown in my head because he not only made this baby but also the super fun SQUIRM and the phenomenal BLUE SUNSINE too. JUST BEFORE DAWN may not explode with originality in the story department and I thank it for that. Why build a brand new house when you can simply redecorate? The atmosphere is singular here and LIEBERMAN is almost working in black and white with green substituting as white and shocking orange stepping in for black. The simple but dramatic visuals married with the great BRAD (FRIGHT NIGHT) FIEDEL’s eerie, ominous score create an almost alien planet climate out of the Oregon woods in which this was filmed. I doubt everything intended was accomplished, several ideas feel dropped and left behind like burdensome backpacks but what we’re left is my cup of tea and then some. I wouldn’t complain if Mr. KENNEDY had more to do but I can’t begrudge the guy some well earned paid recreational horseback riding. If you like the woods and you like horror then this is the perfect place to be and if you dig humongous hillbillies with machetes, you’ll find JUST BEFORE DAWN the perfect time.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Apocalypsejunkie (@apocalypsejunkie)
9 years ago

I would love to have a piece of that score as my ring tone (that or Profondo rosso). On the DVD extras it was explained how they custom made that sound for the movie.
On a strange but true side note…yesterday, as my dentist had his *entire fist* in my mouth, I thought to myself, “Jesus, are we re-enacting that scene from Just Before Dawn?!?” 🙁

Amanda By Night
Amanda By Night (@amanda-by-night)
9 years ago

“Mountains can’t read!”

I love George Kennedy.

Piece of trivia: George was on Match Game when they had filmed this movie and he actually mentions it on the show! We have it on tape somewhere. We were trying to put together a horror Match Game set!

I agree with every word of this. JBD is excellent, and it doesn’t do anything new with the story (well, the fist thing shocked me), but it knows how to work inside the constraints. Very well done on all parts.

I love what you said about the killers not having masks. Kind of interesting. I’m really fascinated by The Unmasked.

cmcmcmcm (@cmcmcmcm)
9 years ago

Ok. I seriously can’t get over the “killer who’s not afraid to accessorize with fluorescent orange” angle. That is just too freaking good. That last screen grab is just hilarious.

I guess he just wanted to make sure he didn’t get pegged by some hunter while he was offing the scantily clad kids.

I’m gonna have to check this one out.

cmcmcmcm (@cmcmcmcm)
9 years ago

Oh – I meant the second to last grab….