Two things I am sick of in horror: 1. Found footage films and 2. Zombies. The shambling corpse of the zombie film has been milked to death over the last ten years starting with 28 Days Later and up to now where we somehow have romantic zombies in Warm Bodies. Every couple of years though amongst the legion of zombie films that make up roughly 65% of the year’s horror releases, a couple will shine through and do something original. Last year it was Cockney’s Vs. Zombies and Juan of the Dead, which whilst not revolutionising the sub-genre, had a fresh approach which made them better than they should have been. Now the first film in 2013 which does something, whilst not entirely new at least refreshing with the zombie is Before Dawn.
Starting with what looks like the set up for a Northern kitchen sink drama, we meet Alex (director Dominic Brunt) and his wife Meg (Joanne Mitchell). This couple has been drifting apart through Alex’s unemployment and Meg’s workaholic behaviour. The opening scene tells us all we need to know about their relationship and the two of them leave their two children with Meg’s mother and go away to a remote house in the countryside in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. When they get to the house, Alex’s attempts to rekindle the romance with Meg don’t go well and end in a drunken binge. Meg goes running the next morning and is chased by a blood dribbling, angry and running freak. She barely makes it back to the house and the two of them learn that the end of times is happening outside and they are cut off from the rest of the world. One of them gets bitten, a stranger turns up and they can’t get in touch with their family back home.
Anyone who has seen 28 Days Later will be familiar with the aesthetic approach that Brunt employs. Shot on digital, Before Dawn looks super cheap and was made for peanuts. After the initial introduction the film remains in one location but your interest never flags once the premise is established and the peril defined. The key to this are the performances from Brunt and Mitchell who are believable as the kind of couple we all know, heading towards the wrong side of 40 whose working lives (or lack of) and responsibilities have taken the wind out of their sails. Their dialogue and descriptions of what is going on back in the real world outside of the house lend their plight an authentic air so that when the zombies descend you are invested and care about what is going to happen. You can usually predict where a film of this type is going to go and who will die first and last etc. Here though it’s completely unexpected as to what and who gets it and when. This means that when the death and mayhem does occur it’s actually quite surprising and the last 30 minutes or so are reminiscent of Evil Dead 1&2 which is a series that is homaged and referenced all too seldom these days. Before Dawn is one of the bleakest and most hopeless feeling films of recent times which might not endear it to the Friday night crowd but it is refreshing when most things featuring the undead go for easy laughs at the moment.
Despite the refreshing approach and authentic air to much of the characterisation, Before Dawn is a deeply flawed film. Something that holds it back is its cheapness which although Brunt makes the most of not having any money, there is one too many slipping out of focus shots near the beginning and strange edits to let you believe this was a stylistic choice. The other issue is its zombies and how Brunt chooses to shoot them. When they initially show up as Meg goes on a run around in the countryside, the cameraman decides to shake the camera about like he is at a rave or something which doesn’t allow us a good look at the presumably bad make up on the zombie. This choice clearly harkens back to Danny Boyle’s 2002 film again when it should have been more concerned with forging its own style and identity. Another problem is that during some zombie carnage around the middle of the film, the scenes seem a little ill-judged in terms of pacing and length. A scene involving a zombie in the garage and the subsequent run around a car to avoid and kill the thing seems to go on for ages and I half expected the Benny Hill music to kick in but instead we get some poor zombie growling which seems to be played on a loop. It’s a real shame that these elements sabotage the rest of the film because the final act is especially powerful and affecting and will haunt you for days.
Before Dawn is no classic but it’s a good example of low-budget British horror taken seriously and that the straight-faced approach still has value in these days of endless tongue in cheek horror.