31 Days of Halloween — Day 21: Just Before Dawn (1981) — by Dr. Shock

Just Before Dawn 1981

Editor’s note: Dave “Dr. Shock” Becker is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and the Land of the Creeps horror podcast. He is also the mastermind behind DVDInfatuation.com, a movie review blog where he is watching and posting one review every day until he reaches at least 2,500 movie reviews. Follow Doc on Twitter: @DVDinfatuation.

“While I admit it’s not perfect, I’m a fan of Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm, a horror flick about killer worms (that’s right, worms) attacking a small southern town. Whereas that 1976 film was his unique take on the monster movie genre, 1981’s Just Before Dawn is the writer / director’s stab (pun intended) at the slasher movie craze, which, thanks to Halloween and Friday the 13th, was growing in popularity at the time.

Five hikers: Warren (Gregg Henry) and his girlfriend Connie (Deborah Benson); Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) and Megan (Jamie Rose); and Jonathan’s brother Daniel (Ralph Seymour) head into a remote mountainous region of Oregon to scope out the landscape (Warren holds the deed to a few dozen acres of land in this area, though he’s never been there before).

Despite warnings from both the Park Ranger (George Kennedy) and a wayward hunter (Mike Kellin) who claims a “demon” killed his nephew on the mountain, the friends drive their RV deep into the woods, setting up camp next to a waterfall.

Sure enough, as the quintet gets caught up in their picturesque surroundings, they fail to notice someone is lurking nearby, and before long, the peace and serenity will give way to screams of terror.

With its tale of five careless friends who venture into the wilderness and come face-to-face with a machete-wielding behemoth, Just Before Dawn has a lot in common with movies like Friday the 13th and The Burning, putting this 1981 film squarely in slasher territory.

But there are elements of 1972’s Deliverance here as well, which Lieberman himself cited as his inspiration for the movie (along with its inbred-style killer, the leads have a run-in with a backwoods family that’s none too happy to have them around).

Whatever its influences might be, Just Before Dawn is a nifty little horror filck, with a good cast of characters, some eerie background music (provided by Brad Fiedel, who, in later years, would compose the scores for The Terminator and Terminator 2, among others), and a handful of well-executed scenes, starting with the opening sequence in which the hunter and his nephew (Charles Bartlett) are hanging out at an abandoned church, only to realize, much too late, that they’re not alone (the hunter looks up through a hole in the roof and sees someone peering down at him, a shot that Lieberman frames in such a way that it’ll surely send a chill down your spine).

Like the “monsters” in Squirm, this 1981 film is unusual in that it favors atmosphere and suspense over blood and guts, yet while this definitely sets it apart from the era’s mainstream slasher offerings, Just Before Dawn is a movie any fan of the genre will surely enjoy. Even without the gore, Just before Dawn delivers the goods.”

—Dr. Shock

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3 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 21: Just Before Dawn (1981) — by Dr. Shock

  1. 31 Days of Halloween day 20
    44. Burying the Ex (***) – Watchable but not a whole lot of reason to watch it. It does make me excited to see Nina Forever which has a similar concept but has to be at least 4 times better than this one.

  2. (Contains spoilers)

    Day 21 – The Final Girls (2015)

    The Final Girls was my most anticipated horror film of this October season. I’m a fan of horror comedies, I dig some of the actors, 80’s slashers have a soft spot in my black heart, and my eyes have enjoyed watching Nina Dobrev since her Degrassi days. I’m pleased to say that my high expectations were not only met, but exceeded. This movie is comparable to Knock Knock in that if you’re going into it ready to criticize things the movie did wrong or how aspects weren’t accurate, you’re missing the point. This is a fun parody about everything the fans loved and the professional critics hated about the 80’s slashers. This is not meant to shame or insult the slasher sub-genre. Just like The Cabin in the Woods, everything is done in jest. If anything, watching The Final Girls made me want to go back and watch some more 80’s slashers.

    Perhaps what surprised me the most about The Final Girls is that it actually connected to me some in an emotional aspect. Maybe it’s due to the recent deaths of Wes Craven or Roddy Piper, but I was left thinking a lot about what it must be to be a family member of a celebrity who had recently passed. What is it like to miss this person that while everyone knew, many loved, but so few actually knew like you did. In the movie, Max struggles with her mom’s cult like popularity, particularly when it comes to having to watch her mom be killed in a cheap 80’s slasher. For everyone else in the theater, it’s a fun experience, but for Max, it’s too difficult to watch. After Max is pulled into the movie, she’s able to be back with her mom, without her mom knowing who she is. The end is kind of tragic as Max is forced to say goodbye to her mother yet again as “Nancy” gets killed in the movie. There wasn’t any reason why that should have been an emotional scene, but it was for me. I’ll also give a shout out to Vickie when she grabbed Gertie’s hand when they were both trapped under the bookcase.

    Parody wise, there’s a lot to laugh at. The creators tried to add in jokes for every trope and slasher aspect that they could think of. Some of the more clever scenes involved text on the screen (Opening title, closing credits, years, ect) and the characters freaking out when the screen began to “Ooze” into the flashback that we’re so used to seeing. There’s a gag on the whole misogynistic style of the 80’s. Of course, there’s plenty of laughs to be had when it came to the correlation between taking off your clothes and the arrival of the killer.

    If there’s one clear difference that occurred in 80’s slashers that never seem to happen anymore, thus you don’t see it in this parody is the Crazy Ralph character. In so many of those 80’s slashers, you had a crazy character whose warnings were dismissed by the stupid teens. Ever since 1996, it’s been all about being self referential. The Randy Meeks of The Final Girls was Silicon Valley star, Thomas Middleditch, as Duncan. Just like Randy, Duncan is sadly all too relatable with his ultimate fandom over this horror series and the sheer delight he encounters when he’s able to see his beloved movie in action.

    If I did have a negative, it was the unclarity of the ending. They never explained what happened. What we know is that Duncan’s machete wounds transferred over to the real world. Yet, Vickie and Gertie didn’t seem to have the injuries that they should have had. They should have had some terrible third degree burns due to being stuck in that engulfed fiery room. Instead, Vickie and Gertie only has a couple of scratches and are otherwise just fine. Then there’s the fact that three of the five teens died inside of the movie, but they were alive once the film ended and we were back to the “Real world”. So, did dying in the movie actually matter? Did Vickie, Gertie, and Duncan only come back to life in the real world because Max was successful in her final girl of killing the killer to end the 80’s movie? It’s a mess trying to keep everything straight particularly when the “Real” world is then revealed to just be the sequel. What happens then? If there is a sequel, all of this could be cleared up though. Gun to my head, I wouldn’t expect a sequel.

    Overall, The Final Girls was a total blast. I laughed a lot, felt some emotion, and it made me want to watch more 80’s slashers. There’s a lot of highlights with Adam DeVine, the striptease by the character of Tina, all of the play on nostalgia, and the killer throwback soundtrack. As I said at the start of this, don’t go into this with a critical eye as it’s not meant to be a serious movie. As much as I doubt it will happen, I would love to see a sequel with Max, Chris, Vickie, Gertie, and Duncan experiencing the events of Camp Bloodbath 2: Cruel Summer.

    I’d give it a 9/10.

  3. Day 21: Motel Hell
    You have to buy-in to this over the top horror comedy but it’s worth it! There’s also a small part by a very young John Ratzenberger.

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