Review: Before Dawn /Cert: 18 /Director: Dominic Brunt / Screenplay: Mark Illis / Starring: Dominic Brunt, Joanne Mitchell, Eileen O’Brien, Nicky Evans / Release Date: February 25th
Self-confessed horror movie junkie Dominic Brunt, best known to British TV audiences as unlucky-in-love vet Paddy Kirk in Emmerdale, won’t be registering too highly on the radars of most Starburst readers – yet – and certainly his usual blue rinse fanbase would be mortified to see that nice Paddy chopping his way through a zombie apocalypse. But what we have here is another extraordinarily accomplished low-budget British horror movie which, against all reasonable expectations, is directed with real flair and urgency and a pinpoint understanding of how to depict real horror in a recognisable environment.
This is a tiny and intimate story, the end of the world writ small as troubled young couple Alex (Brunt) and Meg (Mitchell, Dominic Brunt’s real-life wife) leave their two young kids in the care of Meg’s mother before heading for the hills for a healing countryside weekend. But the couple can’t see beyond their own insecurities, and an awkward night just emphasises the gulf between them – he's a dreamer and a drinker, recently out of work, she’s an ambitious high-flyer. Then Meg sets off for a before dawn (of the dead?) country run, whereupon she's attacked by a ferocious, blood-drenched creature – with disastrous consequences when she finally manages to flee back to the couple’s holiday home. Before long Alex has to deal with horrors he can’t even begin to understand, and the arrival of a refugee from what’s left of the outside world only serves to make a bad situation a damn sight worse.
Before Dawn puts the fear factor back into the zombie. God knows we’re all used to the shuffling, groaning hordes which populate the tiresome grind of zombie titles out there and we’re surely all a bit bored with the reanimated undead by now. But the zombies of Before Dawn are ferocious, snarling rage machines – feral, rabid animals in human form. In one heart-in-mouth sequence Alex finds himself in a one-on-one struggle in an outhouse and Brunt’s camera ducks and dives, leaps and swerves, a pounding soundtrack accentuating the tirelessness of a monster which just won’t die, dragging Alex out from cover, and rising up to attack yet again even when it’s smashed in the head by a car jack. Brunt and writer Mark Illis instinctively know how to make zombies scary again and what seems like a convenient and unlikely story twist – the suggestion that once they’ve fed, the zombies ‘reset’ to their normal human state – only makes them even more monstrously unsettling. The last few minutes of Before Dawn are astonishingly powerful, bleakness taken to a whole new extreme and the end credits roll over a scene so hauntingly poignant you’ll most likely carry it with you for weeks.
Despite its minuscule budget, this is a stunningly assured piece of work characterised by a smart script, compellingly naturalistic performances from the two leads and Brunt’s confident, stylish direction which finds time for some gloriously subtle visual motifs. Before Dawn is film about people and relationships as much as it’s about zombies, and whilst there’s plenty of gore and viscera for the aficionado, there’s enough genuine human interest to guarantee that the time invested in these characters pays dividends in the final shattering few minutes. Haunting and yet beautiful, Before Dawn is a little modern masterpiece and possibly the most exciting British genre movie in a decade or more. Essential viewing.