Title: Before Dawn
Director: Dominic Brunt
Starring: Dominic Brunt, Joanne Mitchell, Nick Evans
Released: 22nd February 2013 in cinemas, 25th February on DVD
RRP: £11.99 DVD
Alex and Meg's marriage is falling apart and so in order to have some quality time together away from the pressure of work and their young family, they have rented a charming little cottage in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. However unfortunately for them, this particular weekend it turns out that the world itself is falling apart too...
One of the great joys of being a film fan is discovering little gems from unexpected sources. Now the field of the low-budget zombie movie is often a barren one, with seemingly any man and his dog thinking that slapping his mates in grey-face make-up and having plenty of splattery headshots and gut-munching will replicate the magic of Romero or Fulci. However despite the never-ending torrent of walking dead quickies flooding the market, it's always lovely to find that the humble zombie flick can still surprise, and this is exactly what Before Dawn does.
However hailing from a crowded sub-genre, known for its often low quality output, isn't the most unexpected thing about this little British movie. For this little shocker was the brainchild of a husband and wife team who are very well known to British TV viewers. Jo Mitchell, who devised the story and stars, is a familiar face from her appearances in soaps Emmerdale and Doctors, plus hit series such as Holby City, A Touch of Frost and Waterloo Road; while director and star Dominic Brunt is instantly recognisable as he's been playing the avuncular vet Paddy on Emmerdale since 1997. Not the expected pedigree for a bloody slice of zombie mayhem, I think you'll agree.
No, don't run away! As it turns out, Dominic is a massive horror fan, and if you're doubting his credentials, during an interview when asked what kind of zombies feature in Before Dawn, his answer was 'Fast ones – like in Nightmare City!' Now if you know your zombie movies and/or Italian exploitation, a name check of Umberto Lenzi's bonkers 1980 gut-muncher is darn impressive. Furthermore with fellow Emmerdale star Mark Charnock, he organises an annual zombie film festival in Leeds, now in its sixth year. Yes, this is indeed a man who truly knows his zombie onions.
This deep love of the genre shows through in Before Dawn, and more importantly so does an acute understanding of what makes a successful zombie movie. Now from the above synopsis, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country cottage retreat is just a set-up for another re-staging of Night of the Living Dead, where a small group of survivors bicker while being besieged by the ravening dead. And indeed, in the case of the most low-budget zombie fare, this is exactly what it would be. However, in the hands of a director who knows what makes the walking dead tick, Before Dawn heads in a refreshingly different direction.
To begin with there's no zombie horde as is usual, instead we have only a handful of zombies. But in this movie, a lone animated cadaver is more of a menace than a thirty or so shambling, blue-faced extras. What the dead in Before Dawn lack in numbers they more than make for in sheer feral power. Now I know the concept of fast zombies bothers some folks, after all rotted horrors shouldn't be able to sprint. But as in this story the zombie outbreak is just beginning, I don't have a problem with the recently risen being somewhat energetic. More crucially, unlike other fast zombies we've seen in recent years, the dead in Before Dawn haven't learnt wirefu or how to climb up walls like decomposing Spider-men.
Instead they are vicious and violent beasts, going into a feeding frenzy when they sight a human. Whereas in many other flicks, the dead, fast or slow, rely on strength of numbers to be menacing, a single zombie in Before Dawn is a highly dangerous raging ball of violence. What the movie brings home is the sheer unstoppable nature of the hungry dead, making dealing with just one member of the infected a terrifying prospect. Yes, zombies are scary again in this little film!
However what Mitchell and Brunt also understand is that in the best movies in the genre, it’s not simply a matter of getting your portrayal of the zombies right, but making the threat actually mean something. If your characters are cardboard cut-outs when they fall beneath the zombies' bloody hands, it's often just funny. However if you have established them as real people, it's shocking and horrifying.
Interestingly the genesis of Before Dawn was a conversation between Mitchell and Brunt on what is often missing from horror film – with the conclusion being that often there is no proper flesh on the characters' bones and a lack of the real human emotion and drama that the traumas of a usual horror movie situation should invoke. And hence we have a very character-driven story here.
Now I must point out that the first act of the movie is very much a slow burn as we get to know Alex and Meg. And while some more impatient viewers may well start to wonder whether they are watching a kitchen sink drama instead of a zombie flick, rest assured that it all serves a purpose. Rather than having a large cast who are merely there as zombie chow, by focusing on a single couple, when the mayhem begins it carries a real dramatic weight.
Furthermore the real horror comes not so much from the world being overrun by zombies but from what the outbreak does to Alex and Meg. And when I say 'real horror', I do mean real blood and guts horror. But we're not just talking about the escalating carnage here, but the emotional gut-punches that come with it. This is a character-driven story, and hence where the characters end up is horrible on many more levels than just the physical. It is as bleak as it is brutal, culminating in a powerful climax that is as dramatic as it is bloody.
Before Dawn might be a very small scale view of a zombie holocaust but thanks to excellent writing, directing and performances, it succeeds in generating suspense and horror where many larger budget productions merely generate yawns. With a refreshingly well-rounded and different story to tell, it is a worthy addition to the zombie canon, a marvellous example of what well-crafted low-budget cinema can achieve. Already Brunt and Mitchell are putting together a second feature which they promise will be a dark and psychological revenge drama but with plenty of horror and even more blood.... I can't wait!