Director: Jeff Leiberman
Shriek Show/Media Blasters

The talented director Jeff Lieberman entered the horror arena in the 1970s with the acclaimed thrillers SQUIRM (1976) and BLUE SUNSHINE (1977), both having a unique style of their own. For his next theatrical film, 1981’s JUST BEFORE DAWN, the director delivered his twist on the slasher epics that where so popular around the time, borrowing a bit from DELIVERANCE (1972), creating well-thought out characters, and placing it in natural wilderness setting which would work much to its advantage. Longtime buffs of JUST BEFORE DAWN should be pleased with Shriek Show’s special edition, which is spread across not one but two discs.

Deep in the woods of Silverton, Oregon (the actual shooting location) two hunters, Ty (Mike Kellin) and Vachel (Charles Bartlett), stumble across an old abandoned church in the middle of nowhere. When Ty, the older of the two, glances up at a hole in the ceiling, he thinks he sees a very large man. When going outside to investigate, his truck rolls down a hill, smashes into a tree and goes on fire. Back inside, Vachel comes face to face with the mountainous being, who machetes the stunned onlooker right through the crotch.

Ty attempts to warn a camper containing five young persons of the dangers up ahead, but they just view him as nothing more than a delusional drunk. They are driving to Camp Monajango, the area newly inherited by Warren (Gregg Henry), who is accompanied by girlfriend Constance (Deborah Benson), Jonathan (Chris Lemmon), Jonathan's girlfriend Megan (Jamie Rose) and Jonathan's brother Daniel (Ralph Seymour). Even the local Ranger, Roy McLean (George Kennedy) tries to warn them, but he can’t force them to turn around, so they move on, even lying to him about their destination so they won’t be bothered. As they settle on a campsite, unusual occurrences happen from the darkness of the deep forest around them, including a family of hillbillies who want the loud tourists out of the land, and the visitaion of the behemoth of a man (John Hunsaker) -- a murdering, child-like lurker who is actually twins!

With JUST BEFORE DAWN, Lieberman mounts another unconventional genre flick that is not typical of other slash-and-dash efforts from the late 70s and early 80s. The film does not sink into “body count” territory, but is rather taut thriller that takes time to develop its central characters and unleash the identical stalkers who are not only frightening because of their size and mutated appearance, but also because of how they kill on animalistic instinct, collecting an item from each of their victims. Minimal on gore effects and purposely void of excessive music on the soundtrack, the film is far from perfect and not nearly as successful as SQUIRM and JUST BEFORE DAWN, but still can deliver the scares and has the stylish traits that make Lieberman one of the most distinctive directors in the genre, someone who really knows what he wants to project on the big screen (the conclusion embodies one of the most original death scenes in a horror film). The cast of main young actors do a good job, with Lemmon (the son of the legendary Jack Lemmon) being the somewhat comical one, Henry (an actor often associated with Brian DePalma) being the leader later in denial of the loss of his friends, Rose adding the sex appeal (and doing a topless scene), and Benson being the good girl but slowly transforming herself before it’s all over. Veteran actor Kennedy is his usual reliable self in a role that doesn’t demand much, and Hunsaker is a mammoth menace for certain, and a great physical choice for the role.

Shriek Show’s DVD of JUST BEFORE DAWN is a mixed affair that will please some (mainly because of the wonderful supplements) and annoy others. Reportedly a pristine source print was impossible to find, yet the 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer is still pretty decent. Colors look stable for the most part, but there are traces of them being washed out in several scenes. Some grain, lines and other blemishes pop up from time to time, especially during reel changes. The audio gives an option of the original mono and a new 5.1 track: dialog sounds a bit low in spots, but overall it gets the job done. There was apparently no rights problem leaving Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” on the soundtrack, but the print is missing some gore that was included in the old Paragon VHS tape, as well as Platinum’s unauthorized discount DVD release. The missing gore is during actor Charles Bartlett’s machete attack, early on in the film.

Moving on to the extras, director Lieberman provides a running commentary, and like his talks on the DVDs of SQUIRM and BLUE SUNSHINE, it’s a great listen. He starts by stating that the co-writer – Gregg Irving – is actually his own pseudonym. There are great stories about the actors, including the shooting of Jamie Rose’s nude scene and an army of onlookers, how George Kennedy had in his contract that he wasn’t to be seen getting on his horse, and that Ralph Seymour was actually hit in the face with the camera hanging around his neck during a scene when his character was attacked. Lieberman also explores what works and doesn’t work in the film, explains some of the characters’ motives, reveals that they actually built the church from scratch, and states he had never seen THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or THE HILLS HAVE EYES – two films that JUST BEFORE DAWN has been accused of aping. Lieberman was obviously more influenced by DELIVERANCE and Ingmar Bergman than the current trends in horror films at the time.

Moving on to the second disc is an extraordinary 1 hour+ featurette entitled, “JUST BEFORE DAWN: Lions, Tigers and Inbred Twins.” It contains interviews with Lieberman (who tells some anecdotes, some not in the commentary, and likens horror movies to rock and roll), co-screenwriter Mark Arywitz (who describes some of the original script, which was later changed), actors Chris Lemmon (who tells how he nearly got killed during a waterfall scene), Jamie Rose (looking more beautiful than ever) John Hunsaker (a seemingly gentle giant with a grand sense of humor), producer David Sheldon (whose tales about the film’s casting of the monstrous twins and the expense of the film’s “rope bridge” are a highlight) and composer Brad Fiedel (who later hit it real big with TERMINATOR 1 & 2). Also included on Disc 2 is a photo gallery featuring production stills and behind-the-scenes shots, two original trailers for the film, and trailers for other Media Blasters releases. (George R. Reis)