Blu-ray Review: Just Before Dawn (1981, Dir. Jeff Lieberman)

Just Before Dawn Blu-ray Review 1981

I learned of this movie decades ago, thanks to Fangoria, but never went out of my way to see it. There are a lot of movies like this, but as one gets older, tastes and interests change. It was a few years ago when I suddenly began getting this urge to watch it. I put it on my Amazon wishlist, and a few months later, I bought the 2-disc Media Blasters DVD. I became an instant fan of Just Before Dawn upon first viewing.

Directed by Jeff Lieberman (Squirm, Blue Sunshine, Remote Control), Just Before Dawn is about five kids, brothers Jonathon (Chris Lemmon, Jack Lemmon’s son) and Daniel (Ralph Seymour), Jon’s girlfriend Megan (Jamie Rose), Warren (Gregg Henry), and his girlfriend Connie (Deborah Benson). They’re all heading into the mountains for a vacation and to assess the property Warren was left in a will.

(Warning!! Proceed with caution! Spoilers lurk in these woods!)

Park Ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy) is the first person they meet, and he tries to dissuade them from going any further. He can tell at first glance these are inexperienced kids who know nothing of how lethal the wilderness can be. They ignore his warnings and head on up.

Back in the prologue, we get a little taste of what’s in store for them when a hulking, inbred, psychotic sets upon two local hunters who are checking out this abandoned church. One of them gets a machete shoved straigh through his crotch.

The second person the kids come upon is the survivor of this attack and he wants to come along, to get as far away from his current position as he can but the kids won’t allow it. This ends up being okay with him in when he spots that hulking inbred leaping onto the back of their RV as it drives away.

The kids are picked off one by one by not one of these inbreeds, but two — they’re twins! What makes this movie unique is Lieberman didn’t want to go the usual gore route his predecessors had taken when tackling this same kind of material. This isn’t a gory movie by any means, but its still a nice and creepy excursion into rural horror, with a group of characters that are genuinely likable. Sometimes these movies can live and die based on how well the viewer can sympathize with the “victims.” If you get a bunch of douchebags for kids, it’s near to impossible to route for their survival.

The ending demise of one of the inbred twins also sets this movie apart from others of its ilk, in which Connie suffocates him by shoving a good chunk of her arm down his throat. I also suspect the filmmakers of Feast (2007) were inspired by that ending, as Krista Allen kills one of the monsters at the end of that movie in the same fashion.

Just Before Dawn was previously released in 2005 in a 2-disc set from Media Blasters. It came with a director commentary and a 67-minute documentary. Now cult classic distributor, Code Red, was able to acquire it and they have decided to venture into the blu-ray business for the first time with this movie and Voices From Beyond (1991). While they weren’t able to port over the doc or the commentary, you do get the benefit of finally seeing this cult classic remastered and it looks absolutely gorgeous.

The back of the blu-ray says it’s ‘FIRST TIME! ORIGINAL UNCUT VERSION…” but I’m not sure where that uncut footage is. The only thing I saw that could be construed as “different” was the camera holding a little bit longer on the end of the machete after that hunter in the beginning gets it rammed through his junk. His hand tries to grab it for a split second, as it gets pulled back out but that’s only a nanosecond of difference I noticed from Media Blasters’ version.

The “EXTENDED CUT for overseas distribution” was a bit of a revelation, and quite a positive one. There’s 11 minutes of restored footage, and I have to say, I personally find this cut better. A majority of the cuts were done to scenes where the kids were all together. What was cut was basically “character development,” and the scene that was cut the most is one in which the characters are dancing around to music before that “old mountain man” shoots their boom box. There was dialogue cut at the head of that scene, in the middle and at the end. With it restored we now learn why Chris Lemmon’s character was being such a killjoy when his girl started dancing.

The main problem with this cut, however, is the transfer. Like the US remastered one it’s also in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but it sports a lot of print damage. Despite that it’s surprising watchable and I kind of liked it. Even non-remastered films have a certain look about them that, namely, harkens back to a bygone era of VHS and late night cable airings.

The region coding on this release is 0; Audio is Mono (English only); there are no subtitles; theatrical trailer is the only extra. Code Red is only pressing 2-3,000 of this title, so grab it while you can. Go here to order from them:

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