JustBeforeDawnA largely undistinguished slasher that owes its minor cult following to just ONE scene.  Said scene comes near the end of the film and lasts barely a minute—seems a pretty flimsy thing to base a cult on, but there it is.  Oh, and the music’s good too.

JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981) was the third film by the talented Jeff Lieberman, whose previous efforts included the wonderfully eccentric genre items SQUIRM and BLUE SUNSHINE.  This film isn’t in the same league, although Lieberman apparently gave it his all, substantially rewriting the original screenplay, entitled LAST RITUAL, by Mark Arywitz (Lieberman’s screenplay credit is the nom de plume “Gregg Irving”).  The film was part of the slasher boom of the late seventies-early eighties that followed in the wake of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th, and was shot, like many such films (see THE FINAL TERROR and BERSERKER) in the Oregon woods.  The budget was a reported $1.5 million, although I would have guessed about $1,450,000 less.

The cast, surprisingly enough, contains some notables: Chris Lemmon, son of Jack and a successful supporting player in TV (KNOTTS LANDING) and film (WISHMASTER); Gregg Henry, now a regular in Brian DePalma movies and a headliner of ‘06’s SLITHER; and George Kennedy, who was already a star of sorts and apparently used the JUST BEFORE DAWN shoot as an excuse for a family camping trip.

Five young folks travel to an isolated piece of land in the Oregon woods that one of them has inherited.  They’re met by a stand-offish sheriff who warns them to turn back.  Ignoring his warnings they continue on, and meet up with a drunken freak screaming about a demon loose in the woods.  Once again they ignore the babble and drive on…not realizing that a cretinous fat guy has climbed onto the top of their RV!

The five dweebs spend much of the next day tramping through woods and swimming in a water hole, where one of the gals feels something fondling her legs.  The others ignore her cries and continue on, forging across a rickety rope bridge—over which one of ‘em decides to climb back, and meets the cretinous fat guy who climbed onto the RV earlier.  The fatso is decidedly hostile, greeting the guy by gouging his hand with a machete and knocking him into the lake below.  When one of the gals comes back to look for him, the fat guy chases her into an old shack where he and his equally cretinous brother live.  Both, needless to say, have their way with her, and impale her photographer BF with a machete in a nearby graveyard.

Now just two of the five innocents remain to face the deadly duo.  Well, not quite: the sheriff from the beginning turns up and puts a bullet through the head of one of the two cretins, but this still leaves a lone nut, who mounts an all-out final attack on the surviving youths, a guy and a gal.  The guy is reduced to a blubbering coward but the gal finds an unexpected reservoir of strength, and fells her attacker in a decidedly novel manner…and it all occurs Just Before Dawn!

It’s hilarious listening to director Jeff Lieberman’s audio commentary on the recently released Shriek Show JBD DVD, as he desperately talks up this frankly shoddy product, invoking names like Bergman and Truffaut.  In reality the film is a bummer, with ultra-tacky film stock and cut rate visuals that are nearly always presented in wide shot.  Quite simply, the whole thing reeks of cheapness from the inside out.

As a slasher movie the film fails woefully, since it contains very little in the way of bloodletting (although I understand the Shriek Show DVD print has been shorn of several gore scenes) despite the fact that it rigorously follows all the clichés of such fare.  Prospective viewers will have to wait until the end for the “Lieb-o-vision” (Lieberman’s own term for his unique style) to really kick in.

Yes, I’m now going to reveal what happens, so if you haven’t seen the film please do so…and then continue reading!  To whit: the heroine, facing off against a three-hundred pound psychopath and lacking a weapon of any sort, jams her fist down her attacker’s throat and suffocates the bastard!  It’s far from the stuff of which classic cinema is made, but is still a uniquely imaginative moment (with an undeniably sexual connotation) in an otherwise deeply unimaginative film.

I will, however, say this: the music score by Brad Fiedel is impressive.  Fiedel would go onto score high profilers like THE TERMINATOR and TRUE LIES, and graces the proceedings with a powerfully ominous synthesizer score that deserves a better movie.

Vital Statistics 

Oakland Productions

Director: Jeff Lieberman
Producer: David Sheldon
Screenplay: Mark Arywitz, “Gregg Irving” (Jeff Lieberman)
Cinematography: Dean M. King
Editing: Robert Q. Lovett
Cast: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Katie Powell, John Hunsacker, Charles Bartlett, Jamie Rose, Hap Oslund, Barbara Spencer