Grimmfest 2012 Review: You'll Be Dozing Off Long BEFORE DAWN

Very few zombie movies are actually about the zombies. Whatever their scope and scale, these are generally stories about troubled people trying to keep on doing what they do even while the world's coming to an end. And the idea that maybe they'd finally manage okay if it weren't for, you know, the shambling corpses eating everyone in the background. You still have to care about these reluctant heroes, though, and it helps if they actually acknowledge the walking dead - if the zombie apocalypse forces them to confront the idea that things are never going to be the same again no matter how hard they try.

Dominic Brunt's Before Dawn never really manages either of these things. It's the kind of début that it hurts to give a kicking; this is clearly the work of someone who loves his horror and Brunt (best known as an actor on UK TV soap Emmerdale) proves fairly technically competent. But its central relationship - an estranged couple trying to repair their marriage - never goes anywhere particularly interesting or involving, and it's yet another low-budget zombie film that feels like an awkward series of pseudo-dramatic two-handers where a dead body wanders past the camera every so often and hisses a lot.

Brunt himself plays the husband, Alex; something of a manchild, fond of taking life as it comes. Joanne Mitchell (from the UK Shameless) is the wife, Meg; driven and career-focused - we get the impression Alex married some way above his station. The couple drop the kids off with the mother-in-law, and head off into the countryside for a weekend away, hoping a bit of secluded rural quiet will heal all wounds, but when a frothing, feral stranger attacks Meg while she's out on a run, Alex has to consider there might be wounds he can't patch up and things he can't protect his wife from.

Brunt and Mitchell make this odd couple fairly convincing - the cherubic, hefty,  easy-going lad and the slight, lean, haunted woman who can't slow down for a second in case she lets something important get away. There's a real sense Alex and Meg were close, once. It's there in their body language and the way they pick at the edges of whatever it is they're on opposite sides of, unwilling (at least to begin with) to give the whole thing a good pull for fear it'll all come apart. There's a pathos to the opening act that belies the simple setup and suggests it could be a good idea to keep things simple like this every now and then.

But those initial tentative overtures never develop in any meaningful sense. Alex and Meg get no further than do-you-remember-when-we-talked-about X, Y and Z before the apocalypse kicks in, and for all Brunt and Mitchell's efforts it's hard not to feel like you've seen all this before. They were young, they were naïve, neither really understood what kind of person their partner was, now they're struggling to accept they can't (perhaps even shouldn't) turn back the clock. There's barely anything more to their conversations than this before Alex is throwing a hissy fit and drinking himself senseless alone on the couch.

And the zombie apocalypse starts off even weaker. Mark Illis, a long-time Emmerdale writer, worked on the story with Mitchell, and again it feels like the product of a group of people who could probably rattle off Argento or Fulci's filmography off the top of their heads but who've never really thought too hard about how these things actually worked. We get one blatantly obvious sign something's wrong which the couple only miss because they fail to turn round, then it's nothing bar fruitless jump scares until a lone zombie charges across the moors out of nowhere and everything goes to hell.

Before Dawn elects for fast zombies rather than slow, and you actually see very few for most of the film. Combine this with Brunt's fondness for manic shaky-cam, extreme closeups and smash cutting and the undead end up uncomfortably close to something like last year's farcical Canadian civil war flick Exit Humanity. The one extended action sequence (such as it is) feels painfully overlong, poorly shot and tonally out of place, like the token opportunity to use all the gory prosthetics. There's no hard evidence civilisation collapsed - this is just someone quietly going round the twist after a lunatic bit his wife.

Obviously the story hinges on the relationship between Alex's problems and his inability to take in the bigger picture. But the script before the zombies enter stage right largely operates on soap-opera platitudes, so the big juxtaposition has virtually nothing to work with. We get no real idea who the couple were before the apocalypse, so why should we care what happens to them after? Brunt sits around thinking the whole mess might just go away if he wants it to enough (apparently he's never seen a zombie film in his life) while Mitchell gets to thrash about deliriously and mutter a lot.

Illis and Mitchell do come up with one good plot beat (has this actually been used before at all?). When Alex hears that the undead supposedly get back something of their humanity when they feed, he's determined to see if it works. But Before Dawn just tries to play this as straight tragedy, which doesn't remotely come off - it adds nothing more to Alex and Meg's relationship (we already know he refuses to face up to reality) and Nicky Evans' survivor (another Shameless alum) is the worst kind of sitcom cliché, a witless cartoon of a man no-one could really care about.

This is plainly a labour of love, but so are countless final year projects from film studies students with more enthusiasm than talent. Despite the experience of the cast and crew and their obvious attachment to the script there's simply nothing here beyond an abortive study of a marriage in disrepair with a few superfluous snippets of extreme gore thrown in. Yes, their relationship's dead, we get it; next, please. Brunt and Mitchell are good enough actors you can empathise, but there's no reason to care - completionists might want to check out Before Dawn but there's no other reason to recommend it.

This review of Before Dawn comes from its screening at Grimmfest 2012, which ran from 3rd-7th October at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester, in the UK.
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