Friday, January 25, 2013

The Cinema File #94: "Dead Before Dawn" Review

Evil Dead 2 is one of my favorite movies of all time. It is arguably the quintessential horror comedy and next to the first Re-Animator probably did more to encourage my love for the genre than any other movie growing up. Clearly I'm not the only person to hold it in such high esteem, as more than twenty five years later, we still get at least one or two new films a year that are if not outright rip offs, at least do their best to pay homage to it and capture the same anarchic tone that it displays so effortlessly. Today's review focuses on only the latest example, with a cheeky title that's an obvious attempt to appeal to fans like me, and while it has its problems, Dead Before Dawn is by and large a solid and loving tribute to a beloved classic.

Dead Before Dawn follows a group of teenagers who unwittingly unleash an ancient curse that turns their entire town into murderous Zemons, part Zombie, part Demon. I'm guessing that probably sounds bad, and when I explain where it comes from it might sound worse, but its actually representative of a nice twist in the premise that I felt elevated this story above the normal self aware satire like this. The characters involved are all highly knowledgeable about horror movie cliches, and when presented with the notion that the magic urn they just broke is cursed, they mockingly rattle off a series of increasingly crazy things that might happen, thus insulting the gods and literally building their own plight. The resulting chaos is as ridiculous as their litany of jokes, because they unwittingly brought it upon themselves.

If not for the admittedly far superior Cabin In The Woods, I'd say that Dead Before Dawn was the funniest deconstruction of the horror genre in the last ten years, though unfortunately it has the same problem as the Whedon film, in that it often hews too closely to comedic moments undercutting any tone that might actually be legitimately scary. That being said, also like the Whedon film, I can't praise the humor enough. A key aspect of the curse is that anyone the main characters make eye contact with suddenly develops the irresistible urge to kill themselves in increasingly silly ways, and every time I think I'm going to get sick of the joke, the movie finds a way to make it funny again. It's a lot more slapsticky than Cabin in the Woods or even Evil Dead if you can believe it, but I loved the no-holes-barred wackiness combined with the dark unsentimental tone.

With the minor exception of the jock who adds little and dies early, the entire cast shines pretty much to a person. The kids are all relative unknowns, the only one I recognized being a former Power Ranger, but all put in great comedic performances that for the most part all get enough time to make their mark. The standout is Tim Doiron who also wrote the movie, playing the kind of stoner goofball that is so often painfully annoying, but in this case hits just the right balance to make it entertaining. Christopher Lloyd shows up in an extended cameo as the proprietor of the occult shop where the action begins and is his typical oddball self, even getting in a Back to the Future reference with a nostalgic "Great Scott!" and my personal favorite Kid in the Hall Kevin McDonald plays a jerk college professor that I wish had been in the movie a lot more.

While I try to keep an open mind about every movie I watch, I have to admit that I was a bit worried about this one. This kind of thing is very easy to screw up. Trying to make a movie for fans of a niche genre through meta satire can easily come across as inauthentic even if the producers are genuinely fans themselves. Its a fine line to walk and Dead Before Dawn pulls it off. More over, with a narrative device as well worn as zombies (the demon part being largely forgotten in practice), its surprisingly fresh and never feels as stale as it should given how many times you've seen versions of this same story before. I have no problem recommending this movie for any horror aficionado or dark comedy devotee. Definitely give it a shot if you get a chance. And yes, it is by far much better than The Master.

UPDATE: And oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention, there's a Wicker Man remake "Not the Bees!" reference at one point. At least I hope it was intentional, and I'm pretty sure it was. That is awesome. That is all.

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