Before Dawn (2012)

First published by Little White Lies

Early in Before Dawn, we see Alex (Dominic Brunt, also the director) wandering in a lost daze through the aisles of a supermarket, before stopping in front of the wine section like a zombie that has at last found what it craves.

Unemployed after being made redundant, and separated from his wife Meg (Joanne Mitchell) and their two children, Alex has arranged to spend the weekend with Meg in a remote, picturesque cottage while the kids stay with their Nan (Eileen O’Brien). He wants only to rekindle the dying embers of what has been lost, but with lawyer (and fitness fanatic) Meg showing a greater attachment to her mobile phone than to her ex, and Alex losing himself in a bottle (or three), it may well be too late to bring their relationship back from the dead. As Alex vainly proposes that next year they all take the trip to China they had once planned together, Meg warns him what happens when you get stuck in the pursuit of old dreams: “You end up somewhere you don’t want to be, you stumble through, you settle.”

All this is before Meg gets bitten on the leg by a crazed man, and begins slowly transforming into a flesh-eating zombie. Indeed, while the couple had bickered and spent the night  in their separate rooms of the isolated holiday home, they did not realise that an apocalyptic outbreak was already turning the outside world upside down. Which is to say that Before Dawn is a zombie flick with a refreshing emphasis on characterisation. By the time the undead invade the frame, they seem, for all their growling, bestial, life-devouring reality, like (semi-)vivid metaphors for the stasis that has developed between Alex and Meg, long since trapped in a habitual shuffle of recrimination, longing and addictive displacement routines (his alcohol, her exercise).

Stars Brunt and Mitchell and screenwriter Mark Illis are all veterans of the long-running ITV soap opera Emmerdale, which shares this film’s setting in the Yorkshire dales – but while Brunt’s directorial debut certainly comes in a social realist mould, Alex Nevill and Marc Colin Price’s stunning cinematography sets the film far above teledrama, as do all the undead themes. In this vision of familial and societal breakdown, the new world is not so very different from what it has replaced. The living dead just continue going through the same old motions, and love, though undying and eternal, is nonetheless stripped of all romantic sentiment and reduced to something more Pavlovian and primal. The results, haunting and bleak, reflect darkly upon our age of estrangement and isolation. The genre may be overcrowded, but Before Dawn is a strong and striking debut.

© Anton Bitel