Jeff Lieberman’s backwoods horror comes from that golden early ‘80s period when the tropes of the genre had yet to crystallize into the formula that characterised the decade. This film is more concerned with atmosphere and dread, which it manages to conjure successfully, despite the killer(s) coming across as a bit goofy & unthreatening overall.
A group of five campers head into the Oregon mountains to stay on a plot of land one of them has inherited and in the process run afoul of some of the inhabitants, who like to stalk and slash with machetes, as well as taunt their victims. Forest ranger George Kennedy also rides into the action late in the piece on his horse (and best friend?) Agatha.
Like another fave of this sub genre, The Terror Within, the atmosphere, scenery and likeable cast make up for a lack of pace or memorable kills (although there is a machete groin stab early on). A young Gregg Henry (from Payback, Slither & GOTG) as Warren appears to be our hero but, pleasingly, is reduced to a fairly useless and whimpering mess, leaving it up to his girlfriend Connie played by the excellent Deoborah Benson, to take charge. After a near catatonic period and a harrowing tree climb escape, she lets loose on her attacker with a burst of pure hellfire. Her transformation from sunny city girl to triumphant bloodstained survivor is reminiscent of Sally at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, albeit a touch more shellshocked and dare I say empowered. As characters in a slasher film, Connie & Warren sell the fear & remorse for their dead friends, which adds some realism & feels to the affair.
With its orange-hued shots of the sun retreating behind the mountains, imposing scenery and scored with both deep synths from Brad Feidel and a soundscape of chiming bird calls, Just Before dawn is thick with backwoods vibe which helps lift it above some of the more generic slashers of the day.
4 machete crotchs out of 5.