Dead by Dawn (Movie Review)

Jamie Bernadette embraces the dark side in the upcoming Horror offering Dead by Dawn. Uncork’d Entertainment delivers the film to DVD on Tuesday, April 7th, 2020.

After a spat with her boyfriend, Lulu (Drew Lindsey Mitchell: Missed Connections short 2016, Tuesday Crowd short 2017) is a Little Red Riding Hood without a wolf as she heads to a Halloween party at her uncle’s house in the woods—but she never makes it there. Instead she turns up bathed in blood on the doorstep of a kindly family man. On the brink of suicide before the arrival of the traumatized young woman, Dylan (Kelcey Watson: 2307: Winter’s Dream 2016, Eruption: LA 2018) soon finds himself embroiled in a battle with three psychopaths—Neil (Bo Burroughs: Virus X 2010, All About the Money 2017), Snack (Bernadette: The 6th Friend 2016, I Spit On Your Grave: Deja Vu 2019), and Chad (Timothy Muskatell: The Ghouls 2003, Jurassic City 2015)—and only the smartest will survive.

Dead by Dawn still.

Clocking in at 84 minutes, Dead by Dawn was directed by Sean Cain (Jurassic City 2015, Eruption: LA 2018), and written by Wes Laurie (Breath of Hate 2011, The Last House 2015). It also features the acting talents of Bobby Slaski (Meeting Across the Hills short 2019, Groups of Two short 2020), Detra Hicks (Endless Bummer 2009, Be the Light 2020), the absolutely adorable little firecracker Skylar Dominique (CheckMate short 2018, Course of the Just short 2018), and more.

Billed as a Horror offering, Dead by Dawn—which is definitely not a remake of the sexy 1998 Shannon Tweed vehicle of the same name—would more appropriately be categorized as a Thriller that has elements of survivalist struggles, the home invasion, a pinch of the revenge flick, and more. Bathed in many classic influences, from 1972’s Last House on the Left to 1990’s Home Alone (or more likely 2011’s You’re Next), sadly, Dead by Dawn does not measure up to its forebears.

First, potential viewers should be aware that while Dead by Dawn centers around a kidnapping and rape, its creators choose to tackle this topic in a much less exploitative manner than films such as 1978’s I Spit On Your Grave or the aforementioned Last House on the Left. Despite the lack of graphic depictions of sexual abuse, certainly a trigger warning should be offered to those that cannot handle discussion of this difficult topic, as it is a central tenet of this script. Consider yourself warned.

Dead by Dawn still.

The script is a rough one, full of characters who are absolutely wretched representations of humanity. While some revenge flicks tend to leave the viewer feeling triumphant, perversely joyful for the protagonist’s victory over evil (think 2017’s aptly-titled Revenge), Dead by Dawn is not a feel-good offering. Instead, it’s a movie that offers butchered eyeballs, a crossbow to the chest, plenty of gunshots, incest, sodomy with a handgun, and more than its fair share of appalling, abusive men. No judgement on whether this is a good or a bad thing, but it is the reality of Dead by Dawn: you will not walk away feeling like you can conquer the world!

That said, there are a myriad of issues with the film that keep it from ever reaching its fullest potential: zero story development in its first act, poor character development throughout, and gaping plot holes are perhaps its biggest flaws. For a story that is dependent on viewers to feel deep sympathy for its protagonists (Lulu and Dylan) and disgust with its villains, only one of the villains (Chad) ever receives a decent amount of backstory. Meanwhile, poor Lulu is basically just a young woman, hoping to return to college, who is an abused girlfriend that becomes a rape victim. Dylan receives a bit more to work with, Neil only slightly more, and Snack exists merely as the sadistic accomplice.

Given these flat roles, it’s very hard to judge any of the cast’s talents based solely off these performances—but some far exceed their co-stars. Watson, in fact, takes the lead as the kind-hearted, good samaritan Dylan, who is on the cusp of giving up on life. A husband and father, his entire world has been shaped by tragedy, and it is the appearance of Lulu that gives him a new reason to live. Watson delivers in this role: believable, likable, and entirely sympathetic, he’s able to wear his emotions on his expressive face and relay the pain and struggle of his character. Unfortunately, Mitchell is given far less to work with and, for this, she often seems to struggle to keep up with Watson. Although, when she is finally allowed to show some sass at the very end of the film, one begins to wonder what the actress could deliver in a much more assertive role.

As the sociopathic trio, Burroughs, Bernadette, and Muskatell also display varying degrees of effectiveness in their roles. The lead here is Burroughs, who is somehow gracefully vile and sadistically organic as Neil. A flawless villain, he provides a launching pad for poor Bernadette, whose character is not even given a proper name. Snack is, at best, part Bonnie Parker, part Harley Quinn, and with the cruel zest and twisted intelligence of neither. Leaning more toward a brainwashed Manson family minion, Bernadette’s Snack is simply just there to wave knives. Ironically, Bernadette truly shines in the few moments when she is allowed to let go and be comedic rather than attempting to be a twisted murderess.

Dead by Dawn still.

Poor Muskatell’s Chad comes out as the cowardly lion of the bunch. A pathetic, sniveling weasel in a suit, he has the most developed and also the most distasteful character. It’s hard to blame any of Chad’s faults on the actor, though Muskatell does not leave a lasting impression. He seems to struggle to keep up with the menace of Burroughs, and crafts his character to be so meek as to seem unbelievable as an ex-con.

Of course, one must also ask themself a multitude of questions about the relationships between each of the characters, several of which just don’t seem to make sense. As the entire film explodes into its action within its first 15 minutes, there is just not enough time for proper story development or to ease viewers into these characters and the twisted webs between them. Due to this lack of suspense, Dead by Dawn ends up delivering a lot of bleeding wounds, but very few actual thrills or chills.

Sure, many of the individuals that anchor this story are reprehensible, but their grotesque personalities do not manage to make a truly horrifying experience. Instead, the film feels very average, and sits comfortably in the center of the pack; and though it doesn’t overstay its run time, it’s also never a fully enjoyable ride. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Dead by Dawn 3 of 5 stars.

Uncork’d Entertainment

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