DEAD BY DAWN, written and directed by Sean Cain with collaborator Wes Laurie, juxtaposes camp and grit while stitching together the paths of two distressed protagonists. The slasher-thriller explores different flavors of abuse with our leading damsel-in-distress, Lulu (Drew Mitchell), who faces her controlling boyfriend, a perverted clown, her debauched uncle, and two sadistic strangers. It also dips into the hopelessness of a suicidal man, for whom before the trigger is pulled, is given another reason to live.
Lulu, an impressionist painter, lives with her possessive boyfriend, Shane (Bobby Slaski), who feels threatened by her ambition and doesn’t hold back in letting her know. The plan for the evening is to go to her uncle’s Halloween party where they will don a transparently apt Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf couple’s costume. When Lulu storms out of the apartment leaving her wolf behind, she orders a “Kart” (Uber-like app) and hops in with a clown-clad driver. At first, our driver comes across as nosy and chatty, but things escalate and Lulu realizes that she escaped from one level of hell to just hop into the next.
Dylan (Kelcey Watson), is a family man who travels to the family cabin to reconsider his life after a recent tragedy. We see flashbacks of his wife and daughter where his daughter is completely consumed and prepared for the zombie apocalypse. The next thing we know, Dylan is holding the barrel of a gun in his mouth only to be interrupted by the wails and screams of a blood-streaked Lulu on his porch. He takes her in and instantly finds a new purpose. When two strange men knock on his door and a positively vampiric woman cases the house, Dylan’s survival instincts kick in and locks the cabin down. While Dylan and Lulu utilize his daughter’s apocalyptic expertise, three sadistic strangers wait our protagonists out.
As the tension builds and time passes, we learn that Chad (Timothy Muskatell) is actually Uncle Chad and is among those three strangers. Neil (Bo Burroughs) and his “Snack” (Jamie Bernadette) are a salacious and almost bestial couple who keeps a pathetically depraved Uncle Chad on a short leash. Though the dynamic-duo stand in solidarity against Lulu, Uncle Chad is torn between his guilt and his loyalty to his degenerate cronies. Either way, like her boyfriend Shane, Uncle Chad is deluded into thinking he loves Lulu, which becomes a liability to Neil and Snack. When the standstill breaks and both parties start to act, Lulu and Dylan must find strength and determination from within their traumas and use everything they got to get out alive.
DEAD BY DAWN is a well-executed B-rated flick that succeeds in maintaining tension from the first interaction all the way to the post-credit scene. However, like any B-rated horror, there are a lot of flaws. The poor acting is generally bearable but can only be fully excused for our antagonists. After all, a theatrical performance makes for a fun villain but does not do much for a hero. It is hard to empathize with Lulu despite her horrible hardships because Mitchell’s acting runs thin and Cain does not give her much of a script to work with. Dylan’s concern for Lulu just seems cheesy and insincere. Every time he told Lulu how proud of her he was just made me cringe – after all, she is a complete stranger.
The plot, with so much potential, could also do with a few edits. It seems that Cain forgot about Shane and last-second found a way to get him to come to the cabin. This would be fine if his personality during the opening scene matched with his later scenes but because there was no callback to where the couple left things, his storyline almost seemed irrelevant and patched together. Another storyline that runs thin is Dylan’s. At the very least we should have had more flashbacks to let us empathize more with not just Dylan, but his daughter too. Uncle Chad, a perfectly slimy villain, was probably the most well-portrayed character. But his heartless betrayal to his niece would have packed more punch if we had met him before the cabin showdown and witnessed his relationship with his niece before the assault.
Despite any glaring issues, DEAD BY DAWN is an enjoyable ride that will certainly leave you satisfied ’til the bloody end. Although it isn’t the most inspired movie any of us have seen, it lays out a blueprint for a gripping thriller. Ultimately, its strength lies in its tension and laughable villains and if not for anything else, that makes for a good watch.
DEAD BY DAWN will be available on DVD and Digital April 7, 2020.