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There’s very fine line to walk with horror comedies between silly and savvy. On the one hand, you have films that trivialize the horror aspects in favor of broad, slapstick-inspired comedy (Saturday the 14th (1981), any of the Scary Movie films). These films are more of a “general appeal” type of deal, something to appeal to folks who have a general knowledge of horror films but are more interested in a wacky comedy. On the other hand, you have films that acknowledge, yet subvert, horror movie tropes and clichés, films like Return of the Living Dead (1985), Parents (1989), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), Botched (2007), Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010) and Detention (2012). These films are all comedies, in various ways, yet none of them skimp on the actual horror aspects: these are for the genre fan looking for a little “light” entertainment.

Actor/director April Mullens’ Dead Before Dawn 3D (2012) falls somewhere between those two extremes, although it tends to tilt more towards the silly than the savvy side. While the film is generally good-natured and goofy, similar to a live-action Scooby Doo adventure, it features enough genuine horror elements to (mostly) satisfy the fans, including plenty of gruesome deaths and some really decent makeup effects. If the film wasn’t quite as silly and the acting wasn’t quite so broad, Dead Before Dawn would actually be a pretty savvy little film. As it stands, it’s always entertaining even if it has a tendency to overstay its welcome.

Short brush strokes get us to the meat of the story as quickly as possible. Our hero is young Casper Galloway (Devon Bostick), a college student who works in his grandfather Horus’ (Christopher Lloyd) occult shop: the very same shop where Casper’s father died following an encounter with a mysterious urn. Casper’s friends and associates are the usual suspects in films like this: Prof. Duffy (Kevin McDonald) is the high-strung authority figure; Burt (Rossif Sutherland) is Duffy’s creepy hot-dog obsessed teaching assistant; Lucy (Brittany Allen) is the brain-dead blonde cheerleader; Patrick (Kyle Schmid) is the douchebag quarterback; Dazzle (Brandon Jay McLaren) is the token black friend; Becky (director Mullen) is the quirky gal pal who happens to be dating Burt; Charlotte (Martha MacIsaac) is the girl who Casper secretly pines for, who just happens to be dating the quarterback; and Seth (writer Tim Doiron) is the kooky best friend who happens to be pining for cheerleader Lucy.

This mob of clichés all converge on the occult shop after grandpa Horus leaves for the weekend to receive a lifetime achievement award, leaving his well-meaning but rather ineffectual grandson in charge. Casper is only given three rules (Keep the store open during business hours, lock the store after you leave and stay away from the mysterious skull urn that killed Casper’s father) but manages to break the biggest one (hint: it’s not the one about the front door). He ends up unleashing a curse which, thanks to his friends’ inability to take the situation seriously, takes a very specific form: anyone that the group makes eye contact with will later kill themselves and be resurrected as a zombie/demon hybrid (a zemon), which can turn others into “zemons” via a bite. With this established, we’re off to the races.

As all of the group’s associates and loved ones (including Prof. Duffy, Burt, Casper’s mom and the entire football and cheer squads) turn into rampaging zemons, Casper and his friends must figure out how to end the curse before the entire town is destroyed. Since they’re all multi-taskers, the group will also take the opportunity to fall in love with each other, have fights and do all of the things that young college students would normally do…when not fighting demon/zombie hybrids, of course. The whole thing culminates in a slackadaisical ending that’s ripped straight from Wishmaster (1997) yet still gives hope for a sequel (but of course).

Here’s the thing about Dead Before Dawn: it’s got tons of heart. The film is extremely genial and easy-going and it seems pretty clear that everyone involved was having a blast during filming. When the over-the-top acting works, it works extremely well: particularly great is Kyle Schmid (also from the TV series Copper) as the obnoxious Patrick and filmmaking duo Mullen and Doiron as Becky and Seth. All three actors display not only well-honed comedy chops but enough individual characterization to distinguish themselves from the masses. Much less successful, unfortunately, is Devon Bostick as the hero. Casper is a thoroughly unlikable character and his whining, pewling behavior is only exacerbated by Bostick’s awful performance. Dead Before Dawn could’ve been so much better with an actual lead but Bostick is one of the worst things about the film. Equally terrible, unfortunately, is Lloyd, who surely gives one of the worst performances of a long and generally respectable career. He’s never seemed to be one for phoning-in a performance but it’s painfully clear how uninvested he is in the role.

The rest of the acting, unfortunately, is pretty negligible, although Brandon Jay McLaren gets one great scene where he describes how he ended up getting infected (it involves the concept of a “dickey” and is easily one of the film’s biggest laugh moments). For the most part, the rest of the cast is extremely broad, bordering on the amateurish, which tends to drag everything down to a pretty pedestrian level. Add to this the fact that the effects work is exceptionally shoddy (one particular explosion might have been better rendered on MS Paint) and the film definitely has the feel of a self-funded goof. It must also be noted that the film has one of the single worst sound mixes I’ve ever heard: I ended up constantly riding the volume control, since the dialogue needed to be maxed out, which then rendered the effects at airplane levels of intensity.

Despite some pretty fundamental issues, however, and the nagging feeling that the film runs out of steam well before it crosses the finish line, there’s a lot to like about the movie. There’s a consistently high level of energy that gives the film a gonzo quality, which helps glide over some of the rougher patches. Schmid, Mullen and Doiron are great comic actors and handily steal any and every scene that they’re in (not necessarily the most difficult task when faced with Bostick, to be honest). Some of the film’s more loopy comic moments, such as Burt’s hotdog obsession, are nicely realized and actually funny, although other elements, such as the actual “rules” behind the zemons are distressingly under-developed.

With the current glut of horror-comedies on the market, it’s quite likely that Dead Before Dawn will get lost in the shuffle. While the film certainly isn’t the worst of the bunch, it does have several rather substantial flaws that hobble it from the get-go (the first ten minutes, in particular, are excruciating). For understanding viewers with a little time to lose, however, Dead Before Dawn is a fun diversion, although it’s certainly nothing to write home about.

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