The Dead Next Door

| September 26, 2017

For anyone not familiar with the history of J.R. Bookwalter’s insanely ambitious 8mm zombie film The Dead Next Door, it may seem odd that the film is getting a Criterion-level Blu-ray/DVD release the better part of 30 years after it first hit video store shelves. But there are a number of reasons this little film has had numerous home video releases over the years, beyond the fact that two of the principal collaborators on the original Evil Dead films were involved in its production. Most movies shot on 8mm film tend to be fairly narrow in scope due to budgetary and/or technical limitations, but The Dead Next Door is positively epic–it looks like half the population of the state of Ohio worked as extras in this movie. And despite some obvious unavoidable pitfalls, Bookwalter actually pulls it all off impressively.

The zombie apocalypse breaks out, and the action of the film opens in Ohio as the zombie virus is unleashed and the undead begin their bloody, inevitable shamble to the top of the food chain. It doesn’t take long before there is a fragile order among the remaining humans with a makeshift government agency dispatching “Zombie Squads” across the country. In Washington D.C. research scientist Dr. Moulsson (Bogdan Pecic) is experimenting on zombies in hopes of finding a cure or vaccine that will stop the plague. He travels with a squad to Ohio to find the home laboratory of Dr. Bow (Lester Clark), the man whose work inadvertently doomed humanity. Moulsson’s hope is that Dr. Bow’s work will help him and his team find the cure before the balance between zombies and humans reaches an irrecoverable tipping point.

This mission initially seems like a cake walk when agents Raimi (Pete Ferry), Kuller (Jolie Jackunas), Mercer (Michael Grossi) and the scientists in their care arrive at Dr. Bow’s house. But soon they stumble upon a young man lurking near the house who seems to have ties to the movement that constantly pickets Washington campaigning for “zombie rights.” The truth is much darker: Reverend Jones (Robert Kokai) leads a cult based out of a church he and his followers have turned into a fortress complete with armed guards and cages full of ravenous zombies. Jones and his people believe the zombies are the harbingers of the end of the world, and they want to help the Lord’s work along as much as possible. Moulsson is hard at work on a cure, but the squad is hugely outnumbered and outgunned. Suddenly, getting the cure back to Washington is the least of their problems.

The Dead Next Door is quite an achievement for debut writer/director Bookwalter, who was barely out of high school when he started shooting the film. His concept of a world in which humans campaign for “zombie rights” was almost unbelievably ahead of its time; most indie horror filmmakers cranking out zombie movies in the 80s were content to make shoddy knock-offs of Romero’s films. Bookwalter took both the gore and the social commentary from the master’s work and extrapolated a fascinating world from the same basic starting point as Night of the Living Dead. However, since this is an independent film from the 80s it has shortcomings in common with many of its contemporaries. The acting is often amateurish (although the dub with capital-A Actors is an improvement) and the dialogue can be clunky and inadvertently humorous. The makeup and effects are fun, and while many of them get by more on homemade charm than anything there are some that are genuinely impressive. Bookwalter keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, and manages to accomplish quite a bit in under 80 minutes. This is a phenomenal horror debut and a certified classic of the genre, and this new Blu-ray/DVD release is the best way to introduce yourself to it–if you don’t already own VHS and/or DVD copies of it, of course.

Tempe Digital releases The Dead Next Door in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack on 26 September 2017. Special features include an audio commentary with the film’s producers J.R. Bookwalter, Jolie Jackunas, and Scott P. Plummer, a 19-minute “Restoration of the Dead” featurette, Capitol Theatre Screening Q&A (12 minutes), The Nightlight screening Q&A (16 minutes), 19 minutes of “behind the scenes” footage, deleted scenes and outtakes, a lengthy storyboard gallery (27 minutes!), “Around the World” gallery, “Behind the Scenes” gallery, and Production Stills gallery. The DVD includes a different set of special features including a 2005 commentary track with Bookwalter, actor Michael Todd, and cinematographer Michael Tolochko, Jr., a 5-minute interview with Scott Spiegel, 1999 Akron location tour with James L. Edwards, “20 Years in 15 Minutes,” video storyboards, video preshoots, actor auditions, Three Miles Out music video, and a short video on the film’s 2000 Frightvision Reunion.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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