When an outbreak of re-animated, man-eating dead people plagues the countryside, the government institutes a task force of elite soldiers. While scientists desperately seek a cure and religious groups struggle to find a reason, this “Zombie Squad” battles the living dead.
There was a time when movies about flesh-eating zombies were rare. Now, The Walking Dead is the most popular show on basic cable and I can choose from around 60 different zombie-related titles between my Netflix and Hulu accounts, but, during the later ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, fans of George A. Romero’s living dead movies had very few choices at their disposal. Sometimes, fans were so parched that they were forced to make their own homages to Romero’s work; though, in the pre-internet/pre-consumer grade digital photography age, most of these amateur exercises were doomed to obscurity. Most DIY zombie auteurs were lucky if their mom and dad would watch their movie, let alone a nation of millions of YouTube subscribers. Some of these glorified and sometimes glorious home videos (a term I use literally, as many were shot using video camcorders) made the rounds on rental tape (Michael Legge’s Working Stiffs, 1989; Timothy O'Rawe’s Ghoul School, 1990; Betty Stapleford’s Zombie Army, 1991), but, until the turn of the millennium, when zombies became a pop culture touchstone, only a handful of them had a lasting impact. These included Scooter McCrae’s super-bleak Shatter Dead (1994), Andreas Schnaas’ Zombie ‘90: Extreme Pestilence (1991...really all of Schnaas’ weirdo SOV gorefests), and, the subject of this review, J.R. Bookwalter’s The Dead Next Door (1989).
Bookwalter started shooting The Dead Next Door when he was only 19 years old and the super ambitious project blossomed into (reportedly) the most expensive Super-8mm, independently financed movie of all time. When it was released, it was the film’s amateurism that turned away mainstream viewers, but its endearing neophyte charms only make it more appealing in retrospect. It’s easy to appreciate Bookwalter and company’s bootstrap-pulling grandiosity in the face of adversity and, as is often the case in hindsight, his unpracticed point-of-view offers more interesting insight into the era’s genre aesthetics. Bookwalter didn’t have the skillset, experience, or money to achieve technical feats equal to Romero or Sam Raimi (who was, by the way, Bookwalter’s secret financier on the project), but he paid attention to the specific mechanics of their movies. The Dead Next Door isn’t filmed entirely with lopped-off wide-angle shots, like so many other DIY efforts – most of which misinterpret the language of film. Instead, it is stitched together from different, sometimes quite creative angles to create a more dynamic, motion-based experience. It doesn’t always work, but, much like the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Evil Dead (1979), it’s fun to watch the filmmaker’s creative process as it unfolds. The extensive prosthetic gore effects are also quite impressive or at least inventive – especially the bit where the severed zombie head eats a finger and it slowly slides out of its neck hole.
The bigger problem for The Dead Next Door in 2015 is that more than a decade of zombie fiction saturation has left audiences and fans jaded. Once, Bookwalter’s many homages to Romero, Sam Raimi, and Lucio Fulci movies were grin-worthy. It was a wink and nod to other fans that were very thirsty for validation. Besides the obvious thematic and dialogue-based nods, he even painstakingly recreated the camera moves from his favourite movies. It’s easy to dismiss the derivative elements of Bookwalter’s screenplay and overlook his more unique ideas, but, even as he goes through the motions of duplicating his favourite images from Dawn of the Dead (1978), his storytelling ambition, like his technical ambition, shouldn’t be ignored just because it doesn’t meet the standards of a mainstream movie. The Dead Next Door is lacking some a lot of Romero’s social/political subtext, but, undaunted by his bitty budget, Bookwalter manages to expand upon many of Dawn and Day of the Dead’s narrative concepts. The religious cult and ‘pet’ zombie elements have perhaps been hinted at during other pre-1990 living dead movies, but were still uncommon concepts for the time (it is actually at this moment that I realize that religion is never presented as evil in Romero’s movies). There are even a couple of minor editions – the Day of the Dead-esque mad scientist giving a test zombie an electronic voice box, for example – that I haven’t seen in any of the hundreds of more recent zombie movies that followed Romero’s example.
In case I didn’t make it clear in the feature section of this review, The Dead Next Door was shot on Super-8mm film (higher-speed Kodak Ektachrome stock), which is a small format that doesn’t really lend itself to HD resolution. The film was previously released twice on VHS (once as a collector’s edition with supplemental features), then again on a special edition DVD via Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2005. Bookwalter himself funded a 2K restoration of the original Super-8 elements via an Indiegogo last summer. In addition, the scan underwent new color grading, some of the more obvious dirt and chemical stains were digitally removed, and the optical titles were redone in HD. The results are presented here for this limited edition, 1080p Blu-ray in the original 4x3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio as well as a new 16x9 (1.78:1) cropped version. For this review, I am sticking mostly to the 4x3 transfer, not because the 16x9 transfer isn’t comparable, but because I’m not really a fan of the tightness of the cropping (those that are okay with the new ratio have plenty to look forward to).
The results are pretty impressive, including slightly sharper details, slightly tighter element separation, a softer glow on the white highlights, and much better contrast/gamma. The brighter, more saturated colors – reds and greens are now poppy, while skin tones appear natural – and prominently brighter image make the biggest difference. There are some frames and scenes that were apparently missing from the source material and those have been replaced with the best available DVD footage. The difference is noticeable (resolution dips, the frame rate is a bit jarred, there are sharpening artifacts, and grain is replaced with vertically strafing digital noise), but not particularly distracting, considering the unevenness of the transfer, overall. On the Indiegogo page, Bookwalter verifies that there was a “light smattering” of noise reduction applied to the 16x9 version, because the footage had to be zoomed. However, the 4x3 transfer is apparently unaffected, so, aside from the colour timing and gamma changes, it should be an accurate representation of Super-8 grain structure. I don’t have a lot of experience with 8mm on Blu-ray, but I agree with the assertion. Grain is busy and larger than 16 or 35mm sources, but not outrageously chunky. Black levels are deeper and more homogenized, even during the digital inserts, which, again, help to delineate elements that are otherwise muddied on the DVD release.
This collection also includes a DVD that includes the 2005 Anchor Bay DVD remaster and the 1990 original release, both in standard definition 1.33:1.
Like many DIY movies of its era, The Dead Next Door had many audio recording challenges. When originally released on VHS and DVD, the entire film had to be redubbed. This was sort of awkward as far as dialogue was concerned, but did allow Bookwalter and his sound mixers/engineers to experiment with stereo effects. This Blu-ray includes the original dubbed track as well as an alternate dialogue track, both remixed into uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The following quote is taken from the Blu-ray’s Indiegogo page and explains the alternate audio track:
The original location sound recorded on Super-8mm fullcoat was deemed unusable at the time due to the costly process required to sync those reels to the picture, so the entire movie was dubbed from scratch in early 1989 at a Hollywood studio under the guidance of a man who needs no introduction, Bruce Campbell. Because it was too expensive to fly the entire cast from Ohio to Los Angeles, only three of the original actors reprised their on-screen roles: Scott Spiegel (who already lived in L.A.), director J.R. Bookwalter (who was present for the mix), and star Bogdan “Don” Pecic (who had the most dialogue in the film). If the preorder funding goal is met [edit: it was], we’ll use some of that money to transfer the original fullcoat reels, edit together a new dialogue track, and mix it into the existing 5.1 surround music and effects tracks for a whole new viewing experience!
The remastered original audio is understandable, but still pretty muffled, at least compared to the cleaner dubbed tracks. The sound designers also struggle with noise reduction artefacts and have a heck of a time moving the dialogue into the stereo and surround channels. So then, the choice between tracks becomes a matter of authenticity vs. consistency. I went for consistency, in part because I’m still fond of the ADR. I find the 5.1 sound design pretty distracting, as everything from ambient environmental effects to simple dialogue is shuffled around the channels willy-nilly. Though this directional enhancement is usually screen-accurate (or at least close to it), it just isn’t the type of thing I relate to zero budget, Super-8 horror. On the other hand, I suppose the original stereo track was also pretty over-produced, so I suppose I should take the multi-channel wackiness as part of Bookwalter’s aesthetic.
Note that the two cuts that appear on the DVD copy include 2.0 stereo options.
Disc one (Blu-ray):
Commentary with Bookwalter, line producer/co-star Jolie Jackunas-Kobrinsky (via Skype), and associate producer Scott P. Plummer – This new ‘producers commentary’ was recorded in 2015 for this release and covers some new ground not already heard on the older DVD track thanks in part to the extra decade of time and the fact that Jackunas-Kobrinsky and Plummer were not a part of previous special features.
Restoration of the Dead (19:20, HD) – A technical look at the 2K restoration process, including a discussion of the original production and the problems that Super-8 created for the digital format.
Capital Theater Screening (12:20, HD) – Footage from the 2015 premiere of the restored version.
The Nightlight Screening (16:30, HD) – Footage from a 2015 Akron, OH screening and director Q&A.
Behind the Scenes Footage (19:10, HD) – This raw 8mm footage first appeared on Anchor Bay’s DVD special edition (in SD) and is narrated by Bookwalter.
Deleted scenes and outtakes (7:10, HD) – These scenes are taken from a tape source and also originally appeared on the AB DVD.
Still Galleries: Around the world, storyboards, behind-the-scenes, production stills
Trailers for The Dead Next Door, Platoon of the Dead (2009), and Poison Sweethearts (2008)
Disc two (DVD):
Original 2005 Anchor Bay commentary with Bookwalter, actor Michael Todd, and cinematographer Michael Tolochko, Jr. (2005 remastered DVD version)
Commentary with Doug Tilley and Moe Porne of the No-Budget Nightmares podcast (1990 VHS version)
The Dead Up North (9:30, SD) – Footage from a 2005 Ottawa premiere/tour.
Local Akron TV appearances/news from 1985 (15:00, SD)
Local Akron TV commercials (1:30, SD)
Excerpts from the 1995 making-of featurette (9:20, SD)
20 Years in 15 Minutes (15:30, SD) – A retrospective behind-the-scenes featurette from the 2005 DVD release.
Video storyboards (8:20, SD) – VHS test footage compared to the final film.
Video pre-shoots (5:30, SD) – Video tape footage that was abandoned for 8mm.
Audition tapes (14:00, SD)
2000 Frightvision Reunion (6:20, SD) – Clips from a convention showing/Q&A.
”The Dead Next Door” music video (3:10, SD)
Trailers for The Dead Next Door, Kingdom of the Vampire, Ozone, The Sandman, and Polymorph
Bookwalter short films (disc two):
The Flesh Eater (2:50, SD) – The director’s 1979 zombie debut with commentary from Bookwalter and his son Benji.
Zombie (10:00, SD) – A more ambitious 1980 effort, also with J.R. and Benji commentary.
Tomorrow (9:00, SD) – An unfinished, 1985 Twilight Zone-esque mini-feature with Bookwalter commentary.
Disc three (CD):
Original motion picture soundtrack with complete score by J.R. Bookwalter plus unreleased songs by Argus, Joy Circuit, and Three Miles Out.
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.