J.R. Bookwalter's gritty, grimy DIY Super 8 pastiche of zombie film plots and imagery THE DEAD NEXT DOOR gets an extraordinary Blu-ray bump-up courtesy of Tempe Entertainment.
A zombie plague of apocalyptic proportions breaks out in Akron, Ohio of all places. Four years later, the zombie epidemic has claimed the President of the United States among millions, and the military's Zombie Squad has to contend with "stupid protesters" who want to "Let the Dead Walk!" while supplying zombies for Dr. Moulsson (Bogdan Pecic, ROBOT NINJA) who seems to be more interested in sadistically experimenting with the physiology of the dead than finding a way to kill them. Unlike DAY OF THE DEAD's mad doctor, Moulsson has come up with a possible antivirus, but it necessitates a trip from D.C. to Akron and the lab of Dr. Bow (Lester Clark, SKINNED ALIVE) whose serum to reanimate dead cells was responsible for the outbreak. Although the theory is shaky, the Zombie Squad's leader Kline (Floyd Ewing Jr.) feels it is worth the risk when colleague Mercer (Michael Grossi) is bitten by Moulsson's talking zombie Vox (make-up artist Bill Morrison, one of the film's two "Buds") having just lost another of his team (THE INTRUDER director Scott Spiegel) on the previous mission. As Moulsson and his put-upon assistant Dr. Franklin (Roger Graham) accompany Kline, Mercer, and their colleagues Raimi (Pete Ferry) and Kuller (producer Jolie Jackunas) to the Bow house, they notice that the nearby town is zombie-free; but not so much the Bow house itself where they discover the mummified corpse of the doctor. When Vincent (Jon Killough, GALAXY OF THE DINOSOURS), a local scout for the church of Reverend Jones (Robert Kokai) learns of what the scientists and soldiers plan to do with Dr. Bow's serum, he attacks them and is wounded in his escape. Raimi and Mercer trail Vincent and his cohorts Carpenter (Jeff Welch) and Lloyds (director J.R. Bookwalter) back to the Reverend Jones' church at the local high school only to discover that his congregation – including his zombified son Jason (Michael Todd) and Dr. Bow's amnesiac daughter Anna (Maria Markovic) – is a cult that believes the zombie outbreak is God's will. When Raimi grabs Jason for Moulsson to test his modified serum, Jones sends his followers and his zombies hordes to lay siege to the farm. In the meantime, Moulsson has injected the untested serum into Mercer and discovers what happens when it is administered to a subject who is not entirely dead.
A Super 8mm epic lensed in Ohio with little money but a tremendous amount of ambition and DIY enthusiasm, THE DEAD NEXT DOOR manages to simultaneously be a loving pastiche of overfamiliar zombie film plot elements and imagery (with more than a few variations on the DAWN OF THE DEAD scare zombie masses suddenly pouring forth opened or unboarded doors) and a landmark in the low budget zombie film genre in its own right. For as many action sequences that seem scaled down, there are sprawling, extras-laden, downtown metropolitan shots to depict the scope of the zombie outbreak. Performances are all over the place but earnest enough to for us to root for the good guys and hate the bad guys (both of the principal baddies get gutted but more HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD-style than the DAY OF THE DEAD's "choke on 'em"), and director Bookwalter (ZOMBIE COP) in his feature debut assuredly leavens the drama (underdeveloped as it is with Dr. Bow's daughter ultimately serving little purpose) with some humorous asides ("Can't you do anything right, Savini!"). Half of the special make-up effects – not always convincing but executed with splattery gusto – are the work of David P. Barton (SLEEPWALKERS) who was working with K.N.B. and Steve Johnson by the time THE DEAD NEXT DOOR was actually finished and released in 1989. Assistant David Lange went on to supervise visual effects on a number of Full Moon productions. Besides the future Full Moon connections – Bookwalter would direct WITCHOUSE II as a more ambitious follow-up to the David DeCoteau film – THE DEAD NEXT DOOR is also a footnote in the history of the EVIL DEAD series. Spiegel has a small but prominent role as an ill-fated member of the Zombie Squad, having become part of the project through Bookwalter's friendship with Josh Becker (THOU SHALT NOT KILL… EXCEPT), just two of the film's connections to the EVIL DEAD team (indeed, it is rumored that Sam Raimi was the uncredited executive producer of the film, funding it with the money he made off of EVIL DEAD II).
THE DEAD NEXT DOOR first appeared on DVD in Germany and the UK in special editions featuring a commentary by Bookwalter and make-up artist Dave Lang. Anchor Bay's 2005 DVD featured a remastered transfer, new Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and an audio commentary by Bookwalter, actor Todd, and cinematographer Michael Tolochko. Tempe's Blu-ray special edition set features a brand new 2K-mastered scan of the original Super 8mm elements in your choice of an original aspect ratio pillarboxed 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 presentation and a 16:9-cropped 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen version. Stripped of mildew stains, cleaned of scratches, and items that were once cropped out of the frame now digitally painted out, the new transfer is quite refreshing to the eyes with bolder colors, and more detail in the still-grainy shadows. The fullscreen version is OAR, of course, but the cropping of the 16:9 version is not damaging (and indeed draws attention to some details clueing the viewer early on to the outcome of a visual gag). Several individual shots could not be sourced from the Super 8 materials (suggesting that several fifty-foot cartridges went missing in the years before the Anchor Bay master), and have been upconverted from the video master (as they had been for the DVD). These inserts are of course softer and far less detailed but non-disruptive. Considering what has come before (as evidenced by the two separate transfers on disc two), it is hard to have any complaints about the new transfer.
Both transfers can be watched with the "classic dubbed mix" or the "original cast mix" in with remixed music and effects (done at the time of the Anchor Bay release by Tempe's post-production offshoot Fat Cat Post) in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The optional English subtitles provided for both transfers transcribe the dubbed mix, and it really is the preferred mix since it is of the same technical level of the original music and effects mix, and also features THE EVIL DEAD's Bruce Campbell (who supervised the dubbing and built up the sound effects tracks in Los Angeles) voicing Raimi, Carpenter, and some extras. The original cast audio has been finally resynchronized to the film and mixed in with the music and effects but it is subject to the recording technicians, uneven levels, and the sometimes frankly bad line readings. The Blu-ray encodes are accompanied by a brand new commentary by Bookwalter and producers Jolie Jackunas & Scott P. Plummer. They reflect on their extraordinary achievements with little resources, humorously recall the Washington D.C. shoot and their run-in with the CIA (the D.C. film commission director was so impressed by their guerilla shoot at the White House that she waived the rest of the location fees), their disappointment upon discovering that the first two weeks of footage was unusable (although the footage was supposed to go straight from processing to the telecine, their impatience to see some of the footage projected lead to the fortuitous discovery), the film's effects, the many cast and crew doubling on both sides of the camera, and the long post-production period (along with Campbell's aforementioned contributions). Bookwalter has told most of the stories before on previous commentaries and featurettes for the earlier releases, but the cleaned-up presentation prompts some fresh-sounding reactions out of the participants.
In "Restoration of the Dead" (19:19), Bookwalter discusses the process of editing the original version for VHS (Super 8 telecined to 1" and dubbed down to 3/4" for off-line editing, edited twice in that format because he did not know that he needed to burn-in the timecodes for online editing, editing the 1" reels and then mastering to 3/4"), and then having to manually seek out, trim, and splice together the needed shots from eleven to twelve hours of Super 8 film cartridges before digitally color correcting and editing in SD for the Anchor Bay release. The 2K scan of the same film materials and the new technology allowed for more detail, superior color correction, and damage clean-up. The "Capitol Theatre Screening" (12:22) features Bookwalter and several of the cast and crew reflecting on the shooting experience and then answering questions after the screening. Bookwalter fields another Q&A solo at the "The Nightflight Screening" (16:28) – with good video but poor audio recording – in which a couple extras turn up in the audience. The behind the scenes footage (19:13) is narrated by Bookwalter as he discusses the quonset hut that served as production office and sound stage, some of the messing around the cast and crew did on the tail ends of the cartridges, and the D.C. shoot. He also picked up some historical footage of Akron's contribution to the 1986 Hands Across America campaign. The deleted scenes & outtakes (7:11) is also narrated by Bookwalter but features some production audio and includes a scene extension and one entire deleted scene along with some blown takes. The still galleries section should not be overlooked as it includes world video/DVD covers, twenty-seven minutes of storyboards, as well as additional galleries of behind the scenes and production stills. The film's trailer (1:46) is included along with trailers for PLATOON OF THE DEAD and POISON SWEETHEARTS.
Disc two features two additional versions of the film. The original tape master prepared for the VHS release is available on the included DVD with a choice of the "dubbed" mix in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and a Spanish dub (along with optional English subtitles). The transfer has not been regraded digitally and represents the technology of the time, with some exteriors looking more naturalistic but not as moody as in the later transfers. The SD digital transfer from the Anchor Bay is also included, looking improved but also marred by the care of the film reels at the time with artifacts that could not be easily removed with the technology of the early 2000s. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 track is included along with a 2.0 downmix, as well as optional English subtitles. The VHS transfer is accompanied by a new track by the podcast No-Budget Nightmares. Although they state that the general tone of their commentary will begin on a cheeky note, they are actually very respectful, expressing admiration at Bookwalter's ambition as a "weird combination of super low budget and super high quality." The Anchor Bay DVD transfer is accompanied by the aforementioned Bookwalter, actor Todd, and cinematographer Michael Tolochko who earned the nickname "The Prince of Darkness" not for his preference for shooting in low light like Peter Hyams (BUSTING) or Gordon Willis (THE GODFATHER) but for the mishap with the broken camera that underexposed the first two weeks of shooting. Amidst discussion of the then-new 2005 transfer (its clarity as well as the damage that could not be cleaned with the current technology), they provide plenty of production anecdotes (some overlapping with the newer commentary). Tolochko does mention that Spiegel offered him some camera tips while Bookwalter admits that his thrifty editing-in-camera approach of shooting just the shots that were needed affected the emotional continuity of the actors. All three commentaries on the disc are worth a listen, although perhaps not one after the other in quick succession.
All of the Anchor Bay extras are accounted for in this edition (spread between the Blu-ray and DVD) in a submenu called "2005 Extras." "20 Years in 15 Minutes" (15:32) features the then-contemporary reactions to the film of several of its cast members, including intern/zombie extra James L. Edwards, twelve years old at the time of production who recalls it being like a long party with various forbidden elements irresistible to a teenager. The "video storyboards" (8:15) section compares Bookwalter's storyboards to the finished scenes while the "video preshoots" (5:32) are excerpts from the VHS camera test shoot on location at the Bow house of the opening scenes, including a botched take of the opening EVIL DEAD-esque "zombie vision" running POV shot. Also included are a montage of auditions (14:01) in which the various walk-in performers – including some who ended up cast like Bookwalter regular Barbara Gay who decided to try a hand at acting after a trip to California and a gameshow appearance – introduce themselves and then let out bloodcurdling screams. The "2000 Frightvision Reunion" (6:15) reunites some of the cast and crew, and finds one them making some facile parallels between the film and the HIV epidemic. Also included in this section are a music video (3:05), the film's original trailer (2:01), and trailers for other Tempe Video Bookwalter titles KINGDOM OF THE VAMPIRE, OZONE, THE SANDMAN, and POLYMORPH.
Additional new extras are included under the submenu "2015 Extras." None of the extras are actually newly-produced, but these archival pieces are making their debut as extras on the Blu-ray edition. "The Dead Up North" (9:29) follows Bookwalter's 2005 premiering of the film in its first digital transfer up in Canada, while the "Local TV Appearances" (14:59) is a compilation of local TV news stories on the production, including interviews with a somewhat nervous Bookwalter and more outgoing and enthusiastic Todd and Plummer. The "Local TV Commercials" (1:34) are some amusingly hokey homemade promos for the film's release on tape, while the "Making-of Excerpts" (9:15) featurette dates from 1995 (presumably as an extra for a VHS edition). The disc closes out with three short films by Bookwalter (Bookwalter and his six year old son Benji provide optional commentary on two of them while J.R. goes solo on the third. "The Flesh Eater" (2:47) was shot after Bookwalter's own thirteenth birthday party in 1979 when later DEAD NEXT DOOR effects artist Barton game him a cartridge of 8mm film as a gift. "Zombie" (10:04) from 1980 was made after Bookwalter saw Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE at the drive-in. Although technically rough, the short evidences improved planning, staging, and make-up effects, as well as some sense of a story. The cast includes Bookwalter and Barton on screen as well as Jennifer Mullen who plays the ill-fated Powers in THE DEAD NEXT DOOR.
The unfinished "Tomorrow" (9:02) from 1985 was Bookwalter's last 8mm short, shot during pre-production of THE DEAD NEXT DOOR, and eschews zombies for a TWILIGHT ZONE-esque scenario about a guy who has a habit of putting things off until there is no tomorrow to do them. The cast features "Zombie Squad" logo creator Michael "Doc" Porter and Barbara Gay as well as some props that would be featured in THE DEAD NEXT DOOR. The third disc is a soundtrack CD with twenty-four tracks. The aforementioned German DVD commentary track has not been included in this otherwise comprehensive release, but the first pressing includes a reversible cover and insert booklet. (Eric Cotenas)
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