Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Film Appreciation - (Living) Dead in Ohio

Feast on Cody Hamman's Film Appreciation for 1989's The Dead Next Door.

It all started in Akron, Ohio, where the experiments of a scientist called Doctor Bow inadvertently led to the creation of a virus that re-animated the dead. In the tradition of George A. Romero's ghouls, the zombies created by the Bow virus set out to feed on the flesh of humans, their bites spreading the infection, their victims also becoming living dead flesheaters.

Soon Akron was overrun with zombies, but the infection didn't stop there. Gradually, the zombie outbreak has spread throughout the world.

Three years after the plague began, things are pretty dire as zombies continue to roam the countryside, but there are still pockets of surviving humans, there's still traffic in Washington, D.C., and as efforts to eradicate the zombie threat continue, there are even some people who stage protests demanding that zombies be protected, holding signs that say things like "Let the dead walk!"

The characters we follow through the zombie wasteland writer/director J.R. Bookwalter set his movie in are members of the Zombie Squad, government-employed zombie hunters who not only travel around killing zombies, but also bring back some live specimens to be experimented on by scientists looking for a way to wipe out the living dead problem once and for all.

A scientist by the name of Savini may have finally found the answer they've been looking for, but he'll need access to Bow's original work. That means Zombie Squad team 205 needs to escort Savini back to where it all began, Akron, with a ticking bomb in tow in the form of a team member who has been bitten and is slowly succumbing to the virus.

Once in Akron, they discover, as Romero's character's often do, that other humans can be even more dangerous than the zombies, finding themselves up against a strange cult with a belief that the zombie plague is God's will, His way of annihilating all living forms from the face of the Earth... and they mean to make sure that happens.

Coming after a childhood spent shooting shorts and music videos on Super 8, The Dead Next Door was J.R. Bookwalter's feature debut, a step he decided to make at the encouragement of Sam Raimi. It was a move he wasn't expecting to make just yet; when he met with Raimi, he was just looking to get a P.A. job on Evil Dead II, another chance to work with a genre hero after appearing as a zombie extra in Romero's Day of the Dead. But when Raimi watched some of Bookwalter's shorts, enjoying them and maybe seeing a bit of his pre-The Evil Dead self in young Bookwalter, he told him that he should be making movies of his own. Raimi was even willing to put up some money to make it happen.

Raimi's connection to The Dead Next Door is supposed to be a secret - he didn't think his name should be on it because he didn't want to take attention away from Bookwalter, and he also figured the fact that he was putting money into a low budget indie would be frowned upon by any potential Evil Dead II investors - but it's one of the most poorly kept secrets ever, and since Bookwalter was very open about his dealings with Raimi in his book "B-Movies in the 90s and Beyond", I think it's safe to talk about it. Still, you will not find Raimi's name on the film itself (though the lead character is named after him). Instead, he took his executive producer credit as "The Master Cylinder".

Bookwalter's first thought was to shoot the movie on VHS, but then eventually fell back on the familiar Super 8, a choice which Raimi supported. At their first meeting in 1985, the nineteen-year-old Bookwalter was thrilled when Raimi offered to put up to $8000 into the movie, but by the time filming was done in 1986 and post-production was finally finished in 1989, Raimi had ended up paying out just under $100,000 to help Bookwalter get The Dead Next Door made.

Some Raimi cohorts got involved along the way, with his Evil Dead II co-writer Scott Spiegel (Intruder, Hostel: Part III, Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except) making a cameo as an ill-fated Zombie Squad member, and Bruce Campbell overseeing the completion of post-production. The voice of every character in the movie was dubbed in post, and Campbell provides the voice of our hero named Raimi.

Raimi got the movie made, but the story, style, and content of the film is all Bookwalter, and the young Ohioan made a really fun zombie movie with a large scope on his graciously provided but small budget. The special effects, including puppets standing in as the really decayed zombies, and gore are fantastic, and there are some great sequences in the movie.

One of my favorite moments has a Zombie Squad member spotting a lone zombie stumbling along the top of a hill. Mixing work with pleasure, he tosses a grenade at the zombie. That successfully takes that ghoul down, but unfortunately draws the attention of a whole horde of zombies who were just out of sight on the other side of the hill.

People from the Akron area turned out in droves when Bookwalter needed zombie extras for the opening title sequence, which plays out over sights of the city being overrun by the living dead. He even managed to get an aerial shot of his zombie extras, and to get permission from the city to shut down a street to fill with zombies, victims, and smashed cars.

Like Romero before him, Bookwalter even took some of his cast and crew with him on a road trip to film a sequence in Washington, D.C. It adds production value, but it also got Bookwalter and company in trouble when his zombies started climbing the White House fence. As you'd expect, White House security did not approve of that.

But Bookwalter got the images he was looking to capture, and they are in his finished film, which is a nicely paced zombie tale with some Romero-esque touches, an impressive scale, and DIY indie charm. As a fellow Ohioan, I have a soft spot for The Dead Next Door. I'm proud of Bookwalter's achievement with it, and his work makes me feel inspired to get out there and make movies myself.

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