Many creative people hail from the rusted industrial corpse of Akron, Ohio. Some of them even get famous. Musicians, mostly. But, when it comes to filmmakers, there is one name, and one name, only, associated with Akron. And it’s not Jim Jarmusch, despite what the list of people from Akron on Wikipedia would suggest. This filmmaker has not only made more movies than Jarmusch (who I like as a filmmaker, by the way), but made many of them in his good ole hometown. His name is J.R. Bookwalter.
His first feature, released in 1989, is the classic low-budget, ultra-gory Dead Next Door. Produced, written, and directed by Bookwalter, production began in the summer of 1985 when Bookwalter pitched Sam Raimi on the film. Raimi, gaining an executive producer credit, agreed to pony up the cash, and shooting began in spring of 1986 after some fits and starts. More problems cropped up, as often happens in productions like this, but the majority of the film was in the can by that autumn. 1987 and 1988 were for reshoots, more tinkering, and editing. Finally, sweet release on video in November of 1989. That’s a labor of love, folks.
Dr. Bow (Lester Clark), a scientist in Akron, has developed a new serum that he hopes will cure disease, or something. Instead, it turns the dead into flesh-hungry zombies. The undead rampage through the city in an opening scene to rival any other zombie flick of the previous 20 years. Bookwalter had his horde of zombie extras ramble all over downtown Akron and all the way out to the iconic Goodyear Airdock for a helicopter shot. Indeed, this might be the only film ever shot on Super 8mm that features a genuine helicopter shot.
This intro also showcases the excellent makeup effects work by David P. Barton and his team. Another Akron native, The Dead Next Door was Barton’s break into the industry, and he went on to a long and successful career in Hollywood. One won’t find his name on that Wikipedia list above, either. All he did for this flick was provide epic levels of blood and guts, satisfying all but the most sadistic gorehounds among us.
Cut to some time later, and the world has succumbed to the zombie apocalypse. Civilization is in shambles. But, the government in Washington is still functioning, and they have formed squads of zombie killers to try and retake the country from the hordes. To this end, one squad, led by Captain Kline (Floyd Ewing Jr.), is sent to Akron to find Dr. Bow’s lab and continue work on his serum, in the hope refining it will lead to it being a cure for zombieism. Kline is joined by scientist Dr. Moulsson (Bogdan Pecic); Moulsson’s assistant, Dr. Franklin (Roger Graham); and three tough as nails zombie killers in Raimi, Mercer, and Kuller (Pete Ferry, Michael Grossi, and Jolie Jackunas).
Upon reaching Akron, they find that the area is being terrorized by a religious cult led by Reverend Jones (Robert Kokai). His rule is law among the living and undead alike. He and his followers are set up in a school and keep a basement full of undead, which they keep well-fed. The zombie squad and the cult cross paths, and the second half of the movie is as much a battle of these two opposing forces as it is a zombie flick. That’s not uncommon in a zombie flick, as it’s difficult to keep a monolithic enemy like a zombie an interesting antagonist. Many zombie films go overboard with the human threat, but not The Dead Next Door. Jones is a fine bad guy.
There are gunfights, bludgeonings, all sorts of fun stuff, and, of course, the zombies. They’re not done having meal after meal after meal. This may be a low-budget movie, but Bookwalter didn’t skimp on the blood.
So, the good news is, The Dead Next Door is a fun, nasty little horror flick. But, it’s not for everyone. Viewers who aren’t used to seeing this type of independent filmmaking might find the Super 8 picture quality jarring. The voice overs can be tough, as well (keep an ear open for Bruce Campbell, who provided the voices of two characters). In just about every objective measure of cinematic quality, The Dead Next Door is lacking. For fans of shitty movies — and, remember, just because a movie is shitty does not mean it is bad — this film scratches an itch that is hard to explain to those who don’t have it.
This is a film made by a filmmaker in love with the art, and outside of the studio system. It was free from censorship by the prudes at the MPAA. The only compromises Bookwalter had to make were to Sam Raimi and to his budget. It’s a regional film, which is a refreshing reminder that there is more to American culture than what comes from New York and Los Angeles. It has a soul, when so much of what we are told to like in popular culture does not. In short, this movie is a remedy to the overbearing stagnation, the conference room crap, to which we are subjected day in and day out in the United States.
Most important for The Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, of course, is watchability. Does this film keep viewers engaged? Is it entertaining? Can it keep a teenager from reaching for the smartphone? The answer to that last question is no, because nothing can do that. But the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ to the prior two. The Dead Next Door is a welcome addition to the Index, landing between Strike Commando and Backdraft in the #40 spot. It’s shitty gold.