Pop quiz: Name the early ’80s independent cult film that involved Sam Raimi (billed as "The Master Cylinder"), Bruce Campbell, and Scott Spiegel, in which the dead return to wreak havoc upon the living. Anyone who answered The Evil Dead or Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn must now go directly to jail. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200. If you answered The Dead Next Door, give yourself a hearty pat on the back.
Yes, Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Scott Spiegel were all involved with the first two films in The Evil Dead trilogy and, indeed, they’re both early ’80s independent cult flicks in which the dead return to wreak unholy havoc upon the living. The trick is that Raimi was never billed as "The Master Cylinder" on any of the Evil Dead films. Yeah, sue me.
I only recently stumbled upon The Dead Next Door courtesy of the internet. A large number of web sites are dedicated to this lost gem. Upon discovery, my curiosity was piqued and I set out to find this film. Once I obtained a copy and sat down to view it for the first time, I was surprised at how effective the film was. As a low-budget zombie tale, it serves as a natural successor to films such as the Evil Dead trilogy and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
While Night of the Living Dead can be viewed as a cautionary tale of cold war nuclear paranoia and the Evil Dead films were used to showcase Raimi’s extraordinary camera work, The Dead Next Door simply is what it is: "A movie for fanboys, directed by a fanboy" to paraphrase director
Directed by: J.R. Bookwalter. At times, the film seems cheesy and the production values sometimes appear lower than they are but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Dead Next Door never takes itself too seriously: while watching the film, one can almost sense that Bookwalter wanted that camp feeling associated with classic B-movies.
In keeping with Bookwalter’s genre fanboy demographic, The Dead Next Door contains a vast number of references to other zombie films. In the opening scene, a zombie stops by a video store to check out a VHS copy of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and, presumably, to feast on the video clerk, as well. In a nod to his own genre heroes, Bookwalter laces the film with characters named after horror writers and filmmakers, such as (Sam) Raimi, (Stephen) King, (Tom) Savini, and (John) Carpenter.
While there is a definite satiric atmosphere present in The Dead Next Door, the level of cinematic brilliance Bookwalter often achieves is remarkable. Despite a low budget, Bookwalter managed to pull off a few incredible feats and, in the process upped the ante for all zombie films to come. Born of raw genius or sheer madness, Bookwalter aspired for his zombies to achieve levels greater than their higher-budget predecessors. Where Return of the Living Dead implied that the living corpses might one day take over the nation, Bookwalter’s zombies do it right before your eyes! Hell, they climb over the fence and on to the White House lawn!
Not allowing himself the credit he so-rightly deserves, Bookwalter chalks his ambition up to naÃ?Â¯vetÃ?Â©Ã¢Â?Â? saying he didn’t know what he was doing. Had he actually taken the time to consider it, he probably wouldn’t have done some of the outrageous things he did. Naive or not, Bookwalter obviously has a keen cinematic sensibility.
The story behind Bookwalter and The Dead Next Door began in the mid-’80s. With hopes of becoming a filmmaker, Bookwalter attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Upon arrival, he envisioned working with the likes of locals George Romero and Tom Savini. Yet, the closest he came to this was a stint as a zombie extra on the Day of the Dead set. To make things worse, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh didn’t teach much in the way of film classes. Dejected, Bookwalter dropped out in the middle of his sophomore year. In a search for inspiration, he pulled out a dusty stack of old Fangoria magazines. While leafing through them, he came to an article about Detroit filmmaker Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Realizing that Detroit is only a few hours from his hometown of Akron, Ohio, he called Raimi’s production company, Renaissance Pictures, in search work as a production assistant.
After Raimi agreed to look at Bookwalter’s work, the aspiring filmmaker drove like a maniac, heading for Detroit City limits. Upon showing Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell his roughly made Super-8 films, the impressed Raimi made a nearly off-handed comment that he would consider funding a feature length project by Bookwalter. Sitting down behind a ratty old typewriter upon his return to Akron, Bookwalter began hammering out a screenplay that he finished in a week. "I think Bruce thought Sam was nuts for helping this kid no one really knew much about," Bookwalter remembers.
Campbell remembers things much the same way, "Yeah, I thought Sam was basically nuts. But, since before the first Evil Dead film, we all had a morbid fascination about whether or not a feature film really could be done in the Super-8 format. Sam decided to put his money where his mouth was."
Initially, Bookwalter planned to shoot the entire thing on a budget of $8,000. "I don’t know what I thought I could do with $8,000 and a video camera, but I was willing to try," Bookwalter reflects, laughing. Eventually, they decided to shoot The Dead Next Door on Super-8 and the budget soared to $125,000; an amount almost unheard of for such a grass roots-style film. "If nothing else, just wanted to go out and try something bigger. I always bite off more than I can chew, I think. Things like the zombies on the White House fence and the aerial shots were certainly Spielbergian influences."
Bookwalter and crew applied for a permit, but were told that zombies absolutely could not be placed anywhere on the White House lawn or on the fence. Fully utilizing some big brass cojones, Bookwalter and crew shot the zombies on the White House fence without permits. They managed to get about one shot before Secret Service agents surrounded them. "We got totally busted," Bookwalter says, giggling like a schoolboy. "We passed it off like we were students and they let us go. Unfortunately there were some scratches on that footage, but that stuff is priceless."
Scott Spiegel, who wrote Evil Dead II (and who would later direct Intruder and From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money), agreed to appear in the film as a favor to Raimi. Spiegel would later appear in other Bookwalter-directed films, such as Robot Ninja. "J.R. knows what he wants," Spiegel says. "He shoots fast and you'd better know your lines. No screwing around. But he’s not a tyrant. He’s very easy to deal with and open to all kinds of ideas."
Because of occasional budget problems, the shoot lasted four years. After shooting was finished, came the task of correcting the film’s unsalvageable sound. Transferring the tracks from their original Super-8 would cost a lot more than anyone wanted to spend at this point and would have caused the budget to balloon even more. Because of Bruce Campbell’s previous sound engineering work at Renaissance Pictures (see CdC #5), Raimi suggested that Campbell be in charge of correcting the sound problems. Once Campbell came on board, they decided to overdub all of the voices in the film. Campbell, Spiegel, and Bookwalter provided most of the characters’ voices in the film.
"I was appointed to be the guy who would help supervise every shred of sound put to J.R.’s film," Campbell explains. "It had no useable production sounds whatsoever, so I took the approach that it might as well have been an Italian film and that we were just doing the English version. So, I rounded up a pile of actor friends and we all supplied the voices. It was a hoot, really."
This dubbing only further adds to the unique camp of The Dead Next Door, giving it the feel of Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento film. In fact, the technical ineptness of The Dead Next Door serves to increase its stature by associating it with Italian horror as many hardcore horror junkies have come to believe that Italian horror films are superior to their U.S. counterparts.
According to Bookwalter, he and Campbell had daily disagreements regarding various aspects of the sound. "Bruce and I would be sitting there, practically having a screaming match—it would be that I wanted the music louder or he wanted the effects louder. We’d be fighting about something, then ten seconds later he’d crack some joke, and I'd be laughing so hard that I'd forgot all about it. He has this completely charming and disarming way of cutting through the BS. We’d split the difference and compromise, which is, of course, what this whole business is about. He had his marching orders from Sam (whatever those were at the time as far as what they wanted to get out of this movie and what they wanted to do with the sound), and I had my own ideas."
"Well, it was all about sensibilities," Campbell recalls. "I can’t help but insist on certain procedures that I had become familiar with, regarding looping, foley and mixing philosophies. J.R. was just a filmmaker who was trying to get his flick made and I could never fault him for that. To my recollection, we got on all right, although I’m sure I came across as Sam’s thug, sent in to oversee his world. Eventually, I did get Sam to cough up far more for sound than he had ever intended."
As visions of John Carpenter danced in his head, Bookwalter suggested that he score the film himself. Campbell agreed that it would be acceptable and quite a bit cheaper than paying someone else to compose music for the film. Looking back, Bookwalter calls his desire to score the film himself "an asinine idea that, if I were to do it over again, I would never have done!"
Eventually, the film was completed and it slowly began to gain a cult following. "I’ve done random web searches on my name or The Dead Next Door and I’m always amazed when all this stuff comes up and you see all these fan pages," Bookwalter says. "They have audio clips and video clips, all these pictures and stuff that people have put up for The Dead Next Door... You start to realize that there are really people out there who are watching and becoming affected by this stuff."
Over the past few years, rumors have circulated that The Dead Next Door was actually directed by Sam Raimi. A foreign distributor actually went so far as to change the film’s title to the unwieldy Sam Raimi Presents The Dead Next Door: Another Evil Dead. When I began working on this story for Cashiers du Cinemart, I asked one well-known genre director for his thoughts on The Dead Next Door and he went on to tell me that he believed Raimi actually made the film.
"Yes, I think it’s pretty funny how misinformation spreads," Bookwalter says. "Then again, I’ve never really done anything to stop it. The few times I’ve seen people mention that Sam directed it; I just laughed and moved on. There are 50 cast and crew people and tons more who were peripherally involved that would also disagree after four long years of work!"
Bookwalter’s low-budget gorefest may soon share another distinction with Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in that it’s the first installments of a proposed trilogy. Bookwalter is working on a sequel and has ideas for a third installment. For the second film, entitled The Dead Next Door: Dead Future, zombies and humans are learning to coexist with one another. "There are a lot of racial undertones, where zombies are sort of looked upon the way that society would choose to look upon any other given race," Bookwalter explains. "There are a lot of those kind of issues. You could almost take the zombies and the gore out of it and it would be a drama. But, when you add those things back into it, it suddenly becomes something different." J.R. Bookwalter’s visions are soaring to new heights again.