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Title: The Dead Next Door (1989)
Director: J.R. Bookwalter
Runtime: 78 minutes
The Dead Next Door falls firmly into the cult horror genre. It’s a lower budgeted, independent film that is clearly a passion project, which is what makes it so endearing. Shot mostly in Akron, Ohio, The Dead Next Door took three years to complete. Little did director J.R. Bookwalter know at the time, but his work with this film was just beginning, as over 25 years later, he would take his first movie, shot on 8mm film, give it a 2K restoration, and release it in HD on Blu-ray, where it would find a whole new audience entirely, myself included.
The Dead Next Door is a zombie film, as you might have guessed, but the climax of the film is more about how our group of zombie killers handles a cult that keeps zombies as pets. The film picks up in Ohio where we meet the doctor whose experiments have caused this zombie outbreak. Then we get a montage that explains away the next three years, as zombies take over the country. Finally, we meet Zombie Squad 205, whose task is to kill zombies, and eventually, to drive out to Ohio to try and find the doctor that may have a cure. Once they arrive, though, the local cult starts a war with them, and they’re tasked with trying to survive not only the zombie apocalypse, but also a crazy cult.
There are a load of laughable special effects in The Dead Next Door, but there is also some really remarkable make-up work to be found. One scene in particular has a zombie taking a bite out of someone’s neck, and it is gruesome as hell. The worst aspect of the effects work has to be when the director brings in the puppets. Especially with this clear-as-it-will-ever-be transfer, it’s easy to tell that we’re looking at puppets, and it can be distracting. It definitely takes some suspension of disbelief, but it doesn’t ruin the movie by any stretch.
As with most independent, locally shot films, this one has some questionable acting. This is made even worse by the fact that none of the audio could be used from when they shot, and the entire film had to be scored and dubbed in post-production, from the dialogue to the sound effects as simple as a zombie crawling across the floor. One of the cool outcomes of this, though, is that Bruce Campbell – yes, that Bruce Campbell – does a couple of the characters in the dubbing, including the lead, Raimi. If you come in expecting a lot of that local, community theatre acting talent, you won’t be disappointed. The cast does a decent job, frankly, and there is nothing in here that can’t be tolerated.
One of the coolest aspects of the film are all the homages played to other horror films of the time that clearly influenced Bookwalter during filming. Three of the main character’s names are Raimi, Carpenter, and Romero. That’s as blatant as the tributes get, but there is also some Evil Dead love thrown in, certainly because Sam Raimi was executive producer on the film (apparently he used the money he earned from Evil Dead II to make this film with Bookwalter). At one point, there is a scene from Evil Dead playing in the background, and the character tells Raimi, our lead, that he should watch it to improve his zombie hunting skills. It’s a small moment, but definitely fun for those that catch it.
The Dead Next Door is an ambitious film that is certainly not for everyone. It’s not a great movie, but it has a ton of heart seeping out of every scene to make it endearing to horror fans like myself. This recent Blu-ray release was my first experience with the film, but I already know that it’s one that I’ll come back to again and again over the years. Sometimes a movie just hits you in the right spot, and you forgive things like mediocre special effects, shoddy acting, and inconsistent audio quality. The Dead Next Door is a cult favorite for a reason. All horror and cult movie fans will want to check it out if they haven’t already.
3 out of 4 stars