J.R. Bookwalter is one of us. Okay, one of us with a production company and a hefty list of credits on the IMDb, but The Dead Next Door shows that he's a zombie fan at heart. The movie's teeming with homages to a bunch of the best known zombie flicks, and I could spend half of this review just rattling off all the connections to The Evil Dead. (For one, it's not a coincidence that one of the characters sounds suspiciously like Bruce Campbell.) Some of the nods are a little heavy-handed, particularly naming virtually every character after some sort of horror legend, but Bookwalter's obvious enthusiasm for the genre infuses it with so much energy that it becomes clear very quickly why The Dead Next Door has managed to amass such a strong cult following.
The Dead Next Door is an extremely lean movie, barely breaking the 70 minute mark if you ignore the end credits. Since it doesn't spend a lot of time delving into characterization or establishing a bunch of subplots, the pacing chugs along at a pretty fast clip. Even though the first couple of acts really don't feel that much different than everything else that aired on USA Up All Night in 1991, it still manages to avoid dragging in the middle, continually maintaining that forward momentum. The only time it really seems to drag is during the obligatory zombie-less expository scenes early on, but those pass by pretty quickly. Although a big chunk of the movie before it seems kinda conventional, The Dead Next Door really distinguishes itself from the rest of the spam-in-a-cabin flicks as the climax approaches. Using zombies as flesh-eating bloodhounds...as weapons...is more creative than just having 'em hop on-frame and gobble on people's innards periodically, and I really like the idea of the vengeful half-man / half-zombie. The cliché is that the moustache-twirling bad guy is going to get ripped into fist-sized chunks near the end, but The Dead Next Door dishes it out to people who are short-sighted and incompetent rather than cacklingly e-e-e-evil. There's no real central hero, no romantic subplots have been shoehorned in, and anyone can be picked off at any time.
The movie ekes out a lot of production value considering its pretty much non-existent budget. Cramming in so many undead extras adds a scope that a lot of low-budget zombie flicks lack, and the splatter effects are really ambitious. Budgetary limitations do creep in, but the movie doesn't shy away from dumping buckets of blood all over the screen, and the camera doesn't cut away when a zombie chomps onto a neck or when a group of 'em start disemboweling someone. Although not quite on the same scale, The Dead Next Door has some of the same sense of humor about its zombies that Peter Jackson would show off a few years later in Dead Alive. One of the earliest attacks in the movie has a zombie being decapitated, and as his body is still flailing around and squirting blood everywhere, his severed head chomps off a couple of fingers that slowly poke through what's left of his neck.
Okay, The Dead Next Door isn't on the same level as many of the movies that inspired it. The dialogue is clunky, the editing can be choppy and awkward, and some of the line readings are stiff. That's okay, though -- a movie can still be good without being great. The Dead Next Door is a love letter scrawled in blood to Sam Raimi and George Romero, a campy, gory homage that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek until a rotting corpse rips it out and eats it.
Video: The Dead Next Door was shot on Super 8, so you might want to yank another DVD off the shelf if you're just trying to show off your 65" widescreen HDTV. Still, for a Super 8 transfer, it's fantastic. The quality varies from shot to shot, and although a good bit of the movie still looks like J.R. Bookwalter grabbed a Bell and Howell 8mm camera off the shelf at K-Mart, the best of The Dead Next Door could almost pass for 16mm. Sure, it's soft, it's grainy, and it's speckled. There's even mildew damage in some spots. Colors are all over the map, and although this new transfer is much improved over the barely discernable VHS releases, the image often leans dark to the point where detail kind of fades away in some areas with no real shadow delineation. None of that should really catch anyone who grew up with a Super 8 camera by surprise, of course. Although it goes without saying that The Dead Next Door doesn't stack up well next to a nine-figure 35mm production, this DVD never looked worse than I was expecting and frequently looked much, much better.
Audio: The Dead Next Door has gotten a pretty nice Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kbps) remix. It does a good job of filling each channel with sound while avoiding sounding overly artificial or gimmicky. There aren't a lot of pans or split surround effects, but some of the dialogue and sound effects are directional, and the music is spread out well and maintains a pretty solid presence throughout. I'm guessing the dialogue was all looped in post, which probably explains why it sounds as good as it does. Nothing astonishing or exceptional, but definitely decent enough. A Dolby Digital stereo track (192Kbps) is also provided. There are no dubs, subtitles, or closed captions, though.
Supplements: The multislashed writer/director/producer J.R. Bookwalter originally envisioned The Dead Next Door as a two-disc set, and although this special edition is pared back from what he initially had in mind, it's hard to complain about the several hours worth of extras that have been packed onto this DVD.
My favorite of the extras is the audio commentary with J.R. Bookwalter, actor Michael Todd, and cinematographer Michael Tolochko (recorded on Easter Sunday!). It's pretty much just 78 minutes of the three of them laughing; they have a great sense of humor about the movie, particularly Tolochko's masterful lighting. The many uses of potatoes in film production, having multiple governmental groups swarming them during a shoot outside the White House, moojacatchimen, a questionable white bodily fluid dripping down from someone's mouth during filming... I wish it had covered more of the nuts-and-bolts of independent filmmaking, and I would've loved to have heard more about the whole Sam Raimi thing, but even if it's not the most comprehensive commentary, it's still a lot of fun and is worth a listen.
Bookwalter goes on to narrate nineteen minutes of behind the scenes footage, and along with the usual fly-on-the-wall stuff are a visit to the Renaissance offices, a glimpse at Hands Across America, and lots and lots of goofing around. He also comments over seven minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes. There are only a couple of 'real' deleted scenes; the first tosses a relationship into the mix, and the second features the discovery of a Don't Torture a Duckling-grade severed head. Several scenes had to be shot multiple times, and some of those unused takes wind up here, including a zombified Josh Becker and an explosive tumble outside a window.
There are also eight minutes of video storyboards, comparing shots from the finished film with rough VHS versions taped earlier as a reference. Along those same lines are five and a half minutes of test footage shot when 3/4" tape was being considered. Tons of cast members -- even people trying out for zombie roles -- are tackled in fourteen minutes worth of audition footage, which tends to be more conversational rather than just people rattling off lines from the script.
"20 Years in 15 Minutes" is better described as 15 years in 15 minutes since these interviews have been sitting around for a few years now, originally piled onto the Crypt Keeper DVD release in the U.K. It's mostly just the cast (including some archival interviews from '87/'88) looking back on how grueling the shoot was and noting the impact the movie had on their lives. A bunch of the cast and crew got together at Frightvision 2000 and chatted about their favorite horror movies and memories like the Feds rushing out while Bookwalter shot the scene with the zombies rattling the bars outside the White House. The reunion runs a little over six minutes and seems kinda overedited -- there's a crossfade near the end of almost every single sentence.
Other extras include a music video by Three Miles Out (and if you were curious what the original titles looked like, here you go), a two-minute trailer, and a pair of extensive still galleries with 125 behind-the-scenes shots and production stills. The DVD is packaged in an Amaray keepcase, and a provided insert lists the movie's twelve chapter stops. The disc also features a set of 4x3 animated menus and plugs for a few other Anchor Bay titles.
Conclusion: If you need at least two hands to count the number of movies in your DVD collection with "Dead" somewhere in the title, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Dead Next Door. Although it is somewhat dated and doesn't reach the heights of the movies to which it pays homage, The Dead Next Door is a fun splatterfest that still holds up pretty well today. Even more impressive than all of the extras that have been crammed on is the low sticker price -- a couple of online stores carry it for under ten bucks, shipped. At that price, it's definitely worth a blind buy for any rabid zombie fan. Highly Recommended.