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By Mike Watt | October 11, 2005

The Dead Next Door is a phenomenon. One of the first “backyard” films to receive national distribution, it was shot on Super-8mm film by a twenty-year-old director named J.R. Bookwalter. Both a tribute to and a pastiche of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, “The Dead Next Door” explores what is now a familiar b-movie theme: life after an undead epidemic has seized the world. In Bookwalter’s zombie world, a special squad has been organized to dispatch the living dead, and scientists are working to find a medical cause/cure.

What makes “The Dead Next Door” so special, beyond its original storyline and surprisingly-exemplary technical achievements, is that it was not only the filmmaker’s first feature, but that it was achieved on such an amazing scale. The film has stood as an inspiration to a whole generation of young artists who not only connect with the movie’s guerilla feel, but also the “can do” history behind it.

Though it wasn’t an easy process, to be sure. “It just seemed like it would never end! (laughs) The bulk of it was shot over the summer of 1986, then as I started editing later that year we would go back and pick up shots that we missed or reshoot things that didn’t work or were over or under-exposed. There were certain scenes that just seemed cursed to never work out, that we kept going back and shooting over and over again to the point where I didn’t even have to direct the actors anymore, they knew the motions. (laughs) There were some days when we would pull 24-hour shoots, and honest to God to this day I can’t remember what the logic was in doing that! It seemed to make sense at the time, but we were never beholden to a particular schedule so I have no idea why.”

Looking back, Bookwalter is as mystified as anyone as to how he actually pulled the movie off. “Honestly, it was simply a combination of being young and naivé and ignorant to the proper way to do it! I had maybe fifty short films under my belt when we started in 1985, and the rest of the cast and crew had far less experience. So they really trusted me blindly. I think it’s associate producer Michael Todd who mentions on the DVD commentary that he has never worked on another film where everyone devoted so much of their time and energy to the project, and it’s true…neither have I. The reason for that is none of us really knew what we were doing, but we were in it together and everyone was dedicated to this blind faith to see it through. (These days) I’ve kept to my indie roots even on movies like ‘Witchouse 3: Demon Fire’ where we’re in Malibu, California stealing shots without a permit. But would I go back to the White House to shoot scenes of zombies climbing the fence again? Hell no! (laughs) We just didn’t know any better then and wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. You gotta do these kind of movies when you’re young and stupid and don’t know any better.”

In August, “The Dead Next Door” was finally released domestically to DVD by Anchor Bay. It comes as a boon to collectors and a sigh of relief to the director.

“Quite a relief! Although DVD has only been around since 1997, but it’s been twenty years this (August) since I started on the project. It had actually been available on laserdisc in Japan some years ago — the only one of my films to ever be released on that format! But since 1997 I have been asked two questions more than any other. The first was, ‘When is ‘The Dead Next Door’ coming to DVD?’ and the second was, ‘When are you making the sequel?’ At least now I can answer one of those. (laughs)”

“Actually, the movie winding up with Anchor Bay is totally a fluke! I had posed the question to fans on my Tempe eNews e-mail list about doing some kind of Limited Edition release because I was getting so many requests for the DVD and knew it would be some time before I could justify doing a good one. At the time, Tempe DVD was being handled by a distributor who really wasn’t doing much business for me and I didn’t want to waste such a key title on them. Next thing I know, posted the story and I started to get bombarded with e-mails saying ‘Yes’ to the Limited Edition. And one of the e-mails happened to be from Michael Felsher at Anchor Bay, inquiring on them picking up the rights to the film! So of course I jumped at the offer, I’ve always been a big fan of AB so to me that was quite a big deal. Since then, I’ve noticed the excitement level among fans seems to be pretty high, so I hope they will do great business with it.”

Since “The Dead Next Door”, Bookwalter has worked on, produced, directed or posted on dozens of films for such mavens of low-budget genre as David DeCoteau, John A. Russo and Charles Band. Critics of his movies have heralded (Ozone, “Witchouse 3”) and destroyed (Galaxy of the Dinosaurs, “Kingdom of the Vampire”). But it’s always come back down to his first movie.

“You know, I have always had a love/hate relationship with “The Dead Next Door”. It took four years from start to finish and then I sort of abandoned it to make a bunch of other lesser movies, mainly because I had all this energy bottled up and a lot of frustration from how long it took to make. So I kind of forgot about the movie. Then it had an initial marginal release on VHS in 1990 and the positive word-of-mouth started to spread. It’s one of those rare cases where I didn’t have to push the movie at all, people just saw it and seemed to dig it! I just sort of took it all in stride because I was too busy trying to get new stuff going.”

That love-hate attitude prevailed for years. Until recently, Bookwalter was even hesitant to watch or even discuss the movie. “It was really hard for me to watch the movie for all these years, because I saw nothing but the flaws. I remember screening it at this film festival in Argentina that held a retrospective of my work…the movie was really well received but I was just sitting in my seat cringing, wishing I was somewhere else! (laughs) Then last year I embarked on remastering the film, which as anyone who does such work knows, you wind up watching pieces and parts of the movie which is usually more tolerable.

“By the time we finished the 5.1 surround mix and most of the picture work in March of this year, I sat down with a DVD-R to proof it before attending a film festival in Ottawa, Canada. I watched it alone and without skipping through it, and for the first time in nearly 15 years I finally saw it through the eyes of the people who dig it. I was a lot more mellow about it, and actually surprised at how much political and religious subtext there is in the film for a 19-year-old, because I don’t really remember being that opinionated about such things back then! So I’ve made my peace with the movie now, especially in the newly-minted version.”

Remastering the film, for the director, was as much of an ordeal as the actual production.

“It was a bit of a nightmare!” Bookwalter says. “The movie was shot on Super-8mm film which was never cut. Instead we transferred everything to 1″ video which was the dominant format at the time, and made workprint copies on 3/4″ video. So the first step was that I had to conform the original cut to the original transfer in order to pull the select takes and assemble them in movie order. I couldn’t find my original handwritten EDL so that turned out to be more of a task than it should have been. Then a friend named Dennis Petersen volunteered to conform my new EDL to the Super-8mm film and assemble those reels for the new telecine. We found that a few of the film reels were lost, which meant we’d have to restore them from the original transfer. The 1″ videotapes had started to deteriorate a few years ago so I had thankfully bumped them all to Betacam SP. We got lucky because most of the missing reels were just insert shots.

“The next step was to telecine the assembled reels, including the slates, and then I had to conform that against the work I had already done, replacing the new transfer with the old one. Along the way I found a few snippets of footage that I didn’t quite know how to make work back in the old days, so I slipped them into the new edit without changing the timeline. All of this work was done in the Media 100 system, which is also where the new titles and opticals were done. Another friend who used to work for me at Full Moon named John Ellis pitched in to augment a few shots with CG, mostly for gun barrel flashes but also to fix one shot that always nagged at me where the Zombie Squad soldiers throw the zombie with the grenade in his mouth out the window. It’s much cooler now.”

If that isn’t enough to make the average indie filmmaker shudder, Bookwalter’s perfectionism kicked in further. “I also made the decision to shorten the end credits by about 4 minutes…back in 1989 when we finished the film originally I didn’t have any way to do an end crawl so the entire end credits clocked in at something like 12 minutes! I had always been razzed about that, so now it’s a cast recap and a traditional end crawl. We did have to lose one song in the end credits as a result, but a new version of it appears on the DVD as a music video. I also recreated the main titles, which was necessary anyway because I no longer had access to an Amiga computer which is how they were done originally.

“Once all this work was done, I spit out a new Digital Betacam master and then we did some final scene-to-scene color correction on an Avid Symphony. At the same time, DA-88 copies of the original 24-track audio reels (which had also long ago deteriorated) were used to remix the film in 5.1 surround. Unlike some of the other Tempe DVDs I’ve done recently like “Ozone” and “Polymorph”, we didn’t rebuild the tracks, so the sound mix is more faithful to the original version, just in 5.1.”

As to why “The Dead Next Door” has remained popular all these years, even the filmmaker is hard-pressed to answer that question.

“Honestly, I have no idea! (laughs) Several of my friends have told me it’s because the movie just has a raw sort of ballsiness to it, almost like anything can happen. Maybe sort of like anarchy on film. (laughs) I have been told many, many times that it and several of my other films have inspired others to get out there and do the same, so there’s clearly something there that people connect with. Probably it’s just very raw and honest…it’s a fanboy movie made by a fanboy. Fans can smell when they’re being lied to, and ‘The Dead Next Door’ has the smell of some sincere effort to make something cool, even if I personally feel that I failed on many levels. But even when the movie has gotten a marginal review, folks seem to at least applaud the effort. Certainly ‘DND’ has many detractors! It’s funny because in the days before the Internet was widespread, it seemed that everyone loved the film…it wasn’t until the ‘Net gave any monkey with a computer a voice that the balance of the reviews seemed to shift somewhat. But thankfully the good word seems to outweigh the bad, although it’s been annoying to have some people comment about how the movie is shot on video!! What did we do, paint in all those scratches and grain?? (laughs) I guess these faux Internet reviewers have gotten so used to seeing video movies that they just assume everything low-budget is shot that way.”

Praise or criticism, Bookwalter remains practical about his career and the movies he’s made. “My ego is definitely not tied into this movie, nor any other movie I’ve made. It’s funny because lately I’ve had all these interviews and articles where I’m being referred to as some kind of ‘legend’ since I’ve made it 20 years. So I started to joke with my friends that they should treating me in the manner befitting a ‘legend’ but believe me, it’s all in good fun. I’m my own worst critic and honestly I’m always a little surprised when anyone likes the stuff I do. My ego only really peeks out a little when someone bashes one of the films, maybe I’ll get a little defensive but usually it’s more like, ‘Yeah, he called me on that’ or whatever too. (laughs)”

Which brings us back to the second most-asked Bookwalter question: when can fans expect a sequel? “I think it was in 1999 that I finally sat down with Dennis Petersen to work out the screenplay for the sequel, ‘Dead Future’. I had forever had a lengthy treatment which was way too epic in scale to ever be made, so Dennis and I put our heads together and came up with a story that was a little less grandiose but had even more of the political satire of the original. There were several interested parties over the years, but either the money wouldn’t come through or they wanted too much control over the project. Mainly I’m not making it because I’m stubborn…I want to make it with a little more money and at least the same creative control I had over the original, or why bother?

‘It’s funny because a few years ago some fan from overseas wrote me an e-mail and took me to task for making a bunch of shitty movies when the fans really wanted to see a sequel to ‘The Dead Next Door’. I wrote him back and told him why I was holding out. Of course at any point I could have made some half-assed shot-on-video sequel, but does anyone really want to see that? This fan totally turned around when I told him that and had nothing but respect for my decision. Sadly I think the window of opportunity for a ‘Dead Next Door’ sequel is starting to wane. The fans are maybe getting sick of zombie movies, and even turning against George Romero with Land Of The Dead! I figure if he can’t satisfy the fans, then I have no chance in hell to do it either. (laughs)”

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