THE DEAD NEXT DOOR (1988) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: J.R. Bookwalter
Tempe Entertainment

J.R. Bookwalter's gritty, grimy DIY Super 8 pastiche of zombie film plots and imagery THE DEAD NEXT DOOR gets an extraordinary Blu-ray bump-up courtesy of Tempe Entertainment.

A zombie plague of apocalyptic proportions breaks out in Akron, Ohio of all places. Four years later, the zombie epidemic has claimed the President of the United States among millions, and the military's Zombie Squad has to contend with "stupid protesters" who want to "Let the Dead Walk!" while supplying zombies for Dr. Moulsson (Bogdan Pecic, ROBOT NINJA) who seems to be more interested in sadistically experimenting with the physiology of the dead than finding a way to kill them. Unlike DAY OF THE DEAD's mad doctor, Moulsson has come up with a possible antivirus, but it necessitates a trip from D.C. to Akron and the lab of Dr. Bow (Lester Clark, SKINNED ALIVE) whose serum to reanimate dead cells was responsible for the outbreak. Although the theory is shaky, the Zombie Squad's leader Kline (Floyd Ewing Jr.) feels it is worth the risk when colleague Mercer (Michael Grossi) is bitten by Moulsson's talking zombie Vox (make-up artist Bill Morrison, one of the film's two "Buds") having just lost another of his team (THE INTRUDER director Scott Spiegel) on the previous mission. As Moulsson and his put-upon assistant Dr. Franklin (Roger Graham) accompany Kline, Mercer, and their colleagues Raimi (Pete Ferry) and Kuller (producer Jolie Jackunas) to the Bow house, they notice that the nearby town is zombie-free; but not so much the Bow house itself where they discover the mummified corpse of the doctor. When Vincent (Jon Killough, GALAXY OF THE DINOSOURS), a local scout for the church of Reverend Jones (Robert Kokai) learns of what the scientists and soldiers plan to do with Dr. Bow's serum, he attacks them and is wounded in his escape. Raimi and Mercer trail Vincent and his cohorts Carpenter (Jeff Welch) and Lloyds (director J.R. Bookwalter) back to the Reverend Jones' church at the local high school only to discover that his congregation – including his zombified son Jason (Michael Todd) and Dr. Bow's amnesiac daughter Anna (Maria Markovic) – is a cult that believes the zombie outbreak is God's will. When Raimi grabs Jason for Moulsson to test his modified serum, Jones sends his followers and his zombies hordes to lay siege to the farm . In the meantime, Moulsson has injected the untested serum into Mercer and discovers what happens when it is administered to a subject who is not entirely dead.

A Super 8mm epic lensed in Ohio with little money but a tremendous amount of ambition and DIY enthusiasm, THE DEAD NEXT DOOR manages to simultaneously be a loving pastiche of overfamiliar zombie film plot elements and imagery (with more than a few variations on the DAWN OF THE DEAD scare of zombie masses suddenly pouring forth through opened or unboarded doors) and a landmark in the low budget zombie film genre in its own right. For as many action sequences that seem scaled down, there are sprawling, extras-laden, downtown metropolitan shots to depict the scope of the zombie outbreak. Performances are all over the place but earnest enough to for us to root for the good guys and hate the bad guys (both of the principal baddies get gutted but more HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD-style than the DAY OF THE DEAD's "choke on 'em"), and director Bookwalter (ZOMBIE COP) in his feature debut assuredly leavens the drama (underdeveloped as it is with Dr. Bow's daughter ultimately serving little purpose) with some humorous asides ("Can't you do anything right, Savini!"). Half of the special make-up effects – not always convincing but executed with splattery gusto – are the work of David P. Barton (SLEEPWALKERS) who was working with K.N.B. and Steve Johnson by the time THE DEAD NEXT DOOR was actually finished and released in 1989. Assistant David Lange went on to supervise visual effects on a number of Full Moon productions. Besides the future Full Moon connections – Bookwalter would direct WITCHOUSE II as a more ambitious follow-up to the David DeCoteau film – THE DEAD NEXT DOOR is also a footnote in the history of the EVIL DEAD series. Spiegel has a small but prominent role as an ill-fated member of the Zombie Squad, having become part of the project through Bookwalter's friendship with Josh Becker (THOU SHALT NOT KILL… EXCEPT), just two of the film's connections to the EVIL DEAD team (indeed, it is rumored that Sam Raimi was the uncredited executive producer of the film, funding it with the money he made off of EVIL DEAD II).

THE DEAD NEXT DOOR first appeared on DVD in Germany and the UK in special editions featuring a commentary by Bookwalter and make-up artist Dave Lang. Anchor Bay's 2005 DVD featured a remastered transfer, new Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and an audio commentary by Bookwalter, actor Todd, and cinematographer Michael Tolochko. Last year, Tempe released a three-disc Blu-ray "Ultimate Edition" limited to one thousand copies and exclusively available through their site. The Blu-ray featured a brand new 2K-mastered scan of the original Super 8mm elements in your choice of an original aspect ratio pillarboxed 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 presentation and a 16:9-cropped 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen version. Stripped of mildew stains, cleaned of scratches, and items that were once cropped out of the frame now digitally painted out, the new transfer was quite refreshing to the eyes with bolder colors, and more detail in the still-grainy shadows. The fullscreen version was OAR, of course, but the cropping of the 16:9 version was not damaging (and indeed drew attention to some details clueing the viewer early on to the outcome of a visual gag). Several individual shots could not be sourced from the Super 8 materials (suggesting that several fifty-foot cartridges went missing in the years before the Anchor Bay master), and were upconverted from the video master (as they had been for the DVD). Considering what has come before, it was hard to have any complaints about the new transfer. Both transfers could be watched with the "classic dubbed mix" or the "original cast mix" in with remixed music and effects (done at the time of the Anchor Bay release by Tempe's post-production offshoot Fat Cat Post) in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The optional English subtitles provided for both transfers transcribed the dubbed mix, and it really is the preferred mix since it was of the same technical level of the original music and effects mix, and also features THE EVIL DEAD's Bruce Campbell (who supervised the dubbing and built up the sound effects tracks in Los Angeles) voicing Raimi, Carpenter, and some extras. The original cast audio was finally resynchronized to the film and mixed in with the music and effects but it was subject to the recording technicians, uneven levels, and the sometimes frankly bad line readings.

Disc one of Tempe's new retail two-disc Blu-ray/DVD edition is identical to the Ultimate edition with all of the same extras, including a then-brand new commentary by Bookwalter and producers Jolie Jackunas & Scott P. Plummer who reflected on their extraordinary achievements with little resources, humorously recalling the Washington D.C. shoot and their run-in with the CIA (the D.C. film commission director was so impressed by their guerilla shoot at the White House that she waived the rest of the location fees),a s well their disappointment upon discovering that the first two weeks of footage was unusable. They also discussed film's effects, the many cast and crew doubling on both sides of the camera, and the long post-production period (along with Campbell's aforementioned contributions). Bookwalter had told most of the stories before on previous commentaries and featurettes for the earlier releases, but the cleaned-up presentation prompts some fresh-sounding reactions out of the participants.

The Blu-ray also included "Restoration of the Dead" (19:19) in which Bookwalter discussed the process of editing the original version for VHS (Super 8 telecined to 1" and dubbed down to 3/4" for off-line editing, edited twice in that format because he did not know that he needed to burn-in the timecodes for online editing, editing the 1" reels and then mastering to 3/4"), and then having to manually seek out, trim, and splice together the needed shots from eleven to twelve hours of Super 8 film cartridges before digitally color correcting and editing in SD for the Anchor Bay release. The 2K scan of the same film materials and the new technology allowed for more detail, superior color correction, and damage clean-up. The "Capitol Theatre Screening" (12:22) featured Bookwalter and several of the cast and crew reflecting on the shooting experience and then answering questions after the screening, while Bookwalter fielded another Q&A solo at the "The Nightflight Screening" (16:28) – with good video but poor audio recording – in which a couple extras turn up in the audience. The behind the scenes footage (19:13) was narrated by Bookwalter as he discusses the Quonset hut that served as production office and sound stage, some of the messing around the cast and crew did on the tail ends of the cartridges, and the D.C. shoot. He also picked up some historical footage of Akron's contribution to the 1986 Hands Across America campaign. The deleted scenes & outtakes (7:11) were also narrated by Bookwalter but featured some production audio and also included a scene extension and one entire deleted scene along with some blown takes. The still galleries section should not be overlooked as it includes world video/DVD covers, twenty-seven minutes of storyboards, as well as additional galleries of behind the scenes and production stills. The film's trailer (1:46) is included along with trailers for PLATOON OF THE DEAD and POISON SWEETHEARTS.

Whereas the ultimate edition's DVD side featured two versions of the film – the original tape master prepared for the VHS release with a choice of the "dubbed" mix in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and a Spanish dub (along with optional English subtitles), and the SD digital transfer from the Anchor Bay is also included with the new Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a 2.0 downmix, as well as optional English subtitles – with a new track by the podcast No-Budget Nightmares, the aforementioned track Bookwalter, actor Todd, and cinematographer Michael Tolochko – who earned the nickname "The Prince of Darkness" not for his preference for shooting in low light like Peter Hyams (BUSTING) or Gordon Willis (THE GODFATHER) but for the mishap with the broken camera that underexposed the first two weeks of shooting – as well as well as all of the extras from the Anchor Bay DVD (under a submenu titled "2005 Extras") as well as a host of new extras produced in 2015 with new interviews and vintage behind the scenes footage, much of this has been dropped for the DVD side of the newer edition. The DVD instead features the 4:3 version of the new 2K remaster with the choice of the original cast mix or the classic dubbed mix in Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as the new commentary track, the Bookwalter/Todd/Tolochko track, as well as the previously not included track from the UK DVD featuring Bookwalter and effects artist David Lange (the podcast track has been dropped).

Extras were stripped down to the Anchor Bay's "20 Years in 15 Minutes" (15:32) featuring the then-contemporary reactions to the film of several of its cast members, including intern/zombie extra James L. Edwards (twelve years old at the time of production) who recalls it being like a long party with various forbidden elements irresistible to a teenager, the "video storyboards" (8:15) section comparing Bookwalter's storyboards to the finished scenes, as well as the "video preshoots" (5:32) excerpts from the VHS camera test shoot on location at the Bow house of the opening scenes including a botched take of the opening EVIL DEAD-esque "zombie vision" running POV shot. Also included are a montage of auditions (14:01) in which the various walk-in performers – including some who ended up cast like Bookwalter regular Barbara Gay who decided to try a hand at acting after a trip to California and a gameshow appearance – introduce themselves and then let out bloodcurdling screams, the "2000 Frightvision Reunion" (6:15) reunites some of the cast and crew, and finds one them making some facile parallels between the film and the HIV epidemic, a music video (3:05), the film's original trailer (2:01), and trailers for other Tempe Video Bookwalter titles KINGDOM OF THE VAMPIRE, OZONE, THE SANDMAN, and POLYMORPH.

None of the 2015 extras are included – among them a 2005 Canadian premiere, local TV coverage of the original shoot, TV promos, and three short films by Bookwalter – but the disc does include two new extras: "Richards Returns" interview with actor Scott Spiegel (5:10) and 1999 Location Tour with actor James L. Edwards (7:30). The CD soundtrack has also been left off this new edition. Those who missed out on the limited edition along with newbies are still well-served with a not-insubstantial substitute with a few exclusive extras, and it is likely that diehard fans who did not get the limited edition probably have most of the extras by way of the earlier DVDs. (Eric Cotenas)