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Interview with J.R. Bookwalter (The Dead Next Door)

Many wannabe directors in the 1980s began shooting their homemade short films on Super 8 or VHS but J.R. Bookwalter took it a step further and, at the age of just nineteen, commenced work on his feature debut, a micro-budget zombie picture called The Dead Next Door. Taking inspiration from Sam Raimi’s school of filmmaking, who had shot the cult classic The Evil Dead at the same age, Bookwalter not only wrote and directed the picture but also took on numerous behind-the-scenes roles in order to reduce the cost, including editing, composing the score and even assisting in the special effects.

While Bookwalter has never publicly admitted to it, many believe that the film’s executive producer, credited only as the Master Cylinder, was in fact Raimi. Developed over four years at a final cost of $125,000, The Dead Next Door was the ultimate DIY horror movie and has served as an inspiration for other struggling filmmakers who wish to direct a feature with little money but lots of ambition.

J.R. Bookwalter reveals the blood, sweat and tears that went into the making of his independent classic.

Did you always want to be a filmmaker and were your interests always with horror or did you see this as the easiest way to shoot your first film with a low budget?

I started making Super 8 short films with my mother’s home movie camera around age ten, and from that day forward it was definitely my first love. I grew up watching Dark Shadows on television, although my early short films were more sci-fi thanks to the inspiration of Star Wars, Godzilla, Ultraman and all of that. When Fangoria magazine #1 hit stands, I saw the coverage of Dawn of the Dead and went nuts over splatter flicks, so that stuck with me for a lot of years.

Having started out like many young director by shooting Super 8 films with your family and friends, what made you decide to finally write a feature?

I didn’t think I was ready to do one, but after showing some of my short films to the Master Cylinder in Detroit, he encouraged me to get my own feature going instead of trying to be a crew member on his next film. Not being a guy who needs to be told twice, I spent the four-hour drive back to Akron thinking about what kind of movie I’d make and then hit the old manual typewriter and started banging it out right away.

What prompted you to write a zombie script and how challenging was it to create an interesting story while remaining conscious of the cost?

Dawn of the Dead made me a zombie nut, and a few of my short films had covered that subject, so it seemed like a good subgenre to attack first – pun intended. The Dead Next Door, like most of my early work, was written without any concerns as to how I would pull it off or how much it would cost, I mostly wrote what I wanted to see and worried about how to do it later, which came back to haunt me, of course.

How long did the entire writing process take and how difficult was it to come up with new elements to add to the zombie genre which, by the mid-eighties had become oversaturated?

I seem to recall writing the first draft in less than a week, but it went through another five drafts over a lengthy pre-production period. And remember, this was back in the days before computers…I did the first draft on my old manual typewriter and the others were done on electric typewriters, which meant having to retype the damn thing every time! The story was mostly rooted in the Romero zombie mythos, but I tried to throw a lot of my own stuff in there, like the virus that can’t be cured (inspired by early news reports about AIDS at that time) and the religious cult (inspired by the old Jim Jones Guyana tragedy), which I felt were original ideas for that kind of movie.

When you first conceived the idea, and throughout the writing and shooting of the film, did you intend for The Dead Next Door to be a serious movie or did you always plan for it to include humour?

I have kind of a weird sense of humor, and as such, most everything I do tends to come off more as black comedy than true horror. Of course, some of the gags were designed to give folks a chuckle, like the finger that comes out of the zombie’s severed head near the beginning of the film, which still gets a reaction to this very day. I think audiences find the movie funnier than I probably intended it to be, but it was never designed to be a scary thriller kind of flick anyway.

How did The Master Cylinder, Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel become involved in the project and how instrumental were they in the financing and pre-production of the movie?

I had quit the Art Institute of Pittsburgh at the beginning of my second year and moved back home. A short time later, I was thumbing back issues of Fangoria and rediscovered the article on The Evil Dead, made by a bunch of guys in Michigan, only a few hours from me. Long story short, I looked them up, drove up to meet them in the hopes of working as a production assistant on Evil Dead 2 and wound up making my own movie instead.

Scotty was on board from the get-go, we hit it off right away so I asked him to come aboard and play one of the roles. He was really into the movie and supportive of us doing it, which was great. Bruce came in much later, when we decided to finish the sound mix out in L.A. and he was hired to oversee that work as well as dub a few characters since we couldn’t afford to fly them all out for it.

Why did you chose to shoot The Dead Next Door on Super 8? Were you concerned about how this would look once it had been blown up for cinema screenings?

My original thought was to shoot it on VHS video for a few thousand bucks, believe it or not! Then we toyed with ¾” U-Matic video, which was kind of the pro video format of the day, but ultimately thought that Super-8mm film would be the way to go. Turns out that the Master Cylinder had always wanted to shoot a feature on Super-8mm anyway, although it was kind of a nightmare that I’d never repeat again. We did some tests, blowing some shots up to 16mm and 35mm, but it was clear from the beginning that we were targeting the home video market, so a theatrical release was never in the cards.

Was it true that the film was made for just $75,000? How was this achieved and what was the most expensive aspect of the production?

I think it was more like $125,000 by my count. I have no idea where the legend about $75,000 ever came from; sounds like a lot today but at the time it was a very common low-budget budget. A chunk of that was wasted, really. Stupid mistakes we made along the way, the first couple weeks of shooting had to be scrapped and redone, that kind of thing. None of us had shot a Super 8 feature and finished it on video before, so it was really a learning curve for all involved. But I will say, the stuff that you see in the movie that may look costly probably wasn’t, the simple stuff cost more.

With this being your first feature, how prepared were you for the various problems that filmmakers face during the making of a movie and what were the greatest challenges that you were forced to deal with?

I was only nineteen-years-old, so I probably shouldn’t have been prepared at all given my lack of life experience! But surprisingly, by and large the cast and crew met the challenges head-on and an awful lot of people devoted an entire summer to the bulk of the shoot in 1986. We had such a long pre-production period, I felt pretty confident going in, too. But that’s not to say that it was an easy experience, it was anything but!

How long did the overall process of making the movie take, from the writing to the editing, and were there times that you wished you had never begun?

I wrote the first draft of the script in August, 1985 and the movie wasn’t completed until the spring of 1989, so it was almost four years! And yes, there were plenty of times where I wished I had never started it, especially when money ran dry and I had to go off and shoot weddings or music videos for local bands to keep our little office open and keep the dream alive, so to speak.

How supportive were the people you knew during the making of the movie and how eager were the people form your community to appear in or work on the film?

Actually, by the time we started shooting, most of the cast and crew were people I hadn’t known prior to making the movie. But people were coming from all over northeast Ohio, eager to be involved, I guess because nothing like this had ever happened in Akron before. Anyone who auditioned and didn’t get a speaking or extra role was brought back to play a zombie at the very least, and there were more than 1,500 of them over the course of the shoot, including one day of shooting with three hundred at once for an aerial shot.

There were a few bad seeds in the cast and crew, but for the most part, everyone was really into it and really put forth a tremendous amount of effort. I’ve never had an experience quite like that one again, to be honest, especially on the more professional work I did later on.

With the Master Cylinder and Campbell involved, comparisons with The Evil Dead are inevitable. How would you compare these two movies and which zombie films in particular would you say The Dead Next Door was closer in tone to?

It’s funny, because Scott Spiegel told me when the film was finished that it was more epic than The Evil Dead, that we had basically put more up on the screen with much fewer dollars ($125,000 versus The Evil Dead‘s final budget of $500,000). He’s right about that, I mean, The Evil Dead is basically a cabin in the woods and a small cast, whereas The Dead Next Door has literally a cast of thousands, including zombies on the fence of the White House! But The Evil Dead is of course a much more accomplished effort. I make no aspersions that The Dead Next Door is the better film, that’s for sure. My ambitions were loftier, but that doesn’t mean that I succeeded.

How difficult was it to find distribution for the film and do you feel it received the support that it deserved?

No, it was always poorly distributed until 2005 when Anchor Bay released it on DVD. The movie sat for a year before being released in 1990 by Electro Video, which was a small group of filmmakers in North Carolina who also had a Super-8mm feature they were selling. They did a good job of getting the word out, but sales weren’t fantastic. I took over the distribution of the movie shortly after I started Tempe Video in 1991 and helped get it out there even more, but they were always small deals that would never hope to recoup the film’s budget. But, somehow, some way, people found the movie, which I’m always thankful for.

What kind of reaction did the movie receive from critics? Was it as successful as you had hoped and how did it help to open up your career?

It’s funny, because when the movie first came out it received fantastic reviews. Film Threat Video Guide had even gone as far as saying it outdid the Romero zombie flicks, which is of course crazy talk, but it’s nice that they thought so. For a long time, it was hard to find a negative review of the movie anywhere… that is, until the internet reared its ugly head. Now you can find plenty of bad reviews if you Google it, although most of those are written by kids who bag on the movie for being shot on video – which it clearly isn’t – or can’t appreciate the low budget aspects of it. I didn’t really have any expectations going into it.

I just wanted it to springboard me into making other movies, and it accomplished that task. I had a deal for a second, 16mm feature while I was still in post-production on Dead, and even today the film opens doors in the distribution world, too. Ironically, it had nothing to do with my most productive stretch with Full Moon from 1997 to 2002, but with almost everything else I’ve done, Dead has cast a long shadow for sure.

J.R. Bookwalter

J.R. Bookwalter

Twenty years on, do you have fond memories of making The Dead Next Door and are you proud of what you achieved? Do you feel the movie has aged well and have you ever considered directing a sequel or a remake?

I really hated the movie for a long time, mostly because I was just sick of hearing about it from everyone. When the Anchor Bay deal happened, they paid me to go back in and remaster the movie from scratch, and during that lengthy process, I began to appreciate the movie for what it is and to see it through the eyes of all the people who tell me how much they dig it. It’s far from a perfect movie, but it’s got a lot of spirit and heart, which is sorely lacking from independent movies today, so I’ve finally made my peace with it after almost twenty-five years.

I don’t feel that it’s aged too well, although as I mentioned before, you don’t see many indie films these days with as much ambition. There is a script for a sequel called Dead Future: The Dead Next Door which came close to being made a few years back, but it mostly sits on the shelf these days since I’m not as active in production as I once was. I actually came up with an idea I like even more that’s more of a direct prequel to the first film and could be done for a lower budget, so who knows? Never say never.

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