3-minute Blu-ray review: The Dead Next Door (1989)

Released on Blu-ray & DVD by Tempe Digital, September 26, 2017

Specs: All Region, 1080p HD, DTS 5.1

Running Time: 78 minutes

Genre: Classic American Zombie (Dawn of the Dead, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things)

The Concept: A small band of soldiers travels from Virginia to Ohio in search of an antidote to a zombie plague, but they must first face off against an armed and hostile religious cult determined to stop them.

The Movie: DIY horror films are fairly commonplace today, thanks to the relative availability of HD cameras and editing software, the ease of sharing/streaming content online, and the rise of the found-footage genre, which eliminates the need for polished cinematography and time-consuming shot coverage.

Prior to those developments, however, making a film on your own was tough going. You needed expensive film stock, lighting rigs, and professional post-production equipment. You had to strike costly prints. Then you had to find a theater willing to show your film or a home video distributor able to mass produce it.

Enter J.R. Bookwalter, ambitious youth. In the mid-1980s, armed with a Super 8 camera, then 19-year-old Bookwalter spent four years shooting a surprisingly epic zombie-splatter adventure that was eventually released on VHS as The Dead Next Door. The film plays like an expanded universe entry in George A.Romero’s living dead franchise (imagine a Star Wars-type standalone that takes place between Dawn and Day of the Dead).

The Dead Next Door looks like what it is: a remarkable achievement in home moviemaking, replete with amateurish acting and inconsistent cinematography. The Evil Dead, the greatest DIY success of that decade, is far more polished and spectacular in comparison. Alas, while Bookwalter has carved out a niche career in the horror genre, his talents didn’t translate to the big leagues the way Sam Raimi’s did.*

[On the other hand, I’ll bet Bookwalter’s Robot Ninja is more fun to watch than Oz, The Great and Powerful.]

Video: The transfer is as good as the source allows. That is, the outdoor, wide-angle daytime shots look generally clean and bright. The close-ups are rather grainy, owing to the film being shot on Super 8, a poor format for subjects closer than three feet from the lens.

On the plus side, the color temperature is accurate and naturalistic. Conversely, there’s a fair amount of flutter present in some shots. It’s not easy to pull focus on an 8mm camera, either, and it shows at times. Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do about picture quality when reproducing 8mm film in HD.

Audio: It’s difficult to evaluate sound quality when the audio track is patchwork (some ambient, some looped). The volume is uneven, but I suspect adding compression to flatten it out would introduce a considerable amount of hiss.

Extras: Audio commentary, featurettes, outtakes (oddly, the DVD offers three commentaries, the Blu-ray only one)

Verdict: The film is intermittently effective but, overall, doesn’t hold up that well. While the gore FX are well done, it’s too ambitious for its limitations. I quite enjoyed the Romero-esque “American heartland” setting and sensibility, though, and the filmmaker’s swing-for-the-fences approach is admirable.

*Raimi ended up serving as executive producer on The Dead Next Door, perhaps seeing something of himself in Bookwalter.