JUNE 12, 2009
Every budding filmmaker with a love of horror movies has attempted to make his or her own zombie film with resources primarily consisting of dedicated friends, local businesses owned by relatives, and more often than not, a pretty decent local makeup/effects guru. I myself tried it when I was 18 (we shot about 1/5 of it; none of the zombie action), and worked as the editor for one when I was 21, and let me tell you: it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. And that’s why a movie like The Dead Next Door, while far from perfect, will always get my seal of approval: merely pulling it off is an achievement on its own, and this one has some highlights to boot.
For starters, the sheer amount of zombie action is unparalleled. Even some of Romero’s films didn’t have as many shootings, dismemberments, and beheadings as this one does. And the effects are quite impressive, particularly the squib work. To see a zombie run over to a human, and then the human spins around and shoots the zombie, with a big ol’ exit wound spraying blood everywhere - ALL IN ONE SHOT - is pretty rare in these films. Usually it’s “zombie runs over” - CUT TO A DIFFERENT ANGLE - “blood sprays from a suddenly immobile zombie”. The zombie design is pretty good too; it’s the standard Romero look, but considering how many zombies are shown in certain scenes, it’s nice to see how many of them got fully made up.
And they go to the goddamn White House! Holy shit! Some other DC memorials are visited as well, but the White House! A+!
I also loved how quickly it got going. Few zombie films take more than 10-15 minutes for the outbreak, but when you’re dealing with a no budget entry (if you factor in inflation, this film cost less than Night of the Living Dead), you can forgive them if they want to take their time. But no dice here; the opening credits are set over a fairly convincing and widespread zombie invasion of Ohio.
In fact, that fast pace results in one of the few things about the film that I had trouble with: it’s way overplotted. Early on, our heroes are sent from DC to Akron, where the outbreak occurred, and I thought that would be the main plot of the movie. But they get there instantly, find the guy they are looking for, and head back and forth between there and DC throughout the film. Then a cult, evil scientists, serums, talking zombies, brainwashed teenage girls, and probably a half a dozen other subplots get tossed into the mix. It’s fine to try to stick out with a new story, but there’s no need to bog it down with so many characters and tangents. Plus, being an indie, it wouldn’t surprise me if certain scenes never got shot, as certain plot threads and character arcs are rushed to the point of minor confusion, particularly during the 3rd act.
Also, I can forgive the whole “Naming all of the characters after horror legends” thing that was so big in the 80s, but not how much writer J.R. Bookwalter beats it into our heads. A character named Savini will be referred to by name sometimes 3 or 4 times in a single scene (by the same character more often than not), and likewise for characters named Raimi, Romero, Carpenter, etc. Also, the source of the outbreak seems to be at the house belonging to a guy named Bow, which they repeatedly refer to as “Bow house” (not even THE “Bow house”. So I kept thinking of Bauhaus. The unnecessary dialogue padding isn’t restricted to names, there are a lot of puzzlingly redundant phrases throughout the film, such as “The human cannibals” (as opposed to the kitty cannibals?) and reference to someone “committing their own suicide”. Maybe it’s supposed to be a cheesy joke, but it doesn’t come off that way.
The DVD is jampacked with so much stuff I didn’t even have time to watch it all. We get a wonderfully fun commentary with Bookwalter and some of the crew, with no stone untouched and loads of information, plus a confirmation of my suspicion that the lead actor was redubbed by Bruce Campbell, who he resembles anyway (I wouldn’t be surprised if the role was meant for him from the start; an early scene has some folks watching The Evil Dead and telling the character that he could “learn some things” from the movie). Bookwalter also provides commentary for some deleted scenes/outtakes, as well as behind the scenes footage. Then there’s a boatload of other stuff, including a reunion from a horror con, a retrospective with new interviews from just about everyone involved with the film, storyboards, the original video test footage (video was the original designated format for the film, before it was changed to Super 8), auditions, a music video... if Anchor Bay plans to double dip this one, they haven’t left themselves a lot of room to add stuff.
It’s a not-very-secret “secret” that the film was financed by Sam Raimi, knowledge of which is a big part of why many folks (including myself) have checked it out. And like Intruder, sometimes Bookwalter is a bit too eager to try to live up to his hero with his camerawork and such, but it’s not detrimental, and there are just as many Romero homages as there are Raimi ones. And you got to keep things in perspective; there may be a million of these things around now, but back in 1985 (when the film first went into production, it was finished four years later), this was borderline revolutionary in terms of what a small, inexperienced (they were all just out of high school) crew with meager funds/resources could pull off. It’s a terrific example of how to make the best of what you got; and that plus the informative extras make this a must for anyone who plans to helm their own zombie epic in their own backyard.
What say you?