J.R. Bookwalter's THE DEAD NEXT DOOR made quite a splash among horror fans when it first came out in 1989. Although there had been regional do-it-yourselfers before (notably Don Coscarelli), Bookwalter was one of the first filmmakers to produce a flat-out love letter to the works of George Romero and Sam Raimi. And though it doesn't succeed entirely, the movie should delight those equally enamored with those directors.
Bookwalter bases his zombie outbreak in Akron, OH (where most of the movie was shot), the result of an undetermined scientific project, establishing an undead backdrop much like DAWN OF THE DEAD's; Bookwalter takes advantage of his low-tech approach to replicate the same foreboding, apocalyptic tone of that classic, even mounting an ambitious assault on Washington DC (with zombies on the White House lawn and lurching beneath the Washington Memorial).
The film tells the story of a unit of the Zombie Squad (headed by Pete Ferry, his voice dubbed by Bruce Campbell) who roves the Virginia countryside wiping out any undead they encounter. Assisted by Dr. Moulsson (Bogdan Pecic, strolling around his laboratory in a lab coat and trucker's cap), the Zombie Squad travels to the Buckeye State searching for a serum that will stop the zombie virus. Along the way they cross paths with a doomsday cult--led by the Reverend Jones (groan), a messianic preacher who wears cataract glasses and chews scenery without mercy--who offers human sacrifices for no apparent reason than to spill more of the red stuff.
For all its strengths, THE DEAD NEXT DOOR is repeatedly hampered by its many flaws. Though striving for an epic feel, Bookwalter's script feels frustratingly shallow, moving from one gory setpiece to another without really exploring the story. The screenplay's also peppered with inane dialogue, with several feeble stabs at humor that fall flat; nor does it help that the cast (no doubt amateur friends of the director) is largely ineffective (though Ferry, in a comic book-hero role, escapes unscathed). And though I applaud a filmmaker so unabashedly in love with Raimi and Romero, Bookwalter ultimately mishandles his homages as well. He creates a universe in which zombies rent DAWN OF THE DEAD and people watch THE EVIL DEAD to hone their zombie-killing skills, then sprinkles in-joke character names like Savini, Romero, King, etc.; by trying to have it both ways, he winds up contradicting both aspects of his millieu. It doesn't affect the film as a whole, but both homage and in-joke ring false as a result.
Where THE DEAD NEXT DOOR excels is its almost constant use of gore as blood, brains, and entrails are splattered about in nearly every scene; a few fake heads aside, the film's effects, both the bloodshed and the zombie makeups, are pulled off with little concession to the film's limited budget (financed, by the way, by Sam Raimi's salary for EVIL DEAD II).
Most horror fans, particularly those of the zombified persuasion, will easily overlook these shortcomings and let themselves get caught up in the film's low-fi charm. It's just a shame that Bookwalter didn't use THE DEAD NEXT DOOR as a stepping stone to bigger projects (like Coscarelli did with PHANTASM), instead going on to produce shot-on-video dreck like ROBOT NINJA and CHICKBOXER.