The Dead Next Door (1989)
Pete Ferry (Raimi), Bogdan Pecic (Dr. Moulson), Michael Grossi (Mercer), Jolie Jackunas (Kuller), Robert Kokai (Rev. Jones), Floyd Ewing Jr. (Capt. Kline), Roger Graham (Dr. Franklin), Maria Markovic (Anna), Jeff Welch (Commander Carpenter), Bruce Campbell (It’s a secret!)
“The government sets up a Zombie squad after an epidemic has made the world run rampant with living corpses. Raimi, Mercer, Kuller, and others head off to Ohio to try and find a cure to the epidemic but soon run into a crazy cult of zombie lovers who are set on preserving the zombies and letting a new world be born because they believe that it’s God’s will. When Mercer gets infected with the zombie virus, Raimi and the others must work quickly to find a cure and avoid the cult.” – Taken from the Amazon product page.
Have we not done a zombie movie yet?! Let me fix that. Even if I eliminated those that were not post-apocalytpic I could probably write this column about zombie movies for at least the next ten years. I know I started this thing off with the doomsday movie from which all others seem to branch and by that logic my first zombie movie should probably be The Night of The Living Dead
but if I do all the tent-pole movies first then nobody’ll be reading while I’m dissecting Scott Shaw movies and that would be a bad thing indeed.
The Dead Next Door is not The Night of the Living Dead, it’s more what that movie could’ve been in less capable hands. When someone complains that The Evil Dead looks amateurish I recommend this so they’ll be able to see what the film-making of an amateur actually looks like. Director/Writer J.R. Bookwalter confesses his sins on the DVD commentary as he picks apart all his rookie mistakes. The staging is bad, the lighting is bad (he states that Director Spike Spiegel, who plays a small role at the beginning, taught him how to use a light meter there on set), and the audio was apparently so awful that the entire movie had to be re-dubbed in post.
The Dead Next Door is a strange creature though, it’s a poorly made movie and the plot isn’t much to talk about, yet it grows on you. On my initial viewing of this movie I traded it at a Gamestop, but two years later I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to buy it and watch it again. With each viewing my enjoyment of this movie has only grown, despite the fact that it’s still objectively terrible. It has become a part of my October rotation and it’s hard for me to quantify why, so I’ll do it the only way I know how: by mumbling pseudo-intellectual bullshit at strangers.
We open on “Present Day” (see: the late 1980s) Akron, Ohio as a man and his daughter barricade themselves in their basement. A group of gun-toting rednecks (or whatever passes for such in Ohio… Unemployed lumberjacks? Hockey fans? Drew Carey Show extras? I know nothing about Ohio.) breaks in and starts beating the man. He warns that the men should run before “They” get them and as if waiting for a cue, a zombie grabs a redneck and tears his throat out.
We then watch as zombies passive-aggressively invade Ohio whilst renting movies (all zombie movies, of course), failing to use payphones, and invading an A&W restaurant as though they’ll get in trouble if they break something. A fake-sounding news report tells us what our eyes already have just in case we’re all stereotypical Jewish grandmothers. Then the screen goes black and a logo that was obviously added decades later on sub-standard editing software flashes across the screen.
A car pulls down a lonely country road and stops in front of a farmhouse. This is Zombie Squad: an elite government task force formed to combat the zombie menace. These blue jump-suited wonders have the awareness, peripheral vision, intelligence, effectiveness, and average lifespan of an Imperial Stormtrooper. These are our heroes and they are stupider than a sack of doorknobs. One of the squad members goes over the plan and… wait, I know that voice. That’s Bruce Campbell! I know that voice anywhere, why isn’t his name on the box? He- wait, that’s not Bruce Campbell, he bears a slight resemblance if you squint but he’s too tall and old. Does Bruce Campbell have a Joel Murray?
The man on the screen is actor Pete Ferry, but that’s not Pete Ferry’s voice (I have not seen any of the three other movies he was in so I’m just going to pretend he sounds like Michael Jackson), it is in fact Bruce Campbell speaking. As I said above, the entire movie had to be re-dubbed in post-production and for reasons that I haven’t found listed anywhere Pete Ferry didn’t or couldn’t re-dub his own role so Bruce Campbell (friend of secret producer Sam Raimi) came on to voice the character Raimi and another (more about that later) so this movie stars Bruce Campbell but he’s not actually in it. That said, while Ferry’s acting appears good (if body language is to be believed), Campbell’s voice acting not only perfectly matches up with Raimi’s lips; it’s naturalistic and miles better than any of the rest of the voice cast.
The Zombie Squad case the house for reasons which are never explained, it’s mostly just a show-case of decent gore effects and the general awfulness of the squaddies to do the one job they have. In this scene alone two men get ambushed by zombies (one by walking past a closet he stupidly doesn’t check, the other turning around in a wide open field), two men use grenades to dispatch a single zombie but don’t think to use them to fight off the large group that appears toward the end of the scene, and one man is bitten when he sticks his fingers in the mouth of a disembodied head he himself put there mere seconds ago because he decided to feel around blindly under the bed rather than walk around it and just pick up his rifle. After the expository nothing has happened, the squad returns to their home base in Washington DC, this is the most ambitious part of the movie and the one thing that makes this movie famous.
There is a long shot of zombies climbing on the fence in front of The White House. This is not a model, it’s not a matte painting, it’s not a convincing mock-up. J.R. Bookwalter took a van to Washington DC, dropped off a load of extras in zombie make-up, filmed them climbing on the fence, and got his ass (as well as the asses of his cast and crew) arrested. Still, it’s a ballsy shot and a nice bit of world-building. There’s also a large group of Zombie Rights Advocates that are protesting outside of Zombie Squad headquarters and it adds some window dressing and marginal depth to this particular world.
After Raimi, Culler, Mercer, and Captain Kline (minus the glorious molestache of Scott Spiegel’s character Richards) return to base we’re treated to another random scene of Zombie Squad incompetence as two different squaddies fail to master the concept of electric windows and K-Mart brand Tony Danza gets his throat ripped out.
Raimi and Mercer are called to Dr. Moulson’s lab and here we meet a rather peculiar character. Dr. Moulson is your standard exposition-spewing scientist type in a lab coat with sneakers, a pocket protector, and slacks. For some reason Moulson wears a yellow mesh trucker hat with “I thought I was wrong but I was mistaken” written on it in black marker for no particular reason. There is never an explanation as to why and he barely even mentions it, but it destroys any credibility the character attempts to have. Moulson tells our heroes that he’s traced the zombie virus to Akron, Ohio in the lab of Dr. Bow (the man from the movie’s opening) and that if they can go there and looks at Bow’s notes he should be able to engineer a cure. At this point Mercer backs up and rests his hand on the lab table that a zombie is sitting on, this would be forgivable if he hadn’t been looking at it with Moulson and Raimi thirty seconds ago. So he gets bit and now our heroes are in a hurry, or at least that’s what they say despite seeming pretty chill until Mercer’s zombie bite becomes relevant to the plot again.
So our crew (plus Moulson and his assistant/Stephen King impersonator Dr. Franklin) head to Akron where they get ambushed by zombies at Dr. Bow’s house. Amid the chaos, a creepy looking teenager named Vincent muscles his way in. Vincent tells the squaders that he’s living at a nearby church compound with the rest of the procession and since this isn’t an exorcism movie “Church” = “Crazy Ass Cult.” The cult is run by the Reverend Jones (subtlety!) and believes that the dead were sent as a punishment for the living to wipe out evil by killing off humanity. Naturally the zombie eliminating government agency and the zombie loving death cult have a clashing of belief systems and things go south. Vincent kills the captain with his own machete and runs away, taking a bullet to the back, but is rescued by Commander Carpenter.
Brief sidebar on Carpenter. The man is a singularly ridiculous design. He has a blond mullet, an army jacket, and a receding hairline. He is kind of meant to be the mini-boss enemy but he never poses a credible threat to anyone or anything. He’s also voice by Bruce Campbell doing a scum-bag voice (basically just his Rob Tapert impersonation in a lower register).
A lot of nothing that feels like something happens. We find out that Reverend Jone’s son is a zombie with a heart of gold, we find out that Dr. Bow’s daughter Anna is now brainwashed into believing she’s Jone’s daughter and has no recollection of her previous life, that the church is stockpiling zombies, that Mercer is succumbing to his bite. Moulson sends Kuller and Raimi off to get a zombie to test his cure on while he injects it into Mercer because he thinks it will cure him and Raimi steals the Reverend’s son to inject the cure into. The cult attacks the Bow house but get pretty fairly trounced, of course Zombie Squad leaves Mercer behind by accident because they make the Police Academy cops look competent.
In a shocking twist the cure works/doesn’t work. Reverend Jones’ son melts on the altar while the entire church watches but Mercer just becomes hyper intelligent and speaks with a bad voice distortion effect so deep that you can barely understand what he’s saying. Jones admits his lie to Anna (doesn’t matter because her subplot is a dead end anyway), Mercer kills Moulson after he’s phoned Washington and told the incompetent Dr. Savini the cure but before he could tell him not to use it on still-living people, Jones lets loose all his pet zombies but they mostly just dispatch all the cultists, and Raimi gets bit because he fails to remember that the zombie he just tripped over is still there.
Kuller and Raimi flee back to Washington where they inject Raimi with the “cure” and he too becomes a super-zombie. He kills Savini but Kuller manages to off herself by backing up against the same zombie that bit Mercer, which is still there on the same table. The movie ends showing a zombified Rami getting into his squad car (The “Zombie Squad” logo has been defaced to read “Human Squad”) and the movie ends. Apparently “Human Squad” was the title of a sequel that never got made and probably would have been stupid anyway.
The interesting thing about the plot is that there’s not really a “good” side. The Zombie Squad are portrayed as the heroes but they’re pretty much bumbling fascists and even though Jones’ cult does a lot of crazy shit they do seem to have some tamed some zombies. I think the “Human Squad” bit at the end is kind of a commentary on how everyone left is awful and the world in this universe is a better place with the zombies in charge, but it’s not a message that the plot remotely earns.
Probably the biggest failure on The Dead Next Door’s part is not playing it straight. There are a lot of goofy bits and sight gags that don’t work and aren’t funny, and they actually take away from the fun of the movie. Schlock is at its best when it pretends to take itself seriously.
So that’s The Dead Next Door, and I know I was down on it but it has a strange sort of charm that grows on you. The special effects are pretty decent, the idea is somewhat appealing, and Bookwalter occasionally manages to make things look suitably creepy/atmospheric. Bruce Campbell is the only good performance but others like Robert Kokani’s Reverend Jones manage to be scene-chewingly charismatic. The movie is still not really good, but it is pretty fun and I have certainly seen (and often enjoyed) worse. If you like goofy schlock then give it a watch.
NEXT TIME ON DOOMSDAY REELS
“Only one man can kill this many Russians. Bring his guitar to me!”