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Five Horrific Questions with J.R. Bookwalter, Akron’s Mayhem Master

Volunteer zombies from 'The Dead Next Door'
Volunteer zombies from 'The Dead Next Door'
Our final five horrific questions feature - our Halloween edition - features one of my favorite horror directors, J.R. Bookwalter. And not just because I was an extra in his most notable film, the cult classic The Dead Next Door.

In many ways, Bookwalter helped pave the way for independent filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith. The Akron-native dove into independent filmmaking in the late 1980s, shoring up funding, securing locations and writing his own personal guerilla filmmaking manual because, for the most part, no one else had done it yet. (Well, except maybe for Pittsburgh’s George Romero, an icon in independent horror filmmaking and one of Bookwalter’s idols. Oh, and Detroit’s Sam Raimi, who was coming off a hit with his independent horror movie The Evil Dead II and was instrumental in getting The Dead Next Door up off the ground.)

After The Dead Next Door became a cult hit across the globe, Bookwalter went on to make a slew of low-budget horror tales, including Robot Ninja, Zombie Cop and Witchhouse II: Blood Coven.

Today, Bookwalter’s semi-retired from filmmaking, though a casual glance at his IMDb entry will show he’s executive producing Invasion of the Not Quite Dead, a zombie film based in the U.K.

So what makes Bookwalter quake in his covers at night?

Five Horrific Questions with J.R. Bookwalter

MMM: What makes a horror movie scary?  

J.R. Bookwalter
J.R. Bookwalter
J.R. Bookwalter:  Not sure I'm the best person to answer that question, because I've never really set out to make "scary" horror movies. I've rarely been scared by movies at the theater and especially not on home video, so I probably don't have a firm grasp on the concept to begin with. (laughs) But in general, I'd say something that taps into our primal fears. For example, VACANCY is kind of a silly movie, but I found aspects of it sort of disturbing, having spent so much time over the years driving across the country and staying in motels that would be charitably considered "fleabags." So any kind of movie with that kind of vibe is bound to make me uncomfortable, at least a little.

MMM: What movie frightened you the most?  

J.R. Bookwalter: As a kid, I was pretty terrified by EQUINOX on late-night TV, especially the scene where the demon park ranger attacks one of the girls. Doesn't really hold up as an adult, but I still love the movie for its quirky charm. As far as scare moments, seeing John Carpenter's THE FOG during first release would be one, and another would be Dead Nate's hand shooting out of the grave during the "Father's Day" segment of George Romero's CREEPSHOW. More recently, the scariest movie I've probably seen was THE ROAD... being a relatively new parent, the father-son relationship really touched a nerve for me, because it was relatable.

MMM: Who is your horror inspiration?  

Promotion for 'The Dead Next Door'
Promotion for 'The Dead Next Door'
J.R. Bookwalter: George A. Romero, which shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's watched THE DEAD NEXT DOOR. (laughs) I admire the way he mixes social satire with horror, and even in his lesser efforts, there's good material and something worth watching there. Or as I always say, Romero's "worst" movies are always better than most people's best films. I also found inspiration in the early works of John Carpenter, John Landis, Wes Craven, and Dario Argento.

MMM: Why do we like to be scared?  

J.R. Bookwalter: It's a rush of adrenaline, which is the stuff that kind of makes us feel alive. Horror movies are no different than roller coasters or haunted houses or even skydiving, although I've never been brave enough to indulge in the latter. (laughs) I think when we become adults, life becomes somewhat routine with work and family, so watching scary movies or participating in events that stimulate us provides a much-needed break from reality... at least it did until this whole "torture porn" movement with movies like SAW, which I've never been much of a fan of.

MMM: What movie would you like to turn into a horror movie?  

Just how scary is George Jefferson?
Just how scary is George Jefferson?
J.R. Bookwalter: It's not a movie, but one of my all-time favorite TV shows was THE JEFFERSONS, mostly because you watch it and know that George is gonna lose it, but you're not sure when. I think that kind of setup would lend itself nicely to a horror flick, but instead of being a short little hothead, George would go on a killing spree each time or eat human flesh or something. (laughs) Seriously though, I think we should be more concerned about making horror movies scary again... ever since SCREAM, horror has been on a downward spiral of stupidity, so rather than cross-pollinating from other genres, I'd be happy just to see some flicks come along that make me feel like a teenager again. Assuming that's even possible. (laughs)


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