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The filmmaker next door: J.R. Bookwalter, Akron’s own horror king, is still scaring audiences

Akron, Ohio, filmmaker J.R. Bookwalter
Akron filmmaker J.R. Bookwalter >>>

It was more than ambitious for the time. Forget digital cameras and Macs loaded with editing and special effects software – the kind of off-the-shelf film staples that define the modern no-budget filmmaker today. This was 1988. A feature-length horror epic shot on a shoestring budget and Super-8mm film in downtown Akron, Ohio? What was
J.R. Bookwalter thinking?

“It was a complete fluke,” the filmmaker says. “A once in a lifetime thing.”

That fluke turned into The Dead Next Door, a thunderbolt fueled by flesh-eating zombies, tough-as-nails soldiers, genius scientists, insane cult leaders, and gore – lots of it. It was even named one of Top 50 Essential Gore Films by Rue Morgue magazine.

While it was made on a ultra-low-budget, it comes from a rich horror pedigree.
Sam Raimi, the Detroit-born writer/director/producer, known for both his low-budget, independent horror film franchise Evil Dead and his big-budget, studio blockbusters, including Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell, and, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, produced the film. Raimi’s bosun, the legendary B-movie star Bruce Campbell, supplied voiceovers for two characters. 

Heck, even my brother, best friend, and I played zombies in the flick – two out of hundreds of people who answered the call to play extras in the film.

Today, The Dead Next Door has become a cult classic and a part of Akron lore. And it propelled Bookwalter from Akron to L.A. and back again, with a host of great B-movie stories to tell. Today, he’s sharing a few with Midwest Movie Maker.

Filmmaker J.R. Bookwalter looking through motion picture camera
J.R. Bookwalter behind the camera

Midwest Movie Maker
: How does a kid from Akron fall in love with filmmaking?

J.R. Bookwalter: I blame my mother, who claims to have been watching Dark Shadows while I was a baby! But really, the revelation came in 1977 with Star Wars, like so many other filmmakers in my generation. Within a year of seeing it, I went from writing about my love of that movie in cheesy little fanzines I was making at the time to actually busting out my mother's Super-8mm camera and shooting stop-motion animation with my Star Wars Kenner action figures.

My mother filmed a lot of my sister and me growing up, and it was always a big event when we'd break out the projector and screen and watch those home movies, so it was kind of a changing of the guard when I took up the camera. And once FANGORIA magazine debuted in 1979, the subject of my little movies became a lot more gruesome.

MMM: How’d your first feature, The Dead Next Door, come to be? And how has it grown in popularity over the last 17 years? (Though filmed in 1988, the project took four years to complete.)

JR: Very short version: A great deal of luck and being in the right place at the right time. I was looking to be a production assistant. Instead the filmmaker saw something in me that I didn't, and he put his money where his mouth was. It was a complete fluke, a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

It hasn't been released everywhere, but the list of countries that it’s been seen in is kind of amazing considering its humble origins: Canada, Brazil, United Kingdom (twice now!), Germany (several times, including dubbed in German!), Russia, Holland, Spain (dubbed in Spanish!), France, Malaysia, Japan (the only laserdisc release) and a bunch of others I've forgotten by now.
It was also screened in Argentina as part of a retrospective of my work, which was a lot of fun. It's even got a couple of other names: Another Evil Dead (?!) in Japan, Mondo Zombie in Spain and the new German DVD release will be called Zombie Squad, because the movie is banned there now.

Actress Jolie Jackunas as Kuller screaming as a zombie attacks her
Zombie Squad Agent Kuller, played by Jolie Jackunas, has a zombie problem

Any chance we’ll see The Dead Next Door 2?

JR: There is a script for a sequel called Dead Future: The Dead Next Door. It's come close to being made a few times, but the deals never happened. Over time I've just moved on to other interests.

A guy I know is currently shopping the original treatment I did called The Human Squad as a comic book. It's too epic to ever get financed, but maybe it will surface in another medium. I had an idea a few years ago for a prequel showing how the zombies come to be in the first place, and the original conflict between Dr. Bow and Reverend Jones. It would be a lot cheaper to produce than either of the sequel ideas, but so far I haven't done much with it except jot down some ideas. Maybe someday!

MMM: What made you decided to leave the Midwest for the West Coast?

JR: I actually did it twice, first in 1990, after a few 16mm features that didn't take me anywhere. I came back a year later and kept busy with some work-for-hire video features before building up Tempe Video and taking another stab at L.A. in 1997. By then, I felt confident with what I was doing and looking to move on.

I sort of stumbled into five years of working with Full Moon, including producing a bunch of stuff and directing three features for them. (Editor’s Note:
Full Moon Features is the brand of filmmaker Charles Band, a later-day Roger Corman, famous for making a slew of well-received straight-to-video horror films in the 1990s and 2000s, including Puppetmaster, Trancers and Demonic Toys.).

I was in L.A. almost 10 years, and that was enough for me. I figured I had accomplished more than most people who make the move out there.

MMM: What were those first few months like in L.A.?

JR: Truthfully, at first I just meandered. I was doing some freelance graphic design and Web work. I had set myself up with some income prior to the move, selling off Alternative Cinema (the magazine I published for a few years prior to 1997) and getting distribution for Bloodletting, the last feature we shot before the move. I was sharing an apartment with roommates and didn't really have any debt or bills at the time, so it was a good position to be in.

I wound up helping some friends from Wisconsin finish post on a film they were doing, and that's really what led to Shrieker, the first Full Moon flick that I edited and mixed. After that, it's honestly a blur!

But my fondest memory of the first year or two of L.A. was collecting DVDs. The format had first launched in a handful of cities and one of them was L.A., so I bought a combo laserdisc/DVD player and started collecting. It was great fun back then!

A witch attacks a woman in Witchhouse 2: Blood Coven
A scene from 'Witchhouse 2: Blood Coven'

: Soon, though, you were working with some bigger budgets than you were used to. How’d you adapt to the change?

JR: You know, mostly with bigger budgets come bigger headaches. It's more money, so you have more responsibility. And I never had a big enough budget on anything to be really comfortable, just enough to make a few bucks and play with some toys I wouldn't have otherwise.

For example, directing Witchhouse 2: Blood Coven in Romania, which was my first 35mm show, or Deadly Stingers, the last flick I directed, which was shot on HDCAM using the CineAlta. Really the best experience I had was on Witch 2. Being put up at the Hilton hotel in Bucharest, having my own personal driver to get to set every day – you really felt like a director. And I didn't have to haul any equipment either, so that was nice.

Filmmaker J.R. Bookwalter with two actors on the set of the movie 'Side Effects May Vary'
J.R. Bookwalter, center, with Robot Ninja star Michael Todd, left, and The Dead Next Door producer Scott P. Plummer

What are you working on now? Any spoilers you can share?

JR: I sort of took a hiatus from making movies back in 2003, after making Deadly Stingers, which wasn't such a fun experience. Since then, I produced some Bad Movie Police wraparounds, a documentary called Something to Scream About, and a handful of features for my DVD label, including Platoon of the Dead, which hits stores in June.

My proudest accomplishment of all is the son that my wife and I just brought into the world at the end of January. Standing there and watching him be born, it really dwarfs anything else I've ever done in my life. So now I'll hope to pass the torch down to him someday, if he wants to do it. Hopefully wiser than me.

Editor's note: Bookwalter is back in action in 2023, directing his first feature in more than a decade: 'Side Effects May Vary'

MMM: What advice would you give someone trying to break in to the business?

JR: Honestly, I wouldn't want to be breaking in these days. It's a different world and a different market. More than ever, filmmakers are praised for slick-looking yet empty-headed movies.

That said, the reality is that everyone has a shot at doing it now. The DV revolution has made it possible, even though it's not really practical to do it as a business anymore.

Content is treated as a disposable asset in this era of YouTube, so the trick is to either get discovered quickly, or be resourceful and find a way to make money with your content. That's always been the case, but it's much harder to stand out and make an impact now.

A zombie shuffles along in a scene from The Dead Next Door
A zombie shuffles along in a scene from The Dead Next Door

Give us your view on making movies in the Midwest – what does the region have going for it, and what does it need to do to become a mini-Hollywood?

JR: It was strange for me. When I left for L.A. the second time in 1997, there were only a handful of us doing it around the country. Or at least it felt that way, since we were linked by 'zines like Draculina or Film Threat Video Guide. There was no real Internet community like there is now. By the time I moved back to Ohio in 2006, there were so many people, just in Ohio alone, making movies, it was insane!

I used to have dreams of making Ohio a mini-Hollywood, but the reality is, it's not likely to happen. Hollywood is Hollywood, for good or for bad, and that's probably always where folks will want to go to get discovered. However, the digital revolution has leveled the playing field a bit. There are ways and means to make little movies and profit from them, but it's a lot of work. Personally I don't think Hollywood is all it's cracked up to be. I'd rather try to make my own go of it, but that's not for everyone.

As far as what the Midwest has going for it? Certainly we have a unique look and feel, and the people are often more down-to-earth and reliable.

The biggest thing I try to drill into people's heads: If you want to make movies, don't wait around for your big break. Grab a camera and start shooting! Forget about being a film purist, film is a dying medium. Take advantage of the technology at our disposal now and make the best of it.

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