Monday, 5 September 2016

The Dead Next Door

Made over the course of several years during the late eighties, The Dead Next Door finally spluttered into VHS life by 1989, and has since gone on to evolve a minor cult reputation over the decades since.  An ode to the zombie films of the seventies and eighties, it's an ambitious tale of an uprising of the dead that sweeps across America.  Sounds unoriginal now, in the wake of millions of such films, but back then such films were comparatively infrequent.  Here the film follows a government appointed 'Zombie Squad' as they tour the countryside surviving whilst searching for what promises to be a cure for the epidemic.

Back in the nineties I picked up a dupe tale of the film, as it was not easy to get hold of at the time in the UK, and was for a while of the opinion that it had actually been shot on VHS (I'd seen a few features of this ilk around the period, like Redneck Zombies and the fuck-awful Zombie 90).  The reasons for it resembling a video-made item are now clear (explained indirectly through some of the extras that have materialised on disc since), however, it was indeed shot on film (Super 8mm to be specific).  That makes it even more ambitious for what was essentially a group of amateurs with little experience behind them.  There are some decent gore effects throughout, with a story that spans a variety of locations, populated by many extras.  Sam Raimi became involved from a production point of view, and Bruce Campbell ended up helping with the looped sound as well as voicing one of the characters - the location-recorded sound at the time proved to be unusable so the whole film had to be redubbed in post-production.  Overall J R Bookwalter did an impressive job under the circumstances, although casual modern-day viewers may be left a little cold.
As mentioned, I used to view this as a hopeless quality tape for a few years until Anchor Bay released a much better (though shorter, due to damaged footage) edition on DVD in the mid-noughties.  This came packed with quite a few extras too, and was the definitive release for some time.  Ten years or so after that Bookwalter decided to go through a fundraising campaign to restore the film properly, given the fact that technology had moved on quite a bit and the world was now blessed with the home cinema phenomenon that is Blu-ray.  Out of this came an Ultimate Edition in the US, while the UK got a stripped-down (though not bare) equivalent, courtesy of 88 Films.  The latter includes the remastered film (which was evidently a painstaking process, as outlined by the Restoration of the Dead featurette), commentary, featurette, and some deleted scenes as well as a booklet.  Being much cheaper than the UE I deliberated for some time over which version to get, but eventually decided to pay the extra and get the full deal.  It's certainly a great package overall, with multiple viewing options to start with:: the full frame (as shot) remaster, a (cropped) widescreen remaster, the DVD version that Anchor Bay released, and the original VHS version (all on two discs).  The reason he's decided to include all three is because the differences are not down to quality alone, for example the new edit corrects some issues with elements accidentally photographed that should not have been visible, as well as locating sources for the footage missing from the DVD version, whilst furthermore colour correcting the image and fixing unavoidable flaws that could not be sorted out ten years prior.  In terms of video and audio quality, the new remaster looks really good, especially when you think about the very small frame size of 8mm film (i.e. a fraction of the detail of 35mm).  There's plenty of grain along with much more detail than I'd seen before - the restoration has clearly been done with great respect.  One of the big sells for the UE is that you can choose to view with the 'classic dub' audio, featuring Campbell et al, or the newly restored on-location recordings, which are now usable thanks for technological progression.

There are also several of J R's pre-Dead short films, which show surprising promise considering he was just a boy at the time (these have commentary tracks by J R and his son!).  Aside from new featurettes the discs collate the extras from previous releases, plus have some trailers for various things.  There is also a CD of the soundtrack for used and unused material, plus a booklet, a reversible cover with unique number (for the 1000-limited print run).  Pleasingly it's also signed by J R himself.

Whether you want to pay a much larger sum for the UE will depend on a) how much you like the film, and b) how much of a collector you are, but it is truly an ultimate and very complete package, on the whole a loveletter to the film itself.  Alternatively you get the main transfer plus some of the extras for a much lower price from 88 - the choice is yours.  Either way, I think this film deserves a place in the discerning horror fan's collection.

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