Can't Stop. Won't Stop!
Certainly the veteran of the 'New Wave American Horror Movie' directors, JR Bookwalter is very much the professional filmmaker, and likes people to know. He is ambitious, outspoken, confident and extremely prolific. In his own words "I strongly believe that there is a unique angle to my own filmmaking endeavours that sets me apart from my peers."[*1. 'B-Movies In The 90's and Beyond' JR Bookwalter. Tempe Press 1992]. Of course his peers are usually somewhat reluctant to agree with him, he has a reputation for "pissing off" other filmmakers on the scene. But someone who describes his peers' work as "not anything like real filmmaking at all" is asking for trouble.
Needless to say he is by far the most experienced director involved in New Wave Horror and for all his self-satisfaction has made some pretty entertaining stuff. Not only that he has worked with some of the scenes many Icons - Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel, David DeCoteau and everybody's favourite Scream Queen Linnea Quigley.
He has 16 films under his belt... though like most successful film-folk has attempted to wipe a few from his CV. He is a workaholic and is skilled in every aspect of filmmaking - directing, producing, scriptwriting, scoring music, editing, SFX, acting and even titling and that's just the short list. One thing he definitely shares with his peers is an obsession with the business/art-form.
David DeCoteau has described JR Bookwalter as "a very serious filmmaker who doesn't fit into the mainstream." Ironically in April 1997 JR Bookwalter moved his production/distribution company to LA in search of more mainstream acceptance.
Born in Akron Ohio August 16 1966 JR Bookwalter has fond childhood memories of reading Fangoria and (like many of his peers) going to watch Star Wars. Also like many of his peers he spent much of his spare time shooting 8mm movies at home, mostly attempted rip-offs of the cool movies showing at the cinema at the time. Bookwalter did not attend film school instead he studied photography at the Institute of Arts in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, as we all know, is the home of the legendary zombie maestro and Bookwalter's biggest influence George Romero for whom he worked as an extra in Day Of The Dead.
To do justice to his career - which started for real at the tender age of 18 - would take a book in itself, so I will for the most part concentrate on the movies that have been released in Britain by SCREEN EDGE.
His first outing as director, and probably the film he is most remembered for, THE DEAD NEXT DOOR. Not only a homage to Romero's trilogy but a virtual précis of the events of all three. The film was shot entirely in 8mm, was four years in production and is commonly rumoured to be the most expensive feature film ever shot in the format (an estimated $125,000). From his experiences on DND he was able to glean the filmmaking capabilities that have kept him hard at work ever since.
DEAD NEXT DOOR STORY. The creation of The Dead Next Door essentially started as a whim. Legend has it that JR Bookwalter was reading through a copy of Fangoria when he came across an article about The Evil Dead. He had heard talk of the proposed sequel. Being and ardent fan of the movie he called directory enquiries, got the number of Renaissance Pictures, called up and left a message on the answer phone. Two days later the phone rang and to the obvious delight of the teenage Bookwalter it was Sam Raimi himself. He was then passed onto Bruce Campbell who was actually doing the crew hiring. Evil Dead 2 was only in the first stages of pre-production so Bookwalter, deciding there was nothing to loose, suggest he drove over and met with Raimi in person.
The story goes that JR took his old 8mm projector and a few of his reels of home movies along... Both he and Raimi retired to the office next door - which happened to be that of Action Pictures (Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker) - and after showing his first reel, a cheesy music promo shot at high school, Raimi found it so funny he dragged Campbell, Scott and the rest through and made Bookwalter replay it. Bookwalter maintains that reason that these guys liked his stuff was because it reminded them of how they got started, which considering they were fledgling film makers themselves would seem pretty culpable, remember this was pre-powerhouse Raimi.
Anyway the outcome of this meeting was that Raimi offered to partially bankroll JR Bookwalter's debut feature which turned out to be The Dead Next Door. Raimi was true to his word and did in fact bankroll the whole thing to the tune of around $125,000 (originally it was to be $8000). However Sam Raimi did not wish to have his name associated as producer in any way, he is referred to in the credits as 'The Master Cylinder'. According to Bookwalter his reasons were threefold, the first was that he was still trying to secure finance for Evil Dead 2 and believed that if his backers got a whiff that he was involved producing another movie they would be certain to pull the plug. Secondly (and most baffling) he claimed "people in Hollywood think I'm weird". Thirdly he wanted the film to be JR Bookwalter's and not Sam Raimi's "The Dead Next Door". The truth about Raimi's involvement was to eventually be revealed by Fangoria and though Bookwalter claimed to have nothing to do with the leak this was to mark the beginning in a long running rift between the directors.
From start to finish The Dead Next Door took a gruelling 4 years. Bookwalter puts this down to Raimi's other commitments. "Most of the delays were because Raimi wanted to 'approve' everything in stages. Because he was off making Evil Dead 2 and getting Darkman prepped during the course of the making of this movie, DND became low priority for him. It was extremely frustrating for me, because not all of that four years went into the movie! (in fact Bookwalter worked in varying capacities on several projects for David DeCoteau during the latter part of this period) However in many ways it was beneficial, because I was able to play around with things, re-shoot things and generally tinker around with it until it was probably as good as it was going to get at that time."
Of course the film suffered various technical setbacks and a variety of anecdotal hiccups... the original super 8 equipment was discovered to be faulty, but not until a considerable amount of shooting had been completed. Members of the cast and crew were also arrested by armed guards whilst shooting outside the Whitehouse. Apparently, having crossed the fence they had been mistaken for terrorists. The shoot was finished in December 1988. There had been 50 crew members and a cast of around 15,000. Bookwalter had in that time gone from being a 19 year old school boy horror fan to a 22 year old film maker.
Although heavily influenced by Romero Bookwalter did make a conscious decision to change the already mutated origins of the zombie plague. Instead of extra terrestrial radiation he plumbed for an entirely man made virus. In his own words:
"My take on the zombie thing was to compare it to the AIDS virus. At the time I started working on DND, AIDS was just becoming a hot news topic... This was well before it became chic for celebrities to wear little red ribbons to show their support, etc. The thought of such an incurable disease was very scary to me. I mean, we have plenty of other incurable diseases, like cancer...but cancer kills very slowly by comparison to what AIDS and HIV can do.
"I wanted to apply this line of thinking to zombies... Forget about killing the brain or severing the head from the rest of the body as Romero has taught us. I felt it was more horrifying to show what would happen if the government sent out these soldiers to kill the zombies, but the zombies couldn't be killed! Meanwhile, you've got the scientists coming up with some futile method... How likely is it that these soldiers are going to be able to coral a zombie long enough to inject them with Moulsson's serum? And even if they could, it wouldn't kill the zombie instantly anyway! And if you were surrounded by a ton of these things... Forget it! To me, there are some scary parallels to how AIDS is being treated in this. There is no real cure, only some temporary "solutions" that don't solve the problem but just hold it at bay for now."
Bookwalters penchant for topicality and reference does not stop there. Indeed, The Dead Next Door virtually brims with the stuff. The most obvious being the names of characters which reads like a who's who of the Horror movie world Carpenter, Savini, Cronenberg, Romero and Raimi to name but a few. The film references don't end there. In the break room of the hospital/police station central to the story the orderlies watch Evil Dead constantly and on the wall of their arsenal the words Romero Rules are spray painted in glorious red. The arch villain Reverend Jones takes his name from the Jim Jones who instigated the notorious Kool-Aid massacre in Guyana and the movie title itself was stolen from a Billy Idol song. Even the box art echoes The Silence of The Lambs, though DND actually pre-dates Johnathan Demme's slick serial overkill by two years. One can only think that Dr Moulson was named after Bookwalter's favourite beverage at the time!
Following The Dead Next Door Bookwalter was involved producing and /or directing 9 features for David DeCoteau's Cinema Home Video label. Movies that Bookwalter claims were largely a disappointment. It was during this period of disillusionment that he was given a script by David Wagner. Wagner was one of the many staff who had done a short stint on DND. He was looking for JR to produce whilst he himself would direct. The script was for Ozone. Bookwalter read the script and decided he wanted to direct the movie himself. Wagner agreed and pre-production rolled into action. This time the movie took a year to complete with Bookwalter taking time out along the way to produce John Russo's 'Sex Death and Videotape'.
Again the influences abound within the film... this time as Bookwalter points out it was not down to him: "Screenwriter David A. Wagner claims to have cobbled his original Ozone screenplay from various movies... I think Ozone is a real 'grab-bag' movie... it borrows a little from a lot, which concerned me when making it." But true to form he wasn't going to be put off by something as petty as plagiarism. "I can't say that the 'tributes' were intentional, but when I first read the script I had a very clear picture of what I wanted to do with it, which was pretty far afield from what Dave Wagner had in mind. But Ozone comes the closest I've ever had to matching the finished product to my initial vision of it."
As with Dead Next Door, Ozone has its fair share of short comings, but nothing more than you would expect for a movie that cost 3000 dollars. In fact it stands up pretty well. the SFX for instance are comparable to anything with ten/twenty times the budget. A result Bookwalter puts down to "a lot of begging, borrowing and pulling in favours."
The majority of the SFX work was handled by long time Bookwalter regular Bill Morrison. The Drug Lord was designed and sculpted by Todd Hone who had worked on some of the Cinema Home Video projects. Vince Rossetti did the bladder effects plus the exploding junkie's head. David P. Barton who also worked on DND leant a hand and brought in two friends - Dan Rebert who supplied the Demon Baby and Brian Snipe who created the Eddie/Justine mutant heads and arms. Barton went on to work in Hollywood on various bigger budget projects such as The Usual Suspects and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers TV series. Bookwalter himself helped with various squibs and the morphing effects.
The other main quality factor is the presence of James Black as the lead character, Eddie Boone. A veteran of Bookwalter movies having appeared in several abysmal CHV outings (including Chickboxer, Galaxy of The Dinosaurs and Zombie Cop) Black carries the film through many of it's low points. Black since moved to LA to appear in a syndicated TV series called The Burning Zone.
Looking at Ozone one could be forgiven for supposing that a film about the dangers of a new synthetic drug would once more echo Bookwalter's own views on drug taking, and you'd be right to an extent: "I'm not a drug user and never have been - I don't even smoke or drink! So I guess I can confess that I did view it as a way for me to say 'just say no'." Though he is quick to add "It's not played realistically - take the opening with the junkie, for instance. No one would ever stab a needle in their arm the way he did. So this film is letting you know right off the bat that it's a fantasy, while hopefully sending a message that drugs aren't cool. How else can you explain that The Drug Lord uses this crap to become a bloated monster and actually thinks it's a good thing..." (laughs)
Fortunately whilst the films drug message is pretty obvious Bookwalter manages to avoid any sort of moral preaching and goes for the comic book jugular. But that's just what you would expect from a guy who claims his artistic endeavours tend to steer toward "escapism" and thinks you should use anything at your disposal for shock value if that's what you're going for. The shock value ethic is definitely utilised to its fullest in Ozone.
All in all Ozone is at best a valiant effort. The budgetary constraints combined with a lack of originality make it hard to get a grip on. A few set pieces, derivative as they are, stand out. Black's alleyway confrontation with the creatures that are for all intents and purposes reject cenobites is nicely crafted. The creatures themselves actually benefit from the somewhat theatrical performances when set against Blacks own bare bones approach. The scene in the morgue where Richard is re-animated has a certain unease about it in a sub Stuart Gordon way and the scene where Black morphs into a rotting lump of bloody flesh and bone is a treat to behold, albeit a gooey one.
It seems that Bookwalter's movies fall down because of several reasons. A lack of originality, the necessity to use poor or amateur actors through lack of cash and what often seems to be a hurried script. Of course most of these are nit-picking gripes when thrown in face of someone who makes features on nickels and dimes and can actually sell them, which is highly commendable in the current movie climate. Personally speaking I prefer his early raw edge stuff like DND and Ozone. For me his later movies - The Sandman and Polymorph, although technically superior lack the energy and shear audacity of the fledgling stuff, although it has to be said that the video store chains seem to prefer this kind of stuff so it probably makes more financial sense.
But Bookwalter deserves a lot of respect for his dedication and workaholism, not to mention the breaks he has created for many of those who have worked with him. He may never achieve the acclaim he so desperately thinks he deserves but I'm sure that with a reasonable budget and time scale (and a few good crazy scripts) Bookwalter could certainly pull off some extremely passable B-movies.