While digging through some files a while back, I stumbled across a lengthy feature story about Ohio-based director/producer J.R. Bookwalter I originally wrote for the The Daily Kent Stater, the Kent State University student newspaper, back in 1994. Since my regional horror films book is finally in the production stage over at McFarland, I thought it would be appropriate to post my first stab at writing about low-budget horror film production.
I would have been 20 when this article originally appeared, but if memory serves I actually conducted the interviews when I was 19 and was first introduced to actor/writer/producer/lunatic James L. Edwards, who in turn took me to the dinky house in Mogadore, Ohio, where Bookwalter was then operating. I spent a lot of hours loafing in those cluttered offices over the next couple of years, and eventually wound up writing for J.R.'s magazine, Alternative Cinema -- my first paying gig as a writer.
I'm a little embarrassed by some of the writing in the article below, and had to resist the temptation to re-edit it. Bookwalter may be embarrassed by a few of the quotes. Remember, though, that when this was published we were still a year or so away from the explosion of affordable digital video equipment, and two years ahead of Wes Craven's Scream. So when J.R. says "horror is dead," he was mostly correct at least in economic terms.
(By the way, you can see some neat behind-the-scenes Dead Next Door photos over at Dr. Gore's Funhouse.)
The Daily Kent Stater
Feb. 17, 1994
Bring in the Zombies
Mogadore man makes horror his living
Mogadore man makes horror his living
By Brian Albright
J.R. Bookwalter has killed more than 100 people. He has tortured them, dismembered them, and blown them up. He has shot them, stabbed, them, and run them over with trucks. He has skinned innocents alive, and unleashed hungry zombies on Washington, D.C.
Bookwalter makes movies. And he may well be one of the last of a dying breed of independent filmmakers. He makes small, shot-on-video productions, whose budgets have gone as low as $2,500. He operates out of a crackerbox house in Mogadore. Bookwalter isn't wealthy, but he makes a living, something that most maverick movie makers only dream about.
Bookwalter grew up in Akron. He loved science fiction and horror films, and by the time he was in seventh grade, he was making movies on his mother's Super 8 movie camera. After high school he spent some time at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but he returned to Ohio in 1985 after his camera equipment was stolen.
Undeterred, he set about making his first film that same year. Under the banner of his production company, The Suburban Tempe Co., Bookwalter has directed or produced more than a dozen feature films, as well as about a half-dozen special interest videos. He distributes his own films, as well as others, on his Tempe Video and Video Outlaw labels. He was written two books. He operates a mail-order video service. He is getting ready to publish a 60-page quarterly magazine. He is only 27 years old.
Bookwalter's house is crammed full of video tapes, camera equipment, and computer software, but there's little in the way of furniture. Bookwalter himself, a little overweight and usually in need of a shave, works in a closet-sized office. The last 10 years have not been easy, but Bookwalter says they have been worth it.
"I've never really gone for the artsy-fartsy stuff, and I haven't made any classics," Bookwalter said. "But if someone can sit down for 80 minutes and enjoy one of my films, then I'm satisfied.
"I'm not rich, and nobody that does this with me is getting rich, but we all make enough to continue to survive another day."
It all started with a phone call to Detroit.
Zombies Take D.C.
Bookwalter called director Sam Raimi ("Army of Darkness"), who had just captured the attention of horror fans worldwide with his first independently produced feature, "The Evil Dead." Bookwalter drove to Detroit, showed Raimi some of his short films, and not long afterward was holding the seed money for his first film -- a zombie movie called "The Dead Next Door."
Bookwalter assembled his cast and crew from the Akron area, accepting anyone who wanted to help. Many of these people stayed with him on his subsequent films.
"Initially we would take anybody," Bookwalter said. "I mean, anyone that walked through the door and said, 'I want to be involved,' they were in."
One of those people was a 13-year-old kid named James L. Edwards, who wanted to be a special effects artist. Bookwalter had placed an ad in the Akron Beacon Journal looking for zombie extras. Edwards called him and told him he could do make-up.
"He showed me some pictures of him and his friends covered in fake blood," Bookwalter said. "I just said, 'Well, I guess we'll give it a try.'"
"About two weeks into it they realized that I didn't know what I was doing," Edwards said. "J.R. apparently was impressed by my eagerness, and he let me be a production assistant." Edwards also appeared on screen as a corpse, and he's acted in almost all of Bookwalter's movies since.
"The Dead Next Door" wound up costing Raimi $125,000, and Bookwalter often brags that it is the most expensive Super 8 movie ever made. With hundreds of extras, aerial shots and bloody special effects, the movie looks much bigger than it actually was. Bookwalter's most impressive scenes, though, are of hungry zombies shambling through the streets of Washington, D.C.
"A film permit in D.C. is pretty expensive, and we just couldn't afford one," Bookwalter said. "So I, in my infinite wisdom, said, 'Why don't we go down there and just shoot the scenes?'"
Bookwalter did, and would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for the zombies clawing at the White House fence.
"I guess they had some threats from some terrorists who were trying to get Reagan," Bookwalter said. "And they don't want you to touch the fence anyway, because it's electric or something." Within minutes, Bookwalter and his crew were surrounded by the Secret Service.
"Fortunately," he said, "one of my producers was going to Akron U. at the time and he had his student I.D. Because the camera was really small, we passed it off as a student film."
Bookwalter made the Washington papers that day. "The Dead Next Door," unfortunately, got lost in the flood of zombie movies that came out in the mid-1980s. The movie wasn't released on video until 1989.
The Video Revolution
Bookwalter made nine films, all financed by an independent California producer, between 1989 and 1992. The first three were 16mm films, but the remaining six were part of Bookwalter's plan to join the shot-on-video market.
Bookwalter shot all six movies in seven months on Super VHS video (which has more lines of resolution than regular video). He could shoot the films on super low budgets (no more than $2,500), have the video treated to look like film stock, and then release them o home video. With such low production costs, it would be easy for the filmmakers to make their money back.
By this time, Bookwalter was also distributing his own films, something that most independents are hesitant to do. Video distributors often buy the rights to a film but don't market it effectively. The filmmaker usually takes a financial loss and can even lose the rights to his own film.
"What I'm doing is very weird and non-standard," Bookwalter said. "You're supposed to make a movie, sell it to some faceless distributor and let them rip you off."
The shot-on-video industry is slowly growing, and Bookwalter is one of its major proponents. He has distributed films for other independents in Missouri, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
But Edwards said the availability of the equipment has encouraged plenty of untalented entrepreneurs.
"It's sad, really," Edwards say. "It's gotten to the point where if you have a camcorder, you're a director. And nobody cares about the actors. People only look at the shot-on-video stuff if it's got decent effects."
Partly because of this, Bookwalter has been choosier about whose films he distributes, although he certainly empathizes with the ones he turns down.
"When I turn 'em away, there really isn't anywhere else for them to go," he said. "The problem is there are no middle people between me and the larger distributors.
"In the days of the drive-in, and even when video first started, there were plenty of steps you could go through before you hit rock-bottom at Tempe Video."
Horror is Dead
Bookwalter's latest film, "Ozone," hit video store shelves in January and has already beaten the sales records of "The Dead Next Door." At $50,000, "Ozone is the biggest project that Bookwalter has worked on since his first film. According to Edwards (who plays the film's lead villain, the mutant Drug Lord), it's also the best film that Bookwalter's done.'
"It's certainly the best thing I've been in so far," Edwards said. "Unfortunately, I spend most of my screen time buried under mounds of prosthetics."
"Ozone" has more elaborate effects and more stylish camera work than any of Bookwalter's previous shot-on-video projects. It is also a step back from his more blood-drenched films.
"I had always intended to have a lot of eye-candy in this one," Bookwalter said. "The gorehounds don't like it as much, but it's closer to the type of movie that I like to make."
There are plenty of gruesome moments in the film, though, including a sticky mutant love scene between actress Lori Scarlett and the film's hero (and former Cleveland Browns running back), James Black.
"That was slimy when they poured that gunk me," Black said. "It was cold! And I didn't want to do it. That is my least favorite thing to do."
Bookwalter has written a 40-page film treatment for a "Dead Next Door" sequel, and he's pitching another film called "The Sandman" to low-budget veteran Roger Corman.
"He's real intrigued by this whole video thing, and what you can do with it," Bookwalter said. Bookwalter is also trying to move to more action-oriented films, because he says the horror market is drying up.
"Horror is definitely out, and horror is definitely dead," he said. "Everybody I talk to that reps stuff either domestically or overseas tells me that they don't want horror product. It's just not selling.
"It used to be you could go out and make a horror movie, get your foot in the door and then go on to bigger and better things. That's not he case anymore.
"I've been considering jumping ship and going another direction. To a degree, I'm getting lucky with 'Ozone,' but then again 'Ozone' isn't' strictly a horror movie."
Bookwalter's most immediate project is called "Seven Body Parts, Six Feet Under," which looks to be an even bigger film than "Ozone."
"It's going to be the weirdest, goriest thing we've done," Bookwalter said. "There'll be tons of blood, no way around that."
And the plot?
"Well, it's about he devil trying to take over the world. But he's going to use the body of this insane man..." Bookwalter stopped there and hook his head, laughing.
"I can't really explain it to you," he said. "You'll just have to wait and see it."