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Ozone   B-

Tempe Entertainment

Year Released: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: J.R. Bookwalter
Writers: David A. Wagner, J.R. Bookwalter
Cast: James Black, Tom Hoover, Bill Morrison, Michael Cagnoli, Lori Scarlett, Michael W. Beatty, James L. Edwards.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Released in January 1994, Ozone was the movie that would make or break J.R. Bookwalter's career. In the late '80s after completing his first film, the Sam Raimi-financed zombie epic The Dead Next Door, Bookwalter began producing and directing a string of no-budget quickies for a now-defunct home video company. "The last one in particular really chipped away at my soul to the point where I was ready to throw in the towel," Bookwalter writes on the insert accompanying the new Ozone special edition DVD. He made Ozone for himself, as a challenge that would help him decide whether to call it quits. Shooting on consumer-grade S-VHS with a $3,500 budget, could he make a good movie?

Over 10 years later, he's still in the game.

Ozone's original release to the home video market was greeted with favorable reviews from genre critics and great sales. Against all odds, it's a pretty good B-movie. The plot? During a drug bust gone bad, detective Eddie Boon (James Black) is injected with a new drug called Ozone and his partner (Tom Hoover) vanishes without a trace. In tune with B-grade cop-movie plot requirements, the cranky police chief suspends Eddie for being a hothead, but Eddie continues the investigation on his own time, intent on finding his partner and nailing the big bad drug lord. Of course, what Eddie doesn't know yet is that Ozone inspires freaky hallucinations and eventually turns users into zombie-like monsters.

Shallow drug user/zombie metaphor aside, Ozone succeeds largely due to James Black's quietly charismatic lead performance and Bookwalter's considerable skill behind the camera. Despite being shot on video, the dark, textured, atmospheric cinematography is remarkable, and Bookwalter wisely keeps the camera moving, packing the film with push-ins and slick dolly shots. The camerawork and punchy editing keep the energy high even when the plot lags. Also impressive are the seriously icky special effects -- especially the blood-and-puss-filled flesh-bubbles that expand and burst on the skin of junkies overdosing on Ozone.

But what the film boasts in style and chutzpah, it lacks in story and substance. We get Hellraiser-inspired mutants, a Scanners-style exploding head, and an Escape from New York-variety cage fight -- but, really, what's this thing about and why should we care? Well, I cared -- at least a little -- because I liked James Black as Eddie Boon, not because the film gave me any reason to invest emotionally in his character or the trippy events surrounding him. In the end, Ozone isn't much more than a fast-paced series of weird incidents tied together by the thinnest of plot threads. For some, that may be enough, but me, I wanted a little more.

Still, it's a fun, well-executed movie, and its impact on the shot-on-video microcinema movement that started to take off in the mid-'90s can't be overestimated. Many wannabe filmmakers finally picked up camcorders and started shooting their own movies after Ozone proved that it was possible to make something slick and professional using relatively cheap consumer-grade equipment. That was 10 years ago -- before the digital age made moviemaking even more feasible to broke filmmakers with low-cost, high-quality DV camcorders and a variety of computer-based editing applications like Premiere, Vegas Video, and Final Cut Pro. For better or worse, Ozone paved the way for many underground filmmakers by showing them that, yes, making a "real movie" with inexpensive video equipment and virtually no budget was within reach.

The superb Ozone DVD features a digitally remastered version of the movie with a new Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix. It contains loads of extras -- including a commentary track in which James Black and J.R. Bookwalter discuss not only the making of the film, but also the frustrations of receding hairlines. Ozone looks and sounds as good as it ever will -- and 10 years after its original release, Bookwalter is still making movies. His most recent directorial effort, the giant-scorpions flick Deadly Stingers, was the last in a line of 11 movies that his company, Tempe Entertainment, produced for Full Moon Pictures; it will be released by Fox Home Video in the near future. And that string of no-budget quickies he made for that now-defunct home video company? Bookwalter has already released two of them (Chickboxer and Galaxy of the Dinosaurs) as part of a Tempe DVD series called Bad Movie Police. So he's turning a buck while repenting his sins. Brilliant.

Review published 01.27.2004.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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