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Ninja Zombie (1993)

This is perhaps a little outside the usual remit of the blog but since it’s Easter, a time dedicated to both resurrection and indulgence, I thought I’d take a look at Ninja Zombie (1993). It’s a shot-on-Super-8 micro-budget film, lovingly made in Illinois and released… nowhere. Ninja Zombie never found a distributor and, even now, the only way to see it is on a taken-from-VHS bootleg that’s been circulating for a while. Which is a shame because, while it breaks the first rule of ninja films by not having any actual ninjing in it, Ninja Zombie is surprisingly high on entertainment value.

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(Note : this cheeky chappie on the promo art doesn’t pop up in the film at all…)

It opens with a dramatic shot of two crossed swords parting, then an Evil Dead-style zoom into a crypt, which got me on its side straight away. Shortly afterwards, protagonist Professor Orlan Sands (Michael Correll) is introduced while being mugged in a back alley by a pair of jive-talking perps. He’s saved by a stranger who slices their throats open with a spurs-enhanced roundhouse kick (a nod to Near Dark?), but this shadowy benefactor turns out to be Spithrachne (Terry Dunn) from the Red Spider Cult. He is the Head and has eight acolytes known only as the Legs (1st Leg, 2nd Leg, etc). None of them are up to any good. For slightly mangled reasons, they want Professor Sands to intercept the excavation of The Urn Of Prometheus, an ancient artefact of “no monetary value” that possesses great occult power.

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Professor Sands is terrified by the Red Spiders so calls his “ninja” buddy Jack Chase (John Beaton Hill) to protect him. Although Jack is referred to as a ninja, he never dresses like one and his martial arts are much closer to a scrappy streetfighting style but, either way, it doesn’t end well since, at the end of their first encounter, Spithrachne skewers poor Jack like a kebab and throws him into a boating lake.

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With Jack dead, his devoted fianceé Maggie (Kelly Anchors) quite rightly blaming Sands for it, and the Red Spider Cult still out for blood, what’s a guy to do? Luckily, a convenient flyer attached to the windshield of his car answers that question for him. It’s an advert for the services of voodoo priest Brother Banjo (Michael Weaver), a tennis-playing dandy who, for just $60, takes Sands to the graveyard and, in broad daylight (with cars driving by in the background!), helps dig up Jack’s grave. He tells Sands a magical chant to mutter (something about “goombahs”) and before you know it, Jack’s gone from not-quite-ninja to not-quite-ninja zombie.

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Sands is given a magic ring that basically acts as a remote control for Jack. It’s not explained why (perhaps for the best), but he also makes a point of dressing Jack up like some kind of bondage model, in leather duds and a spiky dog collar…

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You can probably guess the rest but it all pans out at a reasonable pace with some chuckles along the way, enjoyable bargain basement gore FX, a decent face-peeling scene and a lot of rough-n-ready backyard martial arts. You almost feel the excitement when they nail a stunt like the motorbike crashing through a (paper?) wall or the incredibly dangerous man-on-fire trick at the film’s climax. The cast are clearly not first-class actors but they all seem to ‘get’ what the material’s trying for and give it their best shot at making a fun horror/action crossover. Terry Dunn stands out as the flamboyant Spithrachne and his antics are probably the film’s highlight. It’s so goofy but the biggest laugh for me is when he finally gains control of the magic ring and the first thing he does is make Jack literally “take a long walk off a short pier”

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Sure, Ninja Zombie is admittedly padded to the nines in order to achieve its 90 minute runtime but some of the padding is good clean bizarro fun too – especially Night Of The Raging Dead, the film-within-a-film gay re-imagining of Night Of The Living Dead; so ridiculous and surreal I almost wanted there to be more of it.

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So what went wrong? There are so many worse movies that got distributed in the 80s with “ninja” in the title (as regular readers will know!) so why not Ninja Zombie? It tries hard, plays well and even has its own catchy synthpop theme song (courtesy of The Beat Monkeys). I think the problem may well be that it was made in the early 90s and missed the peak of both the Ninja Boom and the giddy gold rush of the straight-to-video era. By 1993, renters were savvier and distributors risk averse. A lot of the gonzoid nuttiness that had dominated an era still known for its impeccably poor taste had been swept under a carpet of blandness. Martial arts and horror, in particular, were genres that thrived under that initial excitement of being able to watch graphic violence in the home but both lost momentum as the thrill wore off for viewers and the product dried up to meet decreasing demand. Ninja Zombie was simply born too late.

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As a cult film, even 25 years later, Ninja Zombie is yet to find its audience. It doesn’t have anything like the universal, colorful charm of rediscovered gem Miami Connection to boost its profile but bear in mind it also doesn’t have even a fraction of that film’s budget. This is from the era where you really had to work hard to make a feature film at all (anyone used to editing on a Mac would probably cry after about an hour of try to splice Super-8 film) and a lot of love and graft clearly went into Ninja Zombie in lieu of any substantial funding.

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The people to whom this film will really appeal are those who grew up with the tape trading underground in all its ragged glory; who remember things like The Resurrection Of Michael Myers Part 2; who answered ads in Fangoria to get copies of Wally Koz’s 555; who still own a copy of Gore-Met Zombie Chef From Hell; who class Nathan Schiff as a great auteur; who list Ghetty Chasun among their all-time sex symbols. People like me, basically. All of these films are like a time capsule from a place hardly anyone dared or cared to go. An underground-within-an-underground that’s yet to experience its renaissance. Ninja Zombie’s oddball combination of good-natured humour, OTT violence and home-made production values will still alienate most viewers but it is, for better or for worse, my idea of fun.

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[NB: It’s worth noting that writer/director Mark Bessenger returned to filmmaking in 2011 with a vampire movie called Bite Marks and is currently helming a YouTube horror series called Shudder – always good to see someone else who refuses to grow out of these things after all this time…!]

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Ninja (2009)

A high percentage of the films synonymous with ninjas emerged during the Ninja Boom of the 1980s. While the history of onscreen ninjing dates back almost as far as cinema itself, the tropes and iconography we ninjologists know and love were created in that glorious decade of neon skylines, rippling muscles and excessive force. However, as regular readers of this blog will know already, the quality of the Ninja Boom’s output varied wildly. Breathtaking cover art could hide substandard movies and it took time and dedication to sift through the river of shiny ninja fool’s gold to find the real thing. But that real thing, when it emerged… nothing could outshine it. Sadly nowadays, if western ninja films are produced, they tend to be made with a wink to the audience, focusing on the bad or silly aspects of the 80s and sending them up, not realising that the reason so many of us love those films is not because we like to laugh at the flaws, but instead because we’re willing to overlook them and see through to the intended spirit beneath. Isaac Florentine’s bluntly titled Ninja (2009) ‘gets’ this completely. It’s like he looked at all the best, most exhilarating ninja box art from the 80s and said “What if we made a film that actually DELIVERED all this?”

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Ninja borrows heavily from the classic “occidental master” stories defined in Eric Van Lustbader’s Ninja and Menahem Golan’s Enter The Ninja, casting Scott Adkins as Casey Bowman, our fish-out-of-water American training in Japan. Casey’s an orphan, abandoned at the Dojo, and his determination to prove himself worthy has enabled him to rise high within the student ranks. Only the mysterious “tiger” Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara) outranks him but Masazuka is jealous of Casey, feeling that the Sensei (Togo Igawa) and – more importantly – his beautiful daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii) favour him and maybe even love him, respectively. During a heated sparring match, Masazuka tries to kill Casey but fails and is expelled from the Dojo for his troubles.

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Three years pass as Masazuka goes rogue and becomes a ninja for hire, working with a shady Illuminati-style organisation known as The Ring and assassinating their enemies with merciless ease. Having reached the pinnacle of his skills, he returns to the Dojo to claim he is the rightful heir to both the position of Sensei and to the Yoroi Bitsu, a box of sacred ninja artefacts from a thousand years ago, but Sensei sends him packing. However, realising that Masazuka will be back, Sensei tells Casey and Namiko to flee to a secret location in New York, taking the Yoroi Bitsu with them and setting in motion a frenetic international chase scene that lasts pretty much the whole film. Masazuka will stop at nothing to get his hands on the box and Casey is determined to guard it with all he’s got. Duffing up occurs… and lots of it.

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The main reason why Ninja works so well is that it plays things straight. There’s barely even a one-liner joke in here, let alone any kind of ironic references or gags about the 80s. That said, while it applies a modern sensibility, it doesn’t go for the po-faced “dark and gritty” approach either, like so many newer films do. There’s no existential soul searching or moralizing. It keeps its focus on wicked thrills; brutality delivered at a lightning pace, but with a level of respect for the action genre that borders on reverence. Writer Boaz Davidson said he wanted to create a story where the hero was in constant peril and, amazingly, he achieves that. As soon as the chase is on, barely a moment lets up where Casey and Namiko aren’t having to run or fight their way out of another tricky situation.

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There’s enough character development to make the fights mean something and the cast all handle their roles well. Todd Jensen is a grizzled highlight as the NYPD detective with a heart of gold trying to work out why his city’s being destroyed by a pair of feuding super-ninjas, and Adkins himself is the absolute perfect lead for a film like this. He juggles an incredible physical presence and martial arts skills with an ability to emote and convincingly play a character; all too rare in genre cinema. It’s strange for me to think about Scott Adkins, born in Sutton Coldfield, very near to where I’m from in Birmingham. We grew up at the same time in the same city, presumably watching the same martial arts movies and while I never quite graduated from doing that, he went out and learned how to fight for real, and in 2009 became an even more convincing American Ninja than Dudikoff himself. A pretty incredible achievement for a kid from the Midlands. It’s what the rest of us only dreamed about.

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Through the love and enthusiasm poured into it, Ninja channels the spirit of those 80s movies perfectly without ever becoming a tired nostalgia trip. You’ve got all the aesthetic touch points of the best ninja box art coming vividly to life for real. It’s not so much a tribute to what ninja films were in the 80s as it is to what ninja films aspired to be in the 80s. The skyline fight in this is breathtaking, the subway train brawl an absolute blast (especially to anyone who ever played the Renegade game on the Spectrum, which it gleefully evokes), the stunts and shootouts are all elaborate, OTT and faultlessly shot. With the level of set construction, vehicle destruction and special effects involved, this would’ve been an A picture by 80s standards (and, even now, is on the upper end of B) but Ninja uses its mid-range budget cleverly. Although the whole film was shot in Bulgaria, it creates the illusion of exotic international locales through imaginative and slick production design.

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As for the ninjing, it’s all impeccably done too thanks to fight choreography from Akihiro Noguchi, who brings his best moves to the table. Scott Adkins – trained in Tae Kwon Do – spent weeks unlearning his Chinese style to relearn how to fight more Japanese and the effort pays off. His combination of cold, vicious violence and graceful acrobatics looks fantastic in every fight scene and it’s augmented by a ton of splattery Lone Wolf & Cub-inspired arterial spray. The scene where Casey infiltrates a meeting of The Ring and duffs up about twenty dudes in a fit of tightly controlled ultra-rage even brings to mind the classic school fight in Fist Of Fury and that’s high praise indeed.

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The ninja outfit designs are interesting too. On one hand, the fact that both Akihiro Noguchi and director Isaac Florentine have a background in the Power Rangers TV show is evident yet, somehow, the stylized armored suits make sense in the context of what a modern shinobi would wear. Masazuka’s has Kevlar pads to guard against bullets and wraparound night-vision goggles that enable him to move around in the dark where no-one can see him. This may initially seem like novelty but, in an age of ever-improving technology, no ninja worth their belt would be running around in just flimsy black pyjamas…

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I simple can’t imagine any serious ninjologist not acknowledging this as one of the best ninja films ever made. It may be way outside the canon, chronologically, but in all other respects it’s right up there with the best and most authentic. A slightly lesser (but still great) sequel, Ninja : Shadow Of A Tear, followed in 2013, continuing Casey’s story but that’s another post for another day. I live in hope that we’re nearly a due a third film (which, if it follows the pattern of the Cannon trilogy, may even pitch Casey against ghosts and/or aerobics?) because, honestly, these films are a modern ninja treat of the sweetest kind and I just want to binge on them as often as possible.

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The Ninja Mission (1984)

Long before Nordic Noir put Scandinavia on the action/thriller map, there was The Ninja Mission…

First of all, if you’re interested in this movie at all, it’s well worth seeking out Regissören som Försvann (The Director Who Disappeared) an entertaining and well-researched documentary about its mastermind Mats Helge, made by Melker Becker and Mattias Lindeblad. The story behind the film is arguably more interesting than the film itself and goes some way in explaining how such a terrible movie became so widely seen, so iconic, recognizable and well-known to ninja fans worldwide…

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If you grew up in the 1980s and spent your free time in the video store, the image above – or some variation of it – should be stimulating your nostalgia gland pretty hard right now. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork that promises action and violence, ninja mysteries and lurid Cold War iconography. However if, like me, you were lucky enough to persuade your parents into renting it, the reality of the film behind the box was disappointing. It didn’t help that the initial UK release suffered a whopping 1 minute 1 second’s worth of cuts (pretty much the entire duration of the film that’s worth watching), all made by the distributor (VTC) prior to BBFC submission. All but 15 seconds of these would be restorted for Kick Video’s re-release in the 1990s but, even then there’s no hiding that the film is a slog to sit through.

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The credits sequence is fantastic, loaded with ninja silhouettes moving across a red backdrop while gorgeous 80s synths blare and shurikens fly. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there as we plunge into a grainy darkness that permeates most of the film. Arguably some effort was made to give the film a stylish neon-drenched 80s look with a lot of blue and red filters applied to lights but it just makes everything incredibly hard to see. All the VHS versions I’ve seen look like this and, although there’s a marginally nicer semi-official bootleg DVD (uncut) from Horse Creek Entertainment that makes things a little clearer, it’s still a poorly shot source film.

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The plot involves a Russian scientist named Markov (Curt Broberg) who’s created some kind of formula for generating energy and this could shift the US/USSR Balance of Power, leading to total war if it falls into the wrong hands. He’s kidnapped by the KGB and, elsewhere in Russia, so is his daughter Nadia (Hanna Pola). In order to save the world, the CIA send in Agent Mason (Krzysztof Kolberger) and a crack team of Swedish ninjas known as The Ninja Mission. This leads to a slew of loosely related action scenes and a triple-figure body count as anonymous Commies are shot by the dozen and left for dead in the snow where they apparently belong.

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Along the way there’s a sickly sentimental subplot with Markov and his daughter rediscovering their love for one another; a gratuitous nightclub scene in which Hanna Pola changes into something more transparent and performs a synthpop song specially written for the film (this is less exciting than it sounds despite Pola’s admirably uninhibited efforts); a high-speed Volvo chase (in pitch darkness, of course); and endless inane dialogue that makes Godfrey Ho look like Harold Pinter (“There is some tea here if you want it” / “Wow, you sure have a way with women”).

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There is a distinct lack of ninjing though. The Ninja Mission team show up in a lot of scenes but don’t perform any actual martial arts, instead mostly using guns or these weird blow darts that make people explode. All sounds fun on paper but even this level of (badly choreographed) action only gets going in the final reel which is, admittedly, very gory indeed. We get bisected heads, spurting stumps, flying meaty guts, chunky vomiting and the bursting of a bazillion bloody squibs but it’s a really long time coming.

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Almost all of the cast and crew (including Helge himself) are among the litter of dead Ruskies in this extended massacre sequence and, to cap things off, the ninjas blow up a castle. No, really. They blow up a castle. It’s impressively ambitious in terms of stunts/budget versus talent but looks surprisingly lackluster considering Helge and his crew did actually blow up a castle. One of the bad guys is left to die in the snow as the helicopter leaves without him, his former comrades shouting “Keep yourself warm, baby… go fuck an Eskimo!” as they float off into the sunset (sadly not quite the closing line of the movie, but near enough). There’s some kind of final plot twist too but this only really makes sense if you’ve been lobotomized half-way through your viewing.

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So yeah, the movie is bloody awful. So how come we all know about it? Well, the story of Mats Helge – “The Director Who Disappeared” as the Becker/Lindeblad doc calls him – is an odd one. The young Helge received atrocious grades at school and was repeatedly told that if he got lucky, the most he could aspire to would be sweeping floors in a factory. Determined to prove his teachers wrong he inexplicably managed – at just 20 years old – to shoot Dead Man’s Trail, one of the first, last and only Swedish cowboy films (this short-lived genre was dubbed “Lingonberry Western”). It was universally panned yet somehow attracted the attention of legendary actor Per Oscarsson who wanted Helge to produce a magnum opus he’d written called Sweden For The Swedish. The film was a colorful Pythonesque Middle Ages farce with a budget that, by today’s standards, would be roughly $10,000,000 (unheard of for a Swedish film at the time).

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The late Per Oscarsson

The shoot involved thousands of extras, elaborate sets and costumes and Oscarsson’s overzealous ambitions mixed with Helge’s inexperience led to catastrophe. By his own admission Helge was “not very interested in that kind of stuff” when it came to bookkeeping and the expenses ran amok (Oscarsson shut down the shoot one night in order to have every character’s shoes repainted, including all the extras). To everyone’s surprise, the movie was finished but the end result was, critically and commercially, a flop. It remains to date the biggest in Swedish film history. Helge ran up so many impossible debts and broke so many contracts that he wound up serving several years in jail for it.

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Mats Helge

During his incarceration, Helge worked on improving his education and emerged newly determined to make better movies with more realistic budgets. He met up with Charles Aperia, the head of Stockholm-based film company VTC, who (like so many others) were eager to exploit the new and booming VHS market by producing attention-grabbing genre films. By sheer chance, the self-proclaimed “only ninja in Sweden” Bo F. Munthe was in Aperia’s office at the same time, trying to sell a draft of a ninja story he’d written. Munthe, Helge and Aperia hit it off and, between them, devised The Ninja Mission. Deciding to make it feel “fresh and current”, they hatched the Cold War plotline. Munthe got a few of his students in to play the ninjas and a number of Polish cast and crew members were hired because they would work at half the expense of Swedish ones.

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Bo F. Munthe (left) – Sweden’s only actual ninja

Mats Helge worked mostly on the scenes involving action, without using a script. Occasionally he would hand pieces of paper to actors with random lines on. Other times, they’d just work it out while rolling. Meanwhile, a hired Polish AD would shoot loosely scripted dialogue scenes to the letter on a different set but, again, cast and crew members were often handed just a page at a time. This maybe explains part of why the dialogue seems so stilted and confusing. It’s unlikely even the person directing knew what these scenes were about, let alone the actors.

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The film, upon release in Swedish, was taken off screens almost as quickly as it was put up. Audience members were walking out midway in droves and critics tore it to pieces. It looked like the end for The Ninja Mission and then, on the strength of the final scene’s brutality, Aperia sold the film to New Line for distribution in the US. Whether it was the timeliness of its vehement anti-Russian sentiment or just the power of the Ninja Boom at its apex, the film was a box office smash, instantly entering the top ten and even (somehow!?) receiving positive reviews in various US papers and magazines. Between VTC, New Line and even MGM (who – in the most surprising twist of all – acquired further international distribution rights for in the region of 50 other countries), the ripple effect grew and The Ninja Mission became one of the best-selling independent titles of the video era. It made somewhere in the region of $30,000,000 on a budget of $2,500,000 – and still ranks as one of the most successful Swedish films ever – but that’s where things get dark.

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Helge immediately started capitalizing on the success, opening a studio in Lidköping and shooting a string of equally tawdry straight-to-video action hits (including three shot back-to-back with David Carradine, who believed he was only signing on for one). They had alluring titles like Russian Terminator, Fatal Secret and Animal Protector and were moderately successful, although nowhere to the extent of The Ninja Mission. Helge’s regular cast and crew members, however, grew confused by the fact that the movies did well and yet no one seemed to be actually receiving any of the proceeds. The Lidköping studio shut down rather suddenly…

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The Becker/Lindeblad doc, being primarily the work of Helge fans, glosses over some detail but it is acknowledged that, by the end of the 1980s, the director owed at least SOME people SOME money. I imagine that following the trail of this and working out the full story would be challenging even at the time, let alone now, but something dodgy was definitely going on and, rather than serving jail time again, Helge vanished into the ether, much like an actual ninja. Becker and Lindeblad talked to a number of Helge’s friends and associates (none of whom had seen him in years) and did manage to get in touch with Helge over email but he refused to be interviewed for their film. He was last seen in public 16 years ago and since then has been spotted everywhere from Denmark to Canada, although rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated…

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So who really knows what the story was with Mats Helge and his movies? Was he a mad genius with a vision and a drive that somehow enabled him to create a massively successful film from nothing? Or was he a talentless hack who, by fluke, rode the ninja wave to undeserved stardom through being in the right place at the right time? Was he a basically good guy who just didn’t have a head for numbers? Or a tax evading scam merchant who ripped off the majority of his collaborators and did a runner? The full story may never be revealed but The Ninja Mission remains, in its way, an important work for many reasons beyond just an abstract sense of nostalgia; it (bear with me) inspired a generation of young Swedish filmmakers to think they too could produce movies with the ambition of their US genre counterparts; it launched careers for a lot of its cast and crew (who went on to work on far better projects from Warsaw to Hollywood); it also, apparently, helped New Line to fund A Nightmare On Elm Street which, in turn, catapulted their indie studio into the mainstream. So from tiny ninja acorns and grow great ninja trees and all that…

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In the midst of his prolific period, Helge even directed a sequel to The Ninja Mission called Eagle Island (written by Madeleine Bruzélius, a former kindergarten teacher who worked as costume designer on the original film) but I have to admit that, as ninja sequels go, it’s somewhere below Lady Ninja Kaede part two on my To Watch List… Keep the reading blog though. Maybe one day I’ll get there. It is ninjas all the way down indeed and these movies are a long, long way down…

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Ninja Holocaust (1985)

If you’re a fan of exploitation cinema, you’ll be familiar with the “all sizzle, no steak” adage. These films often promise the fastest and dirtiest of thrills with their artwork, trailers and taglines; the ultimate in sex and violence. Yet the reality is frequently far duller. Badly made, badly shot, badly paced films without the budget or imagination to deliver even the lowest common denominator effectively. You’ll perhaps not realise just how tedious sex and violence can be until you’ve waded through some of the ill-lit, slow, stilted, incoherent garbage that’s littered drive-ins, grindhouses, video stores and (now) streaming services for most of the last century. Trust me though. Some of us have made that journey. So it’s always a treat when something actually delivers on its promise of x-rated goodness; of down-and-dirty thrills and spills that flow fast and free and in the worst possible taste. Ladies, gentlemen, fellow ninjologists… It’s an honour to present Ninja Holocaust.

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Ninja Holocaust (aka City Ninja) is a cut and paste film from either 1985 or 1987 that uses footage from a boxing-themed softcore sex film called Rocky’s Love Affairs (1985) and a Korean martial arts film called Hwaya (1983). Having not been able to track down either, I’m not sure whether ninjas feature in either original or if the ninja footage is all new but – whatever the combination of footage – it’s very slickly done. I’m not sure where one film begins and another ends and, even as a veteran of these things, I wouldn’t have guessed this was a splice job had I not been told. Perhaps some of this is good old-fashioned sleight-of-hand though. The film throws so much at you with such rapidity, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind and not notice the chops and changes…

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The film begins in WW2-era Hong Kong. A Caucasian soldier is in possession of a special necklace and some Japanese ninjas are trying to steal it. He gives it to his buddy and makes him promise to keep it safe, then gets himself ninjed for his troubles. Some forty years later, it’s the neon-drenched 1980s and the necklace has not only been split into two parts but has somehow found its way into the hands of criminals.

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A gangster known as the Redhead (a Chinese guy with badly dyed red hair) has one half and a bizarre group of shaven dudes in make-up who call themselves “The Bald-Headed Gang” have the other. Local businessman David Lo (played by, uh, David Lo) wants to get his hands on it because he knows that, when both pieces are combined, the necklace has the number of a Swiss bank account written on it. Cue a whole bunch of dudes duffing each other up over a necklace for 90 minutes. Although the Bald-Headed Gang do take a break briefly to play pool while hanging upside down… As you do.

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In the eye of all this chaos are two boxers, Wang Lee (played by Wai-Man Chan, the guy with the most Geordie of all martial arts names) and Jimmy (the legendary Casanova Wong). Both are basically hired pawns for the criminals but neither knows exactly which boss they’re working for or why. There’s an insane amount of double-crossing and, of course, very little of it will be clear by the end. But it doesn’t matter because there is literally a fight scene or a sex scene every two minutes.

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The sex is ludicrous. It’s reasonably explicit, utterly gratuitous and improbably acrobatic. The highlight is where Wang Lee seduces his manager (Mei Bo Kwong) in the gym and they get it on across all manner of training apparatus (the rowing machine section, in particular, is a hoot). What’s also fun is how sharply juxtaposed the sex is with the violence. Literally seconds pass between Casanova Wong flinging his lover around the bedroom in a variety of kama-sutric positions and Casanova Wong flinging some unfortunate goon off the top of a tall building (in a stunt that looks alarmingly like a man being pushed off a tall building).

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The violence is pretty full-on too. I wouldn’t say the choreography is exactly finessed but there are some jawdropping moments. Wong using his girlfriend as a weapon, swinging her around like a pole and whacking bad dudes in the face with her legs is exceptional – one of the most memorable sequences I’ve seen in a while. There are also some brutal boxing bouts, a couple of gory shoot-outs and even an entertaining stunt or two as a car goes off a cliff and some speedboats chase each other. None of this is exactly James Bond standard but, if anything, the evident cheapness makes it more exciting. Like, there’s a real risk of death to all of this mayhem. And, if you get bored of a stunt, don’t worry. Someone will be taking a shower or a bath, wandering around stark naked and/or masturbating any second now.

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In fact, Ninja Holocaust is so fast-paced and fun that I barely noticed that nearly an hour passes between sightings of actual ninjas. We see them at the start but then not again until 65 minutes into the film! Don’t worry though. Any ninjologists feeling short-changed are rewarded for their patience. There’s a sustained ten minutes of Grade A ninjoid nonsense that’s an absolute joy, including burrowing red ninjas springing from the earth, acrobatic swordfights, coloured smoke bombs, ninjas falling from trees as they explode and – best of all, an insane ninja fight on some kind of never-ending rickety bridge. Serious props to the location scout who found that place because it gives the scene a genuinely epic feel without spending a single penny. Even better is when ninjas start hanging off the side. I hope none of them looked down because that drop down to certain doom looked immense…

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The cast is superb too. In addition to luminaries like Chan, Wong and Elaine Jin, a fair few familiar faces from the lower end of HK exploitation pop up too. John Ladalski (Bruce Li’s one-time collaborator on the masterly Chinese Stuntman) appears in a couple of scenes and Andy Chworowsky (aka the “What’s A Ninja?” guy from Ninja The Protector) plays an endearingly harmless-looking Mafioso, bringing that beloved IFD-style charm to the production. I have a sneaking suspicion that whoever did the dubbing/translation for mid-80s IFD/Filmark movies may have had a hand in this too. Everyone shouts and cackles in a familiarly camp way and all characters are referred to as “that bastard!” at one point or another.

Ninja Holocaust 10

So yeah, there is an art to making good exploitation films. A delicate balance between enough plot to keep you occupied with enough action to keep you exhilarated and somehow, despite its origins, Ninja Holocaust manages to pull this off. The only real problem is that, as soon as you step out of the maelstrom, it makes absolutely no sense. Throughout the film, I thought I was pretty much following the action but, by the time it concluded (in a prolonged haze of slow-motion kicks, agonised screams and an abrupt flash of THE END just as the final plot twist is revealed) I realised I would be more likely to find all three pieces of the Golden Ninja Warrior statue than be able to tell you what happened, why or even who ended up with the necklace. Still, it’s a Hell of a ride. Highly recommended.