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.
(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.
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.
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.
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…
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”…
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.
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.
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 trying to splice Super-8 film) and a lot of love and graft clearly went into Ninja Zombie in lieu of any substantial funding.
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.
[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…!]