Starring John Beaton Hill, Kelly Anchors, Terry Dunn, Michael Correll
Directed by Mark Bessenger
Distributed by American Genre Film Archive (A.G.F.A.)
The life cycle (or, in this case, lack thereof) of a film looks deceptively simple on paper: conceptualize, shoot, release. Each year, approximately 700 films see release in one form or another but there are dozens (or more; who knows?) that remain in various stages of incompletion, never seeing the light of day. On rare occasions, these scuttled attempts are graced with a new lease on cinematic life and eventually find their way to audiences. I can then imagine the swelling of pride director Mark Bessenger must feel now that his magnum opus, Ninja Zombie (1992), is being given the red carpet treatment from American Genre Film Archive (A.G.F.A.). The film was shot on video for next to nothing over 25 years ago and it never received any sort of distribution outside of, I assume, the odd local screening or friends-and-family gathering.
So then, why is A.G.F.A. adding this curio to its stable of low-rent genre oddities? Because it’s a goddamn blast from start to finish for one thing. For another, it has an infectious theme song that I swear was written by Oingo Boingo or some other notable ‘80s tune machine. Bessenger packs his film with kung-fu, voodoo, horror movie references, an evil cult, rockin’ tunes, and shockingly good fight choreography – it’s everything your teenage mind wanted to see in a film and then some – but you have to be on board for all things Super 8mm.
This release reminds me of Severin Films’ Intervision DVD label, which releases forgotten shot-on-video (SOV) treasures that never managed to find much of an audience. There’s a certain stigma attached to SOV titles, namely, they’re cheap and cheesy – deadly accurate assumptions that miss the most obvious mark, which is these films were made with love. Creativity, ambition, and effort go a long way to obscure on-the-cheap aesthetics and no-talent-required acting. These are movies made by filmmakers who have a deep and abiding love of cinema, and it shows.
A romantic rowboat ride between Jack (John Beaton Hill) and his girlfriend, Maggie (Kelly Anchors), sees the lovers taken to new heights when Jack proposes and Maggie happily accepts. Once they disembark, though, Jack’s friend Orlan (Michael Correll) approaches him to discuss Spithrachne (Terry Dunn), a kung-fu cult leader with a spider tattoo on his face and a penchant for dry wit. Almost immediately, a group of ninjas arrives and we’re already into our first NINJA FIGHT! But then Spithrachne appears and kills Jack, leaving Maggie all alone to both mourn her dead over and rebuff the advances of Orlan, who tactfully says ”Jack’s dead… it’ll pass”. Yea, probably not in the next 12 minutes, bro. Orlan turns to local voodoo practitioner and amateur tennis pro Brother Banjo (Michael Weaver), who is able to resurrect Jack… albeit as a partially decayed zombie. Orlan is given a ring and told whoever possesses it can control the Ninja Zombie.
Spitrachne is out to get the Urn of Prometheus, a magical object recently unearthed by Orlan. Zombie Jack is able to defend himself – to a degree. Those few days under the ground must’ve allowed some serious rigor mortis to set in because his lightning moves are a little rusty, but he manages to hold his own against Spithrachne’s arachnid army. In all the mayhem Orlan loses the control ring which, naturally, finds its way into Spithrachne’s hands. Even worse, the goon squad is able to kidnap both Orlan and Maggie, leaving Jack no choice but to enter the spider’s web and face Spithrachne one-on-one… where the Red Spider reveals a few unexpected tricks of his own.
My dudes and dudettes, this was so much fun to watch I can’t believe it never found some semblance of life on the cult circuit. Ninja Zombie is wildly entertaining just watching it at home, alone (albeit with the, uh, right mindset if you catch my drift); this is the sort of film that would kill with the right rabid audience. Bessenger doesn’t hold back by slowly ramping his feature up to an explosive battle; this movie hits hard from the opening frames and peppers impressive fight scenes, quirky characters, odd humor, obvious references (Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Evil Dead II (1987) to name a couple), and solid production design into a tight 87 minutes.
But don’t just take my word for it. Watch this 53-second trailer, and if this doesn’t sell you then I’m sorry to hear you hate fun things.
Ninja Zombie is presented in its original 1.33:1 4×3 aspect ratio. The film was shot and edited on Super 8mm, which means every bit of dirt, debris, scratches, and damage are baked-in and will remain there forever. Personally, I found these “deficiencies” actually aided in giving the feature a more cinematic look, especially thanks to the heavy film grain. Expectations should be kept in check – this is, after all, a DVD of an unearthed 26-year-old film shot on the cheap – but the presentation feels genuine for this film and more pristine quality might have robbed it of some campy charm.
Audio is delivered via an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which sounds as though it aged better than the video. Dialogue is clean and clear, never scratchy or pocked with pops or hissing. Steve McIntosh’s score sounds bigger than expected, with beefy organ cues and ethereal keyboards heightening the imagery. There are no subtitles.
An audio commentary is available, featuring director Mark Bessenger.
Behind-the-Scenes Footage – This nearly 30-minute piece shows off some of the film’s FX work and fight scenes.
It Could Happen to Anyone! is an early short film directed by Bessenger.
Interview with John Beaton Hill – The Ninja Zombie himself discusses training for the film, including having to work around an injury that nearly derailed the production before it began.
- Audio Commentary with Director Mark Bessenger
- Behind-the-Scenes Footage
- It Could Happen to Anyone! – Early Short Film Directed by Mark Bessenger
- Interview with John Beaton Hill
This is a film as fun and freewheeling as the title suggests; a maelstrom of 14-year-old male imagination that delivers the goods and entertains endlessly along the way. I say all of this as a sucker for SOV films which, in an age of constant CGI, harken back to the days of cinema when all it took was a cheap camcorder, a bunch of friends, and loads of ambition to make something special.