• Ninja Zombie (AGFA) DVD Review

    Released by: AGFA/Bleeding Skull
    Released on: October 10th, 2018.
    Director: Mark Bessenger
    Cast: John Beaton Hill, Michael Correll, Kelly Anchors, Terry Dunn, Michael Weaver
    Year: 1992
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    Ninja Zombie – Movie Review:

    A man named Orlan Sands (Michael Correll) is in trouble. He’s found himself on the bad side of a spider-cult led by the villainous Spithrachne (Terry Dunny), a martial artist thug who, along with his crew of headband wearing warriors, likes to throw his weight around. Thankfully for Orlan, his best buddy Jack Chase (John Beaton Hill) is no slouch in the ass-kicking department himself. When Orlan comes to Jack for help, of course he agrees – but not before he proposes to his pretty blonde girlfriend Maggie (Kelly Anchors), offering her a ring while cruising around in a rowboat.

    Unfortunately for everyone, especially Jack, when he comes face to face with Spithrachne, whose cult is after some sort of talisman found at an archeological dig, he gets stabbed right through the heart! The very same heart he had just pledged to his beloved. Jack is dead and soon buried, Maggie even going so far as to blame Orlan for all of this right after the funeral (and also complaining to him that Jack’s hair was parted wrong!) – which is fair enough when you think about it. Orlan is still in danger, however, so he goes to a tennis playing voodoo priest named Brother Banjo (Michael Weaver) for help. Before you know it, Jack’s been turned into a zombie with an affinity for sleeveless leather vests to protect Orlan, do away with Spithrachne and his weird spider-cult and maybe… just maybe… set things right with Maggie, who of course gets kidnapped by the bad guys before this is all through.

    Shot in 1992 but never before released on any home video format or given any sort of theatrical play, Ninja Zombie is pretty much everything that you’d hope a movie called Ninja Zombie would be. It’s got a ninja zombie in it, for one, and he fights a spider cult, which is great. Spider cults aren’t all that common but when they show up in a low budget movie, they’re always a plus. And Spithrachne makes for a pretty fun villain. Not only does he stab people but he’s got some pretty great ‘bad guy’ lines and he does a fine job of throwing his weight around. He’s also got an early seventies era Alice Cooper mark over his left eye, which adds character. Terry Dunny seems to have fun in the role. In fact, everyone seems to have fun in their roles. Evidently, fun was the order of the day back in the Chicago of 1992 – and this movie serves as a very fine time capsule of that.

    As to our lead? John Beaton Hill makes a fine ninja zombie. When he’s just plain old regular Jack, making doe eyes at Maggie and just sort of hanging out, he isn’t all that interesting but once he’s dead and resurrected, he hits his stride. Our titular hero looks pretty cool with his zombie makeup on (even if it mainly just does up his face, leaving the rest of his body looking rather healthy for a corpse). At one point he’s in a suit, because that’s what he was buried in, but soon enough he sheds those duds in favor of some much cooler apparel: a leather vest, tight black jeans, some wristbands and a studded collar. Once he’s back in black, he busts out a fighting staff and some nunchucks in addition to dishing out plenty of bad ass hand to hand moves. He also does a summersault at one point and then later in the film he drives a fucking motorbike through a wall.

    It’s also worth mentioning the enigma that is Brother Banjo, a mystical man not above using his supernatural abilities to cheat at tennis. He’s presumably here mostly for comic relief but Michael Weaver, who doesn’t appear to have acted ever again (a fairly common issue with most of the cast members in the film) stands out as enjoyably goofy here. Kelly Anchors cries a lot and at one point takes off her top, so that’s pretty cool too.

    Mark Bessenger, who also wrote the film, gets full marks for ambition. The film was clearly made with little money and a lot of favors, but that doesn’t stop him from staging some pretty great martial arts fights. Adding the zombie element to these scenes allows for things like arm ripping and finger biting, which is neat. On top of that, many of Spithrachne’s minions have matching uniforms AND at the end we get to head right on into his secret lair, which is made up like some sort of ceremonial chamber wherein an impoverished spider cult might practice their dark arts.

    Ninja Zombie - DVD Review:

    AGFA noted on their press materials for this release that Ninja Zombie “was shot and edited on Super 8 film. This transfer is taken from the original BETA-SP master tapes” so don’t expect this to look amazing but it it’s fine for what it is. Yeah, the image is soft the way that tape transfers tend to be and there’s a fair bit of obvious print damage to the 16mm elements that were transferred to that tape, but if it’s a bit faded it’s watchable enough so long as you keep your expectations in check.

    The Dolby Digital Mono track, in the film’s native English language, is on par with the video presentation in that it is serviceable, if less than perfect. The score for the movie is pretty great and it sounds fine here while the dialogue is, more or less, easy enough to follow.

    The main extra on the disc is a commentary track with director Mark Bessenger where he dives pretty deep into the history of the movie. He talks about where the idea came from, how and why he collaborated with the people he collaborated with on the project, who really knew martials arts and who didn’t, some of the stunt work featured in the picture and some of the locations where specific scenes were shot. As the movie plays out, you can tell he’s got a sense of humor about all of this. He also talks about the technical side of things as this was his first feature and he was admittedly not the world’s most proficient filmmaker. He also talks about the movie’s nude scene and some of the sets that were built and the costumes that were created. It’s a fun track with a lot of information in it. He does occasionally seem to get lost in the movie for a minute or two here and there but overall this is nicely paced and quite engaging.

    AGFA has also included almost twenty-seven-minutes of behind the scenes footage from the shoot. This was shot with a camcorder from the looks of things and is presented very much ‘fly on the wall’ style but it shows off what it was like to work on the production. We see Bessenger directing his cast and crew, different actors getting into character and having makeup done, different stunt and fight scenes being blocked and rehearsed and quite a bit more. Most of the footage here shows off the graveyard fight scene and the finale that takes place in the spider cult lair, but it’s neat stuff. Oh, and if that’s not enough? There’s some absolutely bonkers footage here of a stunt man, Jim Puzzo, getting almost burned alive when things go wrong during the shoot!

    Ninja Zombie Returns is a twelve-minute interview with star John Beaton Hill that’s well worth checking out. He talks about how long it’s been since he made the movie and really thought about it before then going on to talk about how much fun the movie was to make given the enthusiasm of the people that he was working with on it. He talks about recently seeing the movie for the first time in years, how he doesn’t remember doing some of what he clearly did in the movie, but also how he appreciated the sense of joy and fun that was put into making the picture. He then talks about how and why he wound up in Chicago for a few years, how this was an early audition for him during that period of his life, what he learned from working on the movie, getting injured on the set and how it took him out of commission for a while, staging the fight scenes at different locations and loads more.

    Also worth checking out is a short film from Bessenger entitled It Could Happen To Anyone. This runs just over nine-minutes. It starts with a tribute classic Universal Horror, it’s basically an old school monster movie inspired by something like Creature From The Black Lagoon. The camera turns away from the TV and we see a man get up and put on a record before getting a phone call (he has a Snoopy phone!) that hangs up before it turns into much. He thinks it was a girl named Sherry and that she’ll call back. It doesn’t happen to he reads a Ray Bradbury book but he keeps hearing things… only to quickly realize he is not along in his apartment.

    This was clearly made for no money with an inexperienced cast and crew but it’s fun. There’s something to be said for amateur short films made using Halloween store props and masks, particularly when they show an obvious love for the horror genre as this one does. Lots of neat horror movies on display in the apartment – Halloween, Christine, An American Werewolf In London, Tron, The Fog, Shock Treatment and He Knows You’re Alone! There’s some familiar music here too – music from the Dawn Of The Dead soundtrack and what sounds like… Men At Work? The presentation is a bit rough, this looks like it was shot on Super 8, but it’s neat to see it included here.

    Additionally, the disc includes some fun animated menu screens and chapter selection. It also comes packaged with some genuinely cool reversible cover art with artwork from Kelsey Spencer.

    Ninja Zombie – The Final Word:

    Just as ridiculous as it sounds, Ninja Zombie is a testament to how much fun backyard filmmaking can be. It is a ridiculously ambitious film and benefits from some local flavor, and it’s hard not to have a good time with it given how quickly paced and damned entertaining it is. While AGFA’s DVD release isn’t the best looking you’re ever going to, they’ve included a host of extras that do a great job of explaining the history behind this never-before-released cinematic oddity. Recommended!