"Ninja Zombie" (1992, sort of?) Review
Right up top, let me just say that this is going to be a weird review.
It's a weird review for a weird movie, and truly weird, not just in some goofy B-movie way (though, it's absolutely weird in that way). It's weirdness extends way beyond the normal boundaries of cult artifacts of its kind.
First, I was in the audience for a screening last night of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. That's significant information because it's technically the second time the film has ever been shown to a public audience in its history, and the first time it's been screened with the director in the audience, Mark Bessenger. I won't say too much about the Q and A after the screening except that Bessenger is a funny dude and I wish I wasn't so gobsmacked by the movie he made because I might have asked him some questions.
The film was completed in 1992, but no distributor would pick the movie up since the B-movie schlock scene was drying up by then, in particular for movies shot entirely on 8MM the way that Ninja Zombie was. So it was lost to the sands of time until someone at Bleeding Skull found an ad for it in a movie zine and wondered what happened to a movie with a title like that.
Which brings us to the movie itself. And what a movie it is.
In my last review, for Mac and Me, I mentioned that I've been watching B-movies my whole life, being a lifelong MST3K fan and having friends that would seek out movies just like Ninja Zombie. But one of the best things that'd happen every once and a while is that you'd sit down with a movie that had a ridiculous title, premise, or whatever and the movie would have something genuinely good in it. Maybe it's some great make-up, maybe it's a genuine sense of humor, it could be anything (if you want a specific example of a movie like this, find my review for a movie called Death Spa from back in January of this year).
Ninja Zombie is like a film held together entirely by pure glee. The ideas are derivative, the budget is painfully low, the sound recording is all over the place, but there's such a genuine love of the concept at play that certain pieces of the film feel truly inspired despite its many limitations. There are so many comedy gags in this that feel straight out of a silent movie that puts the film into an almost "live-action cartoon" territory of stylized reality.
The plot is even pretty novel in a strange way. The titular character is a kind, loving, and martial arts practicing man named Jack Chase (John Beaton Hill) whose just proposed to his girlfriend, Maggie (Kelly Anchors). The happy moment is interrupted by Jack's best friend, Orlan Sands (Michael Correll, who is actually named Adam Goldman according to the Q and A) with some strange news. Orlan is being stalked by a cult with a shadowy leader, Spithrachne (Terry Dunn), and just as soon as Orlan tells Jack, thugs from the cult show up along with Spithrachne that end up killing Jack in the fight. With Orlan desperate to protect himself, he gets the help of a voodoo priest, Brother Banjo (Michael Weaver), to resurrect Jack as a protector.
It's a crazy setup, but the film knows how crazy it is. There are a lot of jokes in this movie, and the most surprising thing about them is how many of them are damn funny. To be clear, it's not incredible gut-busting comedy, but the jokes honestly land more often than not.
The film's plot progression is a pile of cliches that are all very familiar, but the film has so many power reversals in it that it manages to be engaging as hell. What helps a lot is that the actors are committed, with Orlan being appropriately slimy and whiny in a way that works way better than it should. Terry Dunn's Spithrachne steals the whole movie, and it's not for a lack of trying. He chews through the scenery like a wrecking ball let off the chain. The other performer who comes off as super charismatic is Michael Weaver as Brother Banjo. He's not a typical voodoo priest character. To put it another way, if you're used to voodoo priests of the Live and Let Die variety, don't expect that here.
But that's not what anyone is here for. When you have the title "Ninja Zombie," the first question is going to be: How are the fights?
They're pretty good!
There's definitely all sorts of quick cutting going on to cover up the choreography, but most of it is solid and works, especially the super over-the-top bits that lean into the cartoonish tone. One brawl in particular involving a severed arm is straight up hilarious and the kind of gag that you'd see in a Sam Raimi movie from about the same time this movie was made.
Even a climatic sword fight mostly goes off without a hitch, minus the dark environment the scene is shot in. As much as I enjoyed the film's violence, humor, performances, and twists, it has plenty of flaws that keep it back from being some kind of lost gem. This isn't a B-movie like the original Evil Dead where the raw filmmaking ability involved compensated for the low budget.
To be fair though, Ninja Zombie tries to do way more than the original Evil Dead ever did, which is officially the most bat-shit sentence I've ever written in a review. Ninja Zombie is trying its absolute hardest to go in so many different directions at once, and the fact that it succeeds in a few of those directions is really impressive.
And it makes me kind of sad.
There's a tactical reason for putting Evil Dead in this review. Evil Dead was the long-shot dream of Sam Raimi and his cohorts, a film that financially drained every resource he had. It worked, and he built a career that was so massive that he was in charge of two of the most successful and critically lauded superhero films of the 2000s. And he had two decades before that where he was sticking hard to his horror-comedy roots.
The point of that aside is that I really believe that Ninja Zombie is a look into an alternate universe where Mark Bessenger did some even more badass B-movies after the fact. It's a shame that this film wasn't released back in its day because I think it could have been the start of something. I'm not saying that we would have seen a Mark Bessenger Spider-Man movie, but this could have been the start of something bigger, like so many people in the industry, whether you're talking about mega-budget directors like Peter Jackson or visual effects legends like Dennis Muren. There are so many people in the industry who started in the world of B-movies and I find it sad that Ninja Zombie wasn't that for everyone involved.
It's the kind of film that literally has made me question the things I've been doing with my own time with writing and my own career. Mark Bessenger and his crew in Chicago went out and shot this movie in roughly three weeks and while it's not a lost classic, he did it. He made a movie dammit, and while it didn't get released in its own time, I paid $5 to see it in a theater yesterday, and the theater was sold out.
This piece has really gotten off track, but I can't just shove my own feelings off to the side and blandly write up this bizarro world movie that I got to see. It's kind of inspiring to see it, and I'm glad I saw it, maybe more than any B-movie I've seen in a long time.
Ninja Zombie is badass, often hilarious, and charming as hell low-budget filmmaking. Fans of B-movies will find plenty to poke fun at and laugh at, but for those of us out there who dream to make films of our own one day, Ninja Zombie is an inspiration.