Director: Mark Bessenger
American Genre Film Archive

The American Genre Film Archive uncovers another unreleased genre mashup from the video era with their DVD of NINJA ZOMBIE.

Stranded downtown, Professor Orland Sands (Michael Correll) is saved from murderous muggers by Spithrachne (Terry Dunn), the leader of the Red Spiders cult. When Spithrachne tries to call in a favor, Sands appeals for help from martial artist Jack Chase (John Beaton Hill). Chase defends Sands from one of Spithrachne's eight legs (Al Stuart) only for the cult leader to murder him. Chase is buried and his fiancée Maggie (Kelly Anchors) left to mourn him. A desperate Sands next looks for help from voodoo master and tennis enthusiast Brother Banjo (Michael Weaver) who raises Chase back from the dead as a zombie controlled by a ring he gives to Sands. Zombified Chase is rather rusty with his fighting, killing another of Spithrachne's legs but unable to prevent the others from kidnapping Sands. Upon learning that Sands has a zombie protector, Spithrachne forces Sands to ingest a spider egg in order to control him to command both to procure for him the magical Urn of Prometheus that has been recently excavated by Sands' colleague Professor Couver (Steve Katlak). Fearing what might happen if Spithrachne was to get his hands on the urn, Sands orders Chase to extract the spider egg from his body and then to hide the urn from him so Sands cannot reveal its location even under torture. Sands is able to use Chase to defend him against another of Spithrachne's soldiers, but he loses the ring and Spithrachne captures Maggie in order to force Sands to retrieve the urn.

Shot on Super 8 in Chicago and Antioch, Illinois, NINJA ZOMBIE is sub-ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE but its intentional comedy is often genuinely funny. The film is actually well-plotted in conveying the machinations necessary to move from fight to fight while making Sands and Maggie vulnerable enough to be taken and tortured with Chase out of the way for short periods. The make-up and gore are amateurish but workable and the fight scenes are let down not by the choreography but the ragged editing (the movie was cut on film not on video),but scenery-chewing Dunn and wisecracking Correll make up for Hill's mute performance which requires Anchors to provide much of the emoting. Director Mark Bessenger – who has become more recently prolific in the HD direct-to-video era with gay dramas like THE LAST STRAIGHT MAN and CONFESSSIONS – demonstrates his love for the genre throughout, including a film-within-a-film homage to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in which the bickering siblings are replaced with catty gay guys.

Unreleased anywhere, NINJA ZOMBIE comes to DVD in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in a 16:9 window with side matting. As the commentary describes, the Super 8 lensing was heavily compromised by the decision to edit the film directly rather than transferring it to videotape; as such, the image is rife with scratches and splices, while the only surviving element for digitization was the original Betacam SP video master suggesting that all of the damage and fading is how this film has always looked and was not a preservation issue. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix is a more consistent listening experience. There are no subtitles or captions.

The film is accompanied by an audio commentary by director Bessenger who recalls that he and his producing partner Donald Rasmussen were inspired to Super 8 as a viable means of shooting a releasable feature by the success of A POLISH VAMPIRE IN BURBANK. He describes the casting process – Anchors was chosen out of the two potential actresses because the other balked at doing nudity because of the possibility she would become the spokesmodel for a local beer label – his disagreement with Dunn over characterization, and working around Hill's stunts after he fell off of a roof before shooting was to start. The behind the scenes (26:55) footage is in much better shape than the feature, suggesting that camcorder lensing should have been considered (and some of this footage could have been used in the feature had the operator a steadier hand). Footage includes the cemetery shoot – with groundskeepers watching the fighting off-camera, some dialogue scenes not used in the film, and a look at the prosthetic and make-up effects. The short film "It Could Happen to Anyone" (9:19) is an amusing horror homage with a comic punchline that includes a poster for HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE and samples the forties Universal Pictures logo as well as soundtrack cues from THE FOG and DAWN OF THE DEAD. Lastly, the disc includes an interview with actor Hill (11:56) who was a gymnast and had to work with the stunt coordinator Scott Heap on studying martial arts before his accident and discusses the ways in which they worked around his injury. (Eric Cotenas)