Color, 1992, 87 mins. 6 secs.
Starring Mark Bessenger
Starring John Beaton Hill, Michael Correll, Kelly Anchors, Michael Weaver, Terry Dunn American Genre Film Archive / Bleeding Skull (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
The ongoing quest to excavate every obscure and unreleased regional horror film from the '80s onward continues with glorious results courtesy of Ninja Zombie, an Illinois-shot curiosity shot in the early '90s on Super 8 and never released in any format until a 2018 DVD release. Maybe the world wasn't ready then, but certainly is now.
While waiting at a bus stop, a professor named Orlan Sands (Correll) is attacked by some switchblade-wielding thugs who try to get him to hand over his wallet. However, they're interrupted by a shadowy avenger in crazy eye makeup who punctures their throats open on the spot, leaving the sidewalk stained with blood. Cut to an idyllic lake where Jack (Hill) is having a romantic afternoon and proposing to his girlfriend, Maggie (Anchors), including some nookie in a rowboat. Afterwards he's approached by his buddy Orlan (Correll), who offers a sinister note from the "Red Spider Cult" bearing one word, "SOON." Orlan is completely paranoid, refusing to answer the phone and now carrying a gun at all times. His fears turn out to be well founded when a cult member shows up and tries to drag Orlan away to wicked leader Spithrachne (Dunn), only to get a major karate ass whoopin' from Jack. Unfortunately Sptihrachne is also on hand to run Jack through with a giant sword, which leaves him dead in a state where, as Maggie shrieks at the funeral, "his skin was cold and his hair parted wrong!" Luckily there's a flyer lying on the group for "Super Psychic Results" courtesy of supernatural tennis enthusiast Brother Banj0 (Weaver), who arranges for a speedy ritual to bring Jack back from the dead smack in the middle of the cemetery. ("He's gotta be facing east. Don't ask me why.") Soon Orlan is in charge of a zombified Jack, whose formidable martial arts skills and chic leather vest come in handy for facing off against the ruthless death cult in search of a priceless urn from an ongoing archaeological dig.
Deliberately tongue in cheek and filled with ridiculous action sequences, Ninja Zombie knows exactly what it is: violent, goofy, and pure entertaining junk food. You get big hair, dubious fashions, a bit of nudity, supernatural forced puking, undead stick fighting, a truly bonkers training sequence, a random recreation of the opening from Night of the Living Dead, and lots of other arbitrary goofiness. If you've seen other homegrown projects like the films of Nathan Schiff, that should give you a basic idea of what to expect here except with a lot more action and far less blood. The loud, exaggerated sound effects right out of a vintage kung fu film are plenty of fun, too; you really have to wonder how this one didn't at least earn a VHS release of some kind back in the day.
Though AGFA has been focusing on Blu-ray since its inception, this one is DVD only for obvious reasons since it's transferred from the only master, a Beta-SP tape. The release (featuring a colorful cover design by Kelsey Spencer) is presented with the mad geniuses at Bleeding Skull, which should be no surprise since this is right up their alley and perfectly in line with rough-and-tumble gems like The Soultangler, Blonde Death, Night Feeder, and Scary Tales. It looks fine considering the original format and SOV mentality at work here, with every bumpy edit and erratic lighting choice intact. An audio commentary with director Mark Bessenger is lot of fun as he looks back (in 2016 when it was recorded) at how the project came about, inspired by the success of other Super 8 wonders like A Polish Vampire in Burbank. It's a funny track with a very grounded opinion about the film's place in the universe and lots of stories about shooting the film under very scrappy circumstances in Antioch, Illinois. You also get an amusing, lengthy batch of behind-the-scenes footage (26m55s) mostly in the graveyard and inside the cult set, including a pretty jolting fire gag gone wrong and some test footage for a car "dolly" shot that ended up being scrapped. An early Bessenger short, "It Could Happen to Anyone" (9m19s), is a fun, legally dubious monster mash about a monster movie fan (with an awesome poster collection) who spends a spooky night alone at home, complete with a very familiar soundtrack slapped together from some beloved 1979 and 1980 horror films. It's short, sweet, and goofy, feeling like a slightly updated riff on a Night Gallery episode. Finally an interview with Hill (11m56s), "Ninja Zombie Returns!" conducted by Michael Varrati, is an affectionate look back at making the film and getting hired because he answered a trade ad calling for someone who knew martial arts, which he... exaggerated a bit to get hired. He doesn't exactly rule out the possibility of a sequel!