The recent boom of rediscovered cinematic “outsider art” has been a deliriously bountiful one. Moving beyond the touristy, mainstream, Rocky Horror-esque midnight showings of The Room, the past few years have seen the resurrection of some legitimate cinematic insanity: the Our Gang-esque kung-fu chaos of Miami Connection, the singular and singularly fucked-up vision of proud Italian-American Duke Mitchell (Massacre Mafia Style, Gone With The Pope), the psychotic patchwork narrative of John S. Rad’s Dangerous Men, and for a very lucky few, the megalomaniacal madness of Craig Denney’s The Astrologer. These films are truly special things, bonkers dispatches from the fringe that giddily break free from convention, and are as worthy of critical reappraisal and serious analysis as anything playing your local art house cinema. But I’ve also sat in theaters and howled at these films, mouth agape at the absolute disconnect from reality exhibited by the movies’ well-intentioned, under-equipped auteurs. And the nagging feeling is that when we reduce the off-kilter blend of ambition, worldview and skillsets on display in these accidental classics to Rifftrax fodder, it too often feels a little like punching down. These guys were driven to put something special up on screen, and whatever we thought of the end result, they poured their blood, sweat, tears, and bank accounts into the effort. We’re laughing our asses off, but none of these films are supposed to be comedies.
What’s different about Ninja Busters, the latest film to join their ranks, is that the folks behind this film have every intention of karate chopping you in the funny bone. It’s got all the DIY madness of Miami Connection or Massacre Mafia Style, with the added appeal of an almost Zucker-Abrams-Zucker style of comedy, and a surprising amount of heart. Bernie and Chic (Eric Lee and Sid Campbell) are two goofballs working in a gangster’s warehouse/front operation. They’re fired from the job super early in the film, and on a whim decide to join a karate school in order to pick up women. After striking out with every woman in sight, they train for three years, eventually crossing paths once again with the gangster who fired them. What follows is a third act which might be the most satisfying half hour of film I’ve seen this year. Ninjas, bikers, black militants, Vietnam veterans, an aerobics class, and a salsa nightclub all come together in surprising and delightful ways.
The film has a similar vibe to Miami Connection, in that it's clear a band of outsiders (an actual karate school) have come together to make a movie without any real experience. They don’t have the most polished sense of timing or storytelling protocol, so it’s the kind of film where a minor character suddenly takes center stage to tell - complete with flashback - his dramatic personal backstory. The film is more competently lit and shot than a lot of the above-cited examples (director Paul Kyriazi was the one actual pro filmmaker in the lot), but with just enough “let’s put on a show” naivete showing through its seams. The game cast and crew tend to wear multiple hats: the film’s producer (Carlos Navarro) is also my favorite actor in the movie; not because he’s particularly talented, but he delivers his lines with such enthusiasm that you grin every time he opens his mouth. Navarro’s son Frank plays the protagonists’ kung-fu rival, but also provides the solid synth score. The film's main location is star/co-writer/real-life karate instructor Sid Campbell’s dojo, and much of the cast are his students. The group effort vibe separates Ninja Busters from the “one man’s deranged vision” variety of outsider art; rather, there’s a real sense of family and friendship that bleeds into the film itself. The inside artwork of Garagehouse PIctures’ blu-ray release is in a way a perfect distillation of the film’s spirit: its two leads, wide-eyed and optimistic, with their faces pushed against the glass - outsiders dreaming of making it in.
And it’s legitimately funny. You’ll laugh at the sometimes clumsy, abrupt shifts in narrative, but you’ll laugh just as often because these folks earn their jokes, no matter how unsophisticated they are in presenting them. Ninja Busters is often intentionally hilarious, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, and has charm for days. The end result is that, as the saying goes, we’re laughing with them, not at them. Surprisingly, that makes the whole thing a more enjoyable, more joyous affair than watching Tommy Wiseau’s balls flop around onscreen for the 14th time.
Ninja Busters was filmed in fits and starts in the early 80s, completed in 1984, and never released. It was rescued in 2013 by Harry Guerro, one of the members of Philly’s Exhumed Films. Exhumed is a band of local heroes I’ve written much about in the past: they’ve brought Philly 35mm screenings of Miami Connection, the 1981 masterpiece Possession, Quentin Tarantino’s personal print of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, and hundreds of other films since 1997. As detailed in the blu-ray’s liner notes, Harry discovered a pristine print of Ninja Busters in a Raiders Of The Lost Ark-esque warehouse full of rotting film cans, and this year he screened it twice for movie marathon audiences. I was lucky enough to attend both marathons, and in both instances our butts were considerably de-numbed for the 90 minutes we experienced Ninja Busters. Twice the film brought the house full of jaded seen-it-all movie nerds DOWN. Harry, knowing he had something special, reached out to Ninja Busters director Kyriazi and began putting together a special edition blu-ray. Today, not eight months after seeing it for the first time, I’m watching this blu-ray at home, excited to share it with as many friends as I can. The film's trailer, created for this release, merely hints at the special magic of the movie.
It really is amazing to me that a film that’s only 30 years old was in danger of being lost forever, and it’s equally amazing to me that thanks to guys like Harry Guerro and Exhumed Films, we’re able to discover these forgotten gems. You can order Ninja Busters here. And I hope that you do.